How many of you remember your first taste of heartbreak? By the time we reach the tender age of ten, most of us have experienced some form of loss. My daughter experienced her first big blow when she was five years old. With one discussion, unbeknownst to her, the world as she knew it was flipped upside down. Less than twenty four hours after the decision was announced that our family would no longer remain intact, my little shadow and I boarded a plane on the Garden Island of Kauai—ending our family’s Pacific Islands experiment—heading home to begin the next chapter in our journey together.
Divorce is difficult all the way around. But it’s exceptionally hard on the children who can’t fully understand the changing dynamics in their life. Since that fateful day, I’ve made it my life’s mission to provide love, goodness and stability for my daughter. Everything else is secondary. So when I learned one day last August that Kamiah was about to suffer another loss—her beloved willow tree was going to be ripped down for development—I did what any strong dad would do: I cried.
You all know the feeling. I had been sticking faithfully to my schedule and looming manuscript deadline—on pace to reach my daily word count goal—when I got word of the tree’s doom. I became obsessed. For the next few weeks, saving it was my top priority. Some grown ups think it’s important for little people to go through hard shit so they can “toughen up.” I don’t fall into that camp. There’ll be no shortage of opportunities for our children to be hardened to the realities of life.
I still have flashbacks to that day when I saw my daughter walking across the playground at her new school on a foreign island. It was just one day after she asked me, “Dadda, am I stupid?” So rattled by that question, I went to watch her during her lunch break the next day. When I saw her walking, head down, dragging her sweatshirt behind her, I jumped out of my truck, hustled across the grassy field, snagging my daughter like a loose football, and bee-lined it to the principal’s office to let him know this experiment had run its course and that I was taking my daughter home for good.
ADVOCACY IN ACTION
Now, two years later, those same feelings came rushing back. The tree she had grown to love—the one with Kamiah and her pal’s little fort in it, the one where all the Hungarian partridges had taken shelter the prior winter—was going to be cut down. I didn’t have high hopes that we could stop the destruction, so I decided the best I could do was seize the opportunity to teach my little girl about the importance of standing up for what we believe in, the power of advocacy and our need to be active guardians of our wild world. The “Save Our Tree” campaign began.
We wrote letters. We contacted the media and we crashed city meetings.
But what clearly made the biggest impact was the day the construction workers saw my daughter (wearing the “Tree Warrior” t-shirt I had made for her) dangling from a stout branch of the 100-year old willow above a large sign she had made from a piece of plywood that had served as one of the walls of her fort.
My daughter became an advocate for something bigger than herself during that time. By touching the hearts of the people charged with doing the dastardly deed, she managed to delay the removal of the tree by six weeks.
The night before the tree took its final breath, Kamiah and I shared a potent ceremony. The man who was to remove the tree with the backhoe would do the job he’d been paid to do with a heavy heart. For months, every time we came around the corner after picking her up at school, I would watch Kamiah’s neck stretch as she strained to see if the massive willow was still standing. She always let out a deep sigh when she saw it.
The man with the kind heart kept his promise of making sure she wasn’t home when the tree finally came out. When we returned from school that day there were the tears I’d expected. But there was something else—something totally unexpected, that, unbelievably, brought joy and comfort. The backhoe operator had brought his chainsaw from home that day and after removing the beautiful willow, while Kamiah was still at school, he carved a chair from the big tree’s trunk and burned a huge “K” into the its back. He also cut several rounds for us to use in the yard and six coasters from a tree branch.
The tears that had started as soon as we rounded the bend blended with cries of delight when we pulled in the driveway and saw the woodworker’s masterpiece sitting there next to the front door, waiting for Kamiah, letting her know that her tree would still, in a very powerful way, be present in her life.
Ten months later, just last week, Kamiah and I performed yet another ceremony for a willow tree. So moved by my daughter’s Save Our Tree sign and love for the willow, the developer of the project took us all by surprise when he contacted me stating that he wanted to purchase a new willow for Kamiah to plant as her own.
Overwhelmed with gratitude, we ventured to the nearest nursery where Kamiah picked out her new tree. When it was planted last week, we busted out the medicine bundle, sage and lighter again.
After our prayer concluded, Kamiah and I placed one of the coasters from the old willow in the dirt, resting against the trunk of the new life-breathing member of our neighborhood. With a symbolic pouring of water Kamiah gave our new tree its first drink. And this time, to both of our joy, we shared the ceremony with the newest member of our ohana, my wife Amanda. It was a mana (power) filled moment.
We lost part of our sense of place with the cutting of that cherished tree. But throughout this experience, the lessons learned through the audacity of my daughter’s actions, and the character and heart displayed by a backhoe operator and a developer breathed a sense of hopeful optimism deep inside my little girl and me—one that has strengthened our resiliency individually, and our connection collectively.
~Michael W. Leach