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Methuselah

Kerry Feltner


An order came in before the workday ended on Good Friday: 40,000 board feet of pine, a solid choice, Dad said. Enough for hundreds of coffins downstate in the city. He had orders like this before but none at that scale in one call. He was the guy to call for things like this, his company a leader in an industry where trees are made into things people want, which amounts to mostly fancy furniture, doors or windows, but sometimes other things like cedar houses for the Amish, an old schooner owned by General George S. Patton restored in a harbor for posterity, or coffins.


I thought of the irony of the order. All those trees that used to produce oxygen, were killed and cut up into shells of themselves, now serving as physical containers for humans that used to breathe oxygen, humans who had needed it so desperately in their final hours. Humans whose lungs were eviscerated by a novel pandemic named after a crown. What other purpose does a crown serve than to honor? I care less about the shape of a virus—its crown-like protrusions under a microscope—and more about the message its name sends. There is no honor or glory in the coronavirus, or in what any virus does to a person.


I thought of the irony of the 2020 Census when Dad told me about the order. How everyone was supposed to be counted this year but there would be, in the best case scenario, thousands less people, and in the worst case scenario projected by epidemic experts, nearly 2 million less people to count. Stats of a different kind entirely. People die, Dad said softly, busy shuffling papers on his desk when I asked him how he felt about the order. It was one of the best weeks of profits he had seen in the business, one of the best weeks he was responsible for. His numbers were up. The logs that used to be pine trees would be put on a truck, shipped in a few days time after Easter Sunday. I pictured rows of stumps with lines forming rings on their surface, expanding out to their edge like ripples in water. Sawed stumps in a forest somewhere with other trees left standing surrounding them, air where their bodies used to be. Good for business.


I glanced at our pine tree, the dominant skyscraper in our yard’s line of view, then pictured it sideways, branchless and naked along with so many others like it, to be manipulated, chopped and sawed and sanded by the hands of prisoners in the New York State justice system. Normally, they made things like license plates or wooden chairs but soon they would be making coffins for all the sizes of human beings: maybe small ones for babies or children, or lots of medium-sized ones for the elderly whose height had shrunken with age, and taller ones for those who died while still growing, teens or young adults whose bodies were still figuring out their physical borders. Coffins for the petite and the regular and the tall and the plus sizes, for women and men and girls and boys, for every race and for every religion. Coffins for grocery store clerks, food delivery men and women, priests, nurses, first responders, grandparents, grandchildren. Coffins for people no worse or better than me, coffins for people as flawed as me. Coffins for Americans.

——

The average lifespan of an ordinary pine tree is a century or two. But the rare, extraordinary pines know longevity like no other tree. Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine of California’s White Mountains has lived for an estimated 5,000 years, outliving the Methuselah, what used to be known as the oldest documented tree, located in the same region. At 4,848 years old, Methuselah is named after the oldest human being who ever lived—969 years—according to the Old Testament. The tree trunk looks woven like a taffy pull of twisted bark that holds together thin, jagged branches sprouting wide across the base, thin fingers pointing to the sky. The tree is 50 feet tall. The average American man lives for 76.1 years. The average American woman lives for 81.1 years. Rarely, humans live for a century. Hundreds of pine coffins filled with the expired will be put into the earth this spring. Older species hold and bury the young.

——

“Nurses fell like ninepins,” a description of the 1918 pandemic reads. Lately, I have joined many on the Web who are now looking for details on the Spanish Flu, 102 years later, to understand what happened back then. My search is out of boredom, fear, and morbid curiosity. The faces of patients with that flu turned blue before they died, their lungs completely choked out of air from the fluid that drowned each branch of them. The fluid was a river that continued to fill the bronchial crevasses, moving up through the trachea and eventually eddying in a pool in the mouth. I can only find the famous people who survived the Spanish Flu on the internet. Walt Disney, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson were amongst the lucky ones. Wealthy white people can be found in these searches. But I cannot Google all 50 million people who died worldwide, the 675,000 Americans who died. I cannot ask their families how they survived after these deaths, how they kept on living.


I don’t know what dreams the dead had before they died. Who they loved and if they got to ever be in love, something that takes time in a life if it happens at all. I don’t know what the average family did then to cope, what happened when people dying became so top of the mind for people, when death was brought so clearly to the surface of society, a thing that happened in plain sight like a ballgame.


I have never before thought of these unknown dead of the 1918 pandemic and I will forget them soon enough. The motion of the world will start again eventually after this deadly breather, this isolation that causes every person to face something, to face some feeling, some truth instead of distract themselves from it. Those who survive will move on, and move on quickly.


I don’t want nurses to be compared to toppled bowling pins no matter how perfect the analogy. My sister hoists people into beds. She’s there with them while they vomit. She helps them when they need to use the bathroom. She sits with them to keep them company while they try to live and while they watch the Food Network on an old TV. She’s a new nurse, one recently accepted into grad school, hoping that there she will become a better nurse. She hopes that she will get to live her own life again, one not in constant danger with every 12-hour shift. She hopes that she will survive this period. Eight of her patients were hoping the same thing in March before they died, she tells me on the phone.


At home with my new roommates—my parents—a few weeks into isolation, we hear that one of my brothers has the virus, he has tested positive. His co-worker two desks down had it, the one who used to play golf with my brother, eat with my brother, and joke around with my brother. Anxiety levels of the house start to rise. My mother’s breath is shortened into huffs. Catholic prayers are immediately mouthed: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...thy will be done. Florida waited too long to care about this, Mom says, blaming the man she actively hates with everything she’s got: the president. Dedicated hatred and blaming for four years that has made her bitter and brittle. I picture my brother in the Sunshine State, staring out his window at empty beaches and palm trees. I tell him and his wife that I love them on the phone. I try not to think about the fact that this phone call was the first one I’ve made to them in a year. I feel fine, he texts me. I begin to pray each day, one plea over and over again, an internal chant to God: please keep them breathing, please keep them breathing, please keep them breathing.

——

Nearly every room in my parents’ house has a clock. Each second ticks away, a constant metronome that is now the sound of my days. I think about God more now, after a month of forced quiet, forced isolation, forced stillness. I feel guilty I forgot about Lent and I realize that I haven't been in a church in months, or actually years. The churches are all empty now. No bells are ringing. I think about how God’s son died on a cedar, or cypress, or acacia or dogwood tree cross. I like to think it was the dogwood tree that sprouts white flowers. I don’t know why. I think of stories and how they are collected like artifacts but are not exactly proof of reality. Stories are not as clear as objects are, stories cannot be felt with touch, held in a person’s hand like objects can be. I think of how God keeps us all moving through time, how silly strange our time can be but we still live it, we still keep track of it, we are of it. I wonder if the world will really change for good this time, once this is over. I don’t think it will. I think we will forget.


I need a break from the indoors and I walk alone out to my backyard among what’s left of our trees, the ones my parents kept and did not pay to have chopped down. I notice a pile of ashes my mother dumped out, ashes from our woodstove. They make a grey circle on the green grass. I try not to think of human ashes but I do.


On Saturdays, I stay in bed, asking my parents to leave me alone, to give me space. I feel less and less independent, vacillating from feeling like a restless and moody 30-year-old to feeling like I used to at 13 in this house, a restless and moody teenager seeking to be somewhere else. What does selfishness mean in a pandemic? I want my family members to survive like everyone else wants their family members to survive. I want my brother and sister-in-law to be well again, for my sister-in-law to be able to test positive on a pregnancy test one day as they have wanted to, for them to be able to age, and to have lives they have worked so hard to be able to live.

——

I begin to ruminate on the Tree of Life, a tree I first learned about in a stuffy Catholic school classroom. It’s meaning was likely revealed to me by a cartoon God with white hair, as well as an animated Adam and Eve, people in those videos whom I now see as 30-somethings just trying to agree on what to eat for dinner. The connection between the Tree of Life and the meaning of the Eucharist was probably covered in one of the VHS tapes put in by a Sunday school “teacher” but I did not retain the information then. Each week, I, along with other children, would leave the church to the sound of people in the pews singing an odd, melancholic chorus of, “Bless the Children,” like they were sorry to see us go but I knew they were not sorry. We were taken away to learn something about the Bible during the priest’s lengthy homily about the Bible.


I know now that Adam and Eve could have eaten from the Tree of Life. It was one of those trees they had access to in the garden. They were only forbidden to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil. Eating fruit from the Tree of Life would have given them perfect health, immortality, and an overall lack of bodily corruption, which to me, must have included everything from acne to nightmares to paralysis—all the ways a body and mind could surprise and depress a person. Man was originally meant to live forever with perfect skin.


The Tree of Life represents life before sin entered into it, in Christianity, which was a world of true paradise. In it, there was no pain, no pandemics, no death even. It was a world full of bliss and peace and living. A world that I’m finding harder than ever to imagine, to understand, and to believe in.


In Judaism, etz chaim—Tree of Life—is the Torah, the literal text of the religion. It is the words and information that is immortal for Jews, told to Moses on a mountain. He wrote the information down on scrolls and his transcription became the law for living out one’s life according to Yahweh. The tree bore figs, which were symbols of the health of the nation of Israel. When I think of what would symbolize the health of America today, I see an orchard of apple trees, with beautiful red apples hanging off branches, their cores rotting slowly, secretly inside.


It is under a tree that Buddha achieved Enlightenment. Buddhists believe a Bodhi tree—known as the Tree of Awakening—is born as the Buddha was born and in sequence with that birth. One would not exist without the other. It is believed that the Bodhi tree does not die for a long time, specifically a duration of time called a kalpanta, which is a period of time that cannot be measured. Once the tree eventually dies, the world is destroyed by rain, fire, or wind. But the Bodhi tree would be the last thing on earth to be destroyed, as it is sacred, according to Buddhist mythology. The tree’s roots overlap one another, like hair. It grows figs. The last living thing on earth.

——

My brother survived. He did not have any symptoms of the virus. He went back to rollerblading on Miami sidewalks and began counting down the days until the Dolphins played football. So many others died, their bodies betraying them organ by organ, lung by lung. My brother returns to work and we stop talking everyday. We fall into our old pattern of communication. We can remain where we were.


I believe my Hail Mary prayers have been answered. I believe in God. I believe in peace. I believe there is more time for him. For me.

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