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

these days.

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.


My grandfather

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

peeked out.

He could never get sick.

Cancer. No.

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.

Cancer.  Yes.

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

do they—

they being the ones who share

my eyes and hair and hands—

or do they know

and just won't


their secrets?

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

my own.


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

pop up

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

highs and


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

for good,

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.

She'd go.

I wondered if the darkness under

my eyes looked the same

as hers.

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

until now,

when he had it again, but some place else,

why he was so ashamed of it

even now,

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

more comfortable.

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

organic chemistry

when I should have

been home to say goodbye

to Papa.

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

the call,

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

for something—

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,

their 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,




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