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  • When I was young, there was this tree in our backyard that I liked to climb. It was huge and sprawling, the way lawns sprawled on the east side, or the way Jackson’s screams did when we turned out the light before he’d fallen asleep; this tree reached. It was engulfing and magnificent, stretching (because that’s what it did- always trying to outgrow itself and go just a little further) until it hit the sky- until it went from one end of our long, wooden fence to the other. I climbed this tree in my sweetest dreams.
    More than that, I climbed that tree every day of every summer from the second to the sixth grade, and every chance I got during the warmer months of the school year. It was my clubhouse, my playhouse, my jungle gym/ swing-set/ best friend. It was my escape.
    The good thing about having an escape is this; when you’re lying on your bed at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, suffering through the lame TV shows so that you can watch the good ones- “I Love Lucy”, “The Nanny”, and maybe a couple episodes of “Cheers”- you don’t anticipate your door being thrown open, hitting the wall with a sound that makes it clear that you should turn the TV off, now. You don’t expect to see your lamp skate across your dresser and fall to the floor, where it leaves a little mark. You certainly don’t expect to see a small chunk of dollar bills hiding where the lamp used to be. But it was, and it did, and there was, and even after my father had taken his hidden money and a suitcase he’d stuffed in my closet- deep behind last year’s winter coat and the ugly sweaters my aunt had gotten me for Christmas, behind all I had accumulated in the first nine years of my life- I wasn’t sure how to react. He’d grabbed both so quickly, I don’t even think he heard the edge of my princess lamp chip at my wood floor. I don’t think he noticed me singing “The Nanny’s” theme song as he barged in, or the sharp breath I took when I stopped.
    When he finally did pause, in the doorway with the money secure in his pocket and his luggage under an arm (didn’t he know it had wheels?), it was because he’d tripped over an untied shoelace. So he stopped, and he turned to look at me- me, lying on my belly and resting on my elbows, just as I had been a few minutes before, looking up at him expectedly. He had the same face I’d seen my whole life, give or take a few inches of hair here and there, but still the same one I’d seen at birthday parties and school events, little league and summer cookouts- the same one. But this time, there was something in his expression that I couldn’t really name. Uncertainty… desperation… fear? Was it fear? Was he afraid of me? What had I done?
    But he just looked at me and said, “You want to help me out, kid?”
    And I knew what he meant, so I hopped out of bed and fast-walked over to him, knelt down, and made two bunny ears out of his laces, crossed them, looped one through, and pulled tight. I pulled as tight as I could.
    “Thanks honey,” he whispered.
    Why was he whispering? His eyes were red.
    I stood. He held onto my arm, pulled me close, and paused with his lips on my forehead- the same gesture I got in the carpool lane and before bedtimes- though this time it held a trace of sadness. Finality.
    He finally backed away and looked at me. His eyes were worse now. Watering. He ran a hand down my braid; put a thumb on my chin so I’d look at him.
    “I love you, kid. Please… please I’m begging you, don’t forget that.”
    And then he was gone.
    And I mean, gone for good.
    The good thing about having an escape is, when such an unexpected thing happens, and the neurons in your brain are fully charged and the panic in your veins is running at full speed, you have somewhere to go. You have somewhere to wander, somewhere to climb. And anyone who’s ever been smacked in the face by life knows that elevation is key. You have to burn your energy, you have to get above it, you have to breathe, or else you’ll go crazy.
    So when my dad left- after I’d found my mom sitting Indian-style on the kitchen counter, slowly cleaning out her fingernails with a nail file, and my brother, sleeping in his “big-boy” bed complete with racecar headboard and matching pajamas- I ran outside to my tree, barefoot and freezing, and for the very first time, I climbed all the way to the top.
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