April 20, 1965.
A day like any other day, I suppose, but not for my parents.
I was seven years old, and I remember nothing of it. Nothing at all.
Isn’t that odd? An event that could change the dynamics of my entire family forever would not even be a part of my conscious mind as I moved forward in time every April 20th after that? Odd, but true. I don’t know exactly how it happened, how it affected my folks, how they processed it, who was there with them and for them.
She didn’t even have a name. Infant daughter of…was all the simple gravestone says. She rests in the bright middle Georgia sunshine at my father’s feet, no doubt where she would have spent many happy hours if he’d lived longer. If she’d lived at all.
I often wonder what she would have been like. Dainty and feminine? Rough and tumble? Smart and searching? Ready to change the world? Loving, caring, feeling, giving? The apple of her older sibling’s eye, I’m sure of that. Someone to be protected by a bragging, proud brother, I’m sure. Someone to be a protector too, somehow, for a brother who even now needs a buffer between him and the big, wide, harsh world some days when it gets to be just a little too much.
I might have done that for her. She might have done that for me.
How sad for a gravestone to have but one date inscribed on it. One date. Birth and death all at once. No dash.
Oh, I don’t know. Thank you for asking.
Maybe because we just passed through another Memorial Day with its row upon row of white crosses and the thousands of kids that lie there, motherless in the ground.
Maybe because of what my grandmother said to me, in her grief, as she waited, slumped over in the parlor before my father’s funeral. “It’s not right. No parent should have to outlive their own child.”
Maybe it’s because one of my friends has been dealing with a very sick child. “She’s never been this sick.” The quietly frantic pleading and praying and busyness that goes with that, with the knowledge that you will do anything, everything in your power to make sure that child gets well and lives. There is no higher calling for a parent than to be totally focused on the need of their offspring, until whatever is assaulting them is totally annihilated.
Maybe it’s because she came to see me the other day, wrapped in grief so raw, so tangible, so real that you could see it in the bathrobe, pajamas and house slippers she wore to my office. It didn’t matter one whit to her what she wore that day. I didn’t matter that her red, tear-stained face hadn’t seen eye shadow or rouge or powder in days, maybe weeks. None of that mattered.
She shared her grief with me. She shared what it must have been like for my own mother on April 20, 1965, and every April 20th after that-every day after that. In her brokenness, she still got out of her house, trudged the distance to my office, and tried to help me understand what she was going through.
Like so many patient encounters, this one was good for both patient and doctor. This one showed me how very real the connection between us is, the tiny thread of communication that persists even through the darkest hours, the most blinding pain, the most raw, aching, devastating grief. I felt it, but I could not put it into words.
I didn’t have to.
Sometimes it’s best for the doctor just to be present and say nothing. She did it for both of us. I just sat there with her, feeling it, letting her feel it, knowing that eventually, it will get better. It will never go away, no never, never, never, but it will get better. She was not convinced.
She looked up at me and made direct eye contact once in that session, only once, and summarized her grief.
“There is no pain, I mean no pain in this world, that is worse than this pain.”
At that moment, I believed her.