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Finding Grace in a Cemetery

My mother went to that cemetery daily. After Mama Rose’s death, she had taken over the role of gravekeeper. I was never sure how diligently she tended those graves; I didn’t want or need to know. From time to time she’d mention that she’d been to the cemeteries and that she felt better for having gone. With my brother’s death, she became vigilant in the care of his grave.

That cemetery sits so close to the exit off the highway for so many things we do weekly: discount stores, Greg’s, plane trips. Each time we drive past it, even now, my mother cranes her neck to find Skip’s grave among the countless ones there. As for me, I never went back after the funeral. Perhaps it was all those Sunday trips to cemeteries with Mama Rose that had turned me away from the idea that visiting graves brings us closer to our loved ones. Perhaps it was a cynicism that took root in me after my brother died. I can’t say for sure. But even when my father died in 1997 and we buried him in the veterans’ cemetery, I didn’t visit his grave. Once, on a gray afternoon when my missing him grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go, I drove there. I stared at his name on the headstone and tried to feel something: better or different. But I felt only the sadness I’d felt since he’d died.

When the unthinkable happened five years later and my own 5-year-old daughter, Grace, died suddenly from a virulent form of strep, I was thrown into the world of cemeteries and funeral parlors, forced to make decisions while my feet dragged across a kitchen floor still covered in glitter from an art project she’d done less than 48 hours earlier. My husband and I had to choose a casket, a cemetery, a gravesite. Can you do this? I asked him. Not only could he do it, but by doing it he took some form of solace. He could help our child in these final parental decisions. I could not. Looking back, I suppose I could pretend it wasn’t real if I didn’t have to choose the small white coffin, or tour the cemetery in search of the best spot to leave my daughter. My husband’s ability to do these things, and to do them well and with love, remains one of the bravest things I’ve ever witnessed.

Swan Point Cemetery here in Providence is beautiful. That first spring when I moved here from New York City, Lorne and I would stroll its curving paths, beneath pink dogwood blossoms, and read the names on the older stones, choosing which ones we liked for our own, unborn children. A picture of me from that spring sits on a bookshelf in our home: The blossoms are dazzling, and I see in my own eyes the hope and optimism of new love, of a future that seems bright and happy.

Lorne took our children, Sam and Grace, bike riding in Swan Point. He pointed out all the graves of the dignitaries buried there, governors and writers and historic figures. Sometimes they played hide-and-seek among the majestic stones. On another, later, spring day, he drove me down the winding roads, pointing to a spot on a hill, another nestled in trees. Through his tears, he talked about the beauty and virtue of each. Whatever you want, I said, because in that moment there was no perfect spot for Grace except back home with us, where she belonged.

In the months that followed Grace’s death, I heard parents in grief groups talk about the hours they spent at their children’s graves. Many times, the caretaker at Swan Point had to gently tell Lorne to go home. What was wrong with me that I didn’t want to go there? I tried. I’d drive through the East Side of Providence, across the wide and shady Blackstone Boulevard, through the grand entrance to Swan Point Cemetery. I’d park my car and sit on my daughter’s grave and cry, just as I’d been doing back home. Her grave, without a headstone yet, was covered with flowers and seashells, small perfect stones and notes, left by the people who’d loved her. I took comfort in these things, in knowing that she’d been loved and not forgotten.

At Christmas and on her birthday, Lorne and Sam and I visited the grave. We brought flowers and a tiny Christmas tree, and once I left a roll of Smarties, her favorite candy. With each visit, I cried; I hated that I was standing at my little girl’s grave. The injustice of it, the lack of sense to it, the enormity of loss overshadowed everything else when I stood there.

As the years passed, my father-in-law was buried beside Grace, my friend Barbara a few graves away. We came to know the parents of the young woman who had died a day before Grace and was buried right nearby. Each of their graves was marked with a headstone, but this final act for Grace remained undone.

We took a trip to Barre, Vermont, and walked among whimsical, outrageous headstones in a cemetery there. Holding hands, we read aloud funny rhymes and marveled at the boats and motorcycles and sports equipment etched into stones. I was reminded on that trip of the day Lorne and I had spent in a cemetery in France, seeking out the graves of Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, and Maria Callas, and of other cemeteries we’d visited, simply to behold the grave of Shelley or Shakespeare. Like the tiny forgotten one from my youth, these cemeteries had seemed removed from grief. But now I imagined the parents or spouses or children who had stood at those graves.

One night, my husband took me to hear a woman speak. She was an artist, a stonecutter who carved incredibly beautiful headstones in an old barn in Foster, Rhode Island. She spoke of how she talked with families to learn about the person who had died. She spoke about etching letters in old-fashioned scripts, and of buying pink and gray stone from Ireland. She spoke with love and pride. I knew she would make Grace’s headstone, and I knew it would be beautiful. But that knowing did not ease my grief.

Over the course of many months, we met with her, bringing pictures of Grace and telling stories, choosing colors and fonts, talking about life and hope. Still, when the headstone was finished, with its elegant curves and writing, with the magnificent figure of a dancing girl and the circle carved from it to allow light to shine through, I could only cry at its beauty, and at its necessity in my family’s life.

Last Christmas, we went to Grace’s grave, just as we do every year. From there, we drive to my mother’s for a lunch of antipasto, Italian wedding soup, and lasagna. Like that sugar cookie waiting for me, the thought of that lunch, served on my mother’s red Christmas plates on a poinsettia-covered tablecloth, gives me strength. Our son, Sam, towering over us now at 6 feet 4, and our daughter, Annabelle, whom we adopted from China four years ago, come with us. Lorne leaves one long-stemmed white rose. The winter sun shines through that careful circle in the headstone. The little girl carved into it dances.

We stand silently, each lost in our memories, our own grief. Back in the car, Lorne begins to slowly pull away. Stop! Annabelle shouts. We have to wait for Grace to get her flower.

It doesn’t work that way, baby, I explain, thinking, wishing, If only it did. In that moment I realize why I don’t go there. No matter how beautiful the stone, no matter how abundant and fragrant the blossoms, I don’t find Grace there.

In grief, we seek that which we can no longer have: our brother, our father, our daughter. Grace is nowhere, and she is everywhere. I find her as I walk along the beach; in the summer rain; in the opening notes of a Beatles song; in Sam’s hugs and Annabelle’s laughter and my husband’s hand in mine. I find her.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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Updated Monday, December 28th, 2009

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