Driving near downtown Athens one clear winter morning in late 2014, Eli and I had dropped the other kids at school and headed to get a biscuit at the Jiffy’s convenient store on Market Street. We liked the people best at the Jiffy’s on Highway 31, but we liked the biscuits best on Market Street. Biscuits trump people almost every time, so the trip across town was justified.
As we bounced over the railroad track crossing at Hobbs Street, aggravating each other about this or that, my glance caught an interesting site. A little tree was growing out of a rusty tin rooftop. Weird.
I quickly turned onto the little side road that ran between the building and the railroad, and stopped to point it out for Eli to see. He gave a smirk with a “yeah, I see it,” then I filed it away in the back of my mind, thinking I might need a funny little introduction paragraph for blog post some time.
|The tree in 2015.|
But if the scale in my bathroom wasn’t a sign of how often I was going across town to get biscuits, then how often Eli and I saw that little tree was, and it stayed on my mind often. Probably not more than two or three feet tall at the time, all by itself, growing in a situation that was not normal for a tree. Eli and I would pass by, and each time he would say “It’s still there.” And, I would say, “Yep, but it can’t last long like that. It will probably be gone the next time we come by.” We did this for a while (even up until a few months ago), and he would always say “It’s still there.” And, I’d always reply. We even started taking the other kids to see it.
By then the Lads to Leaders convention dates were approaching. Lads to Leaders is a youth
convention where kids can participate in Bible-based events that teach them skills that are useful in worship leadership, personal evangelism, and study habits. Eli was signed up to participate in the speech category for his age group. Though Eli was not one to volunteer to speak in front of a group… or really, even speak to a single person, he was always agreeable to do most things, especially if he did not know he had a choice - just a little momtactic I have always used with all my kids. The theme was “One”. That’s it, pretty broad. So, when Eli and I sat down to talk about his speech, I reminded him of the “one” little tree. We talked about what impact “one” could have, and what purpose “one” could have. After a few discussions with him, I started writing what is his “Roof Tree” speech.
|The tree before removal in 2017.|
Now, surely this is not a shock to anyone that I wrote the speech. That’s not to say that Eli and I didn’t talk about the tree, and what I was writing, so that he understood what he was saying in it. But, as a child with a mild, passive temperament, and shallow understanding, Eli could not fully comprehend, and certainly not conclude on his own, the opportunity that God was shaping out of his situation. Nor could he truly see the adversary beyond cancer. For me, I saw (and see) evil’s face plainly, and determined that it was my job to wield the weapons given us to fight it. I saw Eli as a weapon, I saw Eli as a messenger, I saw Eli as a beacon of hope. What he, as a child, endured, and how he, as a child, endured, resonated generally with so many others that suffer their own tragedies and hardships. So, when I finally admitted to myself that Eli was not mine, and that he was an individual soul on loan to me during his pilgrimage, purposefully created for his own part to play in God’s plan of salvation (which is ultimately that all should decide to be saved 2 Timothy 2:4), I wanted to help Eli - whether he consciously knew it or not - take advantage of the opportunities given to us in striking a blow against evil. The only way I knew how to do that was to write for him, and write about him, and lift up his light to expose the evil. “The Roof Tree” speech was one of those efforts, one of those times that I drew my sword.
Writing for Eli was, as you would expect, challenging from several angles. One is that he was a kid talking to and relating a mature idea to adults. So, because he was a kid, I had to write using simple words that he could speak, and that he, himself, could mostly understand at least on the surface. But, also, so that he could be understood by the audience - he did have a common childhood speech impediment, like saying his “R’s” and “L’s”, and he had a small voice. So, as a kid speaking, and as Eli speaking, the vernacular and the main idea had to be natural for him. But, within that simplicity of his speeches, still be able to express a deep and complex idea that would touch the hearts and minds of the adults. So, there are places in his speeches that I would have liked to have used different wording, or I would have liked to have written more, or expounded more, but I had to stay within the limitations… no… I had to stay within the character of Eli as speaker or it just simply would not be as powerful.
Another difficult angle was that Eli was dying. For me, this could not be ignored in his addresses if we were to be effective in shedding a light on evil. I used words like “terminal” and “palliative” or he just simply would say “there is no acceptable treatment,” so that Eli as the messenger had some validity and weight behind his message, but also so that he as little Eli was not scared about what was happening to him. He never questioned any of this, not one time was curious what any of it meant. Not even in his last days did he ever look or seem concerned or distressed about his situation. Something about that complaisant nature in him was so beautiful, and so necessary for him to be able to do the things he did - in his treatment, definitely, but also in this, spreading a message of hope and encouragement to adults. I think, particularly in delivering “The Roof Tree,” knowing that fact about him is necessary for the audience because it provides the imminence for the message.
“The Roof Tree” is also special to me because it has one of my favorite persons from history in it - Mordecai. And it’s on his words that the speech is based. There is not a cancer mom out there worth her stretch marks that would not have eagerly taken her child’s place in his or her cancer journey. I have said before that I wished the cancer could come out of him like a Lion, so that I could put my hands on it, and fight it myself. But, they have to do it. It is their “cross” to bear in an evil world. We love them, encourage them, support them, do anything and everything we can for them, but fight it for them. Similarly, Mordecai, who had adopted Esther as his own daughter, could only advise her and support her in her own situation. He helped her see the big picture, and encouraged her so that she was able to reach the potential of her purpose. And, that is why I just love the verse that we used on the scripture stone that Pimento’s was selling for us, Esther 4:14, where Mordecai says, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” That’s the big picture. As Bible believers, we trust that God means what he says. He uses Paul, in his letters to the Romans, to tell Christians “that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose,” chapter 8 and verse 28. So, I have always felt like it was my job to encourage Eli in situations that might help others, and even create opportunities where he might could help others with his message. Sometimes, he would’t want to, and I would tell him how important it was that he be the one to do it. That Vic or me could say the very same speech, and it wouldn’t have near the impact that it does when it comes from him. So, I don’t want to build Eli up into something he was not, because he would have been just fine to never get in front of any audience, or ever deliver any gifts to hospitals, or write any letters to other cancer kids. So, I just felt like I had to be Mordecai and push him a little bit in order for him to reach the potential of his purpose.
So, that is mostly the story behind the creation of “The Roof Tree”. About a year ago, a friend contacted me that she knew the owner of the building with the “Roof Tree” (I’ll do “The Roof Tree: Bloom Where you are Planted” t-shirts in the spring maybe), and that they were getting ready to raze the building. So, I talked with somebody, who I think now might have been the contractor that was doing the demolition, about getting the tree. We talked several times, kept trying to get it arranged, then he said demo had been halted. He stopped returning my calls, and Eli’s situation got wild, so I just dropped it all. Then a couple of weeks after Eli passed, a guy messaged me and said something like, “Hey, I’m Tom Newton, the new owner of the building with the ‘Roof Tree’. I heard about Eli, and I want to get the tree down safely for you.” I was ecstatic to hear from him, and so happy that he already knew at least most of the story, and was sympathetic to it. He is going to be remodeling the building, and putting in a restaurant. He arranged with Martin and Cobey Construction to come work with the Limestone County Coop Extension to rescue the tree. Martin and Coby donated the equipment, and sent Joe Green out for the job. Chris Becker, horticulture specialist with the Extension office, joined Joe for the morning, along with Melanie Newton, Tom’s wife, who is a Master Gardner. I brought the kids along for a little while, and my sister came, and a few other friends from school came out to watch some of the removal. Melissa Green, Bonny Black, and Jackie Metcalf took a bunch of pictures for me, and Jerry with Happy Frog Photography took pictures and recorded some video.
It was an incredible morning, and the removal wasn’t easy. The pine tree had grown so much over the last several years, and another tree was growing along with it with roots stretching along the inside of the wall. Those guys took great care in their work to rescue the trees. They were so gentle, and diligent in chipping away around the roots to give the trees the best chance at surviving the rescue.
Chris and Joe did not know Eli’s story, or why they were there to rescue a pine tree, of all things (not knowing at this time that there was a second tree). Chris seemed to be enjoying the challenge. He said that he has rescued many trees, but never one from a roof. Not knowing Eli, or the situation, we asked him about trees growing on a roof. He said, “Well, the pine tree is a pretty simple tree. It can do what it needs to do, it doesn’t require much. But do understand that this tree is just surviving, it is not thriving in the situation it found itself in on a roof, but its getting enough of what it needs to exist for a while.” I just thought to myself, are you sure you didn’t know Eli.
From the ground, we could see there was probably a second tree growing along with the pine, but it just looked like two sticks. So, it was hard to see if it was growing, or if sticks were just caught up in rubble surrounding the pine. The pine tree’s root system was very shallow, as would be expected, and the pine was also burnt or charred for some reason, and covered in ants. The needles were already turning brown at the base, and a little yellow, which has been happening for a long time. We would go by to see if it was still on the roof every now and then, and noticed a while back that it was not doing well. Despite this, it was probably about six feet or more tall. Chris estimated when he thought it might have started growing - hard to do since the growth was stunted by the environment - but it ends up being about the time Eli would have been diagnosed. If it survives the rescue, it won’t cone for about seven more years, he said.
The second tree is either a fig tree or a pecan tree, not sure which yet. Thought it was a fig upon first sight, but might be a pecan since there is one nearby. We’ll see. The roots of the second tree ran almost the entire height of that wall, a good 10 feet probably. To keep from destroying the wall, and so that the didn’t have to find a 10-foot container for the tree, they cut the roots off up pretty short, and Chris was confident that was fine because the second tree was doing well. It did not have the issues that the pine had.
So, he put the trees in containers, and gave us instructions to nurture them for a year, so that they grow good root systems for re-planting next fall. Melissa had to run to a nearby Dollar Store to get trash cans for containers (the trees and the root systems were bigger than expected), and while there, running through the aisle, her eye caught sight of a little wood wall decoration that actually said “Bloom Where You are Planted.” There was only one! Weird. So, we propped it up for pictures.
So, the trees are now at our house. The little pine, I don’t know if it will make it. It was rough looking, and I’m not great… not even good with anything live. So, time will tell if it survives. It may have completed its mission of protecting that second little tree, taking on all the smoke from the chimney they grew beside it, attracting insects away from it, and holding that little tree seed in place, so that it had a chance to grow it’s own roots in order to survive long enough for us to rescue it. If the pine survives, we plan to plant it on our church campus. Not sure of plans for the second tree yet, but I’ve got some ideas. I have a neighbor that is going to help keep a watch over the trees, and I will keep everyone updated periodically.