Yesterday, I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to my three year-old. I have read this picture book many, many times before — in my own childhood and to my children over the last decade. It’s a very simple story, but I seem to discover a new meaning to the story in every stage of my life.
If you’ve never read the book before, here’s a read aloud:
I remember the first time I read it as a new mother. Months of sleepless nights, feedings every two hours, diaper change after diaper change, inconsolable crying — it was clear the tree’s unconditional love for the boy was a symbol of a mother’s selfless love for her child. She gives her whole self to the boy, piece by piece, expecting nothing in return.
Then, when I had my second child, the story hit a little different. No matter how much the tree gave to the boy, the tree always had more to give. I saw this to be true in motherhood and in other relationships: even when we think we cannot possibly give any more, there is always more to give. Somehow, we are able to summon the strength, the will, and the energy when our children need us.
The boy only came to the tree when he needed something, yet the tree was still overjoyed to see the boy each time. She tells the boy to cut off her branches so he can make a house for himself. She tells the boy to cut down her trunk so he can make a boat for himself. Piece by piece, she gives every part of herself to the boy so that he can be happy.
My most recent reading left me with yet another lesson. This time I did not see the story from the perspective of a mother. I saw it from the eyes of an adult child with aging parents.
I am the boy in the story. I am the child whose parents have given their whole selves just to ensure that their children are happy. I am the child whose parents gave selflessly and endlessly. And, yet, no matter how many days go by without a phone call, they are still overjoyed to hear from me. They are not tall and strong like I remember they once were. They, too, have been giving pieces of themselves to their children for decades, and a lifetime of this selfless love has left them a little weaker and a little more fragile. Yet, despite their aging selves, they are still eager to give more.
But, I don’t want to be like the boy in the story. The boy took too long to realize that happiness was not in material things like money, a house, or a boat. He had already stripped the tree of its branches and trunk, leaving it a mere stump, before he realized that he didn’t need much in life: “just a quiet place to sit and rest.” Despite everything the tree gave him, he never once thought of the tree’s happiness.
At the end of the story, the tree says,
“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
As I read these last few lines, I am reminded that our parents will always want to give. Their joy lies in the happiness of their children, as it always has. However, as adult children, we needn’t always take. There comes a point where we assume the role of the caregiver and we need to give. We need to help care for their branches so they can enjoy the laughter of their grandchildren in arms. We need to help care for their trunk so they can continue to stand tall. We need to think of their happiness, too.
We shouldn’t wait until our aging parents squint a little because their eyes aren’t what they used to be or limp a little because of bad knees before we begin to start thinking of their needs. We need to start thinking of their happiness much before that. Just like the tree, they are wise enough to know gifts and material things do not bring happiness. However, there is one thing that brings them immense joy.
We need to do what the boy in the story finally does.
We need to sit with them. We need to spend time with them. After a lifetime of basking in the warmth of unconditional love, it really is the least we can do.