Every once in a while you meet someone who changes your life. That’s what happened to me one day when I turned into a driveway that had a sign out front that read “Japanese Maples.” I had passed that house for years—years, I tell you—and never had the courage to pull in. But this time, I had a reason: a new house. A blank slate of a landscape and a strong desire to plant some Japanese maples to go with our new Japanese-inspired house. That’s the day I met Leroy “Ned” Clymer.
Out of the house came Ned, charmingly friendly, upright, incredibly knowledgeable about Japanese maples…and old. I soon learned he was in his late 80s. But he seemed remarkably healthy and strong as he gave me a tour of his collection. A little part of my heart fell in love with him. If I could only be that strong and healthy at that age! I ended up buying more than 10 trees that day. All of them were amazing specimens of indeterminate age and priceless beauty. He gave me a great price, but I would have paid anything at that point.
Then out of the house came his wife, Mrs. Clymer. She was all bent over and needed a cane to get around, but incredibly sweet. We got a tour of their tiny house filled with a lifetime of memories and time spent living in Japan. As he told stories, I realized there wasn’t much they hadn’t done, and you could feel their love and even passion for each other that hadn’t been eroded by time.
I asked my landscaper to dig out the trees. He fell in love a little bit with them, too.
Ned and Mrs. Clymer even came to visit the trees a year later. Their twin daughters brought them since they were both too old to drive, although Ned still stood straight and tall. They were stunned that we hadn’t lost a single tree in the transplanting process. They even brought me a tiny stick of a tree that was Mrs. Clymer’s favorite kind. I planted it, and it is a jewel! Ned, who was a lifelong wild ginseng collector and advocate, even brought a ginseng plant to transplant into our woods.
For the next two years, every time there was an article in the paper about me I would get a call or, more likely, a voice message that went something like this: “Hello, honey, this is Mrs. Clymer. I saw the article in the paper about you and I am just so proud of you honey! I hope you are doing well. Me, I’m doing terrible! The only thing that still works is my mouth! But I love you honey, so take care. Goodbye!” At the time, my own mother was fighting her breast cancer to the death and my grandmother had long passed, and that little bit of maternal comfort would warm my heart to the core. Which is why it didn’t surprise me when one morning, sitting out on my couch having my morning coffee in the garden, my daughter said to me “Hey, look at that tree (one of Ned’s). It’s shaped exactly like a big green heart!” And so it is.
Time passes. I worry about them. My landscaper goes to check on them and reports that they are alive and well. The last time I drove by their house, Ned was sitting tall on his lawn mower as he sped across his big green front lawn. I got busy with work and have less time to putter in the garden. I tell my nephew, a fellow tree lover, about them. Spring comes, a time of planting trees…. I get an email from my nephew. He was googling Ned Clymer in preparation for a visit to him, and he came across an article from last year’s local newspaper (which, I confess, I have stopped reading). On July 5th, 2011, it reported: A 92-year-old man named Leroy “Ned” Clymer murdered his 87-year-old wife, called 911 and then killed himself.
Lately, I have heard from more and more people that their parents are surprised that they have lived so long. Many of them haven’t prepared for it either financially or physically. Most are stories of parents fighting a change: They don’t want to leave their homes but can’t take care of themselves anymore. I don’t know what happened with Ned and Mrs. Clymer. But in my heart, I have to imagine that what he did, he did for love.
We may never know for sure. But here is what I do know: I will think of them with love every time I see my beautiful Japanese maples. And maybe this year, I’ll even follow up on the thought I had last year as I saw the little Jap maple seedlings sprouting beneath the trees that I might transplant some of them and start my own little Japanese maple nursery, like Ned’s. He gave me buckets of unidentified trees that he had grown from seed, and I’ve gradually spread them out as their color comes true.
But I also will think about planning for old age. I will try not to pretend and deny that death is the final stop on this journey. I will try not to be afraid or stubborn about asking for help and accepting it when the time comes. I am putting this in writing so my kids have evidence I said this, and can flap it in front of my face when I cross my arms and say, “I ain’t leaving!”
Well, after all that, I will leave…but the trees will stay.
A SPECIAL NOTE: As I was finishing this blog and eating my breakfast while reading the local paper, the front page told another, similar story. A longtime community leader and a dear friend of my parents’, Charlie Snelling, also murdered his wife and then committed suicide. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for the past six years. The entire community seems to be rallying around the belief that he did it out of love. I’m not implying that what Ned and Charlie did is either right or wrong. However, I think the issue of how we both age and die gracefully—how we greet the end of life and help those we love to—will be one of the primary issues of our times.
What do you all think?