That Last Time

I’ve been sitting on the porch listening to 60s hits to drown out the sound of the neighbors barking orders at each other as they build a fence. Two weeks ago, they cut down all the east facing trees that lined their driveway, sending the red-mohawked Downy and orange-winged Flickers and a holy host of goldfinches in search of new abodes. All this during nesting season. I liked to have died when I realized what they were doing.

They are the sort of people who seem to have no regard for others. Ever since they moved into the neighborhood, chaos has reigned supreme. They bought the two acres for nearly a quarter-of-million which is a steal of a deal in this neck of the woods. Then they proceeded to cut down those woods.

They have a tractor, and whoever the man is, he is always screeching at either his wife or his grown sons that they need to turn it this way or that way or back up or watch out. I expect it won’t be long before one or the other of them is a Dateline special.

Our porch used to be a quiet reserve. A place to sit and contemplate. Nature’s sanctuary. The birds, what’s left of them, still congregate here. But now I have to drown out the sounds of motors running and trees falling and curse words with my Bose speaker and Sam Bush, CCR, or The Youngbloods. The birds seem to enjoy it, although, the irony of trying to get together and love one another right now isn’t lost on me.

Minutes ago four police cars went speeding by, sirens blasting. I don’t know if there is a crazed shooter at Eagle Crest resort, or more likely, a horrible car wreck west of here. My dear friend, The Redhead, always prayed whenever she heard a siren. I’m not as faithful about it as she is, but I did stop and pray today because those sirens made it clear that whatever is happening is very bad news for someone’s loved ones.

I’ve been pondering last times lately, about how we rarely recognize the last time until it’s shot past us. Oh, I mean there are significant moments that we commemorate and recognize as the last time: Graduations and funerals come to mind.  When we move, we recognize that it will be the last time sleeping in that house or apartment. When our kids were little and we moved from one house to another, we would always pick a spot under the stairs or in a closet where we would write love notes to the home that sheltered us and good wishes for it’s new inhabitants.

But there are all these little moments in life we don’t recognize as last times. Right now my granddaughter throws up her hands in glee when she sees me and screams, “Mimi!” I’m lucky if her brother offers me a half-hearted hug.

I can’t remember the last time I went out to lunch with a friend. Whenever it was, I didn’t realize at the time that it would be our last lunch for a long, long time. I had no idea a pandemic would steal so much from our future.

I remember the last fight I had with Mama (I wanted to go to a local art museum. She wanted to sit in a smoke-filled room and smoke some more) but I can’t remember the last time we had a really fun day together, a day when she was healthy. I remember my father waking me up to tell me goodbye the morning he returned to Vietnam in May of 1966, but I don’t recall what we did in those last carefree days before any of us had ever heard of Vietnam.

I can remember a hundred phone calls in which I laughed and laughed with girlfriends over the latest antics of our husbands, or our children, or our in-laws, or someone in church, but I don’t recall that last phone call any of us shared, or exactly why those phone calls ceased. I just know that one imperceptible day the laughter and phone calls stopped after 40 some years of such phone calls.

One day your child asks for help putting on their shoes and then one ordinary day they do it for themselves. One day you are chasing a bullfrog that got loose from the gallon jar the 3rd-grade classroom kept him in. Little did you know that would be the last bullfrog you’d ever chase. Would you have enjoyed it more had you known?

One day you are standing in front of the Eiffel Tower trying to get the best angle for a photo while fighting wind-blown hair, and the next you are wondering how you’ll ever fly to Paris again, given the number of violent outbursts directed at airline employees, and yes, other passengers.

One day you are throwing the tennis ball for your lab to chase, and the next week the lab you have loved for a long time has no idea who you are. Had we stayed at the park longer, would she have stayed healthy?

One day you are screaming and picking leeches off your toes after sliding down the wet rocks with your youth group without the hint of recognition that this would be your last trip to Flat Rock. Or that particular pleasure would be something your own children would never experience.

One day you sit outside Jackson’s Corner sharing a latte and a molasses cookie with your daughter completely unaware that your favorite eatery would be gone the next time you came to town.

One day you pick up a broom and join your cousin in sweeping the crunchy cicada carcasses off your Nashville aunt’s back porch and 17 years would pass before they’d return, or the extended family would gather again.

One day you open up a ballot and your voter’s pamphlet and mark all those who you think will serve your community and country best. You sign the envelop and drop it in the box at the library, as you have done for decades now. And the next day you are learning about all the ways Republicans are working to ensure that fewer people vote because it’s the only way white racists can stay in power. And you wonder: Will voting in this country ever be free again? Or did your father sacrifice his life for absolutely nothing? For his own countrymen to rob US citizens of their right to vote?  Will we know when it is our last free and fair election? Or did that pass us by already?

One day you drive past a row of trees, admiring their expanse, wondering about all the winter storms they have withstood, admiring the shade they provide in summer, never knowing the next time you drove by the same address,  the land would be barren, void of even a stump to sit upon.

Had you known it would be their last day, would you have run over a copy of Mary Oliver’s poem to the neighbors? Would it have mattered? Do people who cut down trees ever contemplate the value of trees? Do those who rob others of their right to vote ever contemplate what the US will be like once they destroy our Democratic way of life? Do such people ever think about trees as homes for the birds, or America as the land of the brave and free people of all colors?

Do such people ever walk through the woods slowly, bowing often?

When I am among the trees – Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”


Karen Spears Zacharias is author After the Flag Has Been Folded (William Morrow).


Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


Marian Carcache

about 2 years ago



about 2 years ago

So wonderful and thought provoking, thank you.


AF Roger

about 2 years ago

This spring, I had to cut down two young Douglas firs in our back yard. They could not stay where they were beneath an older sunburst locust tree. I came back to the house weeping and my wife asked why. I said, "Because they had more right to be here than we do." Last year, I was able to dig up a tiny Douglas fir from beneath our blueberry bush. I transplanted it to the alley next to the stump of its 120-foot mother that the city took down three years ago. I wasn't supposed to do that, but the city hasn't otherwise maintained the property in over 40 years. The little tree is happy next to the remnants of Mom, and more of her underground than we could ever see. She has tripled in size. Also this spring, I dug up a Douglas fir seedling from beneath a rose bush in a border. She could not stay there either, but she is happy in a corner of the schoolyard that never gets maintained unless I do it. After the heat wave passes, I will go clear away some invasive ivy again. I will make a home for that tree as best I can. Up the hill from us in a newer development, the neighbors all went on a craze of topping their deciduous trees, all nice sized ones. They amputated every limb of character in sight--in a drought year that will outdo the last one. I think, "If you wanted shrubs instead of trees, why didn't you plant shrubs instead?" I don't understand. Years ago, I saw a sign in a car window that made sense. It said, "if trees could scream, no one would ever sleep peacefully again." Our area was once explored by Lewis and Clark. It now seems to be occupied by Lewis and Clueless...


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