It was a cold but beautiful May day when my husband and I exchanged vows beneath a canopy of cherry blossoms in Brooklyn. We lived as husband and wife on the fourth floor of a tower beside the Hudson River. Side-by-side on its tiny patio we would watch fireworks over the Statue of Liberty marking special occasions and new years. My head on his shoulder, I always dreamed the same dream, a simple dream of our future together… the two of us, happy and healthy, creating art and life together. Several more seasons came and went before we filled a moving van with our pup and our belongings, and picked up the keys to our very own house, a cute, creaky, old house, within walking distance to a park and town. Once we were in and settled, I walked through our new home and noticed something missing. The wall above our bed was empty and felt bare. I grabbed two canvases and paints, and decided to paint a cherry blossom tree. I was feeling exhausted and uninspired, but at least I could make a temporary solution. I painted quickly, mostly with a sponge and my fingers, but it would do. The tree hung low and stretched its branches across the two canvases, like a woman reaching out.
As the first year passed, the painted tree saw me grow as a wife, and then yearn to be a mother. She saw me crushed when that didn’t happen, month after month. Then finally, after many doctors and treatments, she saw my tears when the test said yes. Tears of excitement and tears of fear. The same tears the tree would see when I brought home my sweet Lillian from the hospital, wrapped in a blanket with pink blossoms, after she was taken from my belly so tiny and so new. The tree saw me cuddle my baby as she grew, through skinned knees and bad dreams. The tree saw me laugh, and she saw me cry. She saw me slip into depression, barely able to move from under her watch for long enough to shower or drag myself to the kitchen for food. The painted tree heard the desperate calls to my therapist when I couldn’t even leave the house for appointments. She heard my cries of helplessness and hopelessness. She saw me crumble and fall, and beg for relief. The tree saw me leave to get treatment and come back even worse.
Until a new year came, a new treatment, a new beginning. The painted tree saw me slowly start to come alive again. She saw me take pictures, an activity I had once loved, first of the room around her and the bathroom, and then slowly branching out until I could leave the house. The painted tree saw me laugh again, once in a while. She saw me sitting on the bed for hours, but now creating a digital gallery where I could share my photos, and the photos of other people who were also taking pictures through difficult times. I struggled with what to name the gallery, until I heard a soft whisper in my ear, like a secret from the tree, echoing, Broken Light, Broken Light, Broken Light. She saw me become an advocate, fighting for others with mental health struggles while sitting in the very same bed that had been flooded by so many tears. She watched me build that little gallery into a nonprofit, a collective of artists who, like me, by sharing our photos and stories no longer felt quite so alone.
The painted tree saw me less and less over the next few years as I grew stronger and stronger, until she saw my belly begin to grow once again. The tree watched me fight illness throughout a scary pregnancy and delivery, and a slow bed-ridden recovery, but I was joined by my sweet Juliet, who lay swaddled beside me, cooing beneath the tree’s branches. I was in bliss, pain but bliss.
It has been seven years since the “temporary” tree was painted, and in those years, she has watched me rise and watched me fall. Then rise and fall and rise again, just as the blossoms of the cherry trees under which I took my vows. They bloom, wilt, and fall, only to bloom once again. She has witnessed all of my blooms, my wiltings, and my fallings. And though I have fallen once again, and darkness surrounds me, the painted tree reminds me that she will see me rise. That I must not give up, because everything is impermanent, both the good and the challenging. The tree has seen it all. Babies will grow, bumps and bruises will heal, and even the worst depression will pass.
Today, as I lay in the bed beneath her in my personal darkness, I am joined by my kindred… my husband, my girls, now six and one year old, and my pup, much older and grayer than moving day, but still able to get up on the bed for cuddles. I look around me at the faces of my beautiful family, and then I look up at the painted tree, and realize we are one and the same. She has become more than just a place-filler on a wall. The tree has come to represent me and my journey. Her roots, my marriage. Her branches, my children. Her blossoms, the cycles of my life and moods. And at once, I know that somehow everything will be okay, and that she will see me bloom once again.
Danielle Hark is a mental health advocate and the founder of The Broken Light Collective. You can follow her on Twitter here: www.twitter.com/DanielleHark and on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/brokenlightco/.