It’s not March until the day after tomorrow. There are traces of snow on the trail so the muddy surface means I have to push the wheelchair hard to avoid getting stuck. The chair groans and creaks, the cleats of my shoes dig in. But my dad doesn’t care. He’s glad to be out. We’re leaving the hospice and the world of the dying behind us, just for a while. The sunshine makes my dad smile, his face bright, almost luminous.
I’ve brought the jackknife with me this time. Yesterday, the smooth skin of the young branches on the old willows made us both think of the whistles we used to carve every spring.
Mostly, the whistles I carved didn’t work. But the whistles he carved never once failed.
I’m not sure why it matters so much to me today, but today is a day for carving whistles, even if it is too early. I climb the tree and find a smooth branch for carving.
I try, as always, unsuccessfully, to lift the blade from the knife casing. I remember awkwardly how I have always struggled with that. Can’t quite get my fingers in to pull the blade out. Instinctively, I hand the knife to my dad to open it for me, just like he’s always done. Then I hold my breath, worry he won’t have the strength or that he will forget what to do. He doesn’t forget. He fumbles for half a second and then flips it open and smiles up at me as if to say, aren’t you ever going to learn to do this yourself?
I climb the tree, cut the branch that looked about right from below and meet him on the ground. The wood is hard. I’ve been ambitious in selecting a branch. Maybe too ambitious. The branch is pretty thick for the size of my knife. I start whittling.
We study the branch I’ve made a mess of. I’m no expert. There was a day when my dad would have sliced this thick branch through in two or three strong strokes.
“The core seems pretty hard,” I say to him. “I’m not sure I can get through this.” And I’m not sure. This was probably a dumb idea, I think then.
“Let me get a hold of your hands,” he says, and grips my hand hard so we can both push the blade through the wood. His hands are large, his fingernails familiar, his right arm is still strong. The core gives in.
By this time, I’m already aware there’s not enough sap in the wood. I knew it before we started. I could tell by the feel of it in my hand. The bark isn’t coming loose at all. The sap needs to be running. The sap is important – it lets the smooth ring of bark slip from the white wood inside.
No matter how I tap the soft green bark, twist it in my fingers, or coax it with a whisper to come free, it’s not coming loose. It’s too early in the year. We need more time. The sap doesn’t really start running until May.
Even the wood knows it. What we need is a little more time. Just a little more time.