A Tree Planting Journey After Loss And One Year Anniversary

August 6, 2017

By Sanda Rathamone

"We planted a tree as a sign of hope, in place of our son who will never be, and for the return of something beautiful, for all to see." - Elijah's Mommy

My husband and I bought an Incense Cedar from Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis, a city about an hour and thirty minutes away from home.

Now why the heck would we go so far just to buy a tree? Well, the day we bought the tree was a day after we got back from the hospital, we just didn't want to be home. We were cooped up in the hospital for six days and being back home brought this sense of anxiety, emptiness, and loss.

Even though I said that I wanted to go home many times, home didn't feel like 'home' without Elijah.

Upon arriving at the nursery, I knew it was the perfect place. However, looking for the perfect tree took a bit of patience.

We looked at so many trees of different shapes, sizes, with twists and turns, and with leafs of different shades. There was just too many to choose from! We took our time and considered a few trees here and there. We even talked about the trees surrounding the area (not the ones for sale in the nursery).

Then, I happened to run into a nice green tree, about 3 feet tall or so. It was ...different. The leaves were not the usual ones I'm accustomed to seeing. It even smelled nice and it looked strong, just like how I wanted it. I didn't like trees with thin barks. I called my husband over to take a look and he thought it was nice, too. The price tag though, it was around $40-60. We have never bought a tree before and I would say that that's a little pricey for just a small tree. My husband saw another one on the other side of it that looked a bit better.

Not knowing anything about this tree, we asked for assistance. A woman told us that this Incense Cedar comes from Northern California, it thrives in areas of higher elevation, and yes, are known to have leaves that produce a nice smell. She suggested to start watering every week or two and as it gets older, we can lessen the watering frequency.

There was nothing else that caught my eye and we both knew that the cedar was the perfect one. It was nice to say "Elijah's Tree.

Elijah's Tree

We carefully put the tree in the car and boy was it fun. The tree could barely fit and the tip was a little bent, but it was flexible. And I wasn't even sure why we were so happy that day. Maybe it was just the sense of having something to look forward to or doing something special for our son... and the rest of our lives.

At home, we kept the tree in the backyard until we could find a place to plant. Although, I did wish that we could plant it at home, but there wasn't any space available. Our neighbor downstairs - an old man - would water Elijah's tree, EVERYDAY. I don't know if he had magic, but with each passing day, the tree seemed to grow and stayed in a healthy green color. It was nice that he cared for it, we never asked him to, but it was appreciated.

Since planting a tree isn't the same as a burial site, there was no way to mark that his tree was not just any tree, but a memorial tree. So, I spent a few weeks, making a bow, sewing his name on it to mark that the tree was special. The bow is yellow, the color that reminds me of a baby, and his name is sewn in a light blue color for his gender.

My husband was so set on this one spot. All he could think of was this spot at a lake with this nice view, which was also an area where he could fish. (You know how fishermen are, anything to get a fishing fix.) It took awhile to set up an appointment to speak with a park ranger. We had to get permission before planting the tree.

We met a man named Troy and told him of the special spot and he knew exactly what we were talking about. He told us that there was this memorial bench at that spot and that he was the one who had put it there. We made sure to agree not to plant the tree to disturb the memorial bench, but just across from it on the right. All of us wanted to be respectful for the family and the man who passed away - who happened to enjoy the view of the spot as well. Since then, we also enjoy sitting and laying on his bench.

Additionally, we bought our own tree which meant that we didn't have to pay for the spot. We basically donated Elijah's Tree to the park. However, he suggested that an Oak tree would have been more ideal. He wasn't sure that an Incense Cedar would survive in the area and that many trees he tried to plant have died.

He also suggested to wait until September or October, when the heat died down a little. He said that a tree is hard work, but that didn't bother us. It would be the hard work of caring for our baby, but in baby tree version. We wanted to take on the challenge and if it didn't work out, we would try again and plant another one. Troy agreed that he would help us dig the hole and bring top soil. Then, we agreed on a date to plant and that was that.

Also, on the day of planting, Troy must have forgotten the top soil, but that was the one thing we should've thought about, THE SOIL!

At the spot where we have planted Elijah's Tree, the soil isn't as porous or moist as I'd prefer, it's actually pretty hard to dig! What we should have done was planted the tree with a nutrient-rich soil because what had happened overtime was terrifying.

We watered Elijah's Tree regularly and as often as we could. Getting there is like a 15 minute drive, plus a 10-15 minute hike down and back uphill. It's exhausting to get back up from the tree.

After months of watering, Elijah's Tree began to turn red on one side and then all over. We thought maybe it was because the sun must've been too hot, there is no shade around the tree and it gets pretty hot in that area. Then, we thought maybe the soil wasn't healthy for the tree or that it needed some fertilizer. We weren't sure what was wrong, but it was getting worse. Watering solved nothing.

Then, one day, a man with his friends were fishing at the bank of the water. He asked us if Elijah's Tree was ours and seemed to be a bit of a tree expert, saying that he thinks it needed fertilizer.

It turns out that the tree was shocked from transplanting; the difference in soil was too hard on the tree.

We hiked back up and made a plan to go searching for fertilizer. Not too long after, we found one and hoped that it was going to work. On our next trip to the tree, we mixed it in with the water and crossed our fingers that the tree would get better. And it did! Slowly and with every use of the fertilizer, the tree began to turn back to it's original lush green color. We were so happy and relieved! All of that worrying about the tree - and yes, we worry about it a lot - went away.

There was even a time in the late winter/early spring, rainfall was frequent and changed the appearance of the spot. It made the field of dead and dry grass disappear and replaced it with new and fresh green grass. The greenery made the tree look even more beautiful and seamlessly blended in. Because when you see Elijah's Tree, it happens to stand out in not just appearance, but also that it's planted in this open spot, away from other trees. It's also rare to have an Incense Cedar in our area.

However, this green grass didn't last long...

I have also made bracelets for Elijah's Tree, which was a bit of a disappointment. Someone or something was taking them off. Though "cheaply made," the bracelets meant a lot to me because I had spent time making them just for his tree; they had Elijah's name on them! To have them taken away was cruel and I might've been overemotional, but it was personal and special to me.

The first time this happened, the bracelet was on the ground. I put it back and the next time we came by, it was gone. I made a bigger one and we actually tied it to the tree this time, making sure it was secure. That one ended up gone, too! I was so upset and angry.

So, on one last try, I gave up the one I always wore, I was heartbroken, and left it on the bottom of the tree branch. It happened to stay there for awhile, until it faded. I took it off and replaced it with a new one and have yet, again, to replace it and this time, voluntarily.

A couple months ago, we made a trench, added new soil, and tried to plant flowers around Elijah's Tree. We didn't have much luck and it sucked. What had happened was that as they were sprouting, something was eating them or plucking them away. It's probably some animal, like a deer or turkey. I had hoped to see beautiful poppies and forget-me-nots and other flowers surrounding the tree. We have also spent time picking out weeds and dug up the trench for a second time, adding mulch to help with watering.

Currently, the tree is starting to turn a little red again and is becoming bare at the bottom. It might be suffering a fungicide or root infection, possibly because of watering on the wrong time of day. We learned that it is best to water plants in the early mornings or evenings when the sun is less high. And that using fertilizer on the soil and not on the leaves is the proper thing to do, yet, we still sprinkle Elijah's Tree just a little. We like see his tree glisten in the sun.

On our recent visit yesterday, it seems as though someone came by and watered it and redid the trench. It looked as if someone was trying to level the dirt (the ground is actually a little slanted and we planted the tree a bit crooked). This re-leveling helped the water stay in place instead of running downwards. We tried to level it before, but realized that we needed more mulch and soil. I don't know who it was, perhaps it was Troy or my husband's brother or someone else, I really don't know. But, it helped a lot and I thank whoever did. I wish them nothing, but happiness for their kindness.

The spot where we have planted Elijah's Tree has now become our special place. Sometimes, there are runners or fishermen who come by, but when it is just the three of us (my husband, myself, and Elijah's Tree) it feels like a secret place. We are never angry with each other there nor is it a sad place to be. There was this one time that we had the chance to sit close to baby goslings by the water, it was on Mother's Day and it was perfect! And this place always attracts many dragonflies, butterflies, and birds.

There's not a day that I never see vultures high in the sky, little birds diving in the air and above the water, all kinds of butterflies and dragonflies fluttering here and there, bees of many different kinds making their way through the field, and the occasional turkeys, deers, jumping fish and peeping ground mouse.

Today, it is now one year since we have planted Elijah's Tree and we hope for nothing more than for it to thrive. It has been a very tough year of taking care of his tree and there were many times that we thought that his tree would die.

We have never measured it and is something we should do soon! But, it is obvious to our eyes that the tree has grown, despite all of the bareness at the bottom and the constant shedding. It's sad to see that some branches are fully dried up and bare and the cracks on the bark, but I'm very happy to see that Elijah's Tree is still alive and that we have done so much for it.

We have carried gallons of water (bottled and from the lake), we have invested our time and energy, we have hiked up and down the crazy hill with sweat drenching our shirts, and we have loved this tree through our hands and hearts.

We hope that some day, Elijah's Tree will grow tall and provide us some much needed shade on a hot sunny day.

Elijah's Tree is planted at Lake Chabot, Oakland, California. It stayed with us for about a little over a month in our backyard and was planted on August 6, 2016.

As a beginner, below is my list of must-know tips about a Tree Planting Memorial:
  • Pick a tree that is suitable for your area or neighborhood
  • Learn about your tree 
  • Learn about proper gardening for trees
  • Purchase a gardening tool set, including watering can (if no water hose)
  • If planting at a park or public place, make sure to contact park ranger or supervisors
  • Plant with top soil and mulch
  • Water in the early mornings or evenings
  • Water regularly or as directed/needed, do not over water
  • Use fertilizer (liquid or powder form) 
  • Watch for any infections, poisonous bugs (to trees) or fungicides 

With love,
* Read the full story about Elijah:

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