She was six years old the first time she walked amongst the tombstones. Everyone was crying around her, the sadness too heavy in the air. She walked a short distance away in search of some quiet. Her grandfather, Nana, was sleeping but he would never wake again, or so they said. She wandered off to read the grey stones, or rather to try to. It was harder back then, but she tried. It was all letters and numbers. Someone shouted her name and ran up to take hold of her hand.
“What are these stones for?” she asked.
“It marks where other people are sleeping, their names, when they were born and when they went to sleep, like Nana,” the older boy said to her, leading her away from the grey, back to the deep red muddy sea of sadness, around which they all stood to watch her Nana disappear underground forever.
For as long as I can remember I have liked to walk amongst the tombstones after funerals. I like the feel of the cold granite on my fingertips as I trace the contours of the scrolls, hearts, and angels. A myriad of names and dates carved in stone, in neat rows. I would work out the ages of those gone and wonder about them, their families, their lives. Who was left behind, missing them now? I said names out loud and felt like I knew them all, walking from stone to stone.
I learned that people die, but that children die, too. First, the child of family friend who died in one of those freak accidents—she was run over by a teacher while crossing the street after school. Another time, a toddler in my extended family died along with his father and uncle in a car accident. I can still picture the tiny white coffin in the middle of two larger ones. The boy was taken out of his coffin and placed into his father’s arms for the cremation. I dreamt about his coffin well into my teens. After that, I would search for the tombstones of children at the cemetery, wondering what they would have been or looked like, had they grown up.
Zia died before she was born. Her tombstone would have just one date on it: July 16, 2013. I imagine someone wondering about that. Would they walk by and wonder about the life she lived within me? Would they wonder about how often she kicked or how much joy she brought her mother? Would her name sound pretty when they said it? Would they know what it means?
Soon after my father died, we took Zia’s ashes out of the drawer she is kept in and finally spoke to our son about it. That part of her had been in our home for over two years. He had never seen it. We didn’t know how to explain it before then. We were going to release my father’s ashes into the sea—it was time to talk to him about what happens to the body after we die. We explained it as simply as a six year old can manage.
In my mother’s hometown, we located my grandparents’ grave for my mother’s ashes, but there was no tombstone. I knew there was none but still expected some monument to their existence. I wanted to read their birth years—1924 and 1925—and their death years—1992 and 1988—but there were none. I have walked amongst tombstones so many times, and yet therein lay my beautiful grandparents under a patch of ground which couldn’t be distinguished from another.
I have walked amongst those graves that held the remains of many a tiny soul as well as those who lived much longer. Walking those tiny paths brings me great peace alone, or with friends and family. I have walked until I couldn’t anymore. Then I walked away, leaving those monuments for another time.
I walk amongst the tombstones honoring, yet I leave my daughter’s ashes in a drawer and barely glance at it in passing…
As much as I am comfortable with death—for lack of a better term—and peacefully visit the tombstones of strangers, I am still so terribly uncomfortable with my own daughter’s death. Months go by without me so much as opening that drawer and touching the box that holds what is left of her body. I can write about her and talk about her, but I cannot hold that box for too long or hold her clothing anymore, going through them piece by piece as I once did.
Sitting on the sand a few months ago, staring out at the raging ocean, I wondered: is this a good place to put her ashes, to scatter them in the sea I love so much? Maybe with her name engraved on a bench, overlooking the place where I scatter her?
Maybe her name doesn’t belong on a tombstone.
I want to spend the end of my days walking in the places I love most
By the ocean, in the meadows and even amongst the tombstones
Come rain or shine, let me walk there
For in my heart I carry the memories of those I love most
Those I said goodbye to, far too soon
And as I wander, I discover
Let me leave a part of my soul in places I cherish so.
What are things you once did that seem so much more significant since your own loss? Have you held onto or let go of your babies remains?