After my daughter Madeline passed away, my Aunt Kathy started emailing me stories she'd planned on sharing with Madeline. As the oldest of my mom's siblings, Kathy always had a better recollection of the many events that happened during their childhood. Some of the stories I'd heard a few times, and they always brought a smile to my face. Others were new to me, and I clung to every word, seeing the adventures unfold in my mind.
My favorite stories were the ones she told of my grandmother. My grandma was an amazing woman. She had five children in five years. She raised her children on her own (with a little help from my great-grandmother), worked full-time, and still made dinner every night. She lived with us when I was growing up, and taught me how to sew. She was the best listener and was always available to take me to one of my many lessons or practices. When I got older, she let me borrow her car when I couldn't bear the embarrassment of being dropped off by an adult. She always put her family first. We named Madeline in her honor.
A month after Madeline died, my aunt told me the story of when her brother passed away. I already knew about Tommy. He was diagnosed with Leukemia when he was in elementary school. My aunts and mom all remember him being sick and laying on the couch. They were jealous (in the way only kids can be) that he got to watch so much TV and meet Tim Considine from Spin and Marty and The Hardy Boys.
Tommy (l) and Tim
I'm sure Tommy was jealous that his siblings got to go outside and play.
My mom and aunts knew Tommy was very sick, but they never thought he wouldn't make it. This is because my grandma protected them all. She never let them see how scared she was. And then, when he didn't make it, she kept protecting them.
My aunt wrote,
Since we lived in a shoebox there was really nowhere she could go to have the privacy she needed in order to grieve, so I never really knew if she ever found a place where she could truly experience the pain and sorrow she was feeling. I just know that she kept on going for all of us and as time passed, to us, she was just like the mom she had always been in the past with one exception. For several years after Tommy's death, we would take rides out to the cemetery near the San Fernando Mission where he was buried. We would stop at a roadside stand and pick up carnations, usually red ones, and then lay them on his grave. I never saw her cry when we stood by his grave--she was so strong--but I also know that losing Tommy ripped a hole in her heart.
After I read this, it hit me that my beloved Grandma would have understood exactly how I was feeling. That we had a terrible, terrible thing in common. I missed her so much in that moment.
Not long after I received my aunt's email, my mom and I went to the San Fernando Mission Cemetery. My mom hadn't been for many, many years, and I had never been at all. As we walked the rows of markers searching for Tommy's, I was struck by how close together the graves were. And then I started looking, and I realized we were in the children's section. They don't need much room.
I wandered the rows, reading the headstones, noting that some only had one day etched on the stone, while others had just a few years between the first day and the last.
Some had familiar dates.
And some had familiar personalities.
There isn't enough room on a headstone to tell the story of a child's life, or a parent's love.
I thought about the parents that had walked the same path as me all those years ago. I felt overwhelmed by sorrow.
After a bit of help, my mom found Tommy under the shade of a tree.
We laid down flowers. Red carnations, like my grandma used to bring. And purple ones, for Madeline.
I stood there, covered by the shade of Tommy's tree, and I thought about my grandma. I felt her pain, our pain. I pictured her coming to visit her son and not being able to cry for fear she'd frighten her other kids. I imagined her coming without her kids, and kneeling on the grass. I hoped she got her release. I cried for her in case she didn't. I cried for my mom, and my aunts. I cried for all the other parents that had knelt on that lawn. I cried for my Uncle Tommy. And I cried for my Madeline.
Aunt Terry, my mom, Uncle Tommy, & Aunt Kathy