Kelly Carr

The Tree

Kelly Carr
The Tree

by Karen Cain

I woke with a start, gasping for air and feeling the sweat on my face. Then a wave of relief rushed in. It’s just a dream, just another dream.

A recurring dream about a tree, of all things . . . super scary, right? It was for me.

An Unimaginable DIAGNOSIS

In the months before, my infant daughter had been diagnosed with unicoronal craniosynostosis. (I sit here, 15 years later, amazed by the fact that I still know how to spell those words without even looking them up. I’ve said them so many times, they’re engrained in my brain for good, I expect.)

In “normal” English, these words mean that my child was born with a defect that caused the bones in one side of her skull to be fused together prematurely. In most babies, the skull is separated into plates that expand as the brain and other internal organs grow. The bones then fuse together once that growth has taken place.

My child was born with a defect in her skull.

But in Shelby’s case, the bones on the right side of her skull fused together before she was born. As she began to grow, that side of her head began to look flat and (if you looked at her from the top of her head) it looked as if she’d fallen on her temple and permanently dented her head. We later came to learn that she also had no eye socket on that side of her head—at least not one that would function properly as she grew.

She needed surgery, but the doctors wanted to wait until Shelby was 9 months old so that she would be bigger, stronger, and more equipped to endure the surgery and the recovery process. (A bigger, stronger, well-equipped 9-month-old? Seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) They would need to cut her skull apart into puzzle pieces. The back of her skull would become her forehead, and the rest of the pieces would be arranged from there. The swelling, they said, would be exceptional, and she wouldn’t be able to see for a few days.

My heart ached for my innocent baby girl.

An unfathomable demand

So we waited for six long months. I’ve never dreaded something so fiercely while at the same time longing to just get it over with. That’s where the tree fits in.

During one of our many pre-op appointments, we were given a tour of the hospital, the operating room, the ICU in which she would recover, and so on. In the hallway on the way to the operating room was a beautiful mural of a tree—at least when I first laid eyes on it, it was beautiful. Its branches swayed. Its leaves were lovely shades of red, blue, green, and gold. It was breathtaking.

But then I was told that when we walked down the hall and reached the tree on the day of surgery, “You will have to stop here. You can’t go any further. We’ll put her on a stretcher and take her from there.” Once again breathtaking, but in an entirely different way.

The questions were more numerous than the leaves on that dreaded tree.

From that day until the day of Shelby’s surgery (and even after that, to be honest), I would dream of that tree.

How can I just stand there and watch strangers take away my child? What if something happens to her, and I am stuck standing there by the tree? Will she think I’ve abandoned her?

The questions were more numerous than the leaves on that dreaded tree, which quickly became a symbol of all my fears—right there on display in the hallway, brightly colored for all to see.

An Unshakable Reminder

On the day of the surgery, our pastor waited with us for the nurses to come take my girl. All I could think about was that awful tree and how I’d have to lay Shelby down on a cold, empty stretcher. As the clock ticked, I started to secretly panic and she started to (not-so-secretly) cry. I think our emotions were feeding off each other. My fears fueled hers; hers fueled mine; and so it began.

In this midst of this madness, our pastor suggested that we pray. What? Pray? NOW? I couldn’t hear anything over her screams, which echoed those inside my head. But I reluctantly stood to rock her, and my family stood around me. And that’s when it happened. As my pastor began to pray, my terrified, tired, hungry baby fell asleep. Within seconds.

And within another matter of mere seconds, the curtain in our room pulled back and I heard a voice ask, “Are you ready?” No. Not in a million years. We started down the hallway, my girl in my arms, my heart outside my body, and my breath non-existent.

As I drew close, I felt my knees go weak.

The tree. It’s the tree. Dear God, not the tree. . . . I could physically feel myself shaking as we approached it, and I wanted to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. As I drew close, I felt my knees go weak. I stopped in my tracks as I could feel the heat of my cheeks. As I turned to the nurse to say something (although I have no idea what), she took my elbow and led me right past the tree.

As we walked, the nurse explained that since Shelby was sleeping, they didn’t have to wheel her into the operating room. They let me walk to the end of the hallway and lay my sleeping angel in the bed that would hold her for the next five hours. She never made a sound, never batted and eye, and never remembered a thing.

I, on the other hand, never forgot a thing: the smell of the room, the Scooby Doo scrubs the nurse wore, the bubblegum scented gas I picked out for her. But most of all, I remember that tree—now for a different reason.

Today that beautiful tree is an unshakable reminder that the God of the universe sees me. He knows me. He knows my hurts and fears. And He knows my limits. Even more amazing—those things matter to Him! He loves me enough to reach down and take care of me at my weakest and most vulnerable moments. The whole world truly is in His hands.

An Unmovable God

Since then the lessons I learned that day have gotten me through some of the darkest days of my life: divorce, job loss, parenting struggles . . . the list goes on. I know without a doubt that God’s hand was at work that morning. And I know without a doubt that it’s at work today.

I still wrestle with doubts, anger toward God, questions that are never answered. But I never doubt His love for me. If a cross weren’t a big enough reminder of His love and His presence, He gave me my very own tree.

I never doubt His love for me.

Seven years later, I would be back at that same hospital as Shelby fought for her life—against a severe case of bacterial meningitis. It was so severe, in fact, that the priest in the trauma unit told me it was time to tell my little girl goodbye.

For a brief second I saw the image of that tree—this time, not as a symbol of dread and fear and the unknown but as a reminder that God gets the last word. This time, that tree brought me hope and strength. And once again, there were no goodbyes.

posted on July 22, 2018


Meet the Author:

Karen Cain is a wife and mom living in northern Kentucky. She has spent 25 years developing and editing educational and spiritual curriculum (such as VBS) for children. She is hooked on sweet tea, salsa, and summer concerts. If she could, she would spend the rest of her life on a porch swing.


Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash