It was a beautiful day, so it didn't take much convincing for me to cancel my office hours and go to the cemetery instead.
William Tecumseh Sherman's grave is touching because next to it there is a small version that marks the grave of his young son, "Our Little Sergeant Willie." He was nine years old when he died.
Dred Scott's gravestone was covered in pennies, paying homage to Lincoln freeing the slaves. There were also some mardi gras beads on his headstone but I'm not quite sure what the historical significance of that would be.
Dred Scott and his wife Harriet had a daughter named Eliza.
I saw another Eliza's name engraved on a stone in a lovely family plot. One of the other gravestones near hers read, "Here lies Ann, wife of Henry. Likewise their infant daughter Catharine." The dates had worn away, so I couldn't tell if Ann and Catharine had died together or not, but I held a prayer in my heart for both of them. I decided that someday my gravestone will also have Eliza's name on it, and I liked that idea very much.
After we saw Kate Chopin's grave, my friend looked over the cemetery map and asked if I wanted to go up to the Shrine of the Infants.
And so we did.
It was pretty heartbreaking, all of these little baby graves on one big hilltop. Some of them with single dates, many of them with two dates just a few days or weeks apart. The graves in this section were from the 1960s all the way up through 2010. I didn't cry as I walked among the stones, but my heart ached for all of families who had walked this path I'm on.
In a weird way, it was also somewhat comforting in that it made me feel like one small part of something greater than my own hurt. My loss feels so huge, but a big cemetery full of strangers is a reminder that we are all living one short chapter of a much larger narrative. And in that cemetery I saw the staggering evidence of two centuries of parents who have endured the loss of a child.
We didn't talk much as we walked around the infant shrine. When we got back in the car, my friend picked up the cemetery map again so that we could locate Tennessee Williams's gravesite. To get there, we had to drive by the Shrine of the Compassionate Mother. Since this is a Catholic cemetery, I assumed that refers to the Virgin Mary.
But my friend pointed at the map, and said, "Oh, look. Shrine of the Compassionate Mother. That's you."
He said it in the most matter-of-fact tone, an offhand comment that had just popped into his head (and obviously it was sort of a joke since I am not typically one who compares favorably with the Virgin Mary).
But of all the nice things friends have said to me, that comment filled up my heart in a way I can hardly explain.
I guess it's because we shared an office as grad students and bonded over dissertation agony and teaching difficulties and crazy advisors and a love for literature and cheap Mexican food and beer and trivia, and I thought my life was hard then. Now, everything is so different and I'm astonished that my friends are still here and my pain hasn't scared them away. It was even more astonishing, somehow, to realize that he sees me as a compassionate mother.
I haven't been able to put any other adjective with the word "mother" in regard to myself except for "bereaved."
But I want his version to be true, too. Eliza hasn't just made me sad. She has made me open and aware and compassionate. I just didn't know it until I heard him say it out loud.
I still mostly feel like this loss has wrecked my life. I'm not living the life I wanted, the plans I had have been decimated, and I could scream for years about how unfair it is.
But, for a moment, it seemed possible that Eliza could change my life in good ways, even without being here.
I didn't say anything in reply to his comment. I guess I pondered it in my heart, which is something like Mary after all.
Then we drove over to Tennessee Williams's gravestone. His epitaph reads,
The violets in the mountain have broken the rocks.
And I thought about the power of tiny, fragile, beautiful things, and how they can change the course of history.
Broken rocks, broken hearts.
And then I cried a little. Because, oh, I miss my baby girl more than I can say.
But I know that loving her will make all the difference in my life.
It already has.