As we near the end of the school year and Snowman prepares to say farewell to Hippy Dippy High School, there have been disappointments. Perhaps these losses are a necessary part of separating from one community and moving on to another. I know we felt this way about Large Church, that in the final year of my time in seminary, several things happened in the life of that church that made it easier in the end for the children and me to leave that church family without looking back. In the moment of each disappointment, there was a sense of anger or grief, but later just a philosophical realization that detachment from a place that had been part of us for so many years inevitably contained a measure of division and disillusionment. Those feelings prepared us to walk our new road, knowing no church would be ideal or perfect, that each would be flawed in its own particular and unique way.
The first disappointment involved a tree planted in the church garden. When I lost the baby in 1992, we had no money for a cemetery burial. My mother and father might have helped make that possible, but my mother felt relieved that we would not be having an impaired child and encouraged me to put the whole thing behind me as quickly as possible. She later regretted that, but at the time, it made me afraid to go to my father. The pastor of our church, bless him, suggested we plant a tree and simply put the baby’s ashes in the ground first. He held a private memorial service for us there in the garden, and we planted a Kousa Dogwood tree. Although it would bear no resemblance to the dogwoods of my girlhood in Virginia, something about the name and the fact it would flower felt comforting to me.
Disappointingly, it didn’t flower, and years went by, and it still didn’t flower.
Finally, in its tenth summer, it did. But at the same time, someone decided it had grown too tall and was blocking the window of the church cloister, and chopped it in half.
I wish I were kidding about this. The top of the tree was lopped off.
I inquired about how it happened and got no satisfactory answer. How could there be one?
Later that summer, I drove into the church parking lot and glanced into the garden, looking for the tree. It was August, the anniversary of the baby’s due date, and I had a few minutes to go and sit by the tree before I needed to be at a meeting.
To my horror, I did not see it.
I parked the car and went into the garden. The tree was entirely gone.
I want to tell you that I was angry and horrified and shocked and wounded, and all those words are true, but none of them suffices to describe the way I felt on that hot Tuesday afternoon.
Eventually the whole story came to me. The church had a drainage problem. Water was getting into the basement. Everything planted along that wall had to go. Three different people passed around the blame for not telling me in advance. This made it worse. They had not forgotten the tree was special. They just didn’t care enough to do the hard work of telling me it had to be removed for the sake of the building.
My son is feeling the same sort of emotions as he leaves his school. The grade he received for a reflection piece on his development as a musician this year was low, although his father, who saw the presentation, tells me it was quite good. It hurts right now, I know it must. The three teachers who gave him a grade, are they thinking of him or of the institution? They are making it easier for him to leave, ultimately, but right now it hurts. It hurts.
The church found the money to plant another dogwood, near the original, in a "better" position. I managed to speak, graciously, at the garden re-dedication the following spring. No one apologized for disrupting the place where my baby’s ashes were buried, although they did say they were sorry my feelings were hurt. Of course the second tree means nothing to me. I no longer connect with that space. Perhaps the passage of time, fifteen years, is part of that, and is evidence of healing. More than once I have told a seminarian that frustrations with his or her sponsoring church are a good preparation for moving on to what is next on life’s journey without being *too* hung up on what was special in the past.
I hope Snowman will find that place, and that I will stop feeling angry about a bad grade (relatively speaking) that will be on his transcript when he applies to college someday. How they could hear him play and talk about his music without understanding and appreciating is beyond me. But this is one of the stories of his time at that school, and the primary reason we are making it possible for him to go away, despite the fact that he will be so much missed at home.