Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sometimes, Walking in Cemeteries Has Consequences

Bryce and I love walking in old cemeteries. The history, the beauty of the stones and the epitaphs and the statuary...it all combines to make for a multi-faceted walk.

We love cemeteries in Vermont:

Grafton Cemetery


Manchester cemetery

We love a local cemetery here in our city, Mount Hope. It's not only older stones and history (Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are buried there!) but a beautiful park with walkways through a crazy hilly landscape carved by ancient glaciers:

Mount Hope in Rochester
So yesterday, we set out for a new cemetery, one we'd never walked around. It's Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. It also, on the Genesee River side, borders Riverside Cemetery.

It was not the same kind of walk.

On the non-river side, we walked around, deciding that we would set our path by choosing an interesting stone in the distance and then set out to get to it, and alternate between the two of us. Which worked out great. We even saw an unusual sight...There was a car that was stopped and then moving very, very slowly and we couldn't figure out why, and then we looked left:

Tried to darken it but it's still super light and hazy thanks to the weather.. but do you see the FOUR surprises? And a PIEBALD!

And then our walk took us down a path to the right, where we found a section entirely made of small stones, some short, rectangular stones with the epitaphs on the top, and some with weathered lambs. Oh...lambs. If ever you see a headstone, a small one, with a little lamb on top, it's a child. And this ENTIRE section...it was all children. Two. Three. Ten. Five. Lots of Fives. Bryce wondered why you would bury your child separate from you, but then here was a whole section dedicated to lives cut too short.

You would think that would be somber enough, but no.

We walked along that section and came across a smaller one, near the border fence at the back. It was labeled "Guardian Angels." There were all kinds of things along the stones, most of which were the kind that lie flush with the ground. And the dates were largely singular. A birth and death date all in one.

We saw stones for babies born too soon, who never took a breath, who lived for hours, who lived a few days. That was the oldest stone I saw...a few days.

There were teddy bears and toy trucks and one bright yellow baseball.

We stopped walking.

We just stood and read the stones and looked at all those objects, the things that weren't flowers or pinwheels but tangible potential. And we cried.

I mean, how could you not?

The baseball was the thing that stood out the most. A baby doesn't play with a baseball, but the child that baby was supposed to grow into would have. It sat there, laden with all the potential that was lost on the day the child was born and ceased to be, all at once.

We felt our own compounded losses then, the loss of the pregnancies we thought might become children but only lasted weeks, and just a couple at that. The loss of all the many embryos that held the potential for so much more, for parenthood and life beyond cellular division. These losses were just so tangible, and ours are so conceptual. We have our little star, and our little Buddha statue, but someone could come into our house and not know what those really stand for. They are for us, not for the annals of time. The only evidence that they existed at all is this space and a drawer full of bendy-cornered, fuzzy black and white pictures at various stages of development.

But we also felt deeply the losses of all these people, who were clearly taking very good care of these tiny graves, where the tiny items laid next to the stones weren't weatherworn at all and could have been placed there yesterday. People who thought that they were going home with a baby and didn't. People who endured the kind of unimaginable loss that so many people don't ever have to think about...loss that changes you forever.

We talked about that section for the rest of our walk, about potential and loss of potential and how we lost 27 tiny chances at having the pregnancy experience that ends with a baby, with two of those making it just a bit further than the rest. About how we have this tremendous potential to be parents, but that in this space of waiting and waiting and NOT having a pregnancy, a physical reminder that we are actually going to have a baby sleeping and playing in the nursery that is slightly dusty and enjoyed mostly by cats...it feels just so far away. It feels a little removed, because in adoption, you complete all the paperwork, you take all the classes, and then...you wait. And wait and wait and wait and wait and wait. There's been events lately that we wanted to go to (a waiting adoptive parents ice cream social thing, the picnic) but that fell on dates that didn't work or were hard for other reasons (our homestudy update visit, the weekend before Bryce's GREs, things located over an hour away when we both work, blasted celiac food concerns). It's hard to feel super connected to the process in a way that feels real, all the time, like we are truly expecting, in part because we'd hoped to receive more profile opportunities by now (although all we need is that one right one), and in part because that's just how this process goes. Hurry up and wait.

For some reason, that very colorful, very sad section of the cemetery brought these things up to the forefront and made them REAL. It made us realize that we also have potential, some that has been lost forever (I'm never going to experience pregnancy, we're never going to have a genetic link to our baby, we'll never have another shot at those embryos that came and went), and some that is here, with us -- amorphous and swirly in the ether but here. We ARE expecting. We have a room filled with potential that has yet to be fulfilled -- all the onesies, some of which I've had for years as symbols of hope and an attempt to "manifest" a baby through our sincerity (nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see!), the board books and picture books and tiny rattling toys and blankets and everything else that shows we have hope for a tiny human that just hasn't arrived yet.

The operative word is...yet.

It was a sad walk in some ways -- especially as we moved to the river side and went over to the neighboring cemetery, aptly named Riverside Cemetery, which was VERY ACTIVE (fresh graves, graves waiting to be filled presumably at a funeral on Sunday, a girl visiting her mother's grave and hugging it while her father looked on, and some kind of balloon release ceremony that was a little confusing as everyone was dressed in primary colors and there were many children and it was incredibly joyous sounding... so maybe an annual thing for an anniversary of one person's death, or, as the section looked very colorful as well, maybe it was for lost children? THAT would have been just too coincidental). I said that we should stick to the more historical cemeteries, the ones where you feel like you're visiting graves no one has visited in a century or more, where this idea of mortality is a bit more removed, more implicit than explicit. But, as Bryce said over dinner later, "Maybe it's the walk we were meant to take today." Which was odd, because Bryce never says things like "meant to." We are not "everything happens for a reason" people, but it did seem like this particular walk in this particular cemetery allowed us to explore our own grief together, our own loss of potential, our lack of a stationary sort of public monument to it, but also the potential that we still hold even though it feels so very far away. It brought all that close to us, in a moment we experienced AT THE SAME TIME, which doesn't happen often anymore. It deepened our conversations about our own long and arduous quest for parenthood, one that we never ever imagined would still be incomplete and conceptual only, seven years later.

It was not an easy walk, but it was the walk that we needed to take. Which is like so many things in life, right? Necessary, and challenging, and not at all easy.





26 comments:

  1. What a profound moment. Heartbreaking to think of that little cemetery full of toys. Thinking of why people might bury their child with other children.....maybe it feels less lonely that way? for the parents and the child's spirit. i think I too would rather walk in a very old peaceful cemetery rather than witness and stir up raw emotion: but sometimes you do have to show up for the hard stuff, emotionally and physically. And maybe it's best to do so by choice at least sometimes, rather than only when forced to by circumstance. I think it was a very kind thing you did, to witness those children's graves and think about them and their families. It's still kindness even when the person can't see or reciprocate. (Or we might assume they can't). And it sounds like it was deeply meaningful to share the experience WITH Bryce: such a good point about sharing the moment together, and the resulting conversation.

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    1. I felt at the time that it was probably less lonely too, that here is a special place for these tiny tragedies to keep each other company, but I think what Cristy said (about what Loribeth said) is probably more the case. I didn't even think about that. It definitely was a moment of thinking on all those children, but more all those families who have lived without those children for so long. Thank you so much for your thoughts!

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    2. We did not bury Katie in the "Garden of Angels" at our cemetery... but we met a number of parents through our support group whose babies are buried there, and we will sometimes walk over there to visit them when we're there to visit Katie's niche. It's very sad to see all those tiny graves (which is one big reason why we didn't put her there), but it's also comforting at the same time -- you realize you definitely NOT the only person this has happened to, although sometimes it feels like it...!!

      I might add that while you will see stones for babies from 100+ years ago, and more recently, in years past, it was common practice for hospitals to whisk stillborn babies away immediately after delivery & bury them in common, unmarked graves. Even now, hospitals will offer to "take care of" stillborn or miscarried babies, and grieving parents will consent without realizing what they are actually consenting to. Thankfully, things are changing!!

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    3. Thank you for your insight -- I can see how the Angels section could be a blessing and a curse. Wow to the way stillborn babies were dealt with previously. I have a friend who is an OB nurse and friends who lost their twins at 23ish weeks, and they do a lot of advocating and awareness for humane treatment of parents experiencing loss when there should be joy. My friends fundraised for a Cuddle Cot that allows for parents and families to say goodbye for much longer before the baby is taken to the morgue. THose seem to me wonderful changes from the past that you describe... so much more humanity and acknowledgement of the loss.

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  2. Loribeth had a post awhile ago about Katie's grave. That you suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself needing a place to bury your child and most don't have family plots. During such a painful period where one is likely also in shock, I can see how having a place where others who are gone too soon would bring some comfort.

    Still, what a profound experience. Especially given all you and Bryce have been through and this period of waiting you are going through. I'm sorry that you experienced such sadness and that you're still in a place of waiting. I am glad, though, that you two were there for one another and able to reflect on all of it.

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    1. That makes total sense...I didn't even think about that. In the older cemeteries the children are so often with the parents, but I feel like in more long-ago days it was more expected to lose a child in some weird way, and death was an eventuality more present. It creeps me out sometimes to see those stones that are for husband and wife, and one is dead and one is not (yet) and so someone is walking around with a headstone all ready for themselves. Maybe not so much morbid as prepared, but now it feels like no one should be prepared to bury a child, especially one born too soon or only to live a short time.

      It really was profound. It really sat with me all day, and trickled into today, too. In a way it gave us a moment to reflect not only on our own grief, but on the hope we still have that we will get to parenthood, that the potential still exists. It was a good sadness, honestly, because it wasn't entirely navel-gazing...it was sadness for us but also for people we don't know (and a few we do) who have experienced such loss. It was a moment of perspective and of bonding over an experience that touched both of us very deeply, and was completely unexpected when we set out to enjoy the day. Thank you so much for your thoughts!

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    2. I am not entirely sure which post of mine Cristy is referring to... I've written several posts about Katie & the cemetery and how we chose her arrangements. Here are a few:

      http://theroadlesstravelledlb.blogspot.ca/2008/08/rest-of-august-1998-aftermath.html

      http://theroadlesstravelledlb.blogspot.ca/2008/08/back-to-present.html

      http://theroadlesstravelledlb.blogspot.ca/2015/04/filling-in-blanks.html

      The sight of all those tiny graves can be pretty shocking, particularly if you haven't had much experience with pregnancy loss and think that stillbirth is something that happened in your great-grandmother's day, but not now. Thank you for writing in such a moving way about your cemetery visit! (P.S. I love to wander around old cemeteries too. Losing a daughter has not changed that!)

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    3. These posts are absolutely beautiful and give such a window into what it is like to bury your tiny child. The active cemetery had those columbarium niches, but I didn't see any like Katie's, which is so beautiful. Strange to find something beautiful that's so steeped in loss, but the flowers and the bunny and the teddy bear engraved on the plaque just moved me. For me, I have a handful of friends who have experienced stillbirth, and I actually looked for one of my friends' stone for their twins, in case it was in that cemetery. I didn't see it. I feel like in this day and age the loss of babies and children should be so shockingly rare, and it's just not. So seeing all those tiny graves with their hopeful toys and stuffed animals was all the more sad for seeing them all grouped together. It was a visceral emotional experience. I think old cemeteries is the key for me though... the losses of the influenza epidemic are much more removed! :)

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  3. Wow. I'm in tears. Hauntingly beautiful. That's the perfect word for this post. You are so incredible with your words. I didn't even think about it from Cristy's perspective, but she describes these graves of little babies perfectly.

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    1. Oh, thank you. It's funny, I was explaining Cristy's perspective on the section of gravestones to Bryce, and we were both a little embarrassed that we didn't think about that particular reality, that you rarely plan for the death of your baby or child. Thank you so much for your thoughts!

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  4. Thanks for sharing this experience with us. Your writing is always so beautiful and somehow manages to put into words feelings I'm having/have had/don't even know I have!

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    1. Oh, thank you. It was such an interesting experience, I couldn't NOT write about it... glad it touched you.

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  5. I love cemeteries too. Whenever I visit my father's (and now my mother's too) grave, I am conscious of the children's cemetery next door, the Thomas the Tank Engine grave, the lives not lived. I always think of Loribeth and Katie there, and always stop to pay respect. I used to feel a little envy that the parents there have somewhere to go, to be recognised as parents. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and time, I am thankful I didn't have to go through that.

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    1. Oh, wow. A Thomas the Tank Engine grave would just bust the heart into a thousand pieces. I will think of Loribeth and Katie too now, and a few friends of mine who lost babies too soon. I don't think I'd want the emotional cost of having an actual recognizable tombstone, either. The recognition isn't worth what it takes to get it. I agree with you on the hindsight and time.

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    2. You guys are making me cry!! Thank you both for thinking of Katie. :)

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    3. Totally got your comments while we were out to dinner at our Friday night Mexican and then had to explain to Bryce why I suddenly had tears pouring down my face...

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  6. There is an amazing support group here in Rochester for pregnancy loss that was created by three women who met over their sons' graves. Sadly, I know many of the babies there, gone too soon. Love you both.

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    1. That is amazing. I thought of you when we were there, and how you are here for those families in the hardest moments. Love you, too, and the special work that you do.

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  7. We explored a cemetery going back to the 1630's in Portland this week. I took the two kids I'm caring for, one 10 weeks and one 14 months. There were so many tiny graves, so much loss. I observed as you did that generally they were burried with parents, or family. One that struck me was the parents who had lost three infants (3 months was the oldest) in three consecutive years. While I know that infant mortality rates were high back then, I think the pain and anguish those parents felt would still be the same today. Perhaps even more so as then it wasn't encouraged to speak about feelings of loss, it was something you kept very private.
    All of this is to say, it breaks my heart. It doesn't matter if the grave stones are fresh or hundreds of years old, that pain has a way of finding us in these places and providing us with a not so subtle reminder of our own loss and grief. Perhaps that's what draws us there unknowingly as Bryce said. Perhaps this process isn't quite finished.
    ❤️

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    1. Beautiful. Thank you for your thoughts.

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  8. A beautiful and poignant description of your journey...it brings tears, and a deep desire to hug you both.

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    1. Thank you -- it's our journey but also a recognition of the losses so many others have had, losses so difficult to comprehend. I liked what Torthuil said about visiting those tiny graves, inadvertently honoring them. I'll always take hugs! :)

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  9. Cemetery walks bring serious contemplation even in the most ideal of circumstances. Your journey through cemeteries brought you and Bryce to a place of greater openness about the experience of your pain and loss. That is a gift.

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    1. I feel like Mt Hope is usually just a great hilly hike...this cemetery was definitely a different experience. It was worthwhile for sure.

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  10. Like others have said, this is such a hauntingly beautiful post. I remember being in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA and seeing a baby grave. It made me very sober then, makes me tear up now. I'm sorry that you're still in an uncertain place and for so many very hard and real losses you and Bryce have had to mourn in this journey.

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    1. Thank you. Those tiny graves are just so heartbreaking...such promise, broken.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts...the uncertainty has to end sometime, right? It's sobering to think on all the mourning, and how even in the face of that we are fortunate to have possibility still in front of us.

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