The Tree of Life & Loss

It was a summer day, in late July—the final day of our annual camping trip with my ex and our kids.  The day was glorious—sunny with blue skies, and no one wanted to pack up the campsite or head back to city life. The entire day though, I was plagued by a mild feeling of dread that was somehow centered on our long car ride back home.  

Earlier that morning we took a bunch of girls to the nearby swimming hole at Bash Bish Park and I worried that we were packing too many girls into one dad's convertible VW. I was responsible for other people's children and I openly rejected the addition of one extra child who would be our tipping point in the car's cramped backseat. Her mother, not wanting her child to be left out, dismissed my concerns for safety and insisted I bring her daughter with us.  In retrospect, I should have stuck to my impulse, as ultimately any incident would be the adult behind the wheel’s fault.  Nervous as I was, the ride, both ways, was uneventful; we sang along to pop music and watched the hilly farmland shimmer past us in the summer sun. 

Around noon we begrudgingly headed back home via the Taconic State Parkway. Things went smoothly at first --traffic was moving swiftly--but about an hour or so into the ride everything came to an ominous halt.  There was no slowdown of traffic indicating a typical jam, this was a complete standstill.  We noticed that no vehicles were coming up the northbound side of the highway, so we decided to exit with several other cars in search of an alternative route home. 

Driving around an unfamiliar neighborhood, having a vague idea that something terrible had occurred I was suddenly seized by nausea.  I begged my ex to pull over - claiming I needed air.  We stopped at a grassy hill between anonymous side streets and I stumbled out of the car and onto my knees.  My ex mocked me from the car, calling me overdramatic, but I was oblivious to his words.  I was gripped by a sickening feeling and turned to lie on the grass staring up at the sunlight filtered between the treetops.  "I don't feel right," I yelled.  It took me several moments to recover - as though a wave had passed over me...a wave I could not make sense of in that moment. 

Later that night, with the children in bed, I turned on my computer only to find that the enormous traffic snarl was a result of the worst accident the Taconic Parkway had seen in nearly a century.  Eight people had lost their lives and unbelievably four of them were children. As I read more of the details and saw the overhead map of the highway I realized we were just a few miles north of the incident; it had happened just moments before we pulled off the highway in search of a faster route home. Did a ripple effect of grief move through the atmosphere in the moments following the crash? Fueled by the hundreds of people who were witness to this horror on the highway I wondered if their collective shock and emotion passed through me via an unseen current. 

As the pieces of this accident came to light I was seized by empathetic grief I had never known before.  It made me shudder when I learned that three of the children were not in the care of their parents—instead they were entrusted to a family member—their aunt.  How many times have friends and family entrusted me with the lives of their children? And how many countless times have I done the same - never thinking twice that the parent in charge would make irresponsible or reckless choices. 

These children had not died by their parent's own negligence but by an inexplicable series of events that led the caretaker, a mother herself, to drink vodka and smoke marijuana. From what we know, she willingly endangered the lives of all around her...including her own children who were also in that van. 

But my thoughts, though confused by these details, were not so much on the mother who had caused the tragedy and had perished along with part of her family. My thoughts were completely focused on the parents who just learned...on that beautiful July day...that they had lost their three daughters. This was something I could not comprehend. The grief of one child's death is more than any parent could ever bear in a lifetime; to lose three at once was unfathomable.  

Poring over the film footage and news interviews, I had worked myself into a deep empathetic mind-state—where I began taking on the feelings of those who were suffering. I went upstairs to my daughters' room to find them both sweaty and nestled in their loft bed, the fan whirring and gently rearranging their hair. I kissed them and cried, trying to imagine the girls' parents - faceless to me at that point - reconciling the inability to kiss their children to sleep ever again.  There is a sameness to this gesture—a universal motion for all parents share knowledge. Children are universally alike whilst asleep; the warmth of their bodies and soft exhalations—the curve of a cheek, lashes closed against the glow of a nightlight... 

I never stopped thinking about the parents and how they could possibly endure this burden. The weeks went by and they were never far from my mind; each time I hugged my children and reveled in their very aliveness there was an inner stab of grief for the parent who could no longer do this. The weeks turned to months; I thought of them at holidays and wondered how on earth they crossed through something like Halloween, or each girl's birthday. I secretly wished that the mom would get pregnant again, perhaps by in-vitro, so that she might possibly bear twins, and assuage some of that mountain of pain. She was only 38 when her children were plucked from this earth. What does she say if she meets someone who does not know her story?  "I have three daughters....none are on this planet any longer." 

Which brings me to the scope and breadth of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.  In this indescribable film we are witness to a colossal depiction of life and death from the beginning of time. We live through a family’s loss via a surrealistic window that is at once fantastical and grounding in the same breath. As viewers, we are subject to re-living the life lost by those who are left behind, reeling from their loss. Trying to make sense of cruel tragedy against our background of spiritual knowledge and belief system is common ground to all untimely and inexplicable loss. Yet no one can spell out the answers for you. By wisps of memories, sunlight filtered through treetops, events that are a child's building blocks for faith and trust in both his parents and the universe, a story unfolds that is bigger, more universal, than the particular life we are living—yet somehow never more or less important. 

In the end, the mother makes a simple statement that expresses her acceptance. She surrenders, with grace, to the loss because there is absolutely nothing else one can do. Your choice is to remove yourself from this mortal body at your own hand or soldier through the grief that can atrophy all other emotions. 

It's been almost two years since the loss of the Hance girls, who were eight, seven and five when they were sprung from this world. Will their parents ever get used to waking up on any given day, seeing the breeze blow through a transparent curtain and think for just a split second that it was all a bad dream? Can acceptance be a part of their dialogue and not thoroughly demolish their sense of a higher order and plan? I'll never know these answers, but I do know there are those out there, parents like me who ruminate on such dark matters...and I can hear the collective whisper late at night, into a pillow dampened by imagination, may my children outlive me...please let them outlive us all.