By Patricia Hermes
Why Now? It’s a question I have asked myself many times over the months leading up to this day and it comes to me again as I step from the car onto the cemetery lawn, the heels of my boots settling into the wet snowy earth, as though I too, am being drawn downward.
It’s been fifty years since I stood here last, my coat clutched tightly against the biting winter wind, too stunned to even weep, watching as the almost impossibly tiny casket of my infant daughter, Mary Beth, was lowered into the hole in the earth that had been prepared for her.
Why return now? And perhaps equally important, why not before? Why, for fifty years, has my daughter laid in a spot unmarked, her grave nothing more than a small depression in the earth? Why have I waited so long to have a stone installed, some marker, something to proclaim that she lived—and died?
I don’t know that I really understand the reasons, even now. But I do know that I have finally done what has needed doing for fifty years. I have chosen and ordered a marker for her grave. I have had it installed. And I am here now to see it.
Since I now live many hundreds of miles from the cemetery where Mary Beth is buried, by necessity, the choosing and ordering of the stone has all been done by phone and email.
For the marker, I have not chosen any of the harsher images of Christianity, crosses and such. Rather I have chosen a baby angel with her arm around a lamb, with a scattering of flowers at their feet. The marker is granite, pink granite—the pink being important to me, silly perhaps, but it’s what I wanted for my baby girl. Yet it is only in email images that I have been able to see what I have ordered. Now I have driven hundreds of miles to be here, to view it. And although I am holding a map marking the grave number, the plot number, I am unable to find it.
My son Tim, who has accompanied me here, suggests a visit to the cemetery office, and together we make our way across the lawns, careful to avoid stepping on any graves or markers, like two children afraid of disturbing ghosts.
I, however, am mentally welcoming Mary Beth’s ghost. She was seventeen days old when she died. She had been a healthy baby, seven and a half pounds at birth, much heartier than the five pounds and four pounds of the two boys who had preceded her. Yet those boys, her brothers, had thrived, as had Mary Beth. When she was sixteen days old, we had a party for her, family and friends gathering to celebrate her birth, and, in the tradition of the Catholic Church, to bless her in Baptism. It had been a beautiful but hectic day, and when the guests had departed and Mary Beth and her brothers had been finally tucked into their beds for sleep, her father and I, happily exhausted, had slept, too.
Mary Beth awakened once that night, lustily crying out for a feeding. Her crib was beside my bed, and I slipped my hand between the slats and patted her gently. Just a few minutes more baby, I asked her. Just a few more minutes?
She wriggled a little as I rubbed her back. She murmured a bit. Then she sighed slightly. And she slept. We both did.
When next I awakened, the winter sun was peering weakly through the slats in the blinds. My husband and I snuggled sleepily, congratulating ourselves and our tiny baby that a new milestone had been reached: She had slept through the night for the first time.
But when I lifted Mary Beth from her crib, I discovered something quite different from what I had imagined. Her body was oddly cold, in spite of the warm footie pajamas she wore. There were terrifying blue spots on her tiny cheeks. And she was so still.
Mary Beth was not sleeping. Mary Beth was dead.
She was the victim of a disorder known since ancient times as crib death, now called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. No illness. No sniffles. No fever or sign of distress. Just dead.
And how does one cope with a disease whose first symptom is death?
I don’t really know. But cope we did, each in our own way, as do we all when tragedy strikes. We threw ourselves into our work and the business of caring for our family. My husband and I, now long since divorced, had three more babies, two more boys and another girl. We moved many times from state to state, up and down the eastern coast, our lives disrupted in the way that major companies and corporations did in those days.
Now, at the cemetery office, I am greeted by a man in shirtsleeves, to whom I address my question about the location of my baby’s burial site.
“Oh, yes, Ms. Hermes,” the man says, cheerful sounding. “I remember you. You’ve just had that marker installed. We’ve talked by phone.” He points out a window. “She’s over there. With the babies.”
For some reason, that phrase, with the babies makes me unaccountably angry. But the man is kind and offers to take Tim and me in his car. He drives us to where the babies are buried, and points out the plot.
And now, fifty years later, I stand and look down at it.
Tim puts his arm around my shoulder, and I lean into him. I don’t expect to cry. The time for that is long since past. But I am surprised at the welling up, at the stone that suddenly blocks my throat so that it’s hard to swallow. I look at Tim and am surprised to see tears welling in his eyes.
Why? He had never known this baby, his sister, who died before he was even born. But it’s clear he’s feeling something, perhaps the tears that I am unable to shed.
Gently, I move away from Tim. I bend and place my hand flat against the granite marker.
I stay that way a while, my hand pressed hard to the cold stone. I do not cry. I know I do not pray. I simply hold my hand flat against the pink granite for a long time. And then I straighten up.
Tim asks if I want more time. I shake my head.
No. I have done what I’ve needed to do.
Her marker has been installed. The pink granite marker. It says what I need it to say.
Mary Beth Hermes
January 1962 – February 1962.
About the Author: Patricia Hermes is the author of more than fifty books for children and young adults. Her awards include the New York Library Best Book for Teens award for A Time to Listen; C.S. Lewis Honor Book award for her novel, On Winter’s Wind; Smithsonian Notable Book award for her picture book, When Snow Lay Soft on the Mountain; and Children’s Choice awards for many other novels. She also won the Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, and California state awards for her classic novel, You Shouldn’t Have to Say Goodbye. Her books have been translated into seven languages including French, Chinese, Japanese, and Danish. She is the mother of four sons and a daughter.