The Last Walk 2
A society grows great when old men plant trees
whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
He who plants a tree plants a hope.
Building an addition to one’s house isn’t quite like planting a tree. In deciding to build, Karen and I justified the expense to ourselves by saying we could recoup our costs someday when we sell it. In theory, adding to one’s house is just another investment.
But context changes things; it even changes the meaning of things. The real reason for building an addition, no matter what we told ourselves about resale prices, was to give James and Jennie more room. Our son and daughter-in-law have lived with us for more than a year. They’ve been careful to keep themselves to their small bedroom, and the addition would give them more space. We contracted with Matthew, our builder—and quickly modified the plan to add a concrete pad for a hot tub. A hot tub, we thought, might help with Karen’s persistent back pain.
Then we learned Karen’s cancer has returned. We enter a new phase in our life together, our last walk. For Karen especially this changes the meaning of the addition and the hot tub. It changes her garden. (Make no mistake, the flowers, shrubs, trees, and garden paths are all her doing. Sometimes I dig holes where she tells me.) In a few months or years someone else will have her house and garden.
In the long view, this has always been true. We all know we will die someday. We know our houses and gardens will pass to others. Our accomplishments will be forgotten. (Quick! What do you know about your great grandmother’s great grandmother? Your descendants won’t remember you either.)
We know we will die. Usually, we don’t think about it. Now that we’ve come to our last walk, Karen and I have to think about it. We’ve lived in our house 23 years. Who will be here 23 years hence? What will they be like? How will they change the garden? Will they like the hot tub?
Of course, the Greek proverb is not only about trees. It’s about caring for people we won’t live to see, people who won’t remember us. We “plant trees” by building houses, growing gardens, teaching children, and so on. There are myriad ways to contribute to a good world for those who come after. One might even “plant a tree” by voting!
As her strength allows, Karen will tend her garden, write more music and make more photographs. Small things, perhaps, like building an addition to one’s house. Or like planting a tree.