Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Violets in the Mountains

Today I went to lunch with a good friend of mine from grad school.  He's getting married this summer, so we discussed his wedding plans and the rapidly approaching end of the semester.  I was supposed to go to my office for a few hours after lunch, but he was on his way to visit one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries in St. Louis  and wanted to know if I wanted to ride along.  He's taking a class there on Saturday to look at the most famous gravesites--Dred Scott, William Tecumseh Sherman, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams--so he wanted to make sure he remembered where they were all located.

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.


  1. Wonderful on so many levels. I have been wanting to visit the infant section of my local cemetary, but haven't been able to bring myself to do it. I'm glad that you can view Eliza's life as something beyond grief. It helps me to realize that there is more to this path than just anger and sadness. Love to you mama~

  2. Oh, stunning post. We couldn't get Hope buried at the children's section of our local cemetery, because it was full. That broke my heart. The section is huge, but was filled up in the 1980s. There is another stillborn baby buried near her though, so it brings me comfort she's not alone.

  3. That was a lovely comment from your friend. It is very hard to see any 'good' in the death of baby (and I know there have been times when I haven't wanted to and haven't been able to) but I think that there is a very deep truth in Tennessee William's epitaph. Our children's lives may have been fragile and far too short but they are also strong in ways that I couldn't have suspected.

    I feel quite at home in cemeteries now. I would have liked my daughter to be buried in the children's cemetery close to our house but, like Hope's Mama found half way across the world, ours was also full. I also find the idea of my daughter's name appearing on my own gravestone one day a comfort.

  4. I'm glad that your visit gave you some comfort. Perhaps in time you will have more moments here you find the good changes that having Eliza has brought into your life.

  5. Great post. You have me in tears but they are good ones. Thinking of you today and hope you have a good day.

  6. And I cry.

    I love the idea of your Eliza's name appearing on a headstone (many, MANy years from now). My husband and I wish to have our ashes buried (or set free) alongside our Jack.. Not really sure how that works.

    What a lovely compliment to you- a compassionate mother. I love that.

  7. An amazing post.

    You have a wonderful friend.

  8. Beautiful post. Heartbreaking and beautiful. I remember my husband and I went to Barbados about 5 months out from Sam's death and went through a cemetary there and found several gravesites of babies, loved and missed over 100 years ago. It made me sad but like you, I felt less alone.

  9. Such a beautiful post, Brooke. Sending you much love, as always. xo

  10. Thank you for this, Brooke. So wise and insightful, as always. You are a treasure, that's for sure.

  11. Wow. So moving especially the last couple of sentences. Yes loving them, our little people, have made all the difference in our lives. And I feel exactly like you do - this loss has ruined my life. I'm in such disrepair, I'm so broken & broken hearted, that I don't think I can ever be fixed. I'm like humpty dumpty, noone can put me back together again. :*{

  12. Truly beautiful post.. you have given me goosebumps! We've decided that when I die, we'll burry Kristen's ashes with me. I LOVE the idea of having her name with mine on the tombstone (hadn't actually crossed my mind until I read what you had written) Thank you!

  13. Great post. Possibly my favorite. It made me cry happy and sad tears. I am so glad you write.

  14. Hey girl could you please email me when you get a chance (canesgirl115@yahoo.com)? <3

  15. I love that line about the violets. I'm so glad you have a friend who recognizes that you are, truly, a compassionate mother.

    I can't face the thought of burying Teddy's ashes yet - I'm terrified that we might move away and he'd be buried far from us. Silly, because his ashes aren't him, but still. Hopefully some day N and I will share a headstone with him.

  16. You are definitely a compassionate mother.

  17. Beautiful post. You expressed all those things so well.

  18. This is a lovely post. Friends like that are worth their weight in gold. : )

    I love poking around cemeteries & feel very comfortable around them, for the most part. When dh & I were first married, our apartment building backed onto one of Toronto's oldest & largest cemeteries, & we used to go over there to walk. Some of Canada's most famous families have members buried there in crypts that are the size of houses.

    I too have started noticing all the babies' graves (& there are so many, especially from years ago). The cemetery where we put Katie's ashes has a "Garden of Angels" but somehow I found it too unbearably sad to bury her there. She is close by, though, & we go over there often. Quite a number of babies whose parents attended our support group are buried there, so it feels like we are visiting friends.

  19. I needed that today Brooke, thanks :)

  20. So beautiful. So true. You are a beautiful mother. We are all beautiful (bereaved) mothers. I appreciate your writing in Three Minus One.