My dad is dying. As is this ancient oak.
I love this oak, this witness tree. It was already old — 130 years old — when a surveyor blazed it as a reference point in the course of dividing the Illinois prairie into square mile sections for sale. It witnessed the seasonal encampents of Pottawatomie give way to farmers who built fences, hedgerows and homes to stay. It witnessed roaming bison replaced by grazing cattle and prairie grasses supplanted by corn. It witnessed soldier-straight rows of corn developed into regimented rows of munitions bunkers. It has lived long enough to witness the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant rechristened and reborn as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
I love my dad. As his son, allow me to be his witness. My dad’s dad was a peasant farmer from Sweden, who came to Amerika in the late 1800s in search of a better life. Like many immigrant Swedes, he ended up working for the Pullman Company as an inside finisher, a carpenter. Likely due to failing eyesight, he retired in 1933. His final time card is stamped, “non-pensionable service.” At the height of the Great Depression, he had no work, no pension, no health care, no Social Security. Throughout the remainder of his days, there was practically no money to support his family and two young children — including my dad. After he died in 1945, there was absolutely no money.
My dad’s lifeline out of poverty was to join the Navy. Uncle Sam trained him to be a mechanic. My dad sailed halfway around the world to serve in battle during the Korean War. Upon his discharge, he returned to south suburban Chicago and eventually landed a job as an electrician with Illinois Bell Telephone. He met a fellow Ma Bell employee and they married. They both joined the union, a privilege denied to my dad’s dad. They worked hard. They saved. They raised two kids. When they retired after decades of faithful service to the company, they received a pension and Social Security. Their health care was covered for life. As retirees, they split their time between one “candominium” (mobile home) in coastal Florida and another candominium in south suburban Illinois.
My mom died suddenly in October 2021. My dad hasn’t been the same since. Throughout his life, he was one of those guys who never got sick. Well into his 80s, he never took anything more than an occasional aspirin. Until the first major medical issue arose. The first chink in the armor. And then the next. And the next.
Last year, when my dad — plagued by an escalating number of health issues — entered an assisted living facility, I would return every few months to visit him. Each time, I would be shocked to see how much more compromised he had become. On one of my return trips to see my dad, I visited the Midewin witness tree and was equally shocked to see the tree significantly losing its leaves.
Bur oaks are known for their strength and longevity. However, they are not immune to time and disease. The witness tree oak is about 330 years old, the very upper end of the typical age range for bur oaks. As such, it is more susceptible to the likes of Bur Oak Blight, a pathological new comer, which defoliates the trees. Repeated defoliation renders bur oaks more susceptible to other indignities, including the two-lined chestnut borer and Armillaria root rot, which — according to the Morton Arboretum — “ultimately cause tree decline and death.”
This week, I returned to help my sister navigate my dad through the next serious health threat, for which there is no cure — only a limited range of palliative band-aids.
I stopped by Midewin to check in on the witness tree, as well, and was shocked to find the tree nearly leafless.
My dad is a mighty oak. In his prime, his forearms were as thick and sinewy as cordwood. They actually frightened me for their strength. At 93, he is at the upper end of his age range. His hair is thin, his limbs weak, even his bark has lost its bite. As his son, let me bear witness. Let me bear witness.