As a former children’s librarian, one of my favorite books was the classic story of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I used this book many times for storytelling. I learned the story in sign language to add more drama and meaning to the plot. I told the tale with a wide age range from 4 year olds to adults.
The book never failed to bring responses to the listeners ranging from clapping afterwards to tears in the eyes of the listener. Why does this book resonate so much with many people? And why do I compare it with living with cancer?
First, for people who do not know the story, let me reiterate. It is about the relationship between a young boy and an apple tree. The boy climbed the tree, ate the apples and was with the tree all the time. The tree was willing to give everything to the boy because he loves him so much. As the boy becomes a young adult and then an old man, the needs he has change. Initially, the tree gives the boy his apples to sell for money. When the boy becomes a young adult, he offers his branches to build a house. After the young man becomes older and wants to get away from everything, the tree gives him his trunk for a boat.
As an old man, the boy returns and the tree cries out because he has nothing more to give. The old man said he doesn’t need apples, or branches or trunks. All he wants is a place to sit and rest. The tree provides the old man with his stump, which is all he has left, but is all that is needed.
This story teaches us lessons on so many levels. I think of the tree now with my cancer and the desire to do volunteer work now that I am retired. When we want to volunteer, we can go and feed the homeless in soup kitchens, perform many tasks in the hospitals, and work in nursing homes. Many people do wonderful things with Habitat for Humanity. Some special people even go on foreign missions. The church is the largest volunteer organization on the world, and there are so many opportunities to give. There are literacy programs, places in the inner cities to help and the list goes on and on.
My favorite volunteer activity when I was younger was visiting a group home for blind and deaf young men, which I did weekly for 15 years. I thought then as I became older and left the demanding jobs I had, I would be helping in soup kitchens and many other similar missions.
Cancer changed that drastically. Because of my compromised immune system, the oncologist cautioned me about visiting ensuring home and hospitals. The chemo lowers my blood count and resistance to infection and I will always be on it, due to having a blood cancer. I do not have the luxury of thinking that in the future I will be able to do all these things again. I do not have the energy to visit a group home often. I always have a week of chemo each month that I am pretty much confined to home. I thought my service dog could be a therapy dog, but hospitals, schools and nursing homes are incubators for the flu and other ailments that can flatten me without warning.
I feel like the Giving Tree. I like to give, but some of my energy and ability to assist were taken away not by a boy, but by a disease with consequences. BUT – like the tree – there is always some way I can help. The people in my church truly understand why I cannot stand for hours to serve dinners, or go downtown to feed the people who do not have food. However, I can provide the items for backpacks for the school we have adopted as a service program. I can bring desserts to the dinners. And I am the official card writer. I volunteered to write cards whenever someone is ill, has lost a loved one, or has missed church for awhile. I am amazed at the thank yous I get from people appreciating this. Best of all, these activities can be done when I have my good days.
So if you feel like the Giving Tree and stripped of energy and health, remember there is always something to give – even if it is a stump to sit on, a card to send to someone, or just listening to family members and friends with problems. And as a cancer survivor, you always have your experience and compassion to share with others! They need it and will welcome it. And just maybe like the old man, they will not need much – just a place to sit and rest.