Life Uprooted by Janice Post-White

The stately burr oak stood deeply rooted in the center of our backyard, high up on the hillside. It shaded the patio from the midday summer sun and provided the perfect hideout for backyard games. I took its steady, reassuring presence for granted for the thirty years we lived under its canopy. 

When the tree’s bark started to peel, the young, lithe arborist led the way as we tromped through wild grasses and ground cover draping the steep, compact backyard. “It’s dying,” he said as he tugged at a strip of peeling skin. “Something damaged its roots.” 

“Dying?” I echoed, devastated by the thought of the problem not being resolvable with better drainage or extra nutrients. And then I remembered how, twenty-five years earlier, builders working on the city lot above us had tossed discarded wood planks and chunks of sheetrock down the hill, on top of the tree’s sprawling surface roots. I suddenly felt responsible for not knowing and not intervening. Did I do any better taking care of my own body? 

As we gingerly made our way down the hill, the arborist stopped at two smaller red oaks nestled together in front of a grove of disparate and unruly vegetation populating the neighborhood backyards. “This one was struck by lightning,” he said, pointing to a fissure along its spine. “It too needs to come down.” Only then—from the view looking downhill—could I see how the vulnerable red oak in back leaned on its twin, one arm nestled dependently in a nook. 

Twenty-some years earlier, when my husband and I were expecting our first son, we added a second-story bedroom to our one-and-a-half-story Tudor home. Expansive windows on three sides wrapped our newborn’s room in light from morning to night as the views morphed over the Minnesota seasons, from green to yellows to reds and then to white. The burr oak stood prominently in view as the midday sun danced through its leaves. “It’s like the treehouse I had as a kid,” the contractor said as we stood together on the newly burnished oak floor. 

Over the years, lullabies were sung, stories read, prayers said, and tears shed in the treehouse room, as our son, Brennan, grew with the seasons, survived leukemia, and moved away to college and on with his life. His younger brother, Tyler, boomeranged from college to home, settling into his cozy room down the hall with the same backyard view.  Our home was a steady presence in their lives, providing safety and security from life’s storms.

Tyler and I were both at our computers when the midnight explosion shook the house to its core. As a thundercloud of white dust whooshed through the upstairs hallway, I leaped from my desk and raced into the hall. 

“Tyler!” I yelled as I scanned my six-foot son standing dazed in the hallway. “Are you alright?” He nodded, and I slipped past him to look for anything out of place in his room. Nothing was amiss. 

As the dust settled, we squinted into Brennan’s bedroom. It smelled like freshly chopped wood chips. We saw no branches and no flames. Amazingly, one ceiling light flicked on, while orphaned wires dangled in midair and yellowed insulation drooped to the floor. An intact sheet of ceiling T-boned the bed lengthwise down the center. I stared, transfixed, thinking of how Brennan and his girlfriend, Megan, had been home, sleeping in his childhood bed, exactly one month earlier.

My flip flops crunched on broken glass, lamp shards, and sheetrock rubble as I backed out of the room, stepping over Lee Child and Calvin and Hobbs books. As I flipped off the light, the starless darkness engulfed the room. 

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The dying burr oak and the lightning-scarred red oak had been cut down a year ago. The arborist had come back to prune the surviving red oak, declaring it healthy. We didn’t know until daylight that the lone, twin red oak had fallen. The arborist apologized, but as a nurse, I knew vulnerabilities are often invisible. My own twin had died suddenly the year before. 

Sometimes it takes a tree on a house to wake us up to the inevitability of change.

The arborist had calculated that the burr oak was close to two hundred years old. Burr oaks (Quercus macrocarpa, a white oak) can grow one hundred feet in height and eighty feet in width, with tap roots that grow deep to support the enormously thick trunk, and surface roots that extend beyond its wide-reaching branches. Once the roots are damaged, however, oak tree decline is inevitable.

In contrast, red oaks (Quercus rubra) have heart roots, with many small arms branching off a few deeper ones, like human coronary arteries. I didn’t know it then, but heart root systems often shift in wet soil. Once saturated, gravity rotates the tree in the ground, much like a ball-and-socket joint of a human shoulder or hip. 

The lone surviving red oak had borne the weight of its damaged twin, although no one knew for how long. And now it lay across the entire backyard, intact but uprooted, its main trunk zeroed in on the back bedroom, falling straight and direct. A muscular arm torpedoed into the roof of the unattached, limestone garage tucked into the hillside. 

The skies were calm the night the tree fell, but it had rained six inches the day before. The seventy-foot red oak just gave up its roots, as if in a sigh.

As the smaller, second-born twin, I often said that my brother stole the good genes. Jerry went home from the hospital first, recovered faster from childhood illnesses, and had strong teeth and a sharp analytical mind. 

As Twin B, I grew up chasing him—racing down black-diamond ski runs, swinging from tree to tree, biking hills in the middle of nowhere. He was the first to get his PhD; the first professor. Jerry, then me. He wrote the software code for my dissertation analysis and flew in for my graduation party, swooping me up and twirling me, both of us laughing as my silk skirt billowed in the rooftop breeze.  

Through the years, we commiserated over academic careers and tenure expectations and planned for the day when we both could play. My family had found refuge in Hawaii vacations after our son’s recovery from leukemia. Jerry started looking for an island home to escape to during academic breaks. The summer before the tree fell, I sat on the lanai, sipping espresso as the sun rose over the Pacific Ocean, and begged Jerry to come out and play. “I can’t,” he said. “I have to get the new floor in here before school starts next month.”

We talked about the shortness of breath he had that summer whenever he biked, ran, or swam. He never mentioned pain, and asthma ran in our family. We didn’t know then that heart disease had killed several middle-aged men on the side of the family that safeguarded its secrets. 

Two months later, he collapsed in his university office after riding his bike five miles to work on a Monday morning, the most common day of the week to die from a heart attack. Blockage of a main coronary artery. His death, at age fifty-eight, was sudden and unexpected. This wasn’t supposed to happen. His goals, our goals, shattered. 

Like the backyard trees, Jerry had always been there. Then he was gone.

In the months that followed, I traversed three cities and Euro Cup soccer stadiums in France on foot, hiked nine miles uphill along the elevated ridge of Munro Trail in Hawaii, and canoed and snorkeled Hulopoe Bay on two more trips across the Pacific. But on one of my paddling excursions that spring, I tried three times to hop into the outrigger bow from within chest-deep undulating waves. Frustrated, I waved off help from a fellow swimmer, and shouted back to my rowing partner, who was patiently holding the stern, “I’m such a moose!”    

“You’re usually a cat,” he calmly replied, sending me a positive image to spring me into my seat. It would be months before I attributed my lack of agility that day to the new weakness in my neck and shoulders.

Two weeks after the tree fell that summer, I told the design team we hired to rebuild my son’s bedroom, “I know where the blueprints are. I just have to get to them.” I wanted to replicate the room with the treehouse feel.

I spent the week scrunching and twisting my five-and-a-half-foot, slim frame into two dormer crawlspaces, salvaging and sorting through childhood keepsakes and storage boxes, jubilant when I located the blueprints in the very back. 

But the next day, after walking for three miles, I suddenly couldn’t bear any weight on my right leg without excruciating pain. I called for a ride home from the middle of the parkway hill, one block away. 

My right hip had fractured across the top of the femur. “Oh, shit,” I said to the orthopedic doctor, “I’m not a good candidate for surgery.” I had an intense fear of anesthesia because of past allergic and anaphylactic reactions to medications and anesthetic agents. The surgeon gave me the option of hobbling around on crutches until I could face a hip replacement. 

Two months later, my cervical spine collapsed, uprooting my life and threatening my survival. The back-and-forth repetitive motion of the crutches had caused the C4 vertebrae to collapse directly on—to T-bone—my spinal cord, interfering with nerve function and putting me in a wheelchair. I didn’t realize the significance of the risk until the neurosurgeon gave me the weekend to get ready; I bargained for five days. Brennan was coming home for Christmas, and I wanted to see him first. 

Three trees and my twin had died. Would I survive? 

On the day of my neck surgery, the conscientious anesthesiologist diligently researched every agent before wheeling me back into the operating room suite. As I came into awareness four hours later, he whispered into my ear, “You did fine; I think it is the preservatives you are allergic to.” 

I was so elated to be alive that I don’t remember having any post-op neck pain. I distinctly recall the intense pain in my hip, however, as I walked the halls with a walker. I would have to wait six more months to replace the hip, because the next week I was back in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia and the following week with blood clots, which required five continuous months of blood thinners, making hip surgery too risky. 

When I could finally have my hip replaced, I asked the orthopedic surgeon what the old hip was like when he took it out. “Crumbly,” he said. 

Dying bone crumbles and eventually collapses when blood flow to the bone tissue is reduced. My hip collapsed for the same reason the bark peeled from the burr oak. Neither could get the vital nutrients it needed to survive. 

Bones are constantly changing and making new tissue to replace the old—as are roots of a tree—and when blood flow lessens, oxygen and nutrients do, too. Declining estrogen levels, years of steroid bursts for asthma, and an inherited gene mutation reduced my bones’ ability to regenerate and repair. None of the bone-building treatments I tried stabilized the loss. 

I couldn’t anticipate it then, but I would have five major surgeries in two years, three of them on my spine. It was a time of surviving, of just getting through.

Three days after the seven-ton, seventy-foot red oak fell, it took a 275-ton “rocket” crane seven hours to safely lift the tree off the roof and yank out its roots. I watched the backyard surgery from the deck of my neighbor’s house, across the steep alleyway. After four hours of preparations, as the tree inched up slowly in a sling, a “crack” shot through the air like a lightning strike. I turned away and cringed. When it had fallen, the tree had split the south wall of the bedroom away from the house. We feared the wall would now fall away completely, but it held, merely protesting as it shifted its position. I wholeheartedly sympathized. 

I found out later that the twenty-foot bedroom ceiling beam had held the tree, preventing it from crashing through to the first floor, because it was double-wide oak. I was grateful that the core frame of my treehouse room was solid and protective. Oak trees are strong and resilient, even after death.

The burr oak, twin red oaks, and I—and my twin—were mature but vibrant, and far from expected demise. But circumstances intervened as life events and environmental exposures do. We each harbored some unforeseen vulnerability. In less than two years, Jerry died, the tree fell, and then my hip and spine collapsed.

Resilience is the ability to adapt, to bend like a tree that sways with the wind, even when the soil is wet. Over the years, my patients with cancer taught me to have hope despite the odds and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. My son’s leukemia persuaded me to live in the moment because the future is uncertain, and control is an illusion. Jerry’s death reminded me to play. Now, I am learning to accept and adapt to my changing body and abilities and to appreciate the beauty around me, even when it changes.

Loss is inevitable, and physical decline can’t always be fixed. And yet, I’m still looking for ways to infuse more joy into my life. I want to go back to Hawaii, even if I can’t hop in the canoe like a cat or frolic with the dolphins in the bay. Two twin trees still stand tall at the peak of the hill on my walk. 

The steep backyard hill is now terraced to manage rain runoff. As new trees grow, I shrink. I sometimes contemplate the future, a century from now, and imagine who will plant their roots in this house and be watching from my son’s bedroom as the trees sway resiliently with the inevitable summer storms.

Janice Post-White is a cancer nurse, researcher, writer, and mother of a childhood cancer survivor. Her memoir, Standing at Water’s Edge: A Cancer Nurse, Her Four-Year-Old Son and the Shifting Tides of Leukemia (Toplight, McFarland & Co), won first place in Consumer Health for the American Journal of Nursing 2022 Book of the Year Awards. Find her other writing in Under the Gum Tree, Ruminate, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Wising Up Press, HuffPost and at IG_@janicepostwhite; X (twitter)_@JPostWhite