I’ve often wondered over the years how you knew exactly what I needed, Johnny, when I called on you. So much you could have said, so much we could have talked about. So much swirling around all at once. And you knew to talk about climbing trees that really weren’t there. You knew to convince me (or try to how could I have been ready at that moment) that there didn’t have to be a physical tree physically there for me to smell it, feel its texture, pick a leaf and rub its soft fuzziness against my cheek, grab hold of its branches and hoist myself up into its embrace. To wrap my arms around it and hold on, hold on (the spiritual my grandmother and my father sang to me), let my tears and despair sink into its ever-welcoming, immovable trunk. Somehow you knew how much I needed to know about trees that really weren’t there for what was to come, while most everybody else was harried and overwhelmed (how could they not have been!) by the terrible, daunting present I had pulled us all into.
Bless you, Johnny.
You gotta know, man, that a part of me thought you were crazy, remembered the offhand comments made by some of our brood that “Johnny is a little different,” as you regaled me with descriptions of this tree that wasn’t there, as you leaped to your feet and mimed climbing it, hands and feet and all climbing that tree, c’mon, baby, climb with me, let’s go, it’s right here, can’t you see it? Me with my teenage sense of propriety looking at the pretty secretary behind the desk (seemingly absorbed in whatever she was doing) and thinking, oh, no, hell no, pretty girl might look up at any time, I ain’t climbing that tree, Johnny, you must be crazy. Me shackled inextricably to the madness of my situation, talk of trials, prosecutors, jails, prisons, the death penalty, mental illness, the end of all I’d ever known until then, dreams not deferred (as in the play I loved so much even as a child) but gone. And you’re talking about a tree that isn’t there what damn tree, Johnny? Don’t I have enough to deal with that I don’t want to see, don’t want to touch, but have no choice and now you want me to look somewhere else. A glance away but then what? So what? What’s it gonna change?
But you cajoling, insisting. Trust me, it’s right here, just reach out and touch it, baby, that’s all you have to do. You’ll see. Arms and legs working that tree like nobody’s business. Crazy. But why not. Nothing to lose. I bet that pretty girl behind the desk knows why we’re here, after all. And the way your arms and legs are working, Johnny, maybe so. Maybe there’s something there.
I trusted you without knowing why. We hadn’t spent any more time together at that point than I’d spent with other of our relatives, hadn’t talked to each other nearly as much, in fact, as I’d talked to my other uncles. But when I finally gave myself up to lawyers and cops, called my parents and told them where I was, it was you I insisted accompany them out here to shepherd me through those first tumultuous, hellish days. I needed you
and I knew it, without knowing what I needed or why I needed you. Nothing made sense. There was nothing to hold on to, no sanctuary, nobody I believed could save me. I was bearing with unspeakable grief and intensity the isolation I’d cultivated for myself throughout my childhood and early teen years. Paying the price for the space that had let me get through, if barely. I’d made myself rootless, and no genuine roots could alter that. And you want to talk about imaginary trees.
There wasn’t anything there that day, Johnny. But whatever had made me call on you, inexplicably (maybe it was that you were “different”; the situation couldn’t have been anything other), demanded that I trust you, go with you, or what was the point. So I reached out and, no, there wasn’t anything there, but it really didn’t matter, it was a glance away and nothing was infinitely better than what I’d see if I looked back, nothing and you talking, encouraging, your certainty that the tree was as real as anything else, was enough more than enough right then. I looked at you since the tree wasn’t there and tried to mimic, knowing I really wasn’t getting it but doing my best, trying and trusting, and you had to know I wasn’t getting it, too, looking at you and not the tree, but you let me look, allowed me to trust, to mimic, to be somewhere else a glance away from me, so fragile, and I swear that if in that instant you had tried to coach me, told me to close my eyes or not look at your or smell the damn tree, I swear it all would have been lost right then, you’d have returned me right to where I couldn’t stand to be, and all that I needed would have slipped away.
But somehow you knew, Johnny, you knew what I needed and silently let me look, silently let me mimic and be with you, in you somehow, which was as much a step into the space I needed to find as truly feeling that tree that wasn’t really there would have been; you knew that. And I copied your
movements, reaching up, pretending to grasp a branch, bending my knee, pretending to step up onto the next highest branch, reach, step, not climbing that tree, but mimicking you, reach, step, falling into your rhythm, reach, step, holding on, holding on . . . and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t feel that tree right then, all I needed was your enthusiasm, “That’s it, baby, climb! You got it!” reach, step, I’m with you, Johnny, let’s go higher, higher . . . and I bet that pretty lady behind the desk looked up at some point and saw that crazy man and murderous child doing God knows what and maybe smiled or giggled (please) or maybe shook her head and made no attempt to think about why, to imagine and understand (and maybe that’s what’s killing us) . . . reach, step, and I burst into tears as we reached and stepped and I finally felt like somebody understood, I wasn’t alone, I didn’t want to stop, and you knew that, too, Johnny, you didn’t stop and try to hold
me and ask me what was wrong or tell me it was going to be ok we both knew better and all I needed you for would have been lost if you had, and somehow you knew that, too, and I saw the gleam of tears welling up in your eyes, too . . . reach, step, and on we went reaching stepping weeping and I didn’t want to look back, I wanted to glance away forever and didn’t know then that you were teaching me, showing me, knew what was coming
and how much I’d need that tree and you when neither of you were really there, or maybe I did know ’cause I loved you without knowing what to call it right then as I’d never known love, and then I remembered what was coming and toppled . . . like falling from a tree . . . onto the leather cushions of the waiting room couch, holding my stomach and gasping for breath as I tried in vain to stifle my sobs (ever trying to retreat, again) and you knew what I needed and held me then, held me and rocked me in silence and didn’t tell me everything was going to be ok, but I knew.
Somehow you knew, Johnny. Bless you . . .