The Last Tree
by Ray Fowler, MD
Copyright Jan 1, 2006

(Time in Space Home)

            I’m a hometown boy who came back home to practice medicine. The first generation of my career…and half of my life…was spent working in and managing the emergency department of Parkway Medical Center, a medical home now slowly becoming a distant memory for the hundreds of thousands of suffering that we served for almost thirty years.

            One pretty day, about five years before I retired from that job and moved my emergency medicine practice to Dallas, Texas, I was laboring along among the sick and the dying in the emergency ward. A nurse handed me a chart and pushed me toward the room where we repaired skin lacerations. I glanced at the chart to see what the reported problem was, and almost choked as I said, "he got WHAT part of his anatomy caught up in a tractor?"

            And, so, a few moments later, there I was stitching away and getting to know Earl. You can probably imagine that such a close medical contact can make for interesting conversation. Earl was telling me about his work with his bush hog. Having taken over managing a dozen acres of family land a few years prior, I had need of a good strong arm to clear a field and to keep it up as I got ready to think about building my home there on Chapel Hill. Earl was more than ready to help me out (after a few days of healing), and a friendship was born.

            Over the next few years, Earl used his art with a tractor and blade to sculpt out a clearing atop the hill off Nightengale Lane. I have so many impressions of him. I don’t think I have ever worked with anyone physically stronger. Even in his older years, he had the rough brawn of a man who gave his life to working with his hands. His grip was of iron, and his nerves were of steel. We spent hours talking and working together, and I came to know him well and trust him even more.

            Finally fed up with the pace of hospital administrators, customer satisfaction surveys, and the billing of insurance companies, I retired from the private world and sought a new life at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine. I closed the practice in Douglasville and sought out a quiet place in the hills for my private time. I found an olive orchard long since abandoned in the mountains northwest of Los Angeles. It had no house, so I found an old Airstream trailer on eBay. Before I knew it, I had a piece of land and a trailer, separated by a continent.

            I talked it over with Earl, and he saw no problem. He took my Dodge dual-ie pickup and headed for New York to bring the trailer to Douglasville for inspection and cleaning. Indeed, it was “No problem”. He was back in two days, and the trailer was sitting up on the hill, and we set about the work of bringing a 30 year-old relic back to life.

            Presently we had all the cleaning done and all the goods packed that we wanted to take to the mountain over the Pacific…but, how to get the Airstream across the country. Earl said, again, “That ain’t no problem.” He packed his wife into the pickup, hooked up the trailer, and headed West.

            Let’s say the trip didn’t totally go as planned. In Eastern Alabama, some smart aleck was tail-gaiting Earl, which had about got Earl’s last nerve. Finally the jerk blew around Earl, only to hit his brakes around the next curve suddenly to make a turn. Earl slammed on his brakes, and the trailer lurched forward, snapping off the ball on the hitch, and proceeded to plow into the back of the pickup. Let’s just say…Earl was not pleased. I have only spotty reports of the events that transpired, but I never heard anything further from the creep who caused that pretty trailer to march so acutely into the tailgate of my truck.

            In just four days Earl made it to the mountain in California. The driveway is a long, windy dirt road heading up the mountain, and Earl applied his usual brute force in dragging the trailer up the hill. But then…in the crook of a tight curve…one of the wheels of the trailer slipped off the driveway, and there was nothing down below but a thousand feet of cactus and coyote bones. The pickup and trailer began to slide down, ultimately doomed to be dragged off the mountain…to destruction in the abyss. And then, one of the greatest acts of selfless courage happened, and it is only known to probably three people in the world, with Earl now having taken leave of us. Earl proceeded to gun that 350 horsepower workhorse of a wide-bottomed pickup, leaping the truck and trailer forward, and pulling them all back from destruction, back onto and up the driveway, and on to the top of the mountain.

            The view is nice from the hill, the sailing ships tilting in the wind way out in the harbor. Earl, true to form, four days into a cross-county expedition with his wife and having just rescued the operation from sure annihilation, took one look at the lovely scene, and said “Hmmmph…okay, let’s go…” and off he went, heading East.

            I moved off to Dallas, Texas in 2001, to become part of a difficult mission, that of pursuing homeland security and disaster preparedness for a major city. I needed help again with my move, and again Earl was there for me. He packed up a van with my medical books, my instruments, and many of my personal things and again set out across country to my aid. The next day he was there, and we spent a long day spreading books and personal items between office and apartment. It came down, finally, to this big ol’ stacked washer and dryer, and both of us were so tired by that point that this top-heavy monster almost got the best of us as we wrestled it, both of our arms about it, down the ramp of the van. We finally got the beast onto the ground, and we sat, staring at each other. My work was finally moved to Texas, thanks to Earl, and I didn’t quite know what to say.

            Earl never told me directly that he was having chest pain during the trip to Texas, especially when muscling a washer-dryer down a loading ramp. I only found out later that he had gone for a check-up after the trip, and promptly had a cardiac bypass performed. I spit nails at him for not telling me that he was suffering, but I knew deep down that Earl could not…would not…let a personal need interfere with a friendship. His word was his bond. I have never known such an honorable man.

            Many of you know that one day, a year or two before the chest pain episode, Earl cleared his throat one day, and so doing, something odd made its way down from the inside of his sinuses into his mouth, which he promptly spewed forth onto the pavement. It was a round thing, kinda small, about the size of a marble. Earl figured that if it came out of him, he guessed that a doctor probably oughta look at it. Well, the pathology report was cancer, and Earl, in his early 70’s, underwent over 7 hours of surgery to remove all traces of the cancer. With the radiation therapy, as far as he would ever tell me, the treatment was a complete success. As with so much of his life, he determined that he would not be beaten by a senseless illness that had no place when set aside his work and his energy. I saw Earl apply the same energy to getting well that he did to his work…and I saw him beat the cancer and send it on its way.

            In late ’99 I began to take steps to bring about my dream of having a home on the land of my grandfather, there atop Chapel Hill, where I could feel the red clay between my toes, hear the foxes bark in the night, and sink my roots deeper into my family. By that time, Earl and I had several years of friendship and property management between us. I said, “Earl, let’s build a house.” He said, as he always did, “Let’s go!”

            I knew that I wanted to do something very special with this house. The house site was in a stand of white oaks, surrounded on the edge by huge pines, and I decided to save every stick of wood that we removed to make it part of the house. I turned to Earl for help, and he brought in Ted Bell.

            There is an artist among us: Ted Bell is the master of the wood miser. Earl would fell the trees, Ted would man the saw, and together they began to prepare thousands of board feet, day after day, for over a year. They cut four by seventeen rafters as long as 17 feet, weighing as much as 300 pounds…in the heat of August, week after week, whittling away at the enormity of the undertaking, without hesitation. Working together we crafted a design for the house as special as the spirit of Georgia, and emblematic of the potential of souls working together for a common purpose. That Ted’s strength is in his mighty arms alone brings all the more dignity to this undertaking.

            A story that is so typically “Earl” is found when we were doing the final clearing of the area around the house of trees that might be too close. Just west of the front yard is an odd white oak, the first part of the trunk straight, and then ten feet or so up from the ground, twisting sideways in an odd manner. We both decided that the tree was ugly and might better be turned into wood flooring, so why not cut it down? I came back out the next day, and the tree was still there, as it still stands today. Earl just couldn’t cut it down. When I asked him why, he said, “That tree is so ugly that it’s pretty.” And that was that.

            The years passed, the parts of the house were assembled, and finally the structure took shape, under the leadership of Jim Stevens. We began to see how trees of Douglas County would be preserved for centuries: Mighty rafters…trusses weighing tons that were lifted into place with cranes…all in the solitude of the woods where bluejays and robins pronounce their grudging tolerance of one another across the glens and hollows.

            It came, then to the last of the wood for the house. We needed a bit more pine for the final paneling. Earl set out with his usual gusto and energy, saying goodbye to family in the late morning, and within a short time felled a number of pines. Jim drove up in mid-afternoon to find Earl sitting on the ground, leaned against a tree, as if sleeping, with his axe in his hand.

            How sad for Earl to have slipped away so quickly from us. How painful for us all who loved him so much. I know from my training that Earl had a moment of dizziness, closed his eyes, and then opened his eyes to Heaven’s glory. But my goodness, those of us who remain behind hurt for his absence…

            When my Dad died now some two years ago, I was awash in grief. I came to understand for the first time that most of what we think about people is based on our memories of them. A small part is the anticipation of being with them again, but all the rest is about the years of time that we’ve spent together, and the experiences that we have accumulated. When we lose someone close, we lose the anticipation of being together with them again in this life. This pain is so acute and takes years to work through. I am fully of the opinion that we don’t get over losing someone close to us…we just get used to it.

            God’s gift to us, though, is memory. I found my memories of my father flooding out after he died, and these renewed memories have brought me strength and have sustained me.

            Between moments of tears and despair when Dad died…and then again with Earl’s passing…I thought a great deal about what Johannes Brahms had created when he wrote his Requiem Mass. Rather than mourning for the departed, as was the usual case in the Latin liturgy, he rather drew from scripture to say to us, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” He went on to write, “Now therefore be patient, oh my brethren, unto the coming of the Lord,” to encourage us to draw strength from a vision of eternity. And, finally, he said, “Blessed are they who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors.”

            Knowing that we were tended to, in our grief, and that we can anticipate the blessing of knowing our loved ones again...and, that our dear person now gone away, is resting from the long labor of life...these things have brought me comfort.

            I must say, though, I can't imagine that Earl is being much of a restful sort already in the hereafter. I have reflected this week that God must have called Earl home because he needed an artisan with a little gray hair, to show those young angels up there how to get a job done…'cause Earl will get the job done.

            Earl was one of those figures that you just always thought would be around, not that he had cheated death (though his beating cancer and heart disease would argue that he had, more than once), but rather that he negotiated with life. He kept to his path, and you could tell that with every interaction that you had with him, from his hard work in the hot sun to the message on the answering machine…“Hello, this is Vivian’s husband Earl…” And, you’ve all heard the end of that recording, where he ends with a “Thank youuuuuu….”, as if to say, “…and, if you don’t call back, that’s just fine. I have things to do.”

            Yes, Earl was a man from whom we learned so much. He showed us that “quiet strength is noble strength.” That “a steady pace gets you where you’re going and gives you long life.” When you were around Earl, time slowed down because of a calm energy surrounding him. His life was as a man of nature, and such a man understands and leads a natural path of life.

            I know that all of these memories of Earl are a part of Heaven. We participate in the great gift of forever as we remember Earl...who he dignified he was in his pursuit of the day to day...of his honor...of his refusing to do anything but his best.

            It is said that the first dream that you have of someone after that person’s death tells you about how they are experiencing the hereafter. My first dream about Dad after he died was that we were all at a party, all dressed up in black tails and bowties, and Dad was the life of the party, all cheerful and happy. That helped me so much.

            I've had my dream of Earl already. He was leaning against a tree, taking a moment to size up a giant pine he was about to cut down, with that "it's me or you" kind of look on his face...enjoying the lovely air of a beautiful, sunny afternoon. What a fine Paradise he is enjoying already.

            The last tree that Earl felled that pretty day was a tall, straight pine about fifty years old...why, about the same age as me. I counted the rings yesterday. Part of that special tree will be made into a bench to be placed there in the woods where Earl left us, where we can sit and think of him while sitting amid nature’s beauty.

            The rest of the tree will be made into a big, long table with lots of room for eating and being merry there in the wine cellar on Nightengale Lane that he helped to build. For years to come, Earl's work will welcome friends, nourish the weary, and bring light to life...month after month, and year after year. My ashes will be in that cellar one day, and I am sure that Earl and I will have a great deal to catch up on, there in the woods on Chapel Hill.

            I miss him...we all need him...and there's a hole in our lives where he lived among us.