I had been searching for a year. Because of the pandemic, despite the pandemic and to heal from the pandemic. Finally in May this year, I was gifted what seemed to have become an impossible task.
I messaged the hospital manager: “The trees have arrived. I’ll come by later in the week to chat about where to plant them.”
“Excellent” was her answer.
We have a garden of remembrance as you enter our hospital. It has two benches, three tall aloes, and a variety of African indigenous lilies. There are two glass walls with stainless steel plaques for anyone to pay homage and remember the departed. One wall has become the COVID-19 memorial.
A few days later, I popped into the manager’s office.
“ Oh hi, Dr. Stathoulis.” She always calls me that. We asked about each other. “Can we do a walkabout to see where to plant the trees?”
“Sure.” She always makes time for me.
We walked into the sun of autumn, a warm day, with the trees huddled in their black plastic uterine bags.
Ziziphus mucronata. The tree of life. That’s what the Zulus call it. umPhafa. If someone dies in the hospital, they bring a branch from the tree of life and reverently capture the spirit to take it home. They even pay for an extra bus seat on the way home. The branch that has captured the soul of the person who has died is tucked into the eaves of the roof of the homestead to rest.
I have a plaque in memory of my father’s passing in 2008 on the first glass wall. It reads in Greek: “Η αιωνιότητα είναι ποιότητα, δεν είναι ποσότητα, αυτό είναι το μεγάλο πολύ απλό μυστικό” from Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek. Translated it means “Eternity lies in the quality, not the quantity; that is the great secret.” When I finished school in 1980, I planted a Ziziphus in the garden of our family home. After my father was buried in Johannesburg, I took a branch from that tree and left it at my grandfather’s house in our village in Greece.
It was difficult to find the trees. I had asked far and wide of nurseries and tree growers and finally, a friend of mine, Jane Bedford, who had trained as a traditional healer with the Zulus, gifted them to me. A few days later, the local nursery found another three small trees for me.
Jane delivered the first three trees as soon as she got them. The thorns tore at her car seats. Her forearms had bright red spots where the thorns had drawn blood.
The tree of life has a straight thorn that points to the future and a curved thorn that connects us to our past. The branch has a zig-zag pattern, much like the path we follow in life.
I had a dream at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was moved by the pain of families who could not visit their loved ones in the hospital. I thought of these trees after my dream and knew I should plant them in our Garden of Remembrance. I finally found them. Rather, they found me. So Rachel, the gardener at the hospital, planted them. Three in a row. The other three small trees were planted in a group a bit further away.
This weekend I mixed some concrete and planted a sign to remember the reason we planted the trees of life.
A sense of peace has descended over me. Now my soul can rest a little easier.
Basil Stathoulis is an orthopaedic surgeon, Netcare Kingsway Hospital, Durban, South Africa. He can be reached at basilBLOGinc and on Instagram @basilartinc.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com