Earlier this summer, my mom had been mowing the lawn—zipping along on the garden tractor as if she were still on the farm. My dad, who has Alzheimer’s, was on the deck. The peonies were poking through the deck rails and he was picking them off, thinking they didn’t belong there.
Mom finished the mowing, parked the lawn mower in the garage, and checked on Dad. He wasn’t on the deck anymore, but she figured he was close by. Crumpled peonies littered the kitchen floor.
Dad wasn’t close by. He’d wandered down to the end of the street, and man named Vern Hooge had seen him and gone outside to see if he could help. Vern was in his mid-80s, and even though he lived fairly close to my parents, they’d never met. Dad could tell Vern his name, but not where he lived. So Vern contacted the police, found out where Dad belonged, and brought him home just as Mom realized that Dad really was missing.
Mom thanked Vern profusely, called him an angel, and asked him to come over for coffee sometime.
A couple of weeks went by. Mom’s days as a caregiver were full and tiring. But she kept thinking about her invitation to Vern, and one day she made herself ignore the dusting and sweeping and she picked up the phone and called him. And what an enthusiastic response she got: “I’ll be right over!” said Vern.
In a few minutes they were chatting over cake and fresh raspberries. Vern offered to come over and watch Dad once in a while if my mom needed to go out. By the time Vern left, Mom’s burden seemed a little lighter. A neighbor was becoming a friend.
Less than two weeks later, Vern died unexpectedly from complications of surgery. And my mom was so thankful that she’d made that call—and so glad that Vern had accepted her invitation so readily. A relationship had started and ended in that one afternoon. One pleasant, neighborly, hopeful afternoon.
I had moved to St. Louis Park just a few weeks earlier, so every dog walk yielded new discoveries. That afternoon, I ended up on a path between some tennis courts and an apartment building. In the distance I noticed a tree that seemed to be sparkling. When I got closer, I found that the tree was covered in garlands of beads. It was bedecked, festooned. It was gorgeous.
Who had decorated the tree? And why? I took out my phone and took a few pictures. I wanted to remember this.
That night, at my hotel, I added a picture of the tree to my PowerPoint. It was a perfect example of something I wanted to share with the kids: that stories are everywhere. (And that you should always take the time to walk your dog on a beautiful spring day, no matter what.)
The kids liked the beaded tree. But I never got the chance to tell them this: A couple of weeks later, Dorie and I walked that same route. And the tree was gone.
At first I thought I had gotten the location wrong—that it was behind a different apartment building. I walked this way and that, hoping a glisten would catch my eye. When I got home, I checked the background of my photo. The tree was indeed gone.
I still don’t know who decorated the tree. But I have a pretty good idea of why.
This picture has been the log-in screen on my computer for months. I see it nearly every day. Now, though, the beaded tree makes me think of my parents’ neighbor. A gift of kindness shimmering in the sunlight…then gone.
But oh, the joy in having seen it.