I am not the only bereaved mother in my family. My great grandmother lost a child at age 7. My great aunt lost a newborn. I am one in a line of women who have had to bury a child. Today I will tell you about my grandmother.
Grandma was a teacher and Grandpa was a cop. They lived in a tiny cape house on a tree-lined street in Providence. They had three bedrooms for the two of them and their five kids. The three boys were squished into one of the tiny attic bedrooms and the two girls in the other. As a child I loved sleeping in one of the attic bedrooms because they were so small. It felt cozy and child sized for me- one child. I couldn’t imagine three of me squeezed in there.
My grandmother didn’t always have it easy when it came to the health of her kids. My father was the sickly one. He was born premature and struggled with pneumonia and apnea as an infant. He had kidney surgery when he was in grade school. When my parents were moving out the house they lived in for the past 25 years, I went through their attic claiming anything I was willing to store. They were moving to a townhouse with very little storage so most things had to go. I gravitated to a box that held old photos, letters and memories from my parents’ childhoods. I found a collection of cards, written in child block letters, saying “Get Well Soon.” They were written by my dad’s classmates when he was in the hospital. They now sit in a cabinet in my living room.
My grandma’s third son, her youngest boy Kevin, was a real boys boy. He was athletic and rambunctious. On a family vacation to Cooperstown, he used his spending to money to buy a pencil box and a miniature baseball bat, which he treasured. When he received his first communion, Grandpa asked Kevin what he wanted to do to celebrate. Kevin wanted to see a jail cell. That’s the kind of boy Kevin was. So Grandpa took the whole family down to the police station and Kevin got his wish. The police photographer, the one who takes the mug shots, took a photo of him with his two little sisters.
He didn’t like peas, like my dad, who he sat next to at the dinner table. Grandma could be very busy, working full time as a teacher and tending her brood of kids. Every now and then, after a busy day, he would grab at her and say “but you haven’t had time for me today!” It was her cue to slow down and take a minute with each of her kids.
Kevin was 10 when he got sick. My dad got sick at the same time- flu-like symptoms for both. Dad, the sickly one, got better after a couple of days. Kevin did not. They took him to the doctor, then the hospital. He was delirious. Grandma had to restrain him while doctors gave him a shot to calm him down. In his delirium, he bit grandma in the shoulder. She didn’t get home until late because she needed a tetanus shot afterwards. While Grandma was home with her other kids, Kevin’s aunt, a nurse and to-be a bereaved mom, stayed with him in the hospital. Kevin went in on a Friday and died that Sunday. Grandma signed for the autopsy, which told them it likely was Reye’s Syndrome. We know now not to give children aspirin, especially after a virus, but at the time Grandma was just following doctors orders.
Grandma took a week off of work. It was September and she had to get back to school. She worked at a Catholic school, where her boys attended. It was September, so she had to return to a place where she was faced with nine months of ten year old after ten year old. The nuns told her she couldn’t wear black. No mourning in front of the students. They cleaned out Kevin’s desk and handed her his treasured pencil box. Other parents were freaked out. Some phoned the home to find out what he died from, worried their child might have caught it sitting next to him. Another mother called Grandma after report cards came out. She was angry, accusing Grandma of failing her son out of jealousy.
Grandpa visited Kevin’s grave to mourn. Grandma went to mass. “Thy will be done,” she repeated to herself over and over again. She became scared to let her living children out of her sight, afraid something might happen to one of them.
My grandmother died over ten years ago. I remember her as a stoic woman. She was very religious and very intelligent. She fostered a love of learning in her grandchildren and she made great frosted angel food cake and Rice Krispie treats. Spending the night at her house meant church early in the morning followed by breakfast at a restaurant. Her fridge had Tab soda and her cookie jar had wafer cookies. I had a special relationship with my grandparents- in high school they took me with them on summer vacations to Las Vegas. They would let me pick out the slot machines and if they won, we’d split the loot. Finally recognizing how much the older generation had to give, in college I asked her to write me the history of her family. She sent me tapes she recorded- an oral history of how our family came to the United States. I listened to part of one tape, realizing that I had something treasured, and tucked it away to listen to when I had more time. Three more years of college and six moves later, those tapes disappeared. I am still sad to think of the treasure I had and let slip through my fingers.
When I was little, spending one of my nights at her house in the cramped attic bedroom, I dreamed that a friend of mine died and I cried and cried. I told Grandma about my dream and she said I shouldn’t cry when someone dies- I should be happy that they are going to heaven to be with God. I’m glad she believed that strongly. I wonder if her religiosity was a generational thing or if it was something that grew from the loss of her child at such a young age. If there is some sort of heaven, like my Grandma believed, then Mabel is there with her and Kevin. Three generations.
Kevin has lived on in our family. Grandma was nervous to have any of her grandchildren named after her dead son. She worried if they were named Kevin, they wouldn’t live past age 10. But Kevin was more than her son- he was brother and an uncle. Many wanted his name to live on. I have two cousin Kevins. Grandma would be happy to know that they have both lived past age 10. I was to be named Kevin if I were a boy. I even proposed the name Kevin for our unborn child. I wanted to name our baby Kevin if she were a girl- we could even spell it Kevinne to make it look more feminine. I do love boys’ names for girls. Unfortunately Chris does not share that same sentiment.
I think about Grandma and uncle Kevin and think I’m not alone. I know that women have come before me, having lost a child and surviving. They will come after me as well. This does not make the pain of losing Mabel any less. In fact I ache a little more thinking of what Grandma had to go through. And she is just one of many women in this line- I haven’t even mentioned those on the other side of my family who are quiet members of the child loss club. I think of Grandma and uncle Kevin and I am reminded of how burying a child is never easy- today or decades ago, when one has living children or not, as a child or as a baby, suddenly or expectedly. Grandma and I share this burden, the imprint grief on our hearts, reminding us our children who once were.
Mabel was here.
Kevin was here.