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Birney Imes: A Japanese maple for Lee


Birney Imes



Some stories are so tender, so close to the bone, so rich in human emotion, the teller entrusted with them feels daunted by the responsibility that goes with the retelling. This is one such story. 


By any measure Lee Frederick was a brilliant child. Brilliance, in most cases, comes with obsessiveness. Lee had plenty of that too. 


For instance, when in the sixth or seventh grade he got interested in tropical fish. He spent so much time at the Amory Pet Shop, the folks there gave him a job. They thought enough of his expertise to take him to Birmingham to buy fish for the store. He had a 75- and a 150-gallon aquarium in his bedroom; the 75-gallon tank was his headboard. 


A friendship with Fred Cowden, a long-established nurseryman around town, got him interested in plants. Fred gave Lee some trees. The boy found a Japanese maple he liked. It cost $100. It would be the first of many Japanese maples he would purchase. The tree is growing today in his parents' yard. 


Lee had an irrepressible appetite for music. His parents, Patsy and Jerry, staunch Christians, said there would be no rock music in the house. No problem; Lee went classical. A 1928 Steinway sits in the Fredericks' living room, evidence of another of their son's passions. 


Jerry and Patsy pictured their adopted child as an athlete. As children are wont to do, Lee's plans did not align with those of his parents. He was fascinated by the halftime shows at football games. He loved the rifle girls. By the time he was 16, he was drum major for the Smithville High band. 


Then one day at band practice, everything changed. Lee felt a shooting pain in his leg. Bone cancer, but not ordinary cancer; the tumor exhibited two types of carcinoma. One is best treated with radiation, the other calls for amputation. Doctors at St. Jude's amputated Lee's leg above the knee in January of 1995. 


Fitted with a prosthesis and having made peace with the trauma that comes with the loss of a limb, Lee enrolled in vet school at Mississippi State University in the fall of 1996.  


While home for Christmas break three months later, he complained of pain in his back. The cancer that had been in his leg was now in his spine. Back to St. Jude's where he received stem-cell treatment.  


Finally, in September the doctors sent him home, telling Patsy and Jerry the time would be short. Four months later while watching TV with his parents, Lee put his hand to his head. The pain was too much. 


"I'm ready to go," he told them. "I have fought enough and I'm not going to fight any more." 


"He truly had the faith he would go to a better place," Patsy said. 


No one was surprised when this precocious boy began planning his funeral. He called his friends and asked them not to grieve. Instead of sending flowers that would fade, Lee asked for trees. Japanese maples. No big surprise there, either. 


After his son died, Jerry Frederick dug 36 holes. 


Friday afternoon at a gardening symposium at the Gilmore Foundation in Amory, master of ceremonies Lewis Rowles made an announcement. Most of those in attendance, hometown people, knew what he was referring to. 


"Patsy has some Japanese maples potted up for anyone who wants one," Lewis said. "The only thing she asks is that you remember Lee when you plant them." 


Patsy Frederick, strikingly beautiful at 68, is a tall and slender woman, who speaks with a butter-soft Southern accent. She is a breast cancer survivor. And, yes, she would be glad to tell me about her son. 


Thirty minutes later she, her husband Jerry and I sat on their shaded patio surrounded by a yard flush with the dark red foliage of Japanese maples. Patsy sells real estate; Jerry is retired after 37 years with the postal service. Patsy began. 


"After 15 years of a childless marriage, we adopted Lee. He was nine days old. He became the center of our lives, as you can imagine." 


She then went on to describe her son's life. 


"Whatever he liked, he was totally devoted to it," she said. 


It is a story she has told many times -- Lee died in April 1998 -- yet even in sharing with a sympathetic stranger 16 years later, there seemed to be something cathartic in the telling. 


"We made a lot of mistakes," Patsy acknowledged. "But he knew he was loved." 


How could he have not known. 


"I will not pity myself," she said. "We have to guard against 'why did this happen to me?' For the first year (after Lee's death), I gardened my grief." 


Somewhere in all that gardening, the Fredericks came to see how prolifically the Japanese maples their son so loved produced offspring. They began to pot the seedlings and give them to friends and strangers, asking them to plant them in Lee's name. 


"We have hundreds and hundreds of them planted in the area," said Jerry. 


When the April 2011 tornado destroyed most of Smithville, including the high school, a life-sized portrait of Lee that hung in the band section of the stadium disappeared. The portrait was found in a field 69 miles away. Tattered, but not destroyed, the portrait of the effervescent drum major was returned to its original place. 


After a point the Fredericks had talked enough. I thanked them and rose to go. "Would you like a tree?" Jerry asked. 


I will plant the maple in memory of this gifted boy who died so young, but I expect the sight of it will remind me of his parents, whose sorrow and enduring love are a testament to the preciousness of life and how ephemeral it can be. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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