one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

I distinctly remember the first time I ever read this poem. I was 14 (give or take), impressionable, and in desperate need of something new to read. Without thinking, I picked up a collection of Robert Frost’s best works at the bookstore. I didn’t realize it then, but this poem would come to mean so much more to me in the years to come.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

Flash forward to the year 2007. My mom, who had been bravely fighting breast cancer for almost two years, was making her final journey. It sounds so cliché to say that – journey – but that’s what it was for her. It’s what she even called it. This was her journey, her time to move onward.

My mom was sick, and I was lost. Truth be told, I’m still a little lost from time to time. But now, as then, this poem was my map.
The night my mom left, after everyone had gone to bed and the house was quiet, I remembered this poem again, and recited it from memory in my head, picturing my mom running around in Heaven climbing birch trees as high as she could and sliding back down. I pictured her swinging from branch to branch – no longer sick and no longer in pain. I pictured her happy; and for that brief moment, I was okay (or as okay as I could be at that moment).

The day we said good-bye to mom, the day of her funeral, I dressed in a black and pink dress. I printed out the poem and asked our pastor’s wife to stand by in the event I wouldn’t be able to make it through the poem without bursting into tears. I vowed to myself, though, and to mom, that I would. I promised I would read it for her. It was, after all, her poem.

I didn’t make it through without crying; but I did make it through. And thanks to this poem, coupled with all of the music I’ve heard over the years, I’ve been able to continue making it through.

That would be good both going and coming back.

The other day at church, we discussed climbing trees. While the sermon wasn’t directly linked to the (in my humble opinion) greatest work by Robert Frost, it still reminded me of her nonetheless. I was reminded again of how much this poem helped me. I was reminded again that, even seven years down the road, mom was still probably climbing the big birch trees in Heaven, swinging from branch to branch and enjoying herself without feeling any pain or suffering.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness month. I’ll be donning my pink (or as much of it as I can) proudly in memory of the brave, amazing woman who shared 19 years of her life with me. I’ll also be posting 31 of the songs that have had the most impact on me since she left – though, to be honest, it will be hard to trim that list to 31. But I’ll have a song for every single day of October, and a song for every single time I’ve missed her so.

But today, to kick off this month-long celebration of my mother – including the music she’s imparted to me and the music that has found its way to me since she left – I wanted to share this poem in its entirety. Because I know my mom is still up there, going through the jewelry and leading the choir and laughing loudly as she swings through the birch trees.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Birches, by Robert Frost
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

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