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  • The Vail Project

Loss and the Wood Chipper

Imagine that you have beautiful oak tree in your front yard. It has been there for 40 years, always growing, its leaves falling and branches budding in turn. It isn't without its scars. There are the initials carved in its truck. The branch that was damaged in a big storm. But for the most part, it is strong and beautiful. It's branches rise high into the sky, reaching toward the future. It provides shade to the grass and the plants below it, and a home for the squirrels and the chipmunks. It is the center of life in your yard.

Then one day, not a special day, just a day like any other...the tree is struck by lightning. Not in a huge storm. In fact, there was very little rain or thunder. Seemingly out of nowhere the tree is permanently altered. A huge section of branches now lies on the ground. The tree remains, standing tall but clearly broken. But it will never the be the same. More than that, it will always look marred. The lightning, in one fleeting moment, changed the life of the tree.

Now, imagine that you are forced to place an industrial sized wood chipper inside your living room in order to handle the disposal of the giant branches on the ground. The room fills with the wood chips. The windows are covered, so is the sofa, even the light fixtures are dimmed by tree dust. The chips are everywhere. They touch everything. The wood dust has settled ever so slightly on each surface of your home. It touches everything, everywhere.

You love this giant oak tree so much, and the loss of a huge part of it has affected you in ways you could never have imagined. And because you don't know how to make the feeling of sadness for the tree dissipate, you begin to try to make the tree whole again. You sweep the wood chips out into the yard. Then painstakingly use your little bottle of super glue to put the tree back together. Piece by tiny little wood chip piece. Immeasurable amounts of time go by. Your fingers are raw, your face sunburned. But you cannot stop. You don't know what else to do. You work day and night, but the job is never quite done. No matter how much you clean the house, you keep finding more little slivers of wood, more dust that belongs to the tree. They are in the cushions of the couch, they are under the rug, behind the tv, in your hair...everywhere. How could they not be. So every day, you take those reclaimed bits of the tree out to the yard and try to glue them back together. Knowing that no matter how hard you try, the tree will forever be changed. Forever scarred. Never again whole.

This is how it feels to lose a child. My life, my family is the tree in the front yard. Strong and tall and growing. Without warning a blast to our branches has irreparably severed us. Trying heal is like trying to clean up the wood chips from inside your house. Impossible. Never ending. Moving forward is like putting the pieces of that tree back together. Painstaking. Raw. No matter how much glue or time is involved, our family, our tree, is missing a huge part of itself. Someone who will always be missing. Vail will always be missing. And all the pieces we have glued back together or will glue back together some day, will never make us whole again. The scar and the void will always be there.

This metaphor came to me one night when I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking to myself that our lives have been put in a blender. But a blender wasn't quite right. Not messy enough. There isn't a part of our lives that hasn't been drastically altered by the loss of Vail. Every relationship has changed. Each part of us, inside and out is affected. Scarred. Damaged. Every day is coated with the dust. Both memories and the emptiness left by the things undone touch each moment.

I hope one day to find some beauty in the damaged old oak tree that is our family. To love the scars as much as we love Vail. I know there will never be a day when the scars are gone or hidden. That is impossible. And waiting for that to happen is futile. The love and the pain will grow together now, for one does not exist without the other. We will forever be finding dust and chips in our lives, little reminders of what might have been.

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