When a sad fairy tale comes true.
by Sandra Carpenter
Death was Grandma’s hobby. To her, funerals were a celebration of life — heavy on the word celebration. White bun pinned tight, she attended every funeral for every associate she’d ever known, and some she didn’t.
I recall being dragged along to a distant neighbor’s final resting place after the hour at the chapel, where scents of gardenias and roses overwhelmed the senses of a ten-year-old. Then came the long drive across town to Forest Lawn — Grandma in her green Chevy and me in front beside her. My words one day still ring out over the symphony of six decades: “I don’t cry at funerals like everyone else does.”
Ahhh, I was proud of that. The fact that I had never before seen an elderly face nestled in a plush satin box had nothing to do with my stoicism. In my mind, it was just my strength of character.
Grandma replied, “Someday you may feel differently, Sandy.” I knew better.
More than just funerals, Grandma enjoyed treks over hills and dales of cemeteries — any cemetery as long as it was old enough to hold intriguing tombstones. Yet those stones had to have some special characteristics. Babies were one. She’d “ooh” over names of children laid to rest, saying “How heart-rending to lose your baby!”
Who could deny that? Still, those tiny headstones on those small plots didn’t move my imagination. I couldn’t picture a young body under there. The death of children seemed unreal, sad fairy tales.
Little boy lost
It didn’t occur to me that Grandma might have a little person of her own in one of those plots. One day when we visited a distant graveyard, it came to me that perhaps she did and I hadn’t been told. The graves covered a little, rounded hillside. A cedar windbreak lined the north fence, and below it was a greenish pond named Eternal Lake, where sparrows chirped their raspy songs. We strolled to the oldest markers, highest on the hill. One had marble ducks marking birth and death. All were babies here, sold as half-graves. I worked my way down the hill as my mother hiked after her mother, up higher.
I saw the grave my family was searching for out of the corner of my eye before I focused on it. I knew I was right even if I didn’t know the child’s name; only the last name, Green, told me. I watched a blue dragonfly land on the taller stone beside it before I shifted my attention fully. “William Charles Green,” read that silvery slab. Under the name were dates smudged with time: “February 14, 1907-February 22, 1907.” I stared silently.
I heard Mother call, and I waved them down. Grandma’s eyes brimmed with tears staring at that small grave. For only a moment I felt superior in my strong inner core.
I’d never have guessed that February day that by the time I was Grandma’s age, I, too, would have felt the sting of a missing child, a little boy lost. God whispers, “How different it is when the pain is our own.”
Or was that Grandma’s soft voice?
Planned and unplanned
My first two children had been planned. Paul came along two years after we were married — a big, handsome, dark-haired replica of his father. Brent was born almost three years later — a small-boned blonde like me, the complete opposite of his sturdy brother. While I’d dreamed of a daughter, my fate was two adorable boys: healthy, smart, and good-natured. Enough, financially and mentally.
My third child wasn’t planned. He came along at that late time in my young life, like the Santa Ana wind used to start up the canyon behind our house. First, a suspicion; then a realization that it could be a life-changing thing happening, beyond our control; then a roar — before stillness.
Ten years passed quickly after the birth of my first two children. Though I was still in my early thirties, only occasional baby thoughts passed through my mind. Every time I saw a pink-dressed tyke, I wished she was mine. But I was busy, and my husband was going through a time of change in his work. He needed my aid in supporting this growing family, so I had begun to think that going back to work might be a good idea.
A bulletin caught my eye for a school secretary — ideal. I passed the exams and was scheduled for final interviews when I found out I was pregnant.
Change of plans
First denial, then acceptance, then joy came over me. It was a mental adjustment for both my husband and me, but it didn’t take long to focus on good thoughts. Soon we started talking of the little girl we’d surely have. My job notions disappeared; life settled into its new pattern of thinking forever-motherhood. That was all right. July 4 was the due date, an auspicious occasion even if it did signal lack of independence.
However, this pregnancy was not easy as the other two had been. Different in every way. While morning sickness had been rampant both times before, it had disappeared by the third month; I’d felt energetic. This time I had no morning sickness but felt drained always. Being well over thirty might make a difference in anyone.
Or maybe it was the dental work I had done before I’d known I was expecting. In the late sixties a root canal involved many x-rays, and our dentist hadn’t used a lead shield over me. Was that the problem?
Fear and questions
On April 24 I awoke at midnight, hemorrhaging severely. Before I could wake my husband, I laid on the bathroom floor and had to pull myself together. Fear overwhelmed me. I knew my child and I were in serious trouble at six and a half months along. It shouldn’t have been a total surprise, though. My back had been hurting for three days. Since that wasn’t anything new to a busy mother with sciatica, I’d taken aspirin and gone on with my life.
If my back hadn’t been the constant obstacle since Brent was born, would I have visited my obstetrician? Maybe taken it easier? Maybe not be in this major crisis? Questions plagued me.
My husband took me to the hospital where I had delivered my sons a decade ago. A doctor in the emergency room listened with his stethoscope. “There’s no heartbeat,” he said. Nothing more, nothing soothing, nothing philosophical. Just “No heartbeat.”
I was sent upstairs and stowed in a room. I still hadn’t gone into labor. Nurses checked on me for hours, but my doctor didn’t show up. It seemed to be a wait-and-see proposition, despite the severe pain. No medication was offered, since it might slow the process. In those days, patients were patient; doctors were God. I waited.
Have I been abandoned by the doctor, by my husband, by God? I asked myself. Surely not by any of these three who cared for me. Yet I was alone and afraid.
At 6 a.m. my obstetrician finally appeared and told me he hadn’t rushed, since the child was not living at the time I entered the hospital. He’d hoped I would enter the labor stage and take care of this naturally. Since I hadn’t, there would have to be a cesarean section now.
I had been awake, in pain, all night. As they wheeled me down the hall, my husband walked beside the gurney, holding my hand. I stared up at him. “Goodbye,” I told him. “Take care of the boys. Raise them in our church.” I felt I would never see any of them again.
Yes, my son was dead. It took many transfusions to stabilize me. A shot of a clotting substance developed in that last decade saved me from death when the insidious trickle of blood wouldn’t halt with normal measures.
I awoke in the softly lit, white recovery room with Dr. Boucher standing over me and other patients asleep around me. My first words were “What was it?”
He answered, “A perfect boy. What a shame this had to happen.”
I dropped off again but jerked awake to ask, “Why?”
The doctor smiled kindly. “We call it ‘abruptsio placenta’ when the placenta pulls away suddenly. No one knows why it happens.” He squeezed my hand gently. “You can have more children; there was nothing wrong with this baby.”
The words of Grandma’s prediction at the cemetery vibrated within me. After so many years, I finally understood her pain. My strong character crumbled, and I wept. I had no funeral to attend, however: The little body was spirited away to cremation before I could ask about it. I never saw him; that is my lasting regret. That, and the insensitive way I had handled Grandma’s loss when I was ten. Youth sees the surface only; adults delve deeper and understand more. Oh, how different the pain is when it’s our own!
We had no plans to have more children, so I returned to finish college, then became an Orange County social worker before turning to writing. I’ve thought often of that little boy I called Mark. Nothing wrong with him. What would he be like today? Would he be the image of Paul: so dark and serious? Or Brent: so fair and smiley? Or simply himself?
Would Mark have been the special child: brilliant and unbelievably handsome? Or trouble forever? Hard, never knowing what he was.
These ancient words have helped settle my thoughts: “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass” (1 Peter 1:24, NKJV). I’ve taken comfort in knowing that God makes each bloom different: Some tolerate the sun, some don’t. Some are bright only a few days; others last a long time. I’ve come to see that death is a celebration of life, a life in which guilt and pain are forever laid to rest. And that’s worth waiting for.
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