One of Katy’s earliest memories was of her parents planting the flowering plum tree in their front yard. They chose a spot in the corner near sunroom windows. Katy sat watching them on the front step; she’d just turned five. Her father dug the hole, then her mother lined the cavity with potting soil, separated strands from the root ball, and settled it straight while he refilled the hole. Her mother patted a little moat around the trunk, and her father set a dribbling hose in it. They embraced as the moat slowly filled. Twice as tall as her father with a trunk about the size of his arm, the tree had thin branches with tiny white-pink buds on the tips. That morning was warm, Katy remembered, and full of clean, crisp light.
Katy’s brother, Ben, was born a year later. He had to stay in the NICU for seventeen weeks before her parents could bring him home. Except for his tracheostomy, G-tube, and a little flat portion on the back of his head, he looked normal enough to Katy, but she heard her parents use terms like severely disabled and medically fragile to describe him. During one visit to the NICU, she overheard a doctor tell her parents that most children with Ben’s extreme level of complications rarely made it to five years of age. When Katy’s mother asked about his potential for mental development, the doctor shrugged, then said maybe that of a six-month old. Katy watched a far-away look fill her mother’s eyes after the doctor said that.
She and Ben shared a bedroom. He had a special raised crib with his medical equipment arranged underneath – oxygenator, mister, suction machine, sat monitor, feeding pump, and the rest – and Katy had her twin bed moved over against the far wall. At night, the equipment made beeps, hisses, and thumps that became a sort of soundtrack to her youth. Sometimes, when her parents were finally in bed themselves and no longer tending to him, she got up, stood by his crib, and watched Ben sleep in the muffled glow of the room’s nightlight.
By the time Katy was eight, the tree had doubled in size. Although it was a variety that bore no fruit, by late April of each year, it fanned a full canopy of leaves the color of her mother’s favorite wine. Her father hung a bird feeder on one of the lower branches that Katy could reach. Most mornings before school, she brought crusts left from her breakfast toast out to it and broke them up along its edge. She liked to watch the birds flit down to perch, peck at the bread, and fly away again. She got a field guide from the library to help identify some of them: sparrows, wrens, starlings, an occasional robin with an orange breast.
For most of his early life, Ben was hospitalized almost as often as he was home, usually for pneumonias or “failure to thrive”, but also for acute pancreatitis, broken bones due to his osteoporosis, and surgeries on his eyes, testicles, kidneys, and gall bladder. Those admittances often lasted a couple weeks or more, and Katy’s father would always spend the night in Ben’s hospital room with him. Katy’s mother stayed home with her, but as the hospitalizations increased, Katy noticed that she rarely visited the hospital on her own. During extended admittances, Katy remembered dark circles forming under her father’s eyes, and he’d sometimes fall asleep at the dinner table before heading back up to the hospital.
Their house was just a bungalow, but had a tiny study off the sunroom that Katy’s parents eventually turned into a bedroom for her so she could have a space of her own away from Ben’s constant care needs. She still got up pretty often in the middle of the night and tip-toed into his bedroom to watch him sleep. A few times when she did, she saw her mother out on the side deck with the French doors leading to it closed, whispering into her cell phone and dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
The tree continued to grow and flourish; her father had dedicated a bubbler to it set on a timer, and he also pruned and fertilized it regularly. Its widest branches stretched half the length of the sunroom. Katy liked to climb up onto the biggest one to sit and read a book. She liked the soft rustle the leaves made when a breeze came up. She liked the relief its shade provided on a hot day. She liked the way the sway of the trunk perfectly supported her back. From her spot there, she could look inside the house through the sunroom windows and watch her parents take turns with Ben, often passing one another without speaking. She rarely saw them touch anymore. Dinners had become quiet affairs. When they watched television together, Katy sat between them on the living room couch, leaning her head first against one of their shoulders, then doing the same with the other.
A feral cat made the tree a temporary stop for a few months during the fall of Katy’s fourth grade year. As afternoon turned to evening, it would often hide among the leaves on a branch just above the bird feeder and wait for unsuspecting prey to fly onto it. Sometimes, Katy found bird feathers in the morning beneath the feeder. When she saw the cat there, she always chased it away.
One late afternoon that fall after her father silently drove her home from a birthday party, they entered the house to find her mother waiting on the living room couch with a suitcase at her feet. Her mother gave her a sad smile and patted the spot next to her on the couch. Katy sat there and her father lowered himself on her other side. Her mother put a hand on Katy’s knee and told her she was leaving, that she had fallen in love with another man, but would still be very much in Katy’s life.
“Every day,” her mother told her. “Or nearly so.”
Her father didn’t speak, but Katy could hear him begin to weep. She did, too. She was vaguely aware of the cat slinking up the tree’s trunk out the window. She felt her eyes widen as she said, “Does this mean we won’t have Christmas?”
“No,” her mother told her with the same sad smile. “It means you’ll have two of them.”
Her mother gave her knee a squeeze, kissed her forehead, and stood up. Katy watched her carry the suitcase across the room and out the front door. In the gloaming, she saw the cat’s yellow eyes in the tree’s branches follow her mother down the walk to her car at the curb. Katy listened to the sound of her car drift away. Ben’s feeding pump made its steady whir from his room, and he gave one of his happy squawks. Katy leaned her head against her father’s shoulder. They sat crying together while the cat remained motionless and lurking on its branch, which Katy did nothing about.
A home health nurse took care of Ben during the week while her father worked, and another came overnight from ten until six so he could sleep. But there was no day nurse on the weekends, so her father handled Ben’s needs then while Katy was with her mother at the house she shared with the man who had been her yoga instructor. Katy’s mother dropped her at school on Monday mornings, so Katy wasn’t sure how her father and Ben filled their weekend hours together. She knew her father liked to take Ben for walks in his wheelchair when the weather was nice, so Katy supposed that was often involved. And he usually snuggled Ben in his lapwhile they watched television together, so she guessed they did that quite a bit, too. But she wasn’t sure, and she didn’t ask.
Her parents’ divorce became final as she was matriculating from elementary to middle school. Not much changed in her ensuing secondary school years.
When she was a senior, Katy’s father had a tree trimmer come to thin the flowering plum’s high branches and cut it back from where it reached onto the roof. Afterwards, more dusty light streamed through the sunroom’s windows, and from her bedroom, Katy could see the streetlamp again that stood on the corner like a sentinel. She lowered her blinds against its glare at night, the first time she’d needed to do that since her mother had left.
She earned a scholarship to a college across the country. Her father often sent her texts that included photos of the tree in various seasons: bare, full of white-pink buds, bursting with purple leaves. Sometimes in the photos, her father included Ben in his wheelchair beneath the tree where she had liked to sit and read to him. If she enlarged those, she could see the drool on Ben’s chin, his wall eyes staring vacantly in opposite directions, his left hand balled inward, like always, into a fist. Her father had told her that he’d begun having to shave Ben’s whiskers, a development that was hard for her to believe.
After graduation, Katy accepted a position at the non-profit near campus where she’d interned during her last two summers. She and a couple of friends from college rented a bungalow not unlike the one she’d grown up in. Her mother came to visit a few times, but her father couldn’t because of Ben. When Katy went home, she split time between their two houses, although she preferred to be with Ben. She still read to him under the tree like she always had, sitting in a lawn chair holding his crooked hand as she did while her father piddled around the yard nearby.
Shortly before she turned thirty, Katy’s father was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and she came home immediately to be with him. The disease progressed rapidly; he didn’t last long.
Afterwards, she found a new job at a local non-profit, and aside from the home health nursing, began providing the care for Ben her father always had. She moved into her father’s bedroom. Most evenings, Ben sat next to her in his wheelchair while she watched television before she started his care ritual prior to the overnight nurse’s arrival: diaper change, pajamas, breathing treatment, suctioning, anti-seizure meds, teeth brushing, mister and feeding pump started, sat monitor attached, and the same three bedtime songs that her father had always sung to him.
Several years later, the flowering plum became infected with a fungus that caused the leaves on one side to spot and turn brown. Katy tried treating it unsuccessfully herself with an organic fungicide, but ended up calling a specialist who finally cured the problem by fumigating the soil around its base. Katy was surprised by the anxiousness she felt while the tree struggled, as well as the relief that filled her when it regained its health.
The specialist asked her how old the tree was, and when Katy told him, he said that flowering plums rarely lasted more than twenty years, so this one had already surpassed its life expectancy by a considerable extent. They were on the front lawn at the time, Ben in his wheelchair next to them. The specialist shook his head, looking at the tree with admiration, and said he guessed you never knew how long some things could last if given enough love and care.
William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal, december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, has received three Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.
© 2020, William Cass