People often ask me just what it was about the tree house my brother Jerry built for me when I was a young child that has caused it to remain so deeply embedded in my heart. My answer to that question is always the same, of course, and that answer is love. I can close my eyes even now and picture the marvelous little structure that was my tree house in all its glory ... built out of scrap wood that Jerry scavenged from who knows where. I can see the cream-colored, flour-sack curtain that hung loosely across the slightly crooked window ... the silver metal roof that provided shelter from the rain ... the handmade bookshelf that held some of the greatest literary works of all time such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and The Swiss Family Robinson.
It wasn't, however, the grandeur of the small wooden palace nestled in the arms of the tree that stood in the front yard of my brother's house or the carefully crafted items that resided within it that keeps my tree house securely fixed in such a lofty space within my heart. What gives that quaint little shack its permanent residence and secures its place of honor within my heart is love. If ever a big brother loved a little sister, my big brother Jerry surely loved me. My sister-in-law used to tell me that the only reason she wanted to date him was because I was so flipping adorable sitting in his lap high up in the lifeguard chair at the pool where he worked during the summers. Well, my adorableness and the fact that she thought he looked like a Greek god.
Though I'm sure there were times when Jerry must have grown weary of me following around behind him like a puppy dog, he certainly never let me know. No matter how many questions I asked or how many meltdowns I had or how often I was just a general pain in the butt, Jerry was consistently patient, kind and loving toward me. I don't remember him ever getting angry with me, or anyone else for that matter. My brother had a way about him ... he had a spirit of compassion and love that permeated every relationship in his life. From his wife and young sons to parents and siblings to his students and fellow teachers, Jerry genuinely loved and cared about people, and he wasn't afraid to show it. My brother poured his heart into the lives of others and into everything he did ... even a little wooden tree house that once rested in the limbs of a strong and majestic old oak tree in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
We had a heck of a storm here in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago, one that packed winds strong enough to snap trees and down power lines all over town. At the height of the storm, there were more than 100,000 folks without power, myself included. Almost two weeks later, evidence of the ferocious attack upon the trees of the city still sits stacked on many of the sidewalks and streets around town waiting to be removed ... tenacious reminders that even the strongest of trees can be broken or destroyed by the treacherous winds of a powerful storm.
I took a different route home from work last night than the one I normally take because traffic was at a standstill on the interstate and the last thing I wanted was for my 10-minute drive to my apartment to take an hour. The different drive took me through an older, well-established neighborhood that you'd expect would be filled with tall, towering trees ... and it obviously had been, until the storm came. As I drove past stack after stack of brush, limbs and sawed-up tree trunks, tears filled my eyes ... a small drizzle of liquid that quickly became a torrential, snot-dripping, shirt-drenching downpour insisting that I stop my car and pull myself together.
Lest you assume that me sitting in my car last night crying my eyes out over a bunch of ripped-up trees means that I've finally cracked up completely, I assure you that I haven't gone completely off the deep end just yet ... at least I don't think I have anyway. In fact, I probably would have made it home last night with only a few sniffles and a couple of slightly red eyes had I not seen what looked to be the remnants of a tree house piled up next to what had once been a large and majestic oak tree. As I sat in my car bawling, I wondered how old the tree was ... I wondered how many storms it had withstood over the years ... I wondered how many families had been sheltered by its limbs ... I wondered why this particular storm was the one that brought it crashing to its death ... I wondered who built the tree house ... I wondered just how much love and how many hearts the old tree and the little wooden structure once held.
Depending on your perspective, I suppose, possibly one upside to my not writing very much over the last several months is that it's afforded me extra time to read through a ton of the unread emails that have been accumulating in my inbox. And, as is always the case when I read your words, I am humbled by your overwhelming kindness and honored that so many of you entrust your own stories to me. I'm inspired by your collective strength and courage, and I'm blessed by your wisdom and your willingness to help others. Please know that I do not take lightly the encouragement you're sending for me to begin writing again. I can't tell you how much it means to me to hear that there are at least a few of you out there who miss me and my crazy ramblings, and one or two of you who even think I'm a halfway decent writer. Now that I think about it, the couple of you who think of me as being a good writer might want to seriously consider seeing a head doctor. Seriously.
So here's the thing, friends ... you can't build a tree house if you don't have a tree. Just like Mother Nature's fierce winds ripped so many of the old, majestic trees in Kansas City from their places of belonging and safety, the winds of life can do the same thing to the trees of our hearts and souls, threatening even the deepest of roots and the strongest of branches. And just like the storm here in KC a couple of weeks ago took everyone by surprise, so often do the storms of life ... storms you think will never come to you ... storms that cause you to question all that you once held dear ... storms that make you question whether you can survive.
I regret never building a tree house for my three children when they were young, but the places where we lived had only young and immature trees. There were no trees that were strong, stable or deeply rooted enough to hold such an important refuge and retreat. I couldn't build my children a tree house all those years ago because I didn't have a tree, and I think the same may be true of this blog. You can't build a tree house if you don't have a tree, friends ... or can you?