Planting the Jay Tree

The blog has been quiet as work has slowed down, but there’s one small finished project I haven’t chronicled yet, mostly because the story is a difficult one to tell and the words hard to find: the special new tree we planted in our treebox that will grow ever upward and outward in front of our house as a tribute to our brother.

Jeremy, Rachel’s brother, died in March after a freak motorcycle accident not even a block away from his office building in downtown Atlanta.

He was living with us at this time last year. He worked for HOK architects in Atlanta, and because he was working on a project in the DC area with their DC office, he came up to work with them in person and crashed with us — much to our delight. The rest of Rachel’s family was coming for Thanksgiving anyway, so he came up shortly beforehand to start work and stayed through Christmas. He crashed in our guest room and after Christmas, his bosses said he could come back and keep working here basically as long as he wanted, so he came back in January and stayed almost until February.

Jeremy could never sit still for long — he had so much creative energy exploding from his insides that at times you could feel it in the room breaking through. At Thanksgiving he went out and started working on clearing out some of the old hedge root balls from the backyard.

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I had asked Jeremy if he could help me break up the concrete from the old driveway in the backyard. I went and borrowed a sledgehammer from a friend and before I could even make plans about exactly which Saturday we would spend (in misery) working on the concrete, Jay went out and tore it all up himself and piled it high in a monstrous stack by the alley. I came home and the project that I thought would take days for the two of us, Jeremy had finished in mere hours on his own.

Of course, we had to get a picture of his conquest, so Jay climbed Mount Concrete and gave a happy smile of victory with sledgehammer in hand before we started loading it into a truck to take to the dump. Took us three loads to get it all.

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Jeremy stayed from New Year’s until almost Valentine’s Day, only leaving because he had signed up for a Tough Mudder race in Atlanta and didn’t want to let his teammate down by not showing up. HOK had already flown him up twice, so another return trip wasn’t likely, and besides, I think Jeremy was ready to be back with his dog Julie and his friends in Atlanta.

And then, just a few weeks after he left us, he was gone.

Especially in those difficult days shortly afterward, we often reminded ourselves of the blessings of that time together in this old rowhouse — how God seemingly gave us (and especially Rachel) this beautiful gift of time together and just what we’d need to be able to scrape by without being completely overcome with grief, clinging with white knuckles to the time and memories of those precious few weeks.

We had spent more time together since Thanksgiving 2011 than we had in our previous eight years (of marriage) combined. How many siblings get to live with one of their sisters or brothers for three months after one is married and just be grown-up adult friends living under the same roof, with the days of childhood together long behind?

Jeremy was here to celebrate when we found out our baby-to-be was going to be a girl.

He was here when we took the pictures for making that announcement to the wider world in the room that would one day be Lily’s nursery — a room he also helped renovate.

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He was here on the most unseasonably warm February day I can remember when he treated us to a farewell dinner at Red Rocks to say thank you and we sat outside on the patio at the corner of Park and 11th without jackets but with good beer and pizza and just soaked it all up and took bad cellphone pictures in the dark.

On our way to Atlanta for what we knew would surely turn out to be a funeral and not just a hospital visit, we decided somewhere in North Carolina — while speeding toward the painful end of our journey at a mile a minute — that Jeremy’s first niece would carry his name with her forever.

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And so Lily Jae was close at hand with me when we finally went to plant “The Jay Tree” in our front treebox.

After one of them reached out to me asking what Rachel would think of it, her friends and former co-workers at Cooper Carry architects gave us a generous gift card to a local nursery for a tree we could plant in our yard to memorialize Jay. Our treebox had been empty and we had waited for more than a year for the free DDOT planting, so we decided to put it in the empty box in front.

We bought a (Western) Pansy Redbud at American Plant in Bethesda and picked it up at the end of September. I got the utilities marked so we could dig a big hole for the tree’s enormous rootball. Then Lily Jae and I checked out the hole.

After Lily’s stamp of approval on the hole and avoiding some conduit and wires that the city never marked (probably wiring for the streetlight 40 feet to the north belonging to DDOT) we dropped the tree in place and filled it in. We filled the hole with dirt and compost/mulch on top and then poured on a ton of water for the first few days.

It’s not much just yet, but it’s our Jay Tree.

In an interesting turn, there’s few things Lily loves to look at more than trees. Pick her up and hold her in your arms by a window in the front or back of the house and she’ll get quiet and crane her head up and stare with her mouth agape at the ancient old trees around our house waving in the breeze. Hypnotized. At church on the second floor of the Dance Institute of Washington on Sundays, you can often catch her gazing at the trees out on 14th Street.

“God sends the wind to make the trees wave at you, Lily,” I often tell her.

As the Jay Tree grows taller over the coming years in front of our house just a few feet from Lily’s window, we’ll tell her all about her Uncle Jay, and how he helped build her backyard she plays in and how he helped build the wall next to her bed, and how the name she carries first belonged to a man who was brave and courageous and wild and loving and kind and true.

“And though he’s gone, that’s his tree right out there, always watching over you outside your window,” we’ll tell her.

“And just like all the others, Lily, God sends the wind to make Uncle Jay’s tree wave to you.”

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If you want to support Rachel’s family and Jeremy’s memory, you can support the Jeremy Smith Architecture Scholarship Fund, created by one of his former professors and a host of his friends, perhaps by buying one of these fantastic t-shirts through Etsy. They carry illustrations of the breathtaking lamps that Jay used to build using business cards, accompanied by a quote from my father-in-law. We all got ours at Thanksgiving and took a family picture.

Including little Lily Jae.

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