The Healing Tree: a poem for Lalage
When I write poems, they might bubble up unbidden, sublime, and I stand in awe. But often, getting them from egg to adult is a tortuous road demanding extreme portions of sacrifice and grace — just as with children. I read somewhere that rearing teenagers is like dragging a team of wild horses through a raging torrent. Don’t look back to see if you’ve lost horses because you’ll lose horses! Grit your teeth and press on, do your absolute best and let go the rest. Poems can be like that.
Birthing “The Healing Tree” was somewhere between tortuous and sublime. The gestation was long, my feet always swollen, and I wondered if it would ever end. But the birthing was quick and painless.
Between 2018 and 2020, in semi-rural West Sussex, I worked as a live-in carer for Lalage. Two or three of us would work in roughly two week shifts in a large home she shared with one of her daughters and her family.
Lalage had struggled with Multiple Sclerosis much of her adult life and now in her seventies was bedridden and quadriplegic. During summer, we’d wheel her onto the patio so she could enjoy the sun and admire her exquisite 175-year-old oak tree.
As a poet, it was relatively easy to meld Lalage and her tree into a symbolic offering, but boy, was that poem stubborn. Just like Lalage, actually, but that stubbornness was really resilience. As the tree’s seasonal plumage shifted from lush to golden to bare, the two of them became one and ingrained themselves in me. Lalage was frail as a sun-bleached skeleton, but she was tough as stink and determined to live her life to its utmost. Her voice barely scratched the air like branches, but her words ran deep. And she never complained about her condition — not once.
These days, breaking a nail is a trauma. Lalage was born on the cusp of the Silent Generation — stalwart, hardworking people who grew up speaking when spoken to. Their parents were known as the Lost Generation — products of World War One and its fallout, then headlong into World War Two. In those days, ‘difficult’ was a euphemism for absolutely bloody apocalyptic.
Now and then, when things got a bit difficult, Lalage would say “I wish I was dead.”
“Do you really?” I’d ask.
She’d hesitate. My heart would crack. She couldn’t move any part of her body except her head. She couldn’t even shrug philosophically. “Yes. This is hard.”
Before she retreated again, I’d say, “If you really want to go, then let go. Make peace with what or whoever you need to. Or else accept that you still have work to do.”
I felt like an utter hypocrite saying that, but God knows, she was a masterclass and I’d been give a front row seat.
Lesson One: Resilience.
Lesson Two: Patience. Feeding Lalage took time. I’ve always seen myself as relatively patient, but this job stretched me. In the first year, I’d take a deep breath, count my blessings, and accept that lunch and dinner were 1–2 hour affairs during which my cortisol levels would soar. (Keep in mind that caring is a grueling job anyway. But that’s another story.)
It was one of those interminably long dark winter days that blend seamlessly into long weeks and months of cold, rain ‘n gloom for which this soggy island is known. Every few days, deceptively bright sunshine breaks through, unveiling the landscape’s pristine beauty like a flirt before retreating again.
We had a fire going, and I was struggling with the isolation. Not surprisingly, I’d been working through some deep stuff of my own. When you’re trapped, albeit by mere circumstance, you eventually reach a point where either you change your perspective or you’re in danger of losing it. So, as an exercise in self-development, I started eating my meals at Lalage’s pace. At first it was super-strange. I come from a family of chompers and gobblers where you’d swear the food had legs.
It did wonders for my digestion and my appreciation for food and the long journey it takes to get to us. If Lalage didn’t feel (her version of) chatty, I’d do the crossword, but mostly it became a calming ritual. I began to build her slowness into everything I did. I even listened slowly.
I imagined being the tree.
Lesson 3: Humour. My parents are from the same Silent Generation. Like Lalage, their birth years cusped with the ambitious quick-firing, idealistic Boomers that World War Two produced. My darling father has spent the last thirty years making up for being a not-very-emotionally-present product of his era, and for that I’m truly grateful. But one outcome is that I only remember two pieces of advice he ever gave me.
We’d driven from Johannesburg to Cape Town. I was being flung from the nest into the Gen-X onward snake pit that is university, and we were having a meal out. He put down his fork, looked at me through his specs, and announced that he had a piece of advice. I’m sure I wondered, why now only? I’d just been dragged through a raging torrent by my poor mother who still had both my siblings to get through before she could look back to see how many horses were left. Some advice might have come in handy.
The point is, he was doing his best. As 18-year-old me stared blankly at him over our bonding burger, I could not have fathomed how valuable his advice would be as I set forth to play in the big mud bath of life. It was this: Don’t lose your sense of humour.
The second piece of advice is not relevant here, so we’ll leave it for now and get back to Lalage. I was infinitely honoured to be on duty when she passed away. In the days leading up, I let the family know my suspicions, and they all came to visit. Perhaps it was another false alarm, they hoped, but my gut and the usual signs said it would be soon. Soon our brave little bird would be free — I was so happy for her.
On the day she died, I knew for sure because she was too weak to drink through her straw. This was a first, and she was mortified. (Silent Generation/Boomers are notoriously hard on themselves.)
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
“Well, Lal, your body is getting ready to say goodbye.”
“But — what’s going to happen?”
“Well, soon, in the next few days perhaps, you’ll go to sleep and not wake up.”
What she said next had me laughing so hard I cried, and the smile on her beautiful face, so tired of suffering, could light up a galaxy.
She said, in that typically upbeat underplayed tone that Brits do so well, “Ooh. Sounds serious.”
A few hours later, she went to sleep. And that, dear friends, is class.
All this time, “The Healing Tree” brewed and stewed but would not let itself be born. I had long accepted that a poem only comes when it’s ready, so I was at peace, and yet … it eluded me.
About a year later, I was at the McGregor Poetry Festival in South Africa. I had a wee feather in my cap — I’d been given a guest spot to spout my musings and was feeling quite on top of life. I decided to treat myself to a poetry workshop run by the inimitable Dawn Garisch. I was excited, daunted, and dubious. In my personal relationship with the Muse, I’ve never been able to summon a poem. They come when they’re good and ready. How arrogant is this human animal, us!
I was intrigued, even nervous, to see what would happen, but I wasn’t holding my breath.
Dawn was clearly in the loop about the foibles of the Muse. You can’t yank apart a bud demanding it become a flower, and she knows that. We sat in a nice democratic circle, cautious as cats, and went through a process that might be compared to seduction. The details elude me now, but we started by thinking of whatever came to mind. Possibly something we’d like to write about, but no pressure! Make a few innocent notes, a few feelings, nothing serious. Get reminded that there’s NO PRESSURE!
After a couple of exercises through which we gradually enticed the Muse to let her guard down, mmm, yes darling, just like that, we were sent outside to find something random to look at.
I sat on a pathway and stared at walnut shells that had been used as paving filler. By now we were ready to write a poem (no pressure) but I was nowhere. During the exercises, I’d dragged out the memory of Lalage’s tree, but now, staring at the walnuts, all I could think was how they beat walnut trees to make the nuts fall.
That’s why we write, isn’t it? Why we beat ourselves to Shelley’s “airy thinness” for the cause?
After fifteen of our allotted minutes, I decided that I didn’t care if I’d wasted my money, there was no way this or any poem was happening today. I hadn’t been feeling well anyway, so I lay back and pondered the clear blue African sky with its lazy clouds drifting hypnotically by. Bliss.
Lesson Four: Acceptance. I wonder what I’ll have for lunch?
And then, like a hot Karoo thunderstorm out of nowhere, “The Healing Tree” arrived, all but fully formed. I scrambled up and grabbed my pen in fevered joy.
I am grateful for this tribute to a beautiful soul who touched mine, and to poetry, which has the power to save us.
Thank you to Lalage’s family for giving their blessing to this project; to their family friend John Ives, who gave permission for his painting to be used in the video; and to my own circle for support and critique.
Written by Lana Hunneyball
Editor I Writer I Author I Poet
I believe in the power of words to connect, inspire, and transform.
"Life is giving birth to yourself" ~ Erich Fromm