I feel the familiar tightness in my chest and I deliberately slow my breath down as I pass the grove of lighted Christmas trees on University Avenue. The lights came on early this year; it is only the end of October. The arborvitaes have been carefully trimmed for years and they are all mirror images of each other—the exact same height, shape, and circumference. The trees are clumps of turquoise, scarlet, emerald, gold, cream, and violet shining their way down the length of a city block.
Jan, our therapist, had her office near these trees. I came here often in those days, sometimes three times a week. There were hundreds of hours spent in that office. I screamed into pillows and held myself tight to keep from coming undone. I never saw or even guessed at the things bubbling under our surface, so I paid this penance. Time in that small beige room is what I owed for staying married to a man who had done terrible things.
Jan had kind eyes and a gentle voice, but she poked a stick into our pain. She pushed on our bruises and made us look at monsters under the bed. She was good at her job. Jonah was eight and he sometimes fled to the waiting room when things got too intense. I watched helpless as twelve-year-old Rosie heard all the awful truths and asked questions that made me catch my breath. We worked at putting our family back together in that room.
For the first year, we came out of our appointments on a wave of silence and tried to recover on the ride home. We watched the seasons change on those drives. The days got longer and shorter and then longer again while time passed.
The first time I saw the lighted trees, it had only been a few months since the news came out. It was still so fresh and hot and the trees reminded me of a happy past. I could not imagine how we would get through Christmas. I loaded up on holiday movies at the library and we spent weeks escaping into other people’s fantasies. We numbed ourselves with gingerbread cookies and chocolate peppermints. At night, I lay awake for hours, reliving, obsessing, and sometimes even praying.
Time passed as it always does. We assumed a new normal and it included plenty of sessions in Jan’s office. Jonah outgrew the little kid toys there and one day, she pulled out model magic clay. He spent the hours quietly rolling it in his fingers while the rest of us talked. Rosie wrote in her journal and spent more time alone in her room. I drove the route to Jan’s on autopilot many, many times. And when the days got shorter and the air got crisper, the tree lights would appear again. On my worst days, the trees seemed to mock me, and I stared straight ahead when I drove by.
By the fourth Christmas, the sight of the lighted trees did not sting anymore and we brought Jan a tin of cookies we had decorated. By the fifth year, it was almost over. The visits had dropped to once or twice a month, and I only saw the trees one time that season. Eventually we stopped seeing Jan all together. Both kids were taller than I was now, and that seemed right.
The west side was another world from our suburban home, so years went by and I did not see the trees at all. Eventually though, after the divorce, I bought a little house in that part of town and for two months of the year, I passed the lights every day on my way to work. Coming home at night, the trees had a special glow and I stopped looking away. I allowed myself to see their beauty. I started to wonder about those trees.
One year there is a story in the newspaper about the tree lights on University Avenue. A local dentist planted the trees as a sound barrier between his office and a busy street. He started the lights ten years later as a tribute to his foster mother and a wish for peace in the world. He is gone now, but his son continues this project with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
I go to the 20th anniversary celebration of the trees with a man who later becomes my husband. He reminds me of a big teddy bear, and always holds me for as long as I need. We have cookies and drink hot apple cider. There are Santa hats to wear, and we sing carols with the small crowd that has gathered. I take a few moments to wander alone among the trees and I watch the busy traffic on University Avenue.
I am too afraid to speak to the dentist’s son. I want to tell him that the trees helped me, but I worry about crying. Later that night, I donate to his foundation instead. I call Jonah. I call Rosie. I say, “Merry Christmas,” and, “I love you.”
In bed, I picture the row of shining trees. And then I sleep.
Kelly Kotewa is a college instructor in Madison, Wisconsin. She received her Bachelor's degree from Boise State University and a Masters from the University of Wisconsin--Madison. Her previous work has appeared in Potato Soup Journal. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time on her bicycle in the beautiful Wisconsin countryside.