What happens without warning

How a California ash embodies new information in a long friendship.

In her memoir Lab Girl, Hope Jahren says we all have a tree we remember from childhood. Hers is a blue-tinged spruce (Picea pungens) that she hugged and climbed and talked to, believing it cared about her. She thought they had a relationship — until one day, when she realized the tree was incapable of feeling. My tree is a California ash (Fraxinus Dipetala), not from my childhood, but from the day of Danza’s phone call: Dec. 28, 1995. I cannot look back on that stormy day without remembering the naked, exposed branches that hovered above our ranch-style Los Angeles home.


I sat at my desk overlooking the backyard, where rain-soaked camelias, agapanthus and aging rosebushes shuddered beneath the stately, barren ash. I picked up the phone after three rings. “I have something to tell you,” Danza said, her voice strained. The line went silent. Droplets of moisture from yesterday’s rain slid down the windowpane, then stopped at the edge of the sill, like that falter in her voice. She typically delivered rousing theatrical preludes, but this time there was something in her words that made my chest contract. A warning: I have something to tell you.

I saw her for the first time in the ninth-grade school play, The Mouse That Roared. From my front-row balcony seat, I watched her glide across the stage in her floor-length gown, hair piled in a sophisticated heap atop her head. Words fell from her lips like rolls of silk. From that moment, I tried to emulate her, hoping to channel her beauty and grace.  At times, I may even have succeeded. 

A gray squirrel shimmied up a slender branch of the ash tree, tail billowing. He disappeared from view. My eyes followed the ladder up to the treehouse where, during summer, my children climbed into their imaginations amid clusters of leaves that were lush as a thick head of hair. This tree pollinated our lives with shade, protection from the scorching Southern California sun. But now, winter had stripped away all its exclamations of color, leaving a stark patina.

I waited for Danza’s punchline. I have something to tell you. Questions buzzed in my ear: Was she moving? Had she met a new guy? Was she possibly, after all this time, getting married? Then, like vapor, they vanished. I knew in my gut that the news was dire. For a moment, I thought we’d lost our connection. I waited, picturing her face, as I had so many times since we were girls, her wide smile and standout cheekbones. Perfectly formed mouth and small turned-up nose. Part Cherokee like her father, part Southern belle like her mother; deeply connected to the earth and carefree as a breeze.  

 I have something to tell you.

Marissa Garcia/High Country News

I was not Hope Jahren; I had never regarded the ash tree as a companion or a character in my story. Yet I could not overlook our shared characteristics. The ash, like Danza and me, was a native Californian that was planted by the original owner of my family’s home in 1953, making it our agemate as well. It stood 20 feet tall, maybe more, had deep roots, a broad trunk, and grayish brown patterned bark that, in the rain, shone like a sheath of diamonds.  

Ash trees have the rare trait of opposite branching: Each branch has a twin that grows from the exact opposite side of the same limb. Danza and I, from the moment we met, were exactly that: the twin branches of an ash tree, springing from the opposite sides of the same limb. The way we finished each other’s sentences. The way we read each other’s thoughts. The way we combusted into simultaneous laughter.

Danza’s next words came fast, in a blurt of panic. “I lost your phone number. I couldn’t figure out how to reach you.” It had been almost a year since we’d spoken. The previous January I had dreamt she was dying. I tried to track her down — only to encounter disconnected phones, beeps and message machines — so many crossed-out numbers and addresses, scribbles of a nomadic existence. I called her friends, her older brother, the ashram in Oakland and in New York where she’d been living intermittently for years. She finally returned my call, reassuring me in a suspiciously veneered tone that she was fine. I recognized the cover-up; I was on the receiving end of another one of Danza’s fabrications, but, oh, how I wanted to succumb to her playacting. Perhaps believing her would make it true. She was fine. Months later, she confessed that she was already having night sweats and other symptoms.

Danza’s next sentence came at me with the force of a bullet. “My cancer is back.”

I knew it … my intuition was right.  A great actress … she’s a master at hiding the truth. My dream ... I should have been more persistent.  I should have followed up.

“It went into my spine and then my hip in April. I woke up one morning, and I couldn’t move. My hip was broken.”

The California ash is also known as the two-petal ash. In spring, sweet-scented white petals hang from the tree in clusters. Each flower consists of two lobes joined at the base — like best friends, “joined at the hip.”

Marissa Garcia/High Country News

Danza had been blasted with radiation and chemo, months of pain I never even knew about. Aggressive lymphoma moves fast, runs deep, and is merciless.  She had reached her lifetime limit of chemo, but her doctor wouldn’t give up. Maybe losing Danza was as unimaginable for him as it was for me.

Now, I couldn’t move. I ran my finger along the inside of the windowpane, began counting raindrops, but they outpaced my ability to track them. They overlapped, blurring into each other. The tree was obscured in mist, its silhouette hazy, branches thwacking against the roofline of the house. 

“The cancer has gone into my brain. I can handle the pain, but what if … what if I lose my mind? You know me better than anyone. I need you to be my brain. I need you to think for me.” 

Now I understood. Danza was asking me, her twin branch, to stand by her side and help her die. Me, the girl who sobbed at mere goodbyes, who chose birth over death in my profession as a Lamaze instructor, who  knew nothing at all about helping a friend cross over. I wanted to scream into the receiver, I can’t do this! I am not available to help with this crusade! But, like a doctor responding to an emergency page, I said the only thing I could, speaking from my heart: Yes.

I planted my gaze on the tree that for me was neither playmate nor companion, but rather a metaphor for stability. I thought I could lean on it. It would support me. It would shelter and shade me. Together, we would stand the test of time. I didn’t know then that ash trees could be unstable. Without warning, the entire top can snap off. Without warning, branches can fracture. Without warning, despite its deep root system, a tree can crash down hard, bending the boughs of future dreams.

Without warning, Danza would leave me.

Note: This story was updated to correct the date on which Danza called Megan to let her know about her diagnosis.

Megan Vered is an essayist and literary hostess. Her personal essays and interviews have been published in Shondaland, Kveller, The Rumpus, the Maine Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Writer's Chronicle, among others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, heads the governance committee for Heyday Books, and is the CNF interviewer for Radicle, part of the Maine Review. Find out more about Vered at www.meganvered.com.