Papa's Money Tree by Leah Schaffer
This work was contributed by Leah Schaffer for the Center of Literature and Medicine's use and with the assistance of Joyce Dyer and the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature.
There is a tree that stands
in front of the barn on my grandparents' farm.
It looks just like any other tree: it is not
unusually large, its bark, gray and
cracking. It slumbers through
the wintertime and looms
over the aged
tractor in the sweltering heat of June,
July, and August, leaving
only strands of sunshine to creep through,
so the specks of rust glint like a precious stone.
My cousins and I have been circling the tree
all afternoon, but we only find
two pennies and a dime
to split among us. We hold out the coins
for my grandfather to see.
"I think you should keep looking."
And so we crawl around the ground, running
our fingers through the grass, sweeping
away old leaves and dirt, trying
to uncover the shiny treasures that
fall from the branches
of My Papa's Money Tree.
We were always pretty good at
spotting the obvious ones, but it was Papa who was the best
at finding the less conspicuous coins. (Although, it took me a long
time to figure out why.)
He would walk around the tree, hands
in pockets, jingling his loose change as if to remind us
who was in charge.
When he found something, he would never say
anything. He'd just tap his big dirty
work boot on the ground, and flash us that crooked
smirk of his.
I'm sitting in a chair in the waiting room
of my doctor's office. I'm here only for
a little sore throat, but we're never too careful
My grandfather died
over three months ago.
It's a common routine when it comes
to family history.
No. No. No. No. No.
I'm still having a hard time letting
myself believe that he was even sick.
had always been a big bulk of a man—bulging
belly, always with the promise of one shirt button busted
open so that his big gaping belly-button
He could never get sick.
I can remember watching
him as he worked around the farm, and I admired
the strength that festered
somewhere in those leathery,
tanned forearms as they
lifted and pulled and heaved
his way of life around.
He would never die.
My grandfather would live forever.
Things have changed.
He should have lived forever.
We know more now.
But, he's gone.
Heart attacks. Yes.
Suddenly, I see the vulnerability in everyone
around me, especially in
What else am I susceptible to?
I don't know and neither
they being the ones who share
my eyes and hair and hands—
or do they know
and just won't
Where am I from?
I am from places I never knew,
from things I was never told.
I am from stubbornness and secrets,
from oncology appointments disguised as day trips.
I am from the very darkest things that gnaw
at even the strongest bodies.
I am from the day stomach flu
turned to cancer,
and when I saw death glaze
over the face of the strongest
man I knew—a face that resembled
The alarm sirens, the obnoxious
buzz and beep bounced
off the walls of my grandfather's hospital room.
The screen flashed
numbers and abbreviations that I still
couldn't understand, although I stared
at it for hours every time I visited, hoping
that something might
to let me know that he had been magically
cured and could come back home.
My grandma raised her fingers to
her lips as she pursed them, then tried
to stay calm as she stuck her head
out of the door to see
if the nurse was on the way.
She never came.
The beeping stopped
as the mysterious numbers shifted
on the screen. The past
months had been nothing but
my grandfather's health fluctuating
more than his pulse-oxygen levels as he wiggled
the sensor off his finger—even
the unconscious know
My grandma and I resumed our
places at the side of his bed, and I rested
my elbows on the handrail, trying to offer some solace
to my back, which was stiff
from standing on the hard, linoleum floor
for the past three months.
My half hour was almost up, and I dreaded
the time when I had to leave, not
necessarily because I wanted to stay, but
because I hated saying goodbye, scared
that he might think that I meant it
even though I knew that he couldn't hear anything
I said. He didn't even know that
I was there.
I looked at the clock.
Time was up.
I straightened my back
and told my grandma that I'd
leave, so that my mother could come in, but she shook
her head and told me to stay.
I wondered if the darkness under
my eyes looked the same
I watched her put her hand up
to the plastic dispenser of the wall
that spurt out a stream
of anti-bacterial hand wash,
as if to convince herself that we were
invincible to the disease that hung
in the air of that ICU so long as that
white foam seeped
into our skin before every hello
and after every goodbye.
Then, I was alone with him.
The first few times I found myself alone
with my grandfather, I was
It was awkward to stand and just
watch him lie there. But, I had come
to appreciate those moments of silence
when my grandfather and I could really
Without words, I'd tell him
about the classes I was taking,
about the boy that had broken my heart,
about the hopes I had for tomorrow,
about how much I loved him.
Without words, he'd tell me
about how exciting it would be when he finally
got to come back home,
about eating Grandma's cooking again,
about how he really loved her cooking and
about how I wasn't allowed to tell her he said that,
about how much he hated that the nurses referred to everything
as we, as though they were a team:
the nurse, who changed every day, and
my grandfather, who never got to leave.
But what I wanted to talk about was
why he waited so long to see the doctors,
why he didn't tell me he had cancer five years ago
when he had it again, but some place else,
why he was so ashamed of it
and what else he might be hiding from me
The weeks drug
out, as my grandfather was shuffled
from the hospital to
the rehabilitative care center back
to the hospital
until the day my grandmother signed
the paper that would move him to
the place where they could make him
My mother assured me that
it was a good thing to do, and
that it didn't mean that
we were giving up.
That was a Thursday.
He died on Friday.
I had spent that week bent
over my books, a hundred miles
praying to the gods of
when I should have
been home to say goodbye
But I didn't know it was
Fridays were exam days
and I was ready
for it that time.
I studied hard, and nailed the test, and
walked out of the stuffy lecture
hall ready to celebrate
I checked my cell phone—a habit these days—
and saw a call from home.
I panicked for a moment—worried that it was
but calmed myself and removed the thought
as far as I could.
Outside, the city was bustling and I stopped to let the sun soak
through my shoulders and onto my face.
I closed my eyes.
Today is a good day.
When I saw my brother jump out of the truck
and run across the street,
I didn't even try to figure
why he might be there.
Because I knew it was
My body gave in
to the weight of something
I can't describe,
and I cried without
The tears came later
when I collapsed into my mother arms
and buried my face in her chest.
She tried to provide some
comfort, but her face was contorted
from trying to conceal her
I tried to focus on the words
and phrases that crashed
and fell against the silence
that troubled our minds.
That's all I wanted, though—that
"His breaths, they
she said. "I looked into his eyes and
for the first time
in a long time
I saw no pain."
She continued, "The nurses
said we should tell him
that it was okay to let go.
"Because he was holding on
or for someone."
My grandma said it was for me.
I'm still trying to figure out what he was waiting for,
and what he wanted to tell me
before he left.
I wonder if he simply wanted to say
or maybe he wanted to say
he was sorry for being so stubborn
that the disease festered and grew until
it became stronger than he was.
I wonder if he wanted to whisper into my ear
of the things that might attack my body
as I grow,
of the things that will plague my children,
and their children's children.
I wonder if my grandfather knew
where I'm from.
I am from visiting hours.
I am from calling hours.
I am from the final hour
when we realized hard work
does not make us
Now it is nearing winter,
and I'm sitting in the waiting room of my doctor's office trying
to figure out my family's history.
Outside, the leaves are floating through
the skies and collecting
in any corner they can find.
Papa's Money Tree rests
dormant, and beneath it lies
a single weathered penny—a last
remaining treasure of my grandfather.
It is hidden in a place that only
he knows, in a place that I just can't seem
to find. And now, it is slowly burying
itself into the ground,