In the midst of a fierce, Southern summer storm, I saw the old, gnarled oak tree. All around it, the other trees—the younger ones—had given up their leaves and limbs, bowed to the irresistible power of the wind, and now lay broken and scattered on the ground.
And there, still, stood the old oak. It watched the others die. It cried, it creaked, it bent to the ground, groaning in the wind. Then, slowly, it struggled upright again, proudly and fiercely, unwilling to yield. It fought. It held its form until it could hold no more. Again, it strained against the mighty wind, bending low and sweeping the ground, caressing its fallen comrades. And then, once more, it groaned and rose as if to say, “I will not go until I say it’s time to go.”
Finally, when it could fight no more, it fell. And when it went, it did not screech and scream like the saplings and the pines and the willows. It descended slowly, gracefully, deliberately, as if to say, “Now, I am ready.” And as it fell, it remembered when it was a sapling, the first autumn and the proud glory of its burnished leaves, and then the winter snows it endured. It recalled the spring, when it burst to life again, and the countless years it had repeated this cycle of birth and loss and rebirth. As the old oak embraced its glorious, graceful, slow fall to death, it remembered growing older and how it got harder each year to stand tall against the wind.
And when, finally, it surrendered, it fell not with a snap, like the saplings. Not with a whine, like the pine trees. Not with a groan like the others. Instead, in its slow descent to death, it sang. A symphony of passing—the quiet whisper of its leaves, the sweeping rustle of its branches, the subtle tearing of its aged roots—the majestic music of a proud death. And when at last it fell completely, it was with a kiss to the skies and a quiet, slow, graceful whisper, on its own terms, not those of the earth, or of the wind, or of man.
When its song was done, there was quiet, only quiet. And there, where it once reigned proudly and invincible, only a gaping hole, a wound in the earth, remained. A passing traveler might look sadly at the great beast, now beaten, rotting on the land. But somewhere in the deep recesses of that magical fallen trunk, I think the old tree smiled, knowing it was not yet done.
For soon the winter snows would come and melt, and the sun would warm, and in that great hole in the earth that once held the mighty oak, a tiny, fragile sapling would spring forth, a child of the great tree, and so begin its journey of spring, and fall, and summer, and winter, and someday its own lovely, sad, graceful song of death. And I watched all of this from my car window, sitting beside a country road on a stormy July afternoon, and marveled at what I had just learned.
This story came to me one day after some of my lawyer pals were asking me about working for nursing homes and “old folks.” They kept asking me why I liked this area of the law so much. It bothered me that I couldn’t explain, in human terms, why I’ve spent 27 years doing what I do. While I was driving home that day, the wind kicked up. I pulled off the road in my car and watched one of those late July, butt-kickin’ wind storms. I watched the trees fall, and the leaves and road trash fly, and I saw this really old, huge oak tree. And I watched it and watched it, knowing it would fall. And then I saw this story unfold. It was a good day.
Now, when I am asked that question, I talk about the old tree I saw fall in a windstorm. And when I go to clients’ nursing homes, I always stop and look, really look, at the old folks who live there. And I think of them as strong, graceful old oak trees. I don’t really see their withered hands, their thinning hair, and their confused minds. Instead I see their leaves, and their springs, their summers and winters. And I hope that they, and I, and you, will fall in our time like the mighty oak—proud, singing, quiet, and graceful, and that we will leave just one young sapling in our wake to tell this story to someone else.