Let me attempt to put into words the two things I understand about my “method of love.”
First, if the expectation exists, and if I’m given enough time, I’m pretty good at formally demonstrating my love. You need me to pretend to put you on the spot so that you can sing a song to your wife at your wedding and not look like you planned it? I got you. You need five secular minutes on love and then some super stripped-down vows? I’m your man. Do you need to be proposed to in a way that will make everyone you ever tell about it jealous? Happy to do it. I love you. Don’t think twice.
I’m also pretty good at demonstrating my love—and to the severe detriment of the offending party—in spontaneous defense of a loved one. Do you remember, Wuck, interjecting your thoughts on Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” at a time when they threatened to utterly undo Hoke’s confidence in the abovementioned song to his wife? I had to shut that shit down and swiftly. Or more recently, when the others on our now weekly Zoom call were dogging Tom for his uncleared absence, I was quick to come to his aid with the unsavory details: “Brutus is in his last days,” I think I put it.
Besides occasions like these two, I don’t think I’m very good at ostensibly “loving” people—and maybe love isn’t even the obvious motive in the second case. This lack of clarity is probably on display in your misinterpretation of my last letter, Wuck. Too often, I guess, my loved ones have to intuit my deep affection for them. It is what it is. At least when it rains, it pours.
Come to think of it, I also—like you, Wuck—<quote-01>like to share<quote-01> the stuff I love with the people I love: my childhood home, the world’s best eggnog, <quote-18>butter-fried sourdough from The Pantry<quote-18>, the Dodgers. How I loved purchasing fitted hats for you both at The Top of the Park, or sleuthing out a little Maeda jersey for Abram, or finding a Brooklyn onesie in true Pantone 294 for Baby Webber!
We know Baby Webber is male, <quote-02>but no name, right?<quote-02>
Grammar was unnamed and sex unknown until the moment he was ripped from Kristen’s womb by a head bigger than 998 out of 1000 baby heads. I learned to knock on wood early in life, learned not to count my chickens before they hatch; there was no way we were naming a fetus. Take a breath on your own, get a name. That was the deal we’d made with the parasite cramping our style for the better part of 2017. “Baby Murph” was as affectionate as we’d get, “BM,” more often.
Between gigs for her mom’s company—from, say, 2001 to 2006—Kristen worked as a secretary for a law firm. Over the years she and the lead attorney, Jemma, grew very close; she sang not only at Jemma’s wedding but at her two sisters’ weddings, as well—present at every fitting, shower, and rehearsal too. Jemma’s mother took to calling Kristen “the fourth Henderson sister.” Actually, all of Kristen’s early luxe accessories—her Louis Vuitton duffle, her black Manolos, a couple of her Burberry scarves—were hand-me-downs from the Hendersons of Laguna Beach Ranch. Needless to say, she was privy to every detail of Jemma’s first pregnancy, from the earliest trips to the fertility specialist to the last-minute phone calls to the florist.
Jemma and her husband Ed named the baby Riley very early on, from the moment they discovered her sex. “Riley this” and “Riley that,” “Riley’s room” and “Riley’s college fund,” Riley, Riley, Riley. Only Riley didn’t make it. The week of the planned induction, Jemma—for the first time in months—slept peacefully into the late morning. Riley had not kicked her awake, barreled into her bladder, or shifted uncomfortably all night. Nothing. Thus, seconds after waking in that contented Saturday morning fashion, Jemma knew something was wrong. As it turns out, Riley’s umbilical cord had wrapped itself around her neck, stemming the flow of essential stuff almost completely; a nuchal cord, it’s called. She was dead.
What’s worse, Jemma still had to give birth to her.
Surrounded by all those flowers? I don’t know.
What I do know is that Jemma and Ed wrapped her in their arms. <quote-03>Took professional photographs with her<quote-03>. Put a soft cotton hat on her head and held a funeral for her, for this girl who never really lived, this still-fetus, for Riley. Does a moment like that ever end, I wonder. Do you go even one day without remembering it?
I mean, even now, with a SUV full of smiley goofballs to call their own, they still make references to an “older sister” at their Labor Day cookouts and kids’ birthday parties, still include the commissioned pencil drawing of Riley’s sleeping face on the backs of Christmas cards. Heavy stuff, <quote-04>just short of life-denying<quote-04>, I’d imagine. Then again, how can one imagine?
I saw, at the time, how profoundly Kristen ached for Jemma—how she mourned alongside her, how she imagined that fate for herself—and I knew, when our time came, how we’d handle it: no name, no sex, genderless toys, nondescript nursery, for every Hawaiian shirt a muumuu, Dodger blue regardless. Again: “Let’s see those lungs work first, kid. Show us you’ve got the stuff for a name.”
This, I think, is why I reacted as I did to your miscarriage deception, Wuck. Your vague “it was horrible” summoned to me Jemma’s unspeakable “horrible.” And—you motherfucker—I felt so bad for you, for Sarah. I tried to say as much as I could in as few words as possible, an attempt to meet your grief as succinctly as you’d conveyed it. When I told Kristen, literally seconds before you texted us that you were kidding, she welled up in an instant. Then again, how were you to know that such a joke would take us on an emotional journey not unlike a midnight road trip to Vegas.
“At Carrows,” you might as well have texted. “Where you at?”
What this all actually amounts to, I suppose, is a plea to keep Baby Webber’s name to <quote-05>yourself<quote-05>. I don’t want to love him yet. The promise of him will do for now.
<quote-06>Maybe that’s another facet to my “method of love”; it is applied sparingly and with great reservation<quote-06>.
Cue Mr. Webber: “Anyway.”
<quote-07>Do you two know of my affinity for trees<quote-07>—large trees, in particular? There are many reasons I’d never live in a brand-new housing development, but foremost among those reasons are <quote-08>the spindly trees<quote-08>, each one fastened to a stake thicker and studier than itself and producing nothing but an inconsequential wisp of shade. I’m not usually one to envy my fellow man—I recall once, Wuck, you <quote-09>wishing you had Bono’s voice<quote-09>—but I often find myself stopping before a stately neighborhood-home and coveting its trees. Every street I’ve ever longed to live on is lined with them, their branches reaching across both sides of the asphalt to meet. These avenues abound in the suburbs just northeast of Los Angeles—Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Sierra Madre—but Claremont, LA County’s easternmost city and just next door, has a few gems itself. I could walk the streets around the colleges for hours, admiring the scores of timeworn American Elms and Eucalyptuses, delighting in their anytime-of-day shade. Upland, to be fair, has a handful of such streets: the 1500 block of Laurel Avenue, for instance—<quote-10>Tom’s old street<quote-10>—is lovely eight months of the year; <quote-11>Loma Sola<quote-11> behind your old house, Wuck, has a couple of wonderful stretches; <quote-12>Albright<quote-12> just north of 17th is also pretty great.
My own street, actually, used to be quite beautiful, especially in fall when the sweetgum leaves changed color, each tree on its own schedule so that the street was green and yellow and orange and red all at once, <quote-13>like a Braeburn apple<quote-13>. My entire neighborhood, really—from First Avenue and 19th Street to, say, Third and Baseline—was rather idyllic in the fall. I can remember climbing to the top of the Weeks Roses building to throw rocks into the wash after November rain, looking back over these hundred or so acres, seeing nothing but dusk-dappled treetops. There must have been sixty American sweetgum trees on our block when I was young, most of them upwards of seventy feet tall. They’d litter the streets with their seed pods in the winter, especially after an evening of Santa Anas. “<quote-14>Spike balls<quote-14>,” I called them; Adam Shear, who lived on Second, called them “monkey balls.” I can hear the crunch they’d make under tires in the morning, cars speeding down First to avoid the traffic gathered at the four-way stop on 19th and Campus.
There are now six sweetgums left on my block, and only one like the original sixty. The other five were shorn to thirty or so feet early in 2019, when many of the original—dying and dangerous—were cut down. We have one of the six just at the corner of First and Buffington, healthy as ever but sadly dwarfed; our neighbors across the street have two, including the last remaining seventy-footer. It’s likely the youngest one on the block, planted perhaps a decade or two after the others when the owners remodeled the front of their home. I’m grateful for it and other arboreal mainstays from my childhood.
Do you remember those ponderous <quote-15>Sycamore<quote-15> trees on our high school campus, their branches undulating eventually upward like the snakes in Medusa’s mane, like something out of Tolkien? What about the two Scotch pines in the southeast corner of Sierra Vista Park, their huge trunks grown horizontal along the dirt for five or six feet before bending toward the sky? Gosh, those pines have watched me my entire life—soccer practice at six-years-old, a second-grade birthday party, batting practice with dad, St. Mark’s field day in ’92 when I first told a girl I liked her, <quote-16>planting a tree in remembrance of my dead father not two years later<quote-16>, laser tag as a teen, summer makeouts in the dark, my kickball-themed 30th birthday, countless handball victories, Star Wars drone-flying with my newborn strapped to my chest, legendary keepie-uppie with lifelong friends—my entire life. It’s wonderful to visit them, to walk the five or six horizontal feet of their trunks again and again. How I’d miss them if they were suddenly gone.
How does Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” go? “Now of my threescore years and ten / [Thirty-eight] will not come again / And take from seventy springs [three dozen and two] / It only leaves me [trente deux].” Something like that.
Actually, we planted some trees along Buffington last summer: three green ashes where American Elms once stood. The city was quick to replace the felled First-Avenue sweetgums with other varieties, but when the mighty American Elms on Buffington began to go—some on their own, some in the name of safety—nothing took their place. Maybe there were seven elms remaining when you guys left for college—maybe six. When I was younger, they’d grow boughs of mistletoe every other year. I remember knocking some down with a baseball one Christmas season, placing sprigs in plastic sandwich baggies tied with curling ribbon, and selling them for a dollar outside the Alpha Beta on Foothill and San Antonio. Now only three elms remain, and just one has its leaves as of May. I fear the other two will be cut down soon. I know, I guess. I figured, therefore, that we’d do our part, try and replace some of the shade I enjoyed as a child, provide a fitting canopy for Grammar’s eventual curb sitting while on the phone with girls or something.
A little over a month ago, however, the tallest of these ashes started slowly drooping toward the street, the bend in its pool-cue trunk creeping lower and lower by the week. At first, I thought I’d let it ride. Losing it so early would be no great tragedy, and maybe the journey streetward would make for a unique shape in maturity if it weathered the struggle. But as April came to a close, I could no longer stand how pathetic it looked, how unloved. So a couple of nights ago I trudged out into the moonlight with a ladder, a six-foot one-by-two, a hammer and nails, and some butcher’s twine. There’s no great story here. I hammered the one-by-two to the existing stake in three places, tied the droopy ash to it in a couple spots, and was done.
Only now I can’t stop looking at this tree—checking it when I wake up and before going to bed, stealing a glance through our north-facing window when I go up and down the stairs. It’s doing fine. In a couple months, maybe, when I go out to water, I’ll check and see if it can stand upright without the twine.
I’ll take a Sunday drive to the Circle K for a soda and leave the car parked by the ash when I get back, windows down so I can hear the ballgame. Kershaw’s struck out seven through the first four, his fastball sitting at 93. We’re all watching, it seems, the texts coming freely and often: GIFs, exclamations, photos of our children. I have the broom pic at the ready.
<quote-17>When I snip the twine, the tree remains upright<quote-17>. The hose water goes from hot to warm to cool. No second wave in sight—knock on wood.
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