I don’t know why I ended up taking myself so seriously, but I did. Here I was forty one years old and I’d sit around pontificating to my wife about the world and it’s problems, knowing that my solutions were the best ones. My friends at work and I would talk, and I would go on and on about whatever was in the news with me refuting all their arguments because I was the only one who had all the right answers to the many issues of the day. I’d go to my kids soccer or hockey games and analyze every move they made and talk earnestly with them afterwards, making sure they were crystal clear as to what they had to do to improve in the next game. I had captive audiences all over the place, and I enjoyed letting everyone know how much I knew and that only I could solve all the problems I saw in the world, our country, our town and my place of employment. In short, I was a big fat know-it-all and I’m surprised I had any friends at all, and, especially, that my wife found some reason to stay married to me, and my kids didn’t hate me. Everyone I knew certainly put up with a lot, that’s for sure. But I’m not like that so much anymore (I’m pretty sure) and I’ll tell you why. It had to do with a guy I met who lived in a tree house. I know it sounds implausible, but let me explain.
It was a Saturday morning, the last weekend in May and I was restless. Lee, short for Leeann, my wife of eighteen years, had taken our nine year old twins, Eva and Ronny, to their friend’s birthday party. Our oldest, Emma, sixteen and in eleventh grade, was at home studying for her end of the year finals. I had an important presentation to give at work on Monday and I was pretty wound up about it. I had cut the lawn, weeded the gardens, washed and waxed my Prius and cleaned the outside of the windows of our home like Lee had asked. I was planning on watching the Twins play Baltimore downstairs on the big screen later that afternoon, but I was still wired and wanted to burn off some energy.
“I’m going for a bike ride,” I called up the stairs to Emma.
“Okay, Dad. I’ll be here when you get home.”
She was a great kid, the apple of my eye and not a bit of trouble. “Get that studying done, all right?” I had to add, just to remind her who was boss.
“Okay!” She yelled back.
Satisfied my message was received, I grabbed my fat tire Trek and hit the road.
Lee and I have lived our entire married life in Orchard Lake, a small town in western Hennepin county. It’s close enough to Minneapolis for me to drive into Golden Valley where I’m employed at Leland Consulting, a think tank that’s been around since the eighties. I mostly work, or interface as we call it, with companies in the upper Midwest devising ways to improve productively. Our solutions almost always involve getting rid of some of their employees, but too bad. That’s life. We call it downsizing and I can’t help it if some of the people running companies are idiots and don’t know how to operate a business the right way.
Anyway, our little town is also a pretty easy commute for Lee to get to North Memorial Hospital where she is an RN in Labor and Delivery. People out here like the quiet life and they also like the trail system of bike and walking paths maintained by the Three Rivers Park District. Being outdoors any time of year is a big deal to many of them, me included, so potentially I wouldn’t be alone on the trails on a day like today, a day with the sun shining, the temperature in the mid seventies and a clear blue sky. I made the executive decision to eschew the bike paths and instead pedaled down a little traveled county road past three and five acre manicured lawns and estates and those stupid McMansions everyone’s so intent on building.
Soon I was six miles from town, into countryside and surrounded by the rolling woodlands, fields and hobby farms that make this area such an attractive area to live. I was heading to a place called Wollesfeld Woods which is a three hundred and twenty acre chunk of land that has been set aside by the county for no other reason than it being a last remnant of the Big Woods, the immense hardwood forest that used to cover most of our state one hundred years ago; before idiots and their wasteful farming and logging practices cut down all the trees, leaving nothing but the occasional woodlot, like Wollesfeld’s, but not much else. Don’t get me started. Like most things, I have strong opinions on the subject.
Cruising down a long decline, I checked in front of me and over my shoulder to make sure I was alone before making a quick right turn onto a faint deer trail I knew about. In moments I was in enfolded into the woods, surrounded by tall trees, brush thick with new, springtime green foliage, and completely invisible to anyone driving by. Crashing through the undergrowth and up and down a few small hills, I followed the trail into the forest for about one hundred yards before I stopped to catch my breath.
I was reaching for my water bottle when I thought I heard a noise. I stopped what I was doing and listened carefully. There was the sound of a downy wood pecker drumming rat-a-tat-tat on a hollow tree. That wasn’t it. There was a red squirrel chattering away for all it was worth. That wasn’t it. Some crows were cawing from trees deeper in. No, not them.
I thought for a moment that it could have been some other aviation species, but I’d never heard a bird call like it in my life, and I was pretty much an expert on bird vocalizations. (Ask anyone, they’ll tell you.) A quarter of a mile away I heard a farmer’s tractor out in a field. Definitely, not that. What the heck? Was it my imagination? Not likely. I wasn’t prone to flights of fancy, but I took a minute anyway, did some breathing exercises and talked myself into calming down. The woods remained quiet except for sounds that should be there. Maybe I really was just imagining the whole thing.
I shrugged and started to take a drink when the sound came back again, clear and pure, swirling through all of the other woodland noises. I realized, then, what I was hearing – the melodic, drifting notes of a flute; a wooden flute, like an alto recorder, I guessed, and it was coming from nearby. I listened carefully, looking around both in front of me and behind before discovering, even more perplexingly, they were coming from somewhere above me, way up in the canopy of the trees. What the hell?
This was beginning to get strange and I started to get nervous, wondering what was going on, not liking it one little bit that I wasn’t in control of the situation. I looked up, searching through the tangled growth of nearby trees. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the diffuse forest light before I finally found the source. There, hidden high in the branches of a big oak tree was, of all things, a little house. A tree house to be exact, and sitting comfortably on a branch outside the front door was a guy playing the flute. He must have been watching me the entire time, because when he saw me look up, he stopped playing and laughed out loud. It was a boisterous, joyful laugh, like he had just played the funniest joke in the world on someone.
Well, he did. The joke was on me. I was shocked to say the least and then, for one pissed off moment, I was mad that the woods that I thought I’d have all to myself had been invaded by another human. But the anger quickly passed and was replaced by something completely different. Interest. Extreme interest, to be exact. What in the world was this guy doing up there anyway? As I was mulling over the possibilities, he did something that surprised me even more. He waved. Then called out, “Hey there friend, what’s new?
What a thing to say! I felt like I had just stepped into a nursery rhyme and the words There was an old man who lived in a tree actually appeared for a moment in my brain. But I quickly put them aside to focus on the reality of the here and now and what was really happening.
I’m a cautious person by nature and disposition. Normally, at this point, I would have said to hell with it and hustled my ass out of there on my way to get cell reception so I could call the cops or a park ranger or anyone in authority who could come in and rid the woods of this obvious interloper, someone who was probably deranged and a possible menace to society to boot. I pictured how people would congratulate me on performing a public service by blowing the whistle on the guy. Who knew, I might even get an award or a plaque of some kind.
But something stopped me. I didn’t make a move, only stood there looking up at him. He just seemed too…what would the word be to describe him? Gentle looking, maybe. Or non-threatening. Something like that. At any rate, I decided to stay put and instead of calling in the authorities, I looked at him for a moment, and then surprised myself by calling back, in answer to his question, “Not a lot. What’s new with you?”
And he laughed again, more loudly this time, “Lots, my friend. Lots and lots.”
The first word that popped into my mind was this: wow.
He definitely had my attention. As I was standing in the forest, wondering what to do next, he surprised me by calling back, “Hey there, friend, do you want to come and visit? The world looks pretty nice from up here.”
Well, that was certainly an unexpected request. I have to admit that my thought of taking off and calling the authorities was all but gone. There was something about him that was intriguing, an innocence, of sorts, I guess was the best way to describe it. I am normally a very deliberate person, not spontaneous at all, and usually don’t like to try anything new until I’ve researched the hell out of it. It took me two years to decide on the perfect lawn mower to purchase. But I surprised myself by deciding to take a chance and take him up on his offer. I’m glad I did.
“Sure,” I called up to him, immediately wondering if I was doing the right thing. I pictured Lee and my friends at work, Steve, Amid and Kevin, all shaking their heads, pointing their fingers at me and admonishing me to “Ride like hell away from that fruitcake,” or words to that effect. But I put my concerns aside. “How do I get up there?” I asked, making it a point of looking around.
“Just a second.” He got up from his sitting position on his branch and put his flute in a satchel he carried across his chest. Then he jumped nimbly to a branch below and grabbed a rope ladder that I hadn’t seen nestled among some twigs and leaves. “He you go, young fellow,” he said, lowering it down, “Use this.”
And I did, first leaning my bike against the trunk, and then climbing the thirty feet or so up through the branches wondering as I pulled myself along rung by rung higher into the forest canopy what I could possibly be getting myself into. But desire for personal safety was outweighed by my curiosity; I really wanted to find out more about this odd man who lived in a tree. Plus, I was pretty confident I could defend myself just fine due to my years of training in karate and jujitsu. Now that I think about it, though, I’m not sure how effective those skills would have been if I’d been attacked in an tree and had to fight while standing on a narrow branch encumbered by twigs and leaves grabbing at me. Fortunately I didn’t have worry about finding out. It was soon apparent I had zero reason for concern.
He encouraged me during my climb with, “You’re doing great!” and “Keep it up, you’ve almost made it!” And when I got to the branch the rope was attached to he was there to greet me with a hearty, “You did it, friend! Good of you to join me!” He was a cheerful fellow (I could literally see the exclamation marks at the end of his sentences) and more open and friendly to me, a complete stranger, than I myself had been to anyone in my entire life, loved ones and friends included.
I have to say that his easy familiarity with me was kind of unnerving, but I put that all aside as I pulled myself to a sitting position and looked around, hanging on tightly to the branch, I might add. The view was spectacular. I was looking out through a leafy, green world to the newly plowed fields beyond and down into a woodland forest untouched by human development. I didn’t feel I needed to count the tree house. There was a scent of spring in the air and the world around us was coming alive after the burden of a long Minnesota winter.
All of those things, plus the fact I was immediately charmed by the guy, had a lot to do with why I stayed up there that first time for as long as I did. That’s right. I said, the first time. I went back quite often during the next year, he was that interesting to be with. Plus, he was easy to talk to, which made the visits that much more pleasurable and fun to look forward to. I wasn’t used to a lot of fun in my life until then, and, frankly, didn’t miss it. Us know-it-alls didn’t make time in our lives for those kinds of things. Life was just too serious. He showed me there was a different way of looking at the world.
He told me his name was Simon Neiterrider and I introduced myself as Dave Hackburn. I guessed him to be in his early forties, around my age. But I found out later I was way wrong. He was ten years older; he just didn’t look it. He showed me inside his tree house, or “My home away from home,” as he put it, on that first visit. It was a tidy eight foot by four foot square and about four feet high with a peaked roof and shingles. It was built, he told me, from scraps of lumber he’d scrounged throughout the area. You might imagine it looking like a piece of crap shack a bunch of short attention span nine year boys would have built but it wasn’t. It was solidly constructed, the boards were all planed and sanded smooth and fit tightly together and all the wood was secured in place with screws instead of nails. He even attached small branches to the sides to help camouflage it.
All in all, his little home was as worthy as any room or house I’d ever been in, just smaller. Inside he had colorful blankets and soft pillows for sitting on, and a sleeping bag on the floor, a small book shelf, a little cooking stove (for tea, he told me) and even a few pictures hanging on the walls. There was a door on one end and three windows, one on each of the other walls that let in soft light, bringing the outdoors even closer to him. In short, his tree house was snug and homey, like something out of a child’s fairy tale. Except this was real life.
Simon was nearly six feet tall and very thin, which I suppose was a good thing given his living circumstances. He was barefoot and had a bushy beard, long dark brown hair he tied back in a ponytail and deep set amber eyes. He wore an Amish style straw hat and tan cargo shorts along with a colorful orange and green tie-dyed tee shirt. He appeared strong and fit along with being very serene.
I had a ton questions to ask him, once I got used to being up in the tree, not to mention the obvious fact that I was sitting on a branch next to a guy who looked like Gandalf or what’s his name, the headmaster of Hogwarts. He wasn’t shy at all. On the contrary, he was very talkative, happily answering every question I asked.
“Oh, yes, my friend, fire away. I’ve nothing but time,” he told me with a chuckle after we made ourselves comfortable on the branch outside his door. I still was conscious of hanging on tightly, but was slowly getting used to the gentle swaying motion of the tree and the fact that birds were flitting around me without a care in the world. Suddenly I realized I, too, had time, after glancing at my watch and noting that I was missing the Twins game. What the hell, this was way better than baseball.
Also, in the back of my mind, I was thinking what a great story I was going to have to tell my wife and friends when I got back. No one would believe it. I had the feeling I was going to have it over everyone I knew and this new experience would make me unique and a cut above them. I honestly was ready to write off my afternoon’s experience with this gentle, quirky individual as just that: nothing more than something of a lark, something to impress my wife and friends with at his expense later over drinks and a good meal.
That’s is how I thought about Simon at first, just a curious object, someone for me to take advantage of to make myself look better in the eyes of others. I’d never been more wrong about anything in my life. I can look back now and shake my head in disappointment with myself. What an idiot I was. My self-centered egotism back then is still, to this day, embarrassing to contemplate.
It was the story Simon told me that afternoon that touched me so deeply and made me start to see the world, and certainly the people I was close to, differently and in a more caring and humane way. I was probably ripe for it, too, on some level I hadn’t yet taped into, but Simon was able to ignite something deep inside and for that reason I am forever grateful.
You see, Simon didn’t actually live in the tree house. He only stayed there. He had a full and complete life away from the forest. As we talked that first day and got to know each other better, his story came out bit by bit. He began first off by asking me about my job. As I told him about my work and what I did for a living, I saw that he really was listening to me and paying very close attention to the words I was saying.
When I finished with my story, Simon looked out through the branches of the oak, thinking for a while, and then he sighed, “Sounds like an interesting job,” he remarked, “I guess you get to help a lot of people.”
Thinking back to the companies where I’d “Helped them” by suggesting they get rid of many of their employees for the express purpose of improving the corporate bottom line, thus putting good people out of work and putting stress on their home life among other things, I thought his statement was a generous observation, if not quite accurate. Simon had a way of trying to see the positive things in life, but I didn’t know that then. I was thinking about his comment and feeling the first twinges of guilt when we reversed roles and he started telling me more about himself
Simon was a caregiver. He worked for an organization that provided hospice care for people who were dying. He went to his patients, whether in their homes or a care facility, and spent time with them, comforted them, bathed them, talked to them and provided a measure of gentle companionship and emotional reassurance for them. All of his clients died, some sooner than others, but they all eventually did. It was his job to care for them in a way that was loving and humane and provide support for them on their last earthly journey.
He spoke eloquently and compassionately. By the time he was finished, I was so touched that I had tears in my eyes. And this is coming from a man who had spent his life thinking men were weak who showed any king of wimpy emotion like that.
“So, why the tree house?” I asked when I had dried my eyes and recovered enough to talk.
Simon smiled, “Well that’s another story.”
He told me that five years earlier his wife had died of ovarian cancer. He had guided her through the final stages of her life all the way to the end, being at her side when she passed away after a battle that lasted ten months.
“By the time Emily was gone, I was spent. We had no children and she was my whole life,” he told me, his eyes now wet with tears. “My emotions were shot. I need to regroup. I needed to get away.”
He ended up camping out at Lake Independence, a park and camp ground about ten miles further west of us. He liked the area, the forests and nearby lake, but felt he needed more privacy and time to himself. It was around this time that he came across a book called Tiny Homes and it gave him an idea. One thing led to another and he ended up spending the next couple of years finding the right spot, this one, and building his tree house.
“So you’ve lived here how long?”
“I’m on my second year,” he told me with a big smile. “I come out here once a month for a long weekend. My employer has no problem giving me the time off.”
I looked around. “How do you get here?”
He laughed, “I park my car in Wayzata at the Park and Ride and pedal my bicycle out here.”
So his car was just a few miles down the road from where Lee and I lived. Strange world. I had to hand it to the guy, he certainly was resourceful.
“And your bike…?”
“Right there,” he pointed to a spot maybe twenty feet from the base of the tree. “I’ve got it covered with a camouflaged tarp and leaves. You’d never find it unless you stepped on it.”
I carefully peered down below, teeter-tottering a bit, tightly grasping the branch I was sitting on. He was right. I had been standing almost on top of it.
Would you believe I stayed up there with him for over three hours? He even shared a snack of granola bars and bottled water with me, food items he carried up in a small backpack, telling me with a sheepish smile that he didn’t need much.
I was enjoying myself so much that I honestly didn’t want to leave. Finally, however, I felt I had taken up enough of his time, although he assured me I hadn’t, saying, “Don’t worry about it, Dave. I told you that I’ve got all the time in the world.” But I left anyway and rode home, happier than I’d been in a long time. He had a certain aura about him, a calmness that was something I had never felt from anyone in my entire life. My world was all fast paced, aggressive and cutthroat. His was calm, serene and peaceful. At least when he was at the tree house. Sure, he dealt with dying and death every day at work, but he had found a way to cope. Maybe he was on to something.
I didn’t tell Lee or my friends at work about Simon. I have to admit I kind of selfishly wanted to keep him to myself. At least at first. But his story touched me in a way I wasn’t prepared for and I believe it laid the groundwork of making me a better person.
The change wasn’t immediate, of course, but over time and the monthly influence of Simon’s calm and centered nature I really did start to grow (or maybe mature is a better word) and look at the world from a different perspective.
First off, I tried something different at work the next week. Remember I had been wired because I’d been thinking about the presentation I was going to have to give on that following Monday? The background was this: during the spring I had been working with White Cloud Foods, a turkey processing plant in southwestern Minnesota near the town of Good Thunder. After being in business for nearly twenty years, they were looking for ways to streamline their operation and improve productivity, which usually meant cutting jobs and having a company like ours come in help them to justify that they were doing the right thing. The job cutting solution was something I’d done time and time again. It was clean and easy to accomplish and not creative at all. And I was good at it. My boss liked my work and it paid well. But meeting Simon had affected me, and his impact on me was immediate.
On that Monday, I called my boss and told him I needed a little more time to fine tune parts of my pitch to him. He grudgingly gave me a week, telling me, “This better be worth it.” I hoped it would be. My thought was that Simon’s approach with his clients was humane and people centered so why not come up with a solution that would help both the owners I was working with as well as their employees?
During that week my team and I did some frenzied research and found out some interesting facts. We put together our findings and I presented my proposal to my boss the following Monday. My idea was to help White Cloud’s executives write new by-laws that expressed the culture they wanted their company to have. When the bylaws were complete I would devise a training program for the employees that would help the owners implement the company’s new culture.
My research had shown that companies with employees who felt invested in their workplace benefited by increased productivity from those employees. Turnover was less, too, which also saved the costs of hiring and time spent bringing new people up to speed.
I know it all sounds kind of New Age-y but too bad. It made sense to me and it made sense to my boss and, more importantly, it made sense to White Cloud. They agreed to implement my ideas and saw positive results almost immediately. And, I might add, they continue to see growth to this day. That’s just one example, and it didn’t work every time, but I was trying. I was off and running.
I found myself taking more time to listen to my fellow workers at my job and with friends away from work when I was in discussions. I realized that the world was a complicated place and maybe I should pay attention to other people and what they had to say, like Simon paid attention to my words that first time we talked, and not just think my opinion was the only one and the right one. In short, I became less arrogant and a lot easier to be around.
The biggest immediate change was with my kids. In many ways, Simon had a simplistic view of life when he was in the tree house. “Enjoy each day,” he told me. “Make the most of your time, and make sure to appreciate your loved ones.”
He didn’t have to add to his statement. I knew what he was talking about. Life was finite. It would be over with all too soon, so make the most of each and every day while you still could. Sage advice and I’m surprised it took me so long to see and accept it, but I did, wholeheartedly. I started to simply enjoy Emma and the twins, Ronny and Eva, and their sports and activities for what they were: fun, harmless pass times and not the most serious events in the world.
Everyone, Lee included, felt less stress from me and became happier. In fact, one day she asked, somewhat jokingly, “Dave, what’s the deal with you, anyway?”
“What?” I answered back. I had just come in from playing catch with my boy, Ronny, and we were both laughing. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” she said, rubbing my back affectionately and smiling, “You just seem happier, is all.” She gave me a sly look, “I like this guy.”
I gave her a hug and she hugged me back. We were connecting in a way we hadn’t for a long time and it felt good.
In the year I knew Simon I went out to visit whenever he was at his tree house, spending a few hours with him each time. I found myself looking forward to our time together, coming up with a list of things to talk with him about. And he liked talking to me, too.
He told me once that he’d never met anyone like me, which I was going to take as a compliment until he added, “You know, someone who was once kind of a jerk, but was willing to change.” Then he laughed and looked at me with what I could have sworn was a twinkle in his eye. I have to say that he was the most perceptive, as well as likable, person I’d ever known in my life.
And he had a lady friend! I met her in the early fall.
“Surprise,” Simon called down when I showed up the Saturday of the weekend I knew he was going to be there. “I’d like you to meet Amy.”
A pretty redhead with long hair woven into a thick ponytail popped her head out the door. “Hi there. You must be Dave. Simon’s told me a lot about you.” And she laughed a quiet, knowing laugh, like she was very comfortable being up in a tiny little structure, thirty feet off the ground, that swayed ever so slightly even on the calmest of day.
Whether it was Simon’s impact on her or her influence on him, I never could tell, but I met her more than once. She was a caregiver like Simon and they were really good with each other; loving and comfortable in a gentle and supportive way. And, somewhat surprisingly, they were always glad to see me.
Their openness and generosity was not lost on me, someone who, up until then, was more than a little selfish with what I used to call “My private time.” Simon was nothing like that. Instead, he was more than willing to open up his little home in the forest to me anytime.
I even went to see him in the winter. That’s right, when he said he went every month, he meant it. It was fun to take my bike through the snowy trail to his tree and climb up and visit with him. Once it started snowing when I was up there and we spent a carefree hour sitting outside, getting covered with big wet flakes, watching the landscape “Get freshened up,” as he called it.
He was a peaceful man who had an almost childlike way of looking at the world. Given his chosen profession, I envied him is ability to switch gears like he did and do what he needed to keep his head on straight in a challenging job. I did what I could to emulate him.
I knew Simon for over a year. Around Labor Day that following year he quit coming to the tree house. I didn’t see him in September or October. I started riding out every weekend, thinking maybe I was just missing him and he’d switched the times he was out there, but that wasn’t the case. By November I finally realized the sad fact: he was gone.
The second week in December, I was helping Lee and the kids put up our Christmas tree. I wasn’t my normally cheerful self and Lee asked me what was wrong. I decided it was time to talk about Simon.
“Lee, kids, come here,” I said, sitting everyone done on the couch, “I’ve got something to tell you.” They looked at me with questioning eyes, like, “God what’s he come with now? A chicken coup in the backyard for organic eggs? A family hiking trip along the Lake Superior Trail?” Both were a couple of things I had recently been talking about.
I took a deep breath and began to tell my family about my friend, for that’s what I felt Simon and I had become over the last year, friends. When I finished there was dead silence for about two seconds before the quiet turned into a cacophony of noise as Lee and the kids all started talking at once. At first no one believed me. To my wife and kids I was a straight as an arrow white collar consultant who was the last person they could imagine befriending a strange man that liked living in a tree house.
I finally was able to alleviate all of their concerns, which took some doing, believe me; especially with Lee. The kids all actually thought Simon sounded different, which he was, but also seemed, “Kind of cool.”
Lee, for her part, god love her, came to realize the fact that, above all else, he’d had a wonderfully positive impact on me. “I knew something was going on,” she said, shaking her head, and getting a look in her eye I knew only too well. “But you should have told me sooner.” She was a little pissed off at my secrecy and I didn’t blame her. And she was right, of course. I should have told her about Simon right away.
“I just thought you’d think I was nuts,” I told her, reaching out to give her a hug, which she reluctantly accepted.
“I might have at first,” she said, “But, I don’t like that you kept a secret from me.” She pulled back, and looked me straight in the eye, “Never again, Ok?”
She was right. “Never,” I said. “I Promise.” And I meant it.
Only one question remained: where was he now?
When I told my family that I didn’t know, it was Lee’s suggestion to investigate further. And she did. It took her about an hour of searching online before she found his obituary. Simon had died of congestive heart failure at his home in south Minneapolis in early September. Amy was listed as next of kin. Further research uncovered Amy’s phone number and I called her that evening, offering her my late but heartfelt condolences. She thanked me and after we had talked for a few minutes she surprised me by asking if I’d been to the tree house.
“Yes, I have,” I told her.
“Did you go inside?”
“No, why? I could tell he wasn’t there.”
“Simon wanted me to tell you that you should go up inside. He left something there for you.”
What the hell? I thanked her and we chatted a little more before I hung up, wondering what he possibly could have left me.
I found out a few days later when I rode my bike out to the woods, followed the trail to his tree and climbed up to the tree house. In the past whenever Simon vacated his little home he’d leave the rope ladder down so he could climb up it next time. The outside was much the same as when I’d last been there. I brushed some leaves away and opened the little door, going inside and letting my eyes adjust to the low light. Everything looked unchanged. I didn’t see anything that looked like something he’d left from me. I took a few minutes soaking up the last remnants of what I might now call the “Aura of Simon” before I figured Amy had been mistaken.
Not really wanting to leave, I took my time, looking out the windows, watching a male cardinal flit through the branches searching for food while I marveled at his bright red color. Then it’s mate appeared and he fed her a seed he’d found before they flew off together. The sight was intimate and strangely calming. In fact, I was so relaxed I lay back on his blankets and in a few moments fell into a deep sleep.
In a little while, I awoke refreshed and at peace. I made ready to leave. As much as I was enjoying the serenity of the tree house, I wanted to get home to my family. It was then that I noticed his satchel and a piece of paper on it. It was a note and it was addressed to me. Dave, it read, be good, be kind, be yourself. And, most importantly, don’t forget to play the flute. It was signed, Your Friend, Simon. I looked inside and there was his wooden flute, the flute through which the notes he played drew me to him in the first place. He must have left it and the note the last time he and I were together knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. He never even hinted that something might have been wrong. I cried then, remember the nicest man I’d ever met in my life.
I was there for a long time, reminiscing to myself about all the good, peaceful times we’d had together. When I was done, I took one last look around before I climbed down and rode home in a sort of happy-sad mood. Intellectually I knew he was gone, but emotionally I wasn’t willing to accept that stark fact. His life was a gift, a gift to me and to those he provided hospice care for and to so many others, including Amy. His goodness enveloped me while he was alive and is still with me to this day. I know of no other testimony a person can leave behind that.
Simon’s tree house has not been abandoned. I’ve taking Lee and the kids to it a few times (after swearing them all to secrecy) and I go out to it once a month, just like Simon did. I’ve even stayed overnight once or twice, but prefer to be home with my family as much as I can, instead.
I’m trying to talk Lee into spending the night with me some time and she’s about half way there. I think she likes that I’m a little more daring, if that’s the right word, than I used to be. I think I’m definitely more loving and fun to be around; she and the kids will all attest to that, of that, I have no doubt.
When I’m at the tree house I think about lots of things, mainly having to do with my job and my home life, and wonder if I’m doing all I can to be a decent person. I use Simon as an example to try to emulate. I’m trying to be a more open and receptive at work and a kinder and more loving husband and father at home. I know it will be a lifelong process and I’m committed to doing the best I can. I think Simon would appreciate how I am progressing.
Some may ask why I can’t or don’t think about those things at home or at work or on my bike rides and there is some merit in that. But I’ll say this: being up in an old tree, swaying gently in the breeze, close to nature and the power and beauty of a hundreds year old forest is as good place to be as any to get your head on straight; probably better. l know I’ll be coming back as long as I can, many years, hopefully. Besides, the memory of my friend Simon is still there, and I like talking to him.
And now I’ve got to get going. I’ve got a wooden flute I’m learning how to play. Eventually, I hope I can do justice to it and, who knows, maybe someday I’ll be playing along and those melodic notes will drift through the air and reach someone wandering through the forest – someone who is looking for a fresh outlook on life. Someone who just needs to be shown a different and better way. Just like Simon showed me.
DECEMBER 2019 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords, The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2, The Best of CafeLit8, Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: THE VIEW FROM LONG LAKE.