The Heartlight Tree
On January 7, 1991, at the tender age of five-and-a-half, Kevin died in a bike-truck accident at the foot of our next-door neighbor’s driveway. Later that spring, our dear friend, Dave Arellano, a principal in the school district where Kevin's father was also a teacher, organized a group of school district administrators to donate a blue spruce tree in memory of our Kevin. The city granted their request to plant the tree in Altrusa Park, a parkway at the end of our street. The park held special memories for our family because just two days before Kevin died, we shared a wonderful afternoon there romping in the snow and sledding down the big hill. It was a glorious day!
The dedication for The Heartlight Tree was held on Earth Day, April 22, 1991 in Altrusa Park at the intersection of Hillcrest Drive and Devon Street in Montrose, Colorado. On that warm spring day, we invited Kevin’s friends and classmates, Stann’s seventh grade class, and our friends and family to the ceremony. We asked each of Kevin’s closest friends and cousins to bring a cup of dirt from their backyard. I took the children aside and explained that we would use the dirt from the ground on which they had played with Kevin to plant the tree. In doing so they would always have a place to come and remember their adventures and fun times with Kevin. Most important: their love would help the tree grow. After a short speech from our school superintendent, the children gathered around the little blue spruce. One by one, the children poured their cups of dirt into the hole mixing it with the fresh soil to produce a fertile ground for “Kevin’s Tree”. Stann and our daughter, Amber, helped slide the burlap root ball into place, sealing its destiny to serve.
Eight months later, grief had a fierce grip on our hearts as the looming Christmas season became an excruciating gauge for how long we had lived without our Kevin. We went through the motions of decorating a tree if only to give Amber (then nine years old) a connection to our traditions but it was futile and empty. Kevin’s tree was the only real anchor to the past that had any life or spirit. Our first attempt to light it with battery-operated lights lasted one evening. Heartbroken, we gave up and began untangling the light strings when a kind stranger from the neighborhood offered their electrical outlet to light the tree. With hope and a renewed spirit, we wrapped the branches of the blue spruce tree with new lights and from that moment on it shone brightly for all the town to see! We invited the same children who attended the tree-planting ceremony to create a handmade ornament in Kevin’s memory to hang on its snow laden branches. Soon, the most precious ornaments crafted from pine cones, tin, felt and paper appeared almost daily --all signed by name, infused with love and twinkling in the winter sunlight.
As word spread of the little Christmas tree in the park, a few more anonymous ornaments appeared on its young branches. We were astonished that even strangers felt compelled to visit the tree as they left offerings for Kevin and for other children who had died. We realized then that Kevin’s tree had a far greater purpose. A simple act of generosity and compassion to light the tree from Joyce and Ed Chenevert, a neighborhood family who lived just behind the tree, gave us a ray of hope during a dark and mournful time. We knew in our hearts that Kevin’s tree had to be shared with other bereaved families so they too could honor the love light of their precious children.
We named it The Heartlight Tree with a nod to the Neil Diamond song “Heart Light” and the theme song to the film “E.T.”, Kevin’s favorite movie. In the days following his death, the words to that song became a hallmark of the impact Kevin had on his peers and loved ones in his short time with us.
Today, that blue spruce stands over 40 feet tall on a solid foundation of love and has held over 400 ornaments from across the country. On the 20th anniversary, I was inspired by a dream to replace the weather-worn ornaments with a single, heart-shaped lighted ornament in memory of all children around the world. We extend our eternal love and gratitude to neighbors Ed and Joyce Chenevert who lit the tree from their back-yard patio from 1991 to 2000, and to our dear friends, Steve and Kathy Gaber who continue the tradition from their backyard.
Over the years we have made many pilgrimages to our sacred tree. Our tears have watered its thirsty roots to produce blue-green needles and thick branches that offer solace in their shade and wisdom from a gentle breeze. Yet, those are the same needles that pierce tender fingertips in the way that grief unexpectedly stabs at the scars of a healing heart. Just as Kevin’s little tree endured drought, freezing temperatures, raging wind, and vandalism, 28 years later, we have battled the brutal and turbulent weather of grief to stand taller and stronger than ever. Blessed by the kindness of strangers, the support of our loved ones, and the gentle mercies of God, we have survived and continue to thrive.