Cottonwood trees are messy things. I've got one right outside my front door that's four stories tall and, according to the neighborhood historian, at least 85 years old. Every year about now, it fills the air with a blizzard of white fluff so thick you can barely see halfway down the block. By the time we make it back from our walks, my befuddled schnoodle Roxie looks like she's sprouted cockatoo feathers.


For a week or so, my neighbors and I hate that tree. We hate the seedlings that accumulate on our window screens, that stick to the soles of our shoes, that track in our foyers and hallways and stairs so that we have to pay to get the carpets cleaned when the darn thing is finally done with its dirty deed.

Not everybody shares our disdain. Kids, for instance, contrary beings that they are, take perverse delight in the transformation of the late spring landscape into a kind of winter wonderland. They love the layers of white as thick as two inches that blanket the grass. They love the drifts that accumulate at the edges of the curbs and sidewalks and in the folds of the hostas I planted years ago.

Once, when I was visiting my friend Debbie in the hospital where she was a cancer patient, we were sitting by the window looking out at the park. She was on a low floor, with a sweeping view of tree-lined walks, green soccer fields and majestic Lake Michigan in the distance. Below us, we spotted an older man and a girl of about 4 or 5 walking hand in hand through a cottonwood squall. The man, who we presumed to be the grandfather, kept brushing seedlings off his shoulders irritably with his free hand, while the child tugged happily ahead, giggling at the downy eddies she stirred up. Suddenly, she wiggled her fingers free from Grandpa's grasp, threw herself down on her back and proceeded to wave her arms and legs against the ground.

In a pique, the old man grabbed her hand and yanked her upright, harrumphing as he brushed at the mess that now covered the back of her flowered dress. But the youngster was oblivious, laughing and pointing, and when we looked at where she had lain, even from that distance Debbie and I could make out a snow angel plain as day in the cotton-covered lawn.

About the same time, Grandpa noticed, too, and immediately stopped scolding. He put a hand on the little girl's shoulder, laughing, and together they admired the angel for several minutes before resuming their walk.

I would love to draw some profound connection between this incident and the current state of health care, which is, after all, what I'm supposed to be writing about here. Something about how even in the tumultuous period in which we find ourselves, with political rhetoric filling the air and wild and woolly predictions flying everywhere, hospital leaders and staffs manage to find their sweet spot, taking care of their communities and the people who live in them.

But this is just a corny story without deep meaning. Other than the fact that I witnessed the scene from a hospital room, there's no legitimate health care connection to be found. The only reason I wanted to write about it at all was to remember my friend Debbie, who died 15 years ago this month, and to recall a fleeting moment that lifted her spirit, and mine — and might, if only modestly, do the same for you.

Contact Bill Santamour at