Garden of Innocents
She sat at her desk not quite believing what she had just written. The hand written letter was laying there waiting for her to do something with it. The overwhelming urge was to screw the piece of paper into a tight ball and throw it away, to ignore everything around her and to not have to deal with this hellish situation. Why couldn’t she just climb under the duvet, drift into a deep and dreamless sleep and then wake up on a sunny summer morning with not a care in the world? Why couldn’t the clock be turned back? Everything would then be okay. But it couldn’t and everything wasn’t. She reached for the letter and read it out to herself;
I would be most grateful if you would kindly arrange for the enclosed St Christopher to be placed in the coffin alongside my daughter Carly before her funeral. This may seem an unnecessary sentimental gesture but it is one that is extremely important to me.
I thank you for your help in this matter.
It had been bad enough having to deal with the Registrar at the hospital a couple of weeks ago. How many parents have to fill in a birth and death certificate on the same day – for the same person? There can’t be many worse things for a parent to have to do, especially as they wouldn’t normally consider that they are likely to outlive their offspring. She remembered the short conversation she had had with the Registrar after the death certificate had been completed.
‘There we are,’ he said as he offered the square certificate to Laura. ‘My deepest commiserations on your loss.’ This would have been fine had it sounded genuine and sincere rather than something he churned out on a semi-regular basis.
‘Thank you,’ Laura replied. There was a pause as she considered something.
‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’ It was as though he sensed that Laura had something else on her mind.
‘Yes there is actually. Could we do the birth certificate now?
The bald bespectacled man considered this for a moment.
‘A birth certificate,’ he said half to himself, ‘yes I suppose so. Are you sure you need one?
Was this man stupid Laura thought? Her daughter didn’t just die. She was born and lived, albeit for less than a day. ‘Well I don’t suppose I actually need one but my daughter was born wasn’t she… I did give birth to her… so I guess we should have one to mark the occasion. She did exist after all; she didn’t just die.’
‘Hmm, yes, okay let’s go through the details again then,’ as he tried to sneak a discreet look at his watch. Laura was sure she was keeping this man from his coffee break or whatever was more important to him than this.
The little man eventually left having completed both of the certificates. Laura looked sullenly at the paperwork she held. Apart from a photo and her memories, this was the only sign that her little girl had ever existed. She looked out of the window. It was a bright spring day but everything seemed so grey.
Back at her desk Laura folded the letter and slid it into the addressed envelope. She then removed the small circular St Christopher from around her neck. Whilst caressing and studying the silver pendant, she thought about why she was doing this – what did it mean to her? Was it an unnecessary sentimental gesture or was there a deeper meaning to it? Was it just another way of acknowledging Carly’s existence like obtaining the birth certificate was perhaps?
For a start the St Christopher was special, it had been a Christmas present from her late mother. She felt it was important to send Carly off with something special, something that was precious to Laura. As Carly was going on a journey a St Christopher seemed so appropriate. Laura dangled the pendant from it’s chain and as it spun she gradually lowered it into the envelope. She then sealed it and placed it on the desk ready for posting.
The photograph caught her eye. She picked it up and studied the image of her dying baby girl. Wrapped in a white shawl and with a white knitted bonnet on her head, Carly was laying in a small Moses basket lined with a soft white sheet. The little bundle of sadness looked so peaceful as she slipped slowly towards her eternal slumber. Laura recalled that as Carly began her departure, a question entered her head. The first of many that she would ask over the coming months. ‘Why does God need to take my daughter so soon after giving her to me?’ Laura considered many possible answers over the following years and many years later she would still not have a definitive explanation, apart from it was what God wanted; it was what fate had intended. It was meant to be and something that was always going to happen. Laura tossed the photo onto the desk and sobbed quietly into her hands as her dark hair fell forward.
She had driven down this road so many times over the last fifteen years. The visits had become less frequent as time had passed but were no less important. The road ran parallel with the boundary wall to the city cemetery and Laura could see beyond the railings mounted on top of the wall, the tall obelisks, crosses and statues of angels on the older graves. She takes a left turn through the main entrance of the cemetery and drives slowly up the pot-holed road until she arrives at her usual parking place in the shade of a fir tree.
Laura retrieves the small bunch of freesias from the boot of the car and makes her way up a straight silver birch-lined path. She climbs the four steps up to the next section and continues up the pathway pausing at intervals to read some of the inscriptions on the grave stones. The unknown life stories of these people always intrigued her. She would try to imagine how they had once been; how they had looked, what sort of lives they had led and what their relationship had been with any others referred to on the headstone. The one she was looking at now was a good example; whereas some of the graves in other areas had more space around them this one was tightly packed amongst others. It had a rectangular brown and dark grey granite cover and matching headstone with a gently curved top edge. The gold inscription told Laura that this memorial was in loving memory of Thomas Edward Wadsworth who at the age of 56, had passed away in April 1945. What sort of life had Thomas had, or perhaps he was known as Tom or even Tommy. One thing was for sure, the last five years of his life were affected, in one way or another by war. Was his death in any way brought on by the war or did he die at a relatively young age due to some illness? And what about dear old Blanche who was not reunited with her husband for another forty two years and was to live to the ripe old age of 97. What direction did her life take after Thomas’s early death? So many unknown secret lives below this hallowed turf. So many people, so many stories.
Laura continues up the path and looks at more headstones. Some were in a similarly tidy state as that of Thomas and Blanches, others were in need of major repairs. Like that of Herbert Tanner who died in 1912. Nobody had been here for many years as weeds and long grass had long ago besieged the grave. To add to the sorry sight, the central section of the grave had collapsed in on itself. Further on Laura stops at a tall monument – a once white angel stood atop a large square pedestal. The angel looked so sad and forlorn as she looked down on the grave of Sarah Ann, the beloved wife of Frederick. Laura imagines offering her hand in a gesture of comfort to the lichen covered angel, frozen for eternity holding the never wilting flowers in one hand held close to her body. The words at her feet, ‘Great Heart’ meant something to someone. Beginning to feel emotional, Laura quickly moves on. She takes some deep breaths as she continues along the path. The smell of recently mown grass cheers her.
She reaches her destination – the section of the cemetery that was dedicated exclusively to babies. Fifteen years and still Laura could not get over the intense emotion on this small island of tears situated in a large sea of sadness. Although it had a solemn feel about it, as soon as Laura walks through the gated hedged archway she feels at ease. She likes the feeling of safety within the boundaries of this very private place, cocooned as it was within a thick ten foot hedge on three sides and a perimeter border of fir trees on the remaining side. It could have been grey on the other side of the hedge, but a couple of steps through the gateway and she would feel as though sun's rays were piercing through the clouds and shining directly on to her, providing her own personal window into heaven. She stops at the head of a path that divided the burial plot into two. When Laura’s daughter was buried all those years ago the two halves had lush green lawns. Carly’s little grave had been in the middle of the third row on the left hand lawn and Laura had been able to walk diagonally over to it. Now there was no more space – no more babies could join the party. Laura now had to skirt around the perimeter to reach Carly, crunching the small pebbles underfoot as she went. There was no longer any green left, only the small plaques surrounded by stones. She felt this somehow added to the sense of desolation and isolation that sometimes washed over her. These were probably some of the only negatives she felt within this garden of innocents.
On reaching the spot where Carly was laid to rest, Laura crouches to lay her flowers alongside the plaque. As usual she runs her fingers over the words ‘Carly Ruth Stevens’. Beneath the name were the dates on which Carly was born and died; 15.4.95-16.4.95. As she traces the letters in Carly’s name with her finger, Laura speaks quietly, ‘I miss you so much Carly – I really do. I so wish you were here – with me. I often wonder what you might be like now. Have you grown into a healthy teenager? I wish I knew. I know one day I will and although I’m not going to wish my life away, that moment in time holds no fear for me. When the time comes I will be so looking forward to meeting you again… and looking at you… and holding you. I really want to hold you Carly, just like I did all those years ago.’ She kisses the tips of her fingers and places them gently on Carly’s name. She stands and makes her way to the wooden seat over by the hedge.
As she sits there Laura closes her eyes and enjoys the spring sun that had just reappeared from behind a white cloud. The warmth on her face was a welcome tonic after the memories of the recent wet and miserable winter. She reaches inside her bag to retrieve the photo of baby Carly, the same one she had looked at all those years ago when she had written to the undertaker. The picture was one of her most treasured possessions and she dreaded the thought of it being lost or damaged.
‘I love you Carly.’ She kisses the photo and returns it to her bag.
‘You obviously miss her a lot,’ a voice to Laura’s right said.
Laura jumped, almost leaving the seat. She had thought she was on her own in total privacy.
‘Where on earth did you come from? You nearly gave me a heart attack.’
She had obviously been so engrossed in her thoughts when she was looking at Carly’s photograph that she hadn’t been aware of anyone entering the baby’s cemetery, let alone coming over and sitting on the seat. To her right sat a girl, in her mid to late teens she guessed, judging by the shrouded face and colour of clothes. She was sat on the arm of the seat.
‘Oh I was here, quietly minding my own business.’ She gets down from the arm of the seat and sits next to Laura. She pulls down the hood of her pink and white top to reveal shoulder length black hair. For a brief moment Laura had felt threatened by the young woman. After she had uncovered her head Laura relaxed a little although she was still on her guard.
‘Well do you?’ the girl questioned.
‘Do I what?’
‘Of course I do.’ Laura didn’t really want to get into a conversation with this stranger – she wanted to be on her own. ‘I thought you said you were minding your own business.’
‘I was ……. I mean – am. I was just a bit curious that’s all.’ Then nodding in the direction of Carly’s grave, ‘was she your daughter?’
‘Is my daughter. Just because she died didn’t mean she stopped being my daughter. When your mum dies will she stop being your mum?’
‘Okay – point taken. Anyway how do you know my mum’s not dead already?’
‘I don’t ……. Is she?’
‘Oh no …….. my mum’s very much alive.’ Laura notices a strange almost knowing smile on the girls’s face as she spoke, that puzzles her.
‘Anyway what are you doing in a place like this? It’s not the sort of place I would expect to see someone like you hanging out in.’
‘I come in here sometimes for a bit of peace and quiet………. There’s quite a lot of that in here. Even us young people like a bit of that now and then. You know………… have time to think about life, the world and stuff like that.’
‘And this place let’s you think about things like that?’ Laura asks.
‘Yeah, I s’ pose it does. I’d never really thought about it like that.’ The girl paused and looked at the graves. ‘What do you think about when you’re sat here alone?’
‘All sorts of things. My daughter, life, death and the stories that lay beneath all of these stones.’
‘Stories?’ The girl enquires.
‘Sad stories. The stories of shattered lives and broken dreams.’ Laura pauses. ‘I often think about the number of people affected by the death of each of these babies – a mum, dad, possibly brothers and sisters, probably grandparents. I know many family members are affected by the loss of the people out there,’ she gestures out to the main part of the cemetery, ‘but those connected to these little ones feel a pain that no one else could even begin to imagine. And how do all these people deal with their grief and begin to rebuild their lives?’
‘You’re quite a deep thinker.’
‘I guess I am,’ Laura replies. ‘In fact I think I always have been – Carly’s death just took it to another level.’
‘Did her death make you question God?’
‘You’re assuming that God played a part in my life in the first place aren’t you.’ Laura gives the girl a moment to consider this. ‘But yes, it did – I had so many questions…… probably more than God had answers. God was always in my life but even more so after Carly had gone. Sure I had many questions and I feel that in His own way God answered them. Thankfully, instead of making me question my faith, it was made stronger.’
‘Look - I would love to carry on talking, but it’s time I was off. I’m meeting some friends. I’ll leave you in peace and quiet with your thoughts. It was good talking with you Laura, perhaps our paths will cross again one day and we could continue the conversation – I’d really like that.’
The girl stands and in a very adult way, offers Laura her hand. Whilst still sitting Laura accepts the offer and as she reaches up she notices a small circular pendant dangling from around the girl’s neck. The silver St Christopher takes Laura briefly back to the day fifteen years ago when she slipped a similar pendant into a white envelope.
‘Yeah, I’d like that too.’ She was still focussing on the St Christopher and whilst looking up at the girl, ‘take care, see you again sometime.’
The pretty girl smiles, turns and walks along the path towards the gate. Laura watches her disappear through the exit without a backward glance.
Suddenly Laura goes cold as a thought flashes through her mind. She rises from the seat and heads quickly for the gate. As she runs she calls out, ‘wait – hang on a minute – how did you know my name? And what’s yours?’ She comes to a halt on the other side of the hedge and quickly looks to her left and right and then scans across the rest of the cemetery. The girl was nowhere to be seen. Where on earth had she gone? She couldn’t have disappeared that quickly. She returns to the seat deep in thought. She sits, leans back and holds her face up to the sky. The sun is behind a white cloud. She closes her eyes and thinks about the person she has just met and has so freely chatted with. A stranger she has never met before yet a young woman she feels as though she knows. The cloud passes slowly and Laura feels the Sun’s spring warmth on her face. And then she smiles to the sky he says, ‘I love you Carly. You've answered my questions and you've made me proud……. and very, very happy. See you again some day – my love.’
Laura rises to leave. She passes through the hedge, closes the black wrought iron gates and walks away wandering whether the two of them will ever met again…………. in this lifetime.