• A Quiet Reply to a Life Cut Short: After a Profound Loss, How to Honor the Dead

    Elisha Cooper on Coming to Terms with What Killed His Brother

    Illustrations by Elisha Cooper

    One year ago my brother was killed by a tree. He was working in the woods near his farm in Virginia, it was an unusually windy day, a tree uprooted and struck him, the man he was working with tried to save him but could not, when the ambulance came he was already dead—all these details told to me in a rush by my brother’s wife when she reached me an hour later, as I stood on the sidewalk, having stepped away from the café in Manhattan where I had been reading a book.

    I drove to Connecticut to tell my elderly parents, to the orchard where my brother and I grew up. When I met them at the door it started to snow—an out-of-season squall—and afterwards I went for a run in the orchard and that evening I drove down to Virginia, to my brother’s farm. I arrived late. Since none of us had yet been vaccinated, I slept in a trailer out by the barn, and at dawn I walked to the main house. My brother’s wife came out to meet me. I knew that seeing me—my body and voice and face so similar to his—must have been unbearable. After we held each other, I spent the morning with her and the children, and in the afternoon, I walked across the road to the tree.

    My brother had been helping a neighbor. They were working with a chain saw and a tractor in a stand of trees next to a black-fenced horse pasture. Some trees lay on the ground, cut neatly, each next to its stump, but one tree lay at an angle to the other trees, its roots exposed where it had reared out of the earth. The tree was smaller than I imagined. The height of a streetlight, maybe. Its top was shattered in brick-sized pieces, one of which had hit my brother’s head. Where they lay, the new spring grass and the old fall leaves were flattened, and there was a spot, about the size of one’s arms held in a circle, that was stained and dark. I knelt in the leaves, then I lay on my back, and I looked up through the intertwining bare branches of the surrounding trees into the sky, and then I drove home.

    As I drove up the interstate, I talked on the phone with my wife and daughters. Then I called friends, and friends who’d heard what had happened called me, and in twenty-minute increments they bore me back to New York, one after another. On my passenger seat I had a piece of the tree, cracked on one side, with green lichen growing on the other. When the lights of Manhattan came into view, I drove in silence and wondered: What was I supposed to do? When the world breaks in two, into before and after, what are any of us supposed to do?

    The first thing I had to do was write my brother’s eulogy. I wrote about our childhood. How we played tag in the orchard, chasing each other from the branches of one apple tree to another. How as we grew he stayed in the country, working with horses, while I gravitated to cities and children’s books. He designed cross-country courses for equestrian three-day-eventing, constructing massive sculptural jumps out of tree trunks with saws and tractors and backhoes. His work took him all over the country. He would call from the road after events in Oregon or Carolina, or from the George Washington Bridge—he couldn’t bring his trailer and tractor into the city—and we’d check in on our lives, our talks ending with a gruff: “Okay. See you.”

    Our relationship was seasonal. And, rural. On his infrequent visits to Manhattan he could be a little unsteady on the sidewalks in his work boots. But on the farm he was at ease, always in motion, moving from chore to chore. In the winter, he slowed a little. He’d retreat to his woodshop, up the hill from the barn he built, and play with wood. I joined him a few days each winter, and over the years we built all the tables and desks and bookshelves in my apartment. Careful and deliberate, he was dismissive of those who were not (that he died in a work accident would have offended his sense of professionalism).

    One of the few times we fought was when he told me, with the judgement of an older brother, that I was rushing some task, and I told him, with the defensiveness of a younger brother, where he could put that judgement. But I took his words to heart—Do one thing well—and the days we spent together revolved around craft, as we turned wood from one thing into another.

    After writing a draft of the eulogy, I drove to the Rockaways and edited it while sitting in the sand. I brought a fragment of the tree—I had sawed the piece I brought home in half, leaving the other piece on my desk—and I threw it out beyond the waves, and the next day I drove to Virginia for his memorial and gave the eulogy in front of his family and friends. As I drove home with my own family, we told stories about my brother—his many Jeeps, his perpetual farmer’s tan, his life outdoors working with trees—and I had the seed of an idea.

    Our extended family owns a summer house in Connecticut, a shingled cottage on Long Island Sound. My brother and I owned a third of it—the outdoors belonged to him, we said, and I owned the outdoor shower. A wide front porch, shaded by oak trees, looks across a meadow to marshes and the Sound. Out back there’s a rough lawn with crabapple and pear trees, then a tangle of underbrush and woods separating us from neighbors. In the month after my brother’s death, our uncle inexplicably clear-cut the entire underbrush, leaving an exposed dirt wasteland. My brother and I shared a mutual exasperation with this uncle, because of a history of blunders like this, but after I learned what happened it seemed like an opportunity. My seed of an idea was given soil, and I sketched a plan.

    I drove to Connecticut with two friends, stopping at a nursery on the way. One of my friends is a bookstore owner, the other a woodworker. The woodworker brought his hatchet. We first cleaned the mess left by the clear-cutting, a tangle of vines and a few dead trees which we cut and dragged to the brush pile (that we were cutting down trees was lost on none of us).

    After raking the ground smooth, two of us spread our arms wide and pretended to be trees while the other directed us to the right and the left. There, no there. Then we dug. The ground was hard, knotted with roots. It was a chilly day but soon we peeled out of our sweatshirts. We dug with the skill of people who work in books, but eventually we dug holes and carted out the apple trees I’d gotten at the nursery—Liberty and Cortland saplings with small pink buds—and lowered them into the ground. Shoveled soil around their trunks, tamped that down, watered everything. We didn’t know what we were doing exactly, but after two days we stood dirty and spent, looking at two rows of apple trees with a clearing in the center, the beginnings of an orchard.

    Spring warmed to summer and there was a heady feeling back in the city, as people got their vaccinations, that the world was opening up. Everything was going to be better. This blossoming coincided with the winding down of condolence letters and phone calls, which was a relief to me as people understandably didn’t know what to say. So as the world moved forward, I drove down to Virginia to be with my brother’s family. The farm was very quiet. I went for runs with his son; I talked with his daughter about her college plans; I played with his dog. I walked across the road to see the tree but it had been removed and the grass had grown, and I turned around and went to his woodshop.

    The woodshop was as he’d left it. On his workbench were scraps of paper with his notes, a rectangular drafting pencil, a folded knife. Scattered around the shop were circular saws, drills, lathes, and one of his Jeeps parked in the center (he’d been tinkering with the engine). When I was here for the memorial I noticed the project he’d been working on: turning wooden bowls and mallets on the lathe. Some finished, some not. My plan was to complete and give them to our relatives and his friends. I was unsure how to operate the lathe, so I improvised with a saw and sander, trying to guess what his hands had intended.

    As I was finishing the last mallet, his wife joined me, and we leaned against his workbench and talked through the afternoon. Their life before, her life now. What happened that morning. If he heard the tree fall, if he suffered. If the tree had fallen just one foot to the right. How the farm was filled by both his presence and his absence—in the woodshop corner, the crushed chainsaw he’d been holding, on the front seat of the Jeep, the box with his ashes.

    When I returned to the city, I fell into my routine of biking to cafés and sketching out my books, but I found it hard focusing on sentences and art, and my mind drifted to the apple trees we had planted. I drove up to the house on the Sound. I noticed how the saplings had grown—shoots fingering upward, leaves expanding, a few apples even. Every few weeks I came to take care of the trees. Watering, mulching, installing deer fencing. Weeding around stones in the clearing. My neck was sunburned at day’s end, hands and knees caked with mud, and I’d swim in the Sound to wash off.

    Then as summer turned to fall, and my daughters started school and my wife started her teaching, I kept coming to the small orchard. I knew I had to prune the saplings. I called my parents, and they met me. As they walked out back they looked noticeably smaller, bent down by this year. While they directed my hands, I clipped the branches, giving each tree its future shape. We ate lunch on the porch, talking about how this place looked when we were boys, and then my parents left.

    I stayed to shut the house down for the winter. Stacking firewood, mending doors, cutting back the oak trees, draining hoses. At night I read by the fireplace. For one day I saw no one. As I was walking up through the meadow after a run, I thought of the chores that still needed to be done and realized I was talking to myself.

    Last year, I met my brother here to prune the trees and shut down the house. He drove up from Virginia, I drove from New York. When I pulled up, his truck was already parked. I made us coffee, then we got to work. We started with the oak trees, looking up at their branches and deciding which ones we should remove to open the view of the Sound. My brother stood with his chainsaw slung casually at his hip, like someone else might hold a coffee mug. He climbed into a tree. I stood below, dragging the cut branches to the brush pile.

    As we moved from tree to tree, we talked about friends, travel, his achy knee, our talk interrupted by the roar of his saw, so that we had to pick up sentences where we had dropped them a minute before. Our shadows lengthened, the sun dipped to the marsh, and as I was coming back from the brush pile the sun’s last light caught my brother in a tree and seemed to set him on fire. We worked until dark, before washing off in the water then dinner standing by the stove where we talked about what we should build next—maybe a table next to the couch, with a small shelf for a book —sketching out plans on scraps of paper.

    This last idea brought me that winter down to Virginia. I found him in the barn loft, standing among stacks of cherry, pear, and walnut. We decided on walnut. The woodshop was cold so we lit a fire in the wood-burning stove. Then we slid the walnut boards, one of us on each end, through the chattering plane until each was level. He cut pieces, I sanded them. The woodshop warmed, sawdust hung in shafts of light slanting through the windows and over a Jeep. Then coffee, and back. An errand to the hardware store, and back. I fed more wood into the stove. He’d eye me over his reading glasses and gesture at a tool he needed, frowning as he worked, a frown I recognize in myself when I write or paint. Sometimes I just watched him, an artist at work.

    There’s a moment with tables, since they’re built upside down, when you turn them over and the idea becomes the thing itself. My brother and I stood for a few minutes looking at what we had made. Then we packed the table in the trunk of my car, and he wrapped blankets around it to keep it safe. And he said—though I couldn’t know it at the time—the last words he ever spoke to me, before heading back to his shop: “Okay. See you soon.”

    How do we honor the dead? With what words and stories and stones? How do we carry them around with us? Their voices, their places, the things they touched. How do we keep close the ones we loved, commune with them somehow, so that though they’re not here, they’re not not here. Allow them space. Give them something to do.

    I wish I knew the answer to these questions. Instead, I visit my parents often, as their only child now. I talk with my brother’s wife on the phone at night. I help his daughter with her college essays and celebrate her admission. I cook dinner with my family and watch my daughters grow. I swim with friends out at the Rockaways, whose cold winter waters leave me breathless. And I make plans: bring one of his Jeeps north, get wood from his loft and build chairs, put another coat of oil on that walnut table. And I keep asking. Reaching for one word, a few words strung together, a story that can describe him and make sense of what happened. Maybe not having an answer is its own answer, as I am sure I will be asking these same questions when I am an old man, reaching for words then as I do now, in this, my year of planting.

    Last week, I drove up to the house on the Sound to see how the apple trees were doing, how they made it through the winter. They seemed well, their small branches growing upward. I noticed what still needs doing. The grass around the stones will need weeding, and I will drill a small bronze plate into one of the stones: James Tremaine Cooper 1968-2021. It’s a peaceful place, a quiet reply to a life cut short.

    As I stood there in the clearing, I found myself checking in with him, asking him things, questions that were both practical and impossible: Where do I plant next? Should I cut this branch, or this one? What should I do with this tree, and that tree? Where are you?

    Back in Manhattan, as I bike these city streets or write in our home surrounded by tables we built, I try to keep him close so that he may answer: Do one thing well. Slow down, it’s okay. Cut there, and here.

    Oh, these words, these fragments of sentences. Maybe it’s more like a motion, an unspoken nod to his younger brother, that slips down into my heart and through my fingers as they type this essay at this wood desk, watched over by a piece of the tree that killed him.

    Elisha Cooper
    Elisha Cooper
    Elisha Cooper is the award-winning author of Big Cat, Little Cat, a Caldecott Honor Book, and River, Train, Farm, Beach, and many other children’s books. He’s also written memoirs about his family, and essays and sketchbooks for the sports section of The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughters.

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