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Elegy for a Lost Baby

updated 05/20/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/20/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I had intended to write a humorous piece about first grandfatherhood. My son David and his wife, Nancy, had just produced a healthy baby boy, and suddenly I was embarked on a rite of passage. I imagined myself a kindly sage, baiting a hook for a freckle-faced tyke—but I didn't know anything about fishing. Perhaps he could watch me whittle a stick—but I couldn't whittle, either. I'd go on in this vein, striking just the right self-deprecating tone, peppering my conceits with sly satire. Finally I'd conclude that these Norman Rockwell images were out of character. I'd be myself, take my grandson to the zoo, buy him Cracker Jacks. I'd bring him to the office, where he'd make paper-clip chains and send silly messages through the pneumatic tubes. I'd build him a darkroom and teach him to make pictures.

My funny piece would also tease the new grandmothers, who were seriously engaged in a ritual of their own, trying to find suitable names for themselves—Nana, Nanny, Mimi, Mumu, Baba, Mama, anything but Grandma—but, by gosh, I'd stick to good old Gramps, or Grandpa. No big deal. Twenty years from now my grandson would read this piece, and maybe he'd say, "Good old Gramps, rest his soul. He didn't know anything about fishing or whittling, but we sure had some fine times."

I was still ruminating when the news came. This little baby was gone, dead at 46 days of age. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—SIDS—crib death. No cry, no gasp. He lay asleep one moment, stopped breathing the next. Born on St. Valentine's Day, died on April Fool's Day, buried on Good Friday. A precious promise wiped out by a wanton prank. In America, as many as 8,000 babies die of SIDS every year, and nobody really knows why.

He was called Benjamin after my dad, William after Nancy's, and he was nicknamed Jamie. I'd seen the red, funny little thing in his first week, looking grumpy, like a tiny Churchill. Seen him again the fifth week, showing a bit of personality, the hint of a smile. Watched the happy, hovering parents delighting in the new nursery, the little electric swing, the high-tech car seat, all the latest in the best equipment, all the best in a sturdy strong-lunged baby. Born, mind you, on the 14th of February! Such timing, such a blessing! Such fun we were going to have, making paper-clip chains, going to the zoo.

Such devastation, now, such tears. Friends and family descending into the gloom. The clergyman appearing swiftly, serious and consoling, helping the bereft parents find their courage. The flowers, the calls, the gifts of food, the wordless embraces. The mourners shifting to and fro, angry and helpless, dabbing eyes, trying to understand. We prepare for the death of contemporaries and parents; even a sickly child sends us a red alert. But how can you accept the death of a sleeping infant? These are parents who wired the nursery and carried a receiver into the garden, their nerves and ears engaged, ready to spring at a cry. How can a child be denied his life? One afflicted parent tells me you never get over it. It's easy to believe.

There would be an autopsy, then cremation. David and Nancy, grieving all the while, make the "arrangements," choosing a burial place beneath a live oak tree in the children's graveyard at the cemetery. The grave-diggers are on strike; supervisors will dig the hole. Not a major job, after all; a small hole, perhaps two feet deep, for a canister, scarcely bigger than a flowerpot, that will hold a plain, little paper box with a few ounces of ashes.

We drive through the cemetery gate, ignoring the glum faces of the picketers. At the graveside David kneels and places the ashes in the canister, the clergyman leads the prayers and reads a few lines from Blake. We set flowers in fresh water. Retreating, we pause to read the markers at graves nearby. This baby, 1 day old. That one, 2 weeks old. Here, a baby a month old. There, siblings, born two years apart, each living only a few days. Another baby, gone 20 years, has fresh flowers on his marker. On and on, you study the stones, intoxicated by the sorrow of parents who wept here, wondering for an instant if you aren't witnessing the end of the whole world. All those babies, those lives, all those infants' graveyards.

At the memorial service we hear spare, comforting words from the minister. He reads from the Old Testament and the New. He finds thoughtful passages from Thoreau, William James, John Muir, and we are lofted mercifully beyond mundane concerns, but only briefly. The organist plays Sheep May Safely Graze.

At the house later, when the visitors have gone, we pass photographs among ourselves. A strange little thing, at the moment of delivery. Here he is at 2 days, 5 days of life. Look: There he is, his eyes focused at last, at 5 weeks or so. Smiling, would you believe, at 6 weeks! A person at 6½ weeks. A chronicle complete in 46 days.

Next day the two grandmothers, an uncle and the parents go to work in the garden, planting flowers everywhere, igniting life into the soil, hope to the heart. David and Nancy, strong and determined, will join a group of other parents who have lost babies, sharing their sadness, consoling one another. Like those parents, they will return to their jobs, pick up their lives and start soon to have another baby. This time, we know, things will be better. Nancy's widowed mother and my wife and I will be grandparents again, making all our plans afresh—the zoo, the Cracker Jacks, everything once more, only more so. It will be my second grandchild, by gosh.

You know how a melody sometimes gets stuck in your head? A bit of a jingle, a pop tune, a snatch of a symphony—and you can't get rid of it? Sheep May Safely Graze has that sort of tune, a simple, repetitive melody. Try as you will, you can't get it out of your mind.

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