Just for a second, I saw them, as if in a child's picture book or one of those Anne Geddes baby-as-cauliflower-type photo montages. Legion, the lot of them. Some in crisp black and white, Rogers and Nancys with white, salt-crusted headstones, all little lambs and angels. Others were more Technicolour, like the garish, blurry snapshots of my own childhood...a Jason, a Robin, a "beloved baby boy". One, much newer, I recognized; the newborn girl with the hole in her heart, the first baby I ever knew who died. Across the sweeping hill in the older part of the cemetery I could see their compatriots...almost too many to count, dim and sepia, names obscured or hopelessly ancient, buried with young mothers or the siblings who followed in a series like stepping stones of sorrow. For a second in the peace of the cemetery, I could see them all, each one a story, a whole life anticipated, condensed to a few dates and letters on a stone. Each one a silent, plaintive testament to thethreshold we living things must traverse...into life, some way or another, and out. For too many, the challenge insurmountable, the dates identical, cut short.
I do not go to the cemetery very often. My own child is not there...we cremated him, still hoard the ashes in our bedroom with ambivalence, unsure of how to stage a letting go. But I have known this place since my earliest years, when the grandmother whose bones lie here was alive and the guardian of the family stones, and I her charge, her companion in the regular pilgrimages of caregiving. I fetched water from the old pump and dragged it to black, faded headstones of people even she barely remembered, fetched again and helped water the graves of her husband and brother and parents, all gone before I'd been born. I listened and learned my family history in this place.
While she weeded, though, I ran wild...and it was the childrens' graves that fascinated me. I spun stories to myself about the children they represented, these names on the small stones. I knew them, could have led a tour around the cemetery from Douglas to "wee Elmer" - though I was agog at the idea that an infant had ever been named Elmer - through the ones whose names were already crumbled away. Rapt with the morbidity of childhood, I wondered about them all, spoke to them, flitted amongst them w eekly through years of summer afternoons while my grandmother tended the geraniums of people I'd never meet.
I drove through the cemetery on a whim, Friday, nearby and suddenly guilty because my grandmother has no geraniums to mark her place, now. I stopped, and stood by her grave, staring at her name on the headstone, assessing...her name will be one of my daughter's names when this child crosses the threshold into whatever awaits. I spoke to her, then, my grandmother, though I do not believe she's really there...spoke with love and awkwardness mixed, like a shy suitor. I speak to Finn the same way, self-conscious; I do better listening for the dead than trying to hold up my end of the conversation. Then I sat down by my grandmother's grave and drifted for a minute, feeling closer to her in calling up memories of her hands in the soil beside me.
That's when I saw them, all the babies. My eyes caught on the first stone, three rows back and a few over, where it always was. It is a baby's stone, one where the dates, like Finn's, are only a day apart. Nearly sixty years old now, that story, that loss. I realized that the parents of that child are probably long dead themselves now, gone beyond whatever remained of their sorrow to the same side of the threshold as the baby they marked with a sandstone lamb. And I looked to the left, where I knew the next stone would be, and suddenly for that one moment I felt like I could see them all, every one of them laid here, too small or too sick or just gone for no reason anyone will ever know. They were neither beautiful angels nor objects of sorrow, of absence...just babies and children, real for a moment. And time, finally, seemed to have made peace with them.
I wonder if, sixty years from now, when we here are mostly just memory, if the sting of our stories will go with us...if the words we leave here will bear witness only to love, to moments lived?
I long for that.