While visiting over Thanksgiving, my mother spotted the perfect Christmas tree at a nursery near our home on Bainbridge Island in Washington.
“Oh, look at this tree!” she exclaimed, holding it out for me to see. “I wish I could take it home.”
It was indeed perfect — a noble fir with branches ideally spaced for hanging ornaments, a pin-straight branch at the top stretching skyward for a star, its fresh, woodsy fragrance hanging in the misty November air.
Since it wasn’t practical for my parents to transport the tree home with them to British Columbia, I bought it for our house instead. My parents went home a few days later and pulled up their driveway to find 15 small potted plants festively decorated with ornaments and lights — and a lone noble fir tree — waiting for them on their front walk.
The tree was about 4 feet tall, in a dirt-smudged black plastic pot. There was no mystery who was behind the surprise delivery. It was my late brother’s best friend, Kevin, who manages a nursery and often brings my mother flowers and plants for her garden. It was a tender gesture — Darryl died just before Thanksgiving five years ago, and Kevin knew the holidays had become a bittersweet time for my parents.
Kevin and Darryl met through a mutual friend when they were around 15. They hit it off right away and got into a fair amount of mostly harmless trouble together. They’d drive around in Darryl’s black Trans Am, going to parties and taking weekend trips to the beaches in B.C.’s Okanagan region.
Their friendship was cemented one day not long after they met, when they were waiting at a bus stop and a group of three boys, overhearing Kevin speaking with the stutter that he mostly overcame in adulthood, began picking on him.
Infuriated, Kevin started throwing punches. Darryl jumped in to help, though Kevin told him not to — this is my fight, he said — and they both got badly trounced.
“From then on, I knew he was a good friend,” Kevin said.
Kevin became a regular fixture at our house, joining us for birthday parties, family dinners and summer vacations. Their lives eventually diverged —Darryl got married, moved across the country to Nova Scotia and had two daughters, while Kevin remained in B.C. and had a family of his own. But they remained close, talking on the phone weekly. Kevin and Darryl each had two younger sisters, but neither had a biological brother. They became part of each other’s chosen family.
Darryl was diagnosed in 2012 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a fatal neurogenerative disease that destroys muscles and inevitably causes paralysis, then death. When Darryl died of ALS in November 2016 at 52, Kevin was as devastated and bereft as the rest of us. For a couple of years, he avoided visiting my parents; it was just too painful. Eventually, as the loss receded to a dull ache we all learned to live with, Kevin started coming around again. He’d stop by for coffee, and my parents would occasionally offer to babysit Kevin and his wife’s two young children to give them a break.
An avid gardener, my mother would arrive home to find hanging baskets overflowing with colorful blooms or pots of geraniums, her favorite, lined up outside the front door. There was always a delivery and a visit for Mother’s Day — herb baskets filled with chives and thyme, black-eyed Susans with orange and yellow blossoms, marigolds and petunias and creeping ivy.
The noble fir, however, was puzzling. It was clearly a one-off, and Kevin never brought just one plant. It didn’t look like it had come from the nursery where he worked. My mother called Kevin to thank him and asked about the tree.
Five months after Darryl died, we had gathered on a sunny April day in a cemetery not far from my parents’ house to put Darryl’s ashes in a memorial wall next to our grandmother’s. At one point, Kevin walked away from the group to have a cigarette and noticed a tree cone lying on the ground. Preoccupied with the day’s events, he absently picked it up, tucked it in his pocket and forgot about it.
A few days later, Kevin was wearing the same jacket at work and pulled the cone out. He asked an arborist buddy about it and discovered it was from a noble fir, a subalpine tree found throughout the Pacific Northwest. The word noble immediately made him think of Darryl — how brave he was, how he faced an unfathomably cruel and fatal disease without ever once complaining. Not when ALS robbed him of his ability to run, then walk. Not when he could no longer feed or bathe himself. When he was finally confined to wheelchair, his voice becoming weaker every month, still Darryl did not complain.
Kevin looked at the cone in his hand. Darryl’s life was gone, he thought, but maybe he could start a new life from this small, scaly object. He extracted a couple of dozen seeds from the cone and soaked them until they sprouted roots, then transplanted the tiny starts into one-inch cells he kept in a greenhouse at the nursery. He put them under artificial lights, fussing over them and coaxing them to grow.
Half a dozen of the shoots took off, and Kevin replanted them in soil when they got big enough. Over the next few years, all but one of the plants died. Kevin nursed the lone survivor along, saying nothing to my parents about the little tree. He’d often talk to it — it somehow made him feel closer to Darryl. Occasionally his boss would walk by, overhear Kevin and gently tease him.
“You spend a lot of time with that thing,” Ed would say. “People are going to wonder.”
“It’s Darryl,” Kevin told him.
As Thanksgiving and the five-year anniversary of Darryl’s death approached this year, Kevin decided it was time to give the tree to my parents. Darryl had asked Kevin to watch out for them after he was gone, and though Kevin didn’t want to have that conversation, couldn’t bear to think about Darryl no longer being around, he promised he would. As a parent himself, Kevin couldn’t imagine losing a child, even an adult one, and he worried about my mother and father.
His occasional deliveries of plants and flowers were, I understood, Kevin’s way of letting my parents know he was thinking about them, that he loved my brother and was still part of our family. He thinks about Darryl every day, he told me recently, about their shared adventures and Darryl’s insistence, even before he got sick, of making the most of every day.
Later, as ALS was slowly shutting his body down, Darryl would often quote an expression from Muhammad Ali: Don’t count the days; make the days count.
“He taught me that — to live every day like it’s your last,” Kevin said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime friendship. I feel very fortunate that I was able to call him a friend.”
The Darryl tree is now on my parents’ front porch, decorated with warm white globe lights and shiny red ornaments. My mother is thinking about where on their property to replant it. Each time she looks at it, it will be a symbol of hope, a reminder of her only son, who was born prematurely — weighing just 2 pounds and 13 ounces — and was never expected to live. Instead, he was here for 52 years, and my mother is grateful for that time. That tree, and how it came to be, will be a reminder that the people we love never really leave us.
In the end, my mother got her perfect tree.