We sat in the car, a full country’s length away from our normal. Years of marital problems had come to a head in the preceding weeks and, after an agreement to work on these problems and an understanding that they weren’t going to be solved overnight, nearly tangible tentativeness and awkwardness hung in the air between us. We had made it to the outskirts of Boston, my childhood home, for Christmas. As my husband drove us towards my parents’ house, I pointed out landmarks to lighten the mood.
“That’s Grant Circle… who knew that would become my name?”
“That’s the pier my Dad and I have kayaked off of.”
“That’s the bowling alley we rented for a birthday party, but it got snowed out.”
Dan jumped on that landmark.
“I didn’t know that,” he said. We’d talked about it before, so he knew birthdays were hard for me. Sweetly, he asked, “Do you want to talk more about that?”
I started to reminisce, slowly and vaguely at first, then warming to it as memories rose to the surface.
As a kid I always wanted to know that I mattered, but growing up it always seemed that the opposite was true, that I was either meant to be invisible or to be despised, like something someone stepped in. I could put up with the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality for most of the year, but then my birthday would come, and that was the one day a year when it was really supposed to be all about me. I was supposed to matter. But year after year, parties would fall flat or get snowed out, and hopes would be disappointed, and that question seemed to be answered negatively. But I couldn’t shake a stubborn hope that I did matter, despite it all.
By the time of my fourteenth birthday I was pretty depressed, and I purposefully didn’t plan anything for my birthday so that I couldn’t be disappointed. But there was still a tiny sliver of hope—that I didn’t even want to admit to myself—that someone would sweep in and do something special and prove me wrong. Of course, that didn’t happen, and I remember going for a walk in the woods behind my house instead, finding this tree and carving my initials into it, pressing the sadness and rejection into its innocent bark. I think I was hoping that someday, someone would go back there with me, see my initials, remember that day with me, and would tell me that that day mattered because I mattered. My hope that I would be shown to matter to someone was just too stubborn to die.
When my story was finished, my husband responded in the best and the scariest way:
“Do you think that tree is still there?” he asked. “We should try to go and find it.”
My walls of self-protection immediately rose up, but so did a fighting urge to try to stay vulnerable.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t even remember any of that until I started talking.”
It had been a long time since my fourteenth birthday, and the area had been developed quite a bit. I hadn’t been there in at least fifteen years and didn’t know if I could even find the path. After driving through my parents’ neighborhood, we turned down a dirt road. I stared out of the car into dark thickets, straining my eyes and wondering if some random gap in the brush was the remnant of a path. When we turned a corner I almost laughed to see a well-marked and familiar trailhead, and we planned to return in daylight to search for my tree.
Midday on Christmas Eve, we ventured out. The cold wind blasted us from the ocean, and we walked quickly to get back into the woods, but when we turned onto the dirt road, and then onto the path, the wind stilled. The forest was both like and unlike my faded memories of that long-ago birthday. The colors of the barren tree trunks were still the same, but I remembered more green on the ground, perhaps because things start to sprout at the end of February on my birthday, or perhaps because my memory has created a montage of the different seasons I had walked this path. We continued our trek, me leading with my gut more than any visual memory. New houses did loom over parts of the wending path, but it seemed to go on as it always had. As we rounded another corner, there it was. The tree. I was too shocked to speak.
It was different than any of the other trees that we had passed—silver-barked, its roots and branches sprawling wide, thicker trunked than most. And it was covered with years’ worth of people’s carved graffiti.
I stood, stunned that we found it. Dan talked quickly and excitedly, but I stood quietly, trying to take it in. Slowly I approached the trunk, still trying to accept the reality that this tree I didn’t even remember a few days ago still exists. I looked at the tapestry carved into the bark, examining it for evidence that I was ever there.
I communicated my doubt: “I don’t remember carving very deeply. It’s probably grown over by now. Maybe that’s a ‘K’? Maybe that used to be it?”
We stood there about five minutes, and I still was awed beyond being able to speak much more than responding to Dan. He continued to examine the tree from all angles, asking questions.
“Wait, what year was it? How old were you?”
“It was 1998. I turned fourteen that year.”
A pause, and then: “I think I found it.”
I rounded the tree to join him on the side opposite of the path, and sure enough, engraved there: “KP 14.” A chunk of bark had fallen out of the ‘1’, but the rest of the carving was perfectly legible. My husband turned to look me in the eye.
“Tell me again what you were thinking when you carved this.”
Now, even more overwhelmed that true evidence of that day had emerged, I tried to put a few jumbled thoughts together.
“I hoped that, in carving this, I would be able to return here with someone who would remember that day with me, and tell me that I mattered then in that moment.”
Dan smiled at me.
“You matter so much, to so many people around the world. Would you have believed it if you had been told at fourteen what you would do in the next twenty years? Think of the lives that you have impacted. You are amazing, and the world would be missing a lot without you. You matter immensely.”
The next morning, we opened presents with my parents and my sister. My sister sat by the Christmas tree to distribute the gifts. She had already told me that my present would be special this year. I had no idea what to expect. Debbi called me a week earlier from a Staples, asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I was trying to finish up at work, and thought, There’s nothing I want from a Staples! In my rush to get back to work, I told her, “I don’t know, why don’t you just write me a card? I love the cards you write to me.” She told me she was on it, and I hadn’t heard anything since. As we neared the end of the pile of presents, she handed me her gift. I opened the rectangular package, thinking that it was certainly bigger than a card. A black spiral bound journal lay before me. My sister explained: “You asked for a card. I decided I could give you many cards and letters. I contacted your friends and our family, asking them to write about why you matter to each of them. No one said no. Everyone wanted to send you a letter, so here they all are. I hope you know—you matter so much to everyone who knows you.”
Dan and I got back on a plane that evening to return to our normal. I went back to our home on the outskirts of Seattle, fortified by photos of a tree and a journal filled with letters, inescapable evidence that I mattered, a fourteen-year-old’s heart redeemed.
Kerstin Pless Grant was born in Amsterdam, grew up in Boston, and cut her teeth as a grown-up in places as diverse as Michigan, Baltimore, and Cambodia. She enjoys her mixed up geography of “home,” as well as going deep in her current community in Western Washington. She is married, a theological student, and runs programs at a transitional shelter for women and children experiencing homelessness. She loves hiking, camping, photography, and knowing people well.