The Mathematics of Grief

B.J. Hollars

I was in the second grade, but on that day, my job was not to add or subtract, but to plant a tree for a dead girl.  I carried no ones.  I dealt with no remainders.  My job, my teacher made clear, was to stand solemnly on the playground alongside the dead girl’s friends and dip a shovel into the dirt.  It was something I knew I’d be good at.  At my grandfather’s burial the previous year I’d dipped a similar shovel into similar dirt and the result had been solemnity.  It hadn’t been hard for a boy like me, and if this dead girl—whose name might’ve been anything—needed my help to bury her tree, I was happy to oblige.  Not bury, my teacher corrected.  Plant.  You are to plant a tree today. 


I planted a tree that day, and years later—while driving by the schoolyard to find that tree uprooted—I began wondering why I’d ever been selected for the task.  Had the teacher struggled to find a sufficient number of friends to honor the dead girl?  Was I a stand-in?  A prop?  A much-needed boy to balance out the girls?


Let us not fret over the variables; let us solve nothing for x.  Instead, let’s make an educated guess as to why me.  Perhaps because the teacher knew that I knew the difference between recess and a dead girl.  And perhaps the class agreed; no one practiced solemnity like I did.  Before I knew death I’d dreamed it, and after I knew it, it only became easier to stand as rigid as a shovel and as silent as a tree.


That afternoon, when the principal said the dead girl’s name I didn’t hear it.  And when she said it again I missed it again as well.  My hand was on the shovel, but my mind was far away, already tangled in the complexities of dirt and limbs and mathematics.  I wondered: If you subtract a girl but add a tree, what then, is the answer?


B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings.  He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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