The patterns were so mismatched that they looked intentional. So bad, it was good. A simple skirt and tank top. Floral patterns swirling over my body. Nobody would see me there in my depression uniform. Maybe a grounds worker. Maybe another cemetery visitor. It mattered so little what I wore to the cemetery that it began to matter a lot. I applied three quick spritzes of my mother’s perfume. The bottle of Lanvin Arpege was at least fifteen years old. It seemed to dissipate within seconds.
Minutes before getting dressed, I’d eaten all the ice cream in the freezer right out of the half gallon container. I put whipped cream and chocolate syrup on it too. This handheld, fully disposable sundae tasted like nothing and everything at the same time. If someone would’ve ripped it out of my hands while I was eating it, I would’ve just let them take it away. I’d offer no resistance. It mattered so little. But I kept eating it until it was gone.
The urge to visit the cemetery came over me like a sudden burst of energy. Not the kind of energy from the sugar overload I was inhaling. It was a burst of emotional energy. Something I hadn’t had in a long time. I felt a push to go to where my son was buried. To go back to that day. Those days. To see how it felt nine years later.
I felt a push to go back to where my mother was buried just three months before my son. I wanted to see if she would whisper anything differently to me at her grave. Because I hear her whisper to me everywhere I go.
I looked around our apartment for something to bring. I looked through my daughter’s toys. I looked through my things. I took a Ziploc bag out of the drawer and filled it with acorns we’d collected from the tree that overlooks our little wooden deck. We’d been cracking acorns at the kitchen table the day before. My daughter wanted to see what was on the inside of an acorn. She’s fascinated with what’s on the inside of everything.
I drove fifteen minutes down the highway that was starting to crawl with Jersey shore traffic. It was Friday. As I turn into the cemetery entrance, I lower my radio, but I don’t turn it off all the way. I drive slowly as I pass through the old Russian section. The gravestones are crowded together with their fancy fonts of Russian and Hebrew.
I keep driving towards the very back of the cemetery, passing rusted street signs with the names Mt. Hebron, Dinah, and Ruth. I make a right onto Mt. Moriah and drive until I see my mother’s pink speckled granite gravestone sticking out amongst the grey stones and green grass.
Before I even get out of my car, the dragonflies appear. They’re big and bold and flying in pairs. I feel my anxiety flying around with them. The fear of the new emotions that a cemetery visit may bring is overwhelming. Seemingly unmanageable. But I’m surprised to find the opposite feels true right now. No new emotions. Just a calm. I feel a peaceful acceptance of my loss. My daily guilt is strangely soothed here. It’s okay to be sad here. Because this place is all about black and white. Living or dead. No grey areas.
The dashboard says ninety-one degrees outside. I empty the Ziploc bag of acorns into my hat and get out of the car. Noah’s gravestone seems smaller. I rearrange all the toys that have been brought here over the years. I stand up the robots. I line up the cars. I try to make it orderly. Because it’s all so out of order. I pull some weeds that have popped up through the white stones.
I tell him I brought him some acorns. I place three on top of his stone. I tell him I’ll be right back. I’m going to see Grandma. I count the steps. Thirteen steps from my son to my mother. I wanted to be sure of the number so I did it again. Thirteen.
I can hear the hum of the highway traffic. It sounds like running water and I’m listening closely for any messages the din might have for me. I expect something magical to happen. Some visual or aural hallucination. But it doesn’t.
I leave acorns for my mother too. I weed her red stones. I know she wanted me to stop. It‘s too hot, she’d say. It’s not necessary, she’d say.
There was a fresh grave a few steps away from Noah. The marker said the burial took place five days ago. I thought about the mourners looking around to see what company their loved one would be keeping.
I started to relax into the visit. I wandered through the gravestones reading the names and tributes. And then I noticed a stone I’d never seen on my handful of visits. It was a little girl. Just her name and dates.
I thought about her parents immediately. I pictured them huddled together at her grave as she was buried and all the excruciating pain that comes with that. I wanted to know about how they fared after. How the death of their baby girl affected them. I wanted to share that experience with them.
I’ve been questioning myself lately. Wondering if all this writing about Noah and death and life after losing a child is self-indulgent. Or monotonous. But when I saw this little girl’s grave, I knew none of those things were true. Because I clung to every word I could read from another grieving parent. I needed to read what it was like for them one year out, five years out, ten years out…I needed to not feel alone in this. I needed to know I could survive this. I needed to know what it would be like.
As much as Noah changed shape that day into wherever we go when we die, I changed shape that day too. I needed to know what to expect because as much as I wished we could just get a “do-over”, life doesn’t work that way. Even when you try to fake it, it doesn’t last for long. My new reality comes back to punch me hard.
Before I leave the cemetery, I look back and stare at this untouched spot of green grass where I will be buried one day. It’s a freeing view. No matter what I share or don’t share, no matter what I write about or don’t write about, I will end up here. No one knows when or how.
We recently spent the afternoon at the Liberty Science Center. It’s a huge museum and planetarium with four floors of kids and parents. I watched Miriam as she played in a younger kid’s area with all sorts of hands-on fun for ages five and under. Miriam loves little kids and I love watching her natural maternal qualities come through. I never take my eyes off Miriam. This place is big. And crowded. And bad things happen. I know that firsthand. And even though I don’t want to live on the edge all the time, it’s just how my brain has been rewired…how I’ve changed shape.
As Miriam collects balls in a basket with a sweet little girl around four years old, I make smiling eye contact with the father as he watches them play too. A little girl no more than fourteen or fifteen months walks past me in that newish walker fast trot. Arms up in the air with a “look at me!” grin on her face. With one eye I watch for a parent to be following behind. There’s no one. I listen for a parent to yell a name and run after her. No one yells for her. I watch her walk right past other parents and parked strollers and employees. No one is stopping her. She’s now in the cavernous center of the building and hangs a left out of my site.
I’m instantly torn between just watching my own child and going after this baby. My heart races and I go after the baby. I quickly scoop her up after everyone she passed by assumed she was with someone. She doesn’t yell, she doesn’t fight me. I race back into the kid area, visually locate Miriam, and then start asking loudly “Whose baby is this!?” No one responds. I break into a cold sweat, my heart races, the pictures in my mind start flashing of so many things.
I go to a group of adults sitting on the floor of the play area, kids swirling around them.
“Do you know who she belongs to?! Is she yours?”
Finally, a young woman answered, “Not really. She’s my sister’s. Why?”
“BECAUSE SHE WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PLANETARIUM!!”
She didn’t even get up off the floor. She simply called to the little girl and said to come here. The little girl happily waddled over. I never got to see the mother. Maybe her reaction was just as emotional as mine. Maybe it wasn’t.
It was the lack of alarm that shook me. It wasn’t the fact that someone lost sight of their child. Because I’m far from able to judge anyone as I live out my life in judgement. And kids are fast. But I wanted to tell these people that kids don’t always come back. Everyone assumed she was being watched. Myself included.
I continued to watch Miriam playing as I held back tears unsuccessfully. My heart was pounding. I’ve changed shape.