A gray April morning, it snowed again yesterday, as it has every Thursday for the past four weeks. Last night, slush flew up from the streets as Bob drove the ten-foot rental truck home from the Budget dealer, realizing that it did not have heat in the cab and pulled so far to the left that we would never be able to drive it all the way to Florida. Our plans for leaving town before the morning rush hour now ruined, we load the truck and travel to Budget Truck headquarters in St. Paul, where we transfer everything into a sixteen-foot rental truck, because that is what they have, and we want to be in Sarasota by Sunday night. The cargo area of this enormous truck is a great cavernous space that is empty except for our two suitcases and three citrus trees, each one nearly eight feet tall and growing in a big plastic pot. The last thing I did last night, after packing my suitcase and checking the weather forecast, was to wrap each of these trees in yards of scratchy brown burlap and staple the layers together, with the hope that they would be protected over the 1,700 mile journey.
It snows all the way through Wisconsin, as Bob wrestles this beast of a vehicle down I-94, and I check the weather reports for southern Illinois, where we will spend the night. The low tonight in Normal will be 27 degrees. When we stop for gas in Janesville, Bob lifts up the sliding cargo door so that I can check the trees. One has fallen over onto its side, potting soil spilling out onto the wood floor, but the tree seems intact. I pull out the rest of my bungee cords and rig them up so that each of the pots is bound securely to the wooden slats on the inside walls of the truck. It’s April 12, and I’m wearing my winter jacket and gloves.
All afternoon, we drive south through Illinois, the bitter wind gusting across Highway 51, buffeting the giant flat target that is our truck. “Budget: Make the Better Move,” our truck proclaims from all sides in big blue and orange letters. Bob refuses to let me drive, insisting that it would be too much trouble to adjust the side mirrors again, by hand; I know this is only part of the reason, as he gets bored and antsy when he isn’t driving, and he doesn’t want to be thinking too much about why we’re on this trip. Night comes on as we pull into Bloomington/Normal, Illinois and head for our hotel.
“I’m worried about the trees,” I say for the umpteenth time. “What if they freeze in the truck overnight?”
“Well, do you want me to help you carry them all into our hotel room?” Bob asks again.
“No, maybe we can find something else to wrap them in, just for extra insulation.”
We’ve been planning this trip for more than a year, and I was so sure that the weather would be warm enough to transport the trees in April. That night, we stop on our way to dinner at Bed, Bath, and Beyond on Bloomington’s main drag, and I buy the cheapest set of sheets it has. After dinner, I wrap the sheets around the trees while I murmur gently to them, “Don’t worry. You’ll be okay tonight, and tomorrow night we’ll be in Georgia.” Falling asleep in our hotel room, I remember sitting in Benjamin’s room the night before, telling him that finally we would be taking his trees home, my voice shaking with so many emotions.
Our son Benjamin was 13 the first time he flew alone, taking a trip over winter break to visit Bob’s father and stepmother at the new condo they’d just purchased in Sarasota, Florida. Just a few months before that, he’d celebrated his bar mitzvah. Bob and I stood with our oldest son on the bimah that day to present him with his new tallit, the prayer shawl he had picked out for the occasion of reading Torah for the first time in front of our whole congregation. It was made in Jerusalem, of raw silk in beautiful jewel tones of cranberry, copper, and teal. Bob and I stretched the tallit out in front of Benjamin as he read the prayer inscribed along the top edge; we recited the shehechyanu, and Benjamin wrapped the tallit around his shoulders for the first time, a smile spreading across his face. A shy person, Benjamin always smiled in public as though he were trying not to smile. He earned high praise that day for his beautiful, musical davening and his speech about science, religion, and the creation of the world.
Benjamin was in his first year of junior high then, adjusting beautifully to the transition from the small Jewish day school he’d attended since kindergarten. We had struggled for many years with his ADHD and oppositional behavior; now he seemed to be maturing, surprising us by doing his homework or whatever we asked without arguing. As his confidence grew and his defiance receded, we saw and quietly celebrated his inherent sweetness.
When Benjamin came home from Sarasota that January, he brought stories of his trip, a gift for each family member, and three small seedlings, carefully wrapped in cardboard cartons. “Mom, we’re going to grow these,” he said with a big smile. He knew that I was the gardener in the family. He explained that he and “Pumpa” (the name by which he’d called his grandfather since he started talking) had bought these citrus trees at the Sarasota farmer’s market: a lemon, a lime, and an orange. He assured me he knew they’d probably never bear fruit in Minnesota, but he thought we could grow them inside and maybe use some grow lights in the winter.
The trees came with detailed instructions that included the dimensions of the pots in which we should plant them, the hours of sunlight they would need each day, and exactly how to prune them once they reached a height of six inches. Benjamin accompanied me to Home Depot, where he picked out clay pots, soil, and grow lights, and I showed him how to transplant the delicate seedlings into the new pots.
Over the next ten years, Benjamin nurtured the seedlings, repotting them many times, until they were trees. He moved them outside every spring, carefully staking them so they wouldn’t fall over on windy days. Online, he researched what kinds of fertilizer they needed, and how to prune them so that they might bear fruit. In the fall, he dragged the heavy pots back inside and fretted over the plants as they dropped leaves while adjusting to being indoors again. When he left for college, he instructed me in how to care for them. By the time he graduated from the University of Minnesota, the trees were over six feet tall, outgrowing our house.
The summer after graduation, Benjamin lived at home and telecommuted to his research job with Xerox in Rochester, New York. He took over caring for his trees again, often going outside to move one of them a few inches so that it would receive maximum sun in our very shady yard. One day he asked me whether I thought we might be able to take the trees back to Florida, “where they belong.” By then, we had traveled to Sarasota many times for family vacations, staying in the original condo after Pumpa and Jan had moved into a house nearby. Benjamin thought that if we could find a way to get the trees to Florida, Pumpa would let us plant them in his yard, and they could grow as big as they were meant to be. He wanted them to bear fruit, he said, and he thought it was unfair that they were stuck in Minnesota where the growing season is so short. I shook my head slowly and said, “I can’t imagine how we could get them there without spending a small fortune.”
Later that day, Benjamin came back to me with pages of information he’d printed from the internet. He’d measured each tree, researched the size and availability of rental trailers and trucks, and even found a company that would move the trees to Florida for us (for an exorbitant fee). Together we speculated about whether it would be possible to move the trees, and wondered whether they might fit in a U-Haul trailer we could tow the next time we drove to Sarasota in the spring or summer. Maybe next summer, I said, only half-serious, knowing that Bob would be less than thrilled to drive the 24 hours to Florida with a trailer in tow.
As the summer went on, the tallest of Benjamin’s trees began to flower for the first time, and then in August, he detected what looked like a tiny green fruit hanging from the end of a branch. We were all in disbelief; could it possibly be growing a lime? While we’d known in the beginning which tree was which, we’d long since lost the labels we used to keep track. It looked like a lime, but Benjamin was certain that that tree was the lemon. By the time we brought the trees inside for the winter, the fruit was about the size of a walnut, still green, and there were two more tiny fruits growing on that tree.
Although we stationed the trees in our south-facing windows where they would get the most sunlight, I wasn’t at all sure that the developing fruit would be able to ripen there, all out of synch with the typical citrus growing season. But ripen they did, growing bigger and turning yellow, confirming Benjamin’s conviction that they were lemons. Bob and Benjamin enjoyed fantasizing together about what we could do with the first ripe lemon, now weighing down the small branch where it hung.
One Saturday night in November, Benjamin was holding the lemon when it slipped off the branch and into his hand. “Dad! Look! It’s ripe!” he called out. Bob ran into the kitchen, where he found Benjamin holding up the lemon, grinning.
“I think this calls for a celebration,” Bob said. “How about some tequila?”
While Bob pulled out a bottle of anejo, Benjamin carefully sliced the lemon. Holding out a slice for Bob, he popped another one into his own mouth, lemon juice dripping down his chin. With a puckered smile, he proclaimed, “Great taste! I can’t believe I grew this! In Minnesota!” Bob passed him a shot of tequila and the salt, and the celebration began.
Benjamin looked forward to tasting the remaining lemons, but that was not to be. On January 1, Benjamin’s heart stopped beating sometime in the night, and Bob found him in the morning, dead at the age of 23, just ten years after he brought home the citrus trees. We buried him in his tallit, on a bitter morning in an icy cemetery next to Minnehaha Creek. A bright future and his many dreams were buried with him that day.
I wake up in Bloomington and go out to check the trees. Inside their layers of cotton and burlap, they are green and healthy, with no signs of freezing. We drive through Kentucky and Tennessee, and when we are nearing Chattanooga late in the afternoon, James Taylor comes on the radio: “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel; things are gonna turn out fine, if you only will…” Tears course down my cheeks. I look over at Bob, and he is crying, too.
“You’re crying because of Lookout Mountain, right?” he asks.
“Yes. That and James Taylor,” I say. “He’s so wrong. I loved Benjamin with every fiber of my being, so did you, and there was no turning out fine.” I turn off the radio and sob.
Outside it’s a sunny afternoon, our truck speeding along I-24 as it winds through the Appalachian foothills and across the Nickajack River. The signs for Lookout Mountain and “See Rock City” are everywhere.
When I can talk again, I tell Bob that this is the part of our trip I’ve been dreading the most. “Me too,” he nods. Somehow we hadn’t shared this with each other until now, when we’re approaching the exit for Lookout Mountain.
The last time we made this drive from Minneapolis to Sarasota was nearly three years ago, and Benjamin was with us. Sam, our younger son, was away at camp, and the three of us were heading down for a couple of weeks at the beach. We had spent several nights in Nashville, visiting my folks, and that morning we’d gotten up early to drive the rest of the way to Florida. Bob yawned and said he needed coffee. He asked Benjamin to look up on his phone where we might find a Starbucks in Chattanooga. “Oh, it says there’s one at the next exit,” Benjamin reported, so we pulled off the highway and Benjamin used the GPS on his phone to direct us. Pretty soon we were winding around two-lane roads and making our way up a mountain. “Are we getting close?” Bob asked. Benjamin assured him we were. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the top of Lookout Mountain. There next to a parking lot full of cars and RV’s was the quaintest little Starbucks we’d ever seen. Benjamin started to laugh, as we realized that his phone had directed us right into this tourist trap. There was the ticket booth, with a big red sign on top: “See Rock City! See Ruby Falls!” When we got out of the car, the air smelled like summer camp, all piney and fresh. We got coffee at the log cabin Starbucks, and Benjamin took photos of the old forest at the top of the mountain. One of those photos has been the wallpaper on my laptop ever since.
Today we pass by that exit, the sun going down behind us, as if to confirm that Benjamin is really gone. We continue on our way into Georgia; I am mourning again my son’s passion for living, his sparkling wit, and his presence in all the family memories we have yet to make. We stop for the night in Marietta, where our citrus trees are surrounded by the damp Southern heat. I check them anyway, wrapping the sheets more tightly around them, tucking them in for the night. The next day, we drive through the red clay hills toward the Florida border. We cross over around lunchtime, and right away the vegetation seems to change from scrub pines and kudzu to spiky, tropical-looking plants along the highway. About 20 miles into Florida, we see the sign we’ve been fearing. It’s a big, official green highway sign, with the Florida state seal, and it reads: “AGRICULTURAL INSPECTION STATION. ALL TRUCKS MUST STOP FOR INSPECTION. TWO MILES.” Below that is a list of all the types of trucks that are required to stop: Semis, RV’s, moving vans….and rental trucks. Oh no. All the way down from Minnesota, we’d encountered truck weigh stations, but every time we passed one, it was either closed or they waved us through. Now we were required to stop.
We knew when we started this journey that it was illegal to bring citrus trees into Florida, even trees that were originally from there. The multi-billion dollar citrus industry is anxious to prevent any insects or diseases from entering the state and ruining their trees. We believed that if we allowed our truck to be inspected, they would confiscate Benjamin’s trees, no matter what their story was. We couldn’t have that; Benjamin wanted these trees in Florida, and we would get them there.
I look at Bob, who is checking the side mirrors and gripping the steering wheel tightly. As we approach the exit for the inspection station, we see truck after truck lined up, stretching back almost onto the highway. My law abiding, rule following husband sets his jaw, looks straight ahead, and keeps on going, right past the exit. I look back, my heart pounding and a smile crossing my face. Yes, I think, it may have taken Bob awhile to get here, but now I know his whole heart is in this mission. When we’re several miles down the road, he turns to me and says, “Well, I knew that if we stopped, they would confiscate the trees. I wasn’t about to let that happen. If they stop us now, I’ll just say we didn’t see the sign.” For a long time after that, I see him checking the mirrors to look for state troopers, but he gives that up eventually and we arrive in Sarasota that night.
We unload the trees at Norm and Jan’s house, where they place each one in a little wagon and carefully haul them to the back yard. In the darkness, I gently unwrap the trees, talking softly to them about how far we’ve come, grateful that all three have survived the journey. We water the trees, then drive to the condo to get some sleep. Norm and Jan have researched how to help the trees adjust to their new climate, and we decide to leave them in their pots for now, in the shade at first, and then gradually move them into the sun. We’ll transplant them into the ground at the end of our week in Florida.
Staying at the condo makes me feel like an open wound at first, as everything around me triggers memories of being there with Benjamin. On the second day, I am sitting outside at breakfast with Bob, tears welling up in my eyes.
“I think it was a mistake to come here. It’s just too hard. I need to go home, right now. Do you think we can change our plane tickets and get a flight out tonight?”
He offers me his napkin and puts his hand on mine. “I’ll do whatever you want,” he says. “For me, all of Sarasota seems to be one big reminder of Benjamin.”
I nod, wondering how I could possibly have been looking forward to this trip. Bob never wanted to do it at all. Over the 16 months since Benjamin died, I had been the one who kept saying that we needed to get the trees to Florida, while Bob kept wanting to put it off: next fall, next spring, not now, it’s too expensive, he can’t take the time off from work. Finally I had insisted that April was it, we had to do it now. What drove me? Well, the trees were taller than the ceiling in our house. But more than that, it was knowing that of all of Benjamin’s dreams for the future, this was the only one I could fulfill. I knew it would be hard, but I thought it would be one of the many “hard-but-good” things I had done since my son died, things like visiting his grave for the first time, spending time with his friends, or meeting with his therapist.
“Well, let me see how the rest of today goes,” I told Bob.
“Okay, but if you decide we need to go home, I’m okay with that.”
That night, Benjamin came to me in a dream. Ever since his death, I had been longing to dream about him. For the first year of mourning, I couldn’t even remember what I dreamed, even though I would wake up each morning with the feeling that my mind had been hard at work all night long. Finally, I began to recall my dreams again, but no Benjamin. This time, he came walking over a hill to a place where I was working with some children and greeted me with a big smile. At first I thought, “Oh, we made a mistake, he didn’t die after all.” Then I realized that yes, he had died, and he had just returned for a visit. I held him in my arms, sobbing and smiling at the same time, touching his soft skin and telling him how much I missed him. He was calm and happy, as he walked around with a man who seemed like his mentor, talking about how things here had changed since he died. When it was time for him to go back, I gave him a big hug, and he turned to walk away. Suddenly I called out, “Wait, I forgot to ask you the most important question of all. Will I ever see you again?”
He put his arms around me, smiling, and said in the most reassuring tone, “Of course. You’ll see me in 20 years. We’ll be together again in just 20 years.” To my dream self, this felt like the best news ever. Only 20 years, such a short time, I knew I could get through that. Then he was gone, and I woke up, trying to remember every detail of that luminous dream. That day, and for a long time after that, I felt that something enormous had shifted inside of me. It was as though Benjamin was with me now in a way that felt permanent and unshakeable.
We stayed the rest of the week in Sarasota, and on the day before we left, we planted Benjamin’s trees in Norm and Jan’s front yard. It was a bright Sunday morning with a soft breeze blowing, as we mixed together fertilizer and garden soil, then lifted each tree out of its pot and into its hole in the Florida earth. We packed the garden soil carefully around the roots, watered them thoroughly, and slid the shovel in and out to make sure the soil filled any air pockets. When we were done, Benjamin’s beloved trees stood in a circle, staked against the wind, looking very much at home. Their deep green leaves shone in the sun, sparkling as the breeze shifted them gently back and forth. Three small limes hung off the branches of one, and two lemons on the other. I read a short dedication:
“Just ten days before his death, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked what advice he would give to young people. Among the things he said was this: “Above all, remember that you must build your life as though it were a work of art.”
Benjamin, we are here to plant your beloved citrus trees today because you did live your life in the way Heschel advised. I am sorry to the bottom of my soul that you did not get to live the long life you deserved. But while you were here with us, you lived with passion, curiosity, sensitivity, and courage; you appreciated the beauty of this world and the universe beyond, and you saw the goodness in every person you knew. If that is not a life built as a work of art, I don’t know what is.
The love and care you devoted to these trees was an expression of who you were and what you hoped for the future. Today we honor you by planting your trees here in Sarasota, where you wanted them to be, fulfilling your dream. I would give anything to be able to complete all of your dreams, but that is not to be.
Your trees are home now. May they grow and flourish here for many years to come, and remind us always of the work of art that was your too-short life. We love you, now and forever, more than words can say.”
Bob and I stood holding each other, tears on our faces, and watched as the wind lifted the leaves of Benjamin’s trees. “Home will never be the same without them,” I said. Bob shook his head and looked at the ground.“But this is where they belong now.”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Forest & Kim Starr