My son had seen me in this state of stupor before.
Ten feet dead ahead stood a nameless tree, its moon-stippled limbs raised to the sky like a prayer.
I was, in a word, besotted.
We had walked out of the restaurant and into the brisk night air of a deserted parking lot. We had expected a snowfall, but all we saw was spent rain on the ground. My son’s disappointment was almost palpable. He’d been waiting for snow since July, ever since we moved to the US. Sam, 13, grew up in a land 10 degrees north of the sun-drenched equator. Come to think of it, he’d been waiting for snow all his life.
It was a clear and cold December night, bright as glass. Sam was freezing, running toward the insulating warmth of our car when he stopped, sensing that I was no longer following him.
Instead he found me transfixed, the car keys still dangling in my hand.
“Really, Mom?” he groaned, his eyes turning to the tree that held my gaze. He sighed, because he knew.
He knew that to me it was more than just a tree.
I make ikebana flower arrangements. I learned the art from a Japanese instructor when I lived in the Philippines. Unbeknownst to her, my teacher, Mrs. Sue Watabe, gave me the sanity I needed to deal with an imploding marriage. She vested in my hands a strange and wondrous power: a measure of control in a world I had no control over.
I remember Mrs. Watabe’s delicate fingers and unhurried voice: “When cutting a stem, Reni-san, do it in a bowl of water, so it is water — not air — that enters first.”
In that bowl of water I could make an ensemble of flowers, leaves and branches that after a series of counterintuitive decisions resulted unfailingly in a sum greater than its parts. Mrs. Watabe taught me to foist my creations onto a kenzan, a spiked piece of metal to hold everything in. When I was done, I’d place the arrangement against a wall or on a table. Stepping back, it always felt like I was viewing a minor miracle.
It seemed I had impaled myself on a dysfunctional marriage for too long, trying to hold everything in. But my 16-year marriage was finally unraveling. I was drowning. Ikebana taught me that I could be saved, that I could make happiness — and beauty — in a bowl of water.
I started taking lessons from Mrs. Watabe when Sam was 7. Back then the boy would go on walks looking for rod-like branches that he gleefully turned into imaginary ninja swords and karate sticks. Banana trees delighted him most; take the stalk, strip off the wide leaves and leave bare the midrib. Sam would cut the rib into a length of two or three feet. In his hand the rib was stiff and strong, perfect for dueling with archenemies and deadly foes!
The more my marriage floundered, the more I practiced ikebana. As Sam continued to scrounge for sticks and swords, he’d think of me, too. He was a kind child, eager to please. Sometimes he’d see a crooked stick of wood lying about on the ground, and he’d say to himself: “Ah, here’s an interesting branch perfect for Mommy’s ikebana!” Children are born selfish, but this boy made room in his world for me early in life. Could it be because we lived in the same house and breathed the same air of sadness? Was my heartache the warm cocoon that bound us together?
Thus began our life as scavengers, my 9-year-old son and I. We went for walks through parks, beaches and footpaths, two pairs of eyes affixed on the ground, scouring nature’s floor for cast-off treasures.
A Zen monk once said, “Take what is freely given.” So it was that I took whatever delighted my son to give me, my heart and mind intent on creating the next ikebana arrangement.
“The uglier the stick, the better,” I told him.
I taught him to appreciate the scarred beauty of driftwood. “Placing an ugly old thing next to a young rose makes the rose even lovelier.”
From scavenging we graduated to thievery, plucking flowers from public sidewalks and the rims of people’s gardens.
Two weeks after Sam turned 9, his father and I separated.
Four years passed. Sam never gave up playing with swords. I never stopped my ikebana lessons. But I knew in my sadness that Mrs. Watabe’s gentle lessons were not enough. When Sam turned 13, I took him and his older brother away from all that was familiar. I realized I couldn’t stay where I was and heal. And I had to heal to be a better mother to my two boys. And so in 2008, the three of us migrated from Manila to the Pacific Northwest. And now here we were a year later, my young accomplice and I, in a restaurant parking lot in Lynnwood.
I gazed at the tree. My roving eye rested finally on a lone branch, quietly set off from all of the others. It was long in reach, as elegantly arched as a ballerina’s arm. My pulse quickened. My mind raced with thoughts of all the glorious arrangements I could make with this branch! A few more steps and now I was under the tree. To my delight, the coveted branch was tantalizingly low. I held my breath and reached for it. A touch. A grasp. Now, a tug. Damn! It was hardwood, too hard! Much too hard even for the pair of ikebana scissors I kept in the glove compartment of my car.
I was about to turn away when I felt a hand on my arm.
“Step aside, Mom.”
Sam had never encountered a tree of this kind before. It didn’t matter. There he stood now under the tree, a boy 5-foot, 7-inches tall and still growing — a growing boy breathing cold air under a growing tree.
“Is this it?” he asked, pointing to the branch.
Without hesitation he grabbed the branch about two feet from where it grew off the trunk. He gave it a quick yank. The tree would not yield. Sam yanked again, this time with brute force. The tree stood in the moonlight. It would not break. It would not give way or give in. Then with a deep breath, Sam gave it a mighty yank. I winced. Shut my eyes. Heard the branch C-R-A-C-K! I looked up. The limb had been split asunder, severed from the bark but for the last remaining sinewy threads to the mother tree.
Now the real work began. Sam started to twist the branch at the point where it had been severed. Twisting, twisting until his fingers turned a fiery, blistery red in the cold night air. At last, confronted by the young boy’s power, the tree relented. The coveted branch fell away and into his hands.
My son turned to me with a look of triumph. We walked back to the car in silence. I popped the trunk open. Quietly, he put the branch inside.