reed magazine logonovember2005

say goodbye title

Touching the bark of the Giant Sequoia again, I remember a chemistry story I had researched several years ago about another conifer found in this part of the country, the Pacific Yew. In 1963, scientists discovered that the bark of the tree had remarkable properties as an anti-cancer agent. (For many years, scientists have tested plant materials for healing properties. After all, the “wonder drug,” aspirin, was derived originally from a compound extracted from willow bark.)

Chemists spent years studying the thousands of different chemicals found in the Yew’s bark, trying to figure out which particular chemical was the active ingredient with such potent anti-cancer properties. Starting with large quantities of bark, they eventually isolated a tiny vial of the chemical. They were then able to characterize it, replicate it, make it in larger quantities, and study its properties in laboratory and clinical settings. Finally approved as a cancer therapy in 1992, it’s available today as “Taxol,” and it’s saving thousands of lives a year.

The lesson for me today, I realize, is to search my emotions, ideas, and beliefs to find the “active ingredient.” What is the distilled essence of my years of parenting?

Once I phrase the question in this way, the answer is simple and not surprising. It is love. Everything flows from a deep sense of love for Erik — I want him to be happy, I want him to be healthy, I want to spare him the sorrows of life, I want him to discover the joys of this place. And why do I want all these things? Because I love him. So my “big hug goodbye” message to Erik will be a simple one: “I love you. You can count on my love and support. Let’s stay in touch.”

Sixty minutes have passed since I stepped off the sidewalk. All of a sudden, I’m getting self-conscious about what I’ve been doing and how I look. My fingers are dirty with tiny pieces of bark. My bare feet are wet and chilled. My cheeks are damp, and my eyes are puffy. The campus is starting to bustle. I’m ready to return to the world.

But first, I have time for one last exchange with the Giant Sequoia. I touch the bark and softly whisper, “Please take care of my son.”

I step onto the sidewalk and sit down on a bench. I put on my socks and shoes. I roll down my khakis. It’s time to start the day.

Randy Wedin, Ph.D., is a science writer for Research Corporation, a foundation for the advancement of science. He is based in Wayzata, Minnesota.