Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Belated Show & Tell: Walk to Remember

I'm still here... & I have at least half a dozen posts half written, both in my drafts folder and in my head (not to mention 165 posts piled up in my Google Reader from over the weekend…!), but no time to write them. I've been composing this one in snatches from the office when I should be focusing on letters to shareholders.

I feel like my life has been running away on me these last few weeks. Work has been nuts (market turmoil adding to the usual year-end rush for both me & dh); I've been cleaning & reorganizing the bathroom, now that the reno is pretty much complete (future show & tell to come!)… and my mother is coming on Friday night for a week, sending me into a housecleaning panic!!

The support group dh & I volunteer with had its Walk to Remember on Sunday afternoon at Mount Pleasant, one of the city's largest & prettiest old cemeteries -- so large that there is actually a major city street that runs right through the middle of it. When dh & I were first married, we lived in a New York-style brownstone apartment building just around the corner from one of the main entrances to the cemetery. We loved to walk around there, especially in the fall, with the autumn colours at their most magnificent, admiring the beautiful old monuments. Some of Toronto's richest old families -- the Masseys, the Eatons, the Westons -- are buried in huge mausoleums there, some that are as big as some houses.

During these strolls, I was always on the lookout for tombstones that bore my own family names, joking that you never know, they could be relatives. One large white monument in particular captured my attention, & I jotted down the names & dates on it, "just in case." Believe it or not, last year I made contact with a distant cousin, and through her, I learned that the people buried there ARE, in fact, distant relatives. One of them -- a three-year-old girl named Florence, who died during a family trip from Minnesota to Toronto just after the turn of the last century -- was actually my grandfather's first cousin. And here I was, some 80+ years later, unknowingly living right around the corner from where she was buried. I wished my grandfather was still here to be able to tell him.

The memorial for the Empress of Ireland was/is almost directly behind our building. The Empress of Ireland was a ship that collided with another ship in the St. Lawrence River on May 29, 1914, and sank in just 14 minutes. 1,012 people died, including 167 members of the Salvation Army, en route to England for a conference. Each year, the Sally Ann holds a memorial service at the monument on the Sunday closest to May 29th. We would hear the band playing "Abide With Me" through the open window as we lazed guiltily in bed.

But, I digress…!

The Walk to Remember begins at the cemetery office. From there, it's about a 10-minute stroll over to the Children's Garden. The Children's Garden was created in 1990 by a woman named Mary Smith, whose son died shortly after birth some 40+ years ago.

At that time, of course, it was common practice for dead & dying babies to be whisked away, unseen by the parents, & buried together in common, unmarked plots. Mary wanted to know what had happened to her child, and after many years of searching, she determined that he had been buried in such a plot in Mount Pleasant, along the side of one of the roads that winds through the cemetery. My understanding of the story is that she wanted to have him re-buried in a family plot, but learned she would have to locate and get permission from the families of every other child buried there with him (!).

So she did the next best thing, and created the Children's Garden as a memorial to her son & all the other anonymous children buried at Mount Pleasant over the years. The garden has been designed so that something is blooming there year round. There is also a charming bronze statue among the plants called "First Flight," showing a young girl and her brother playing leapfrog. This year, I noticed several small toys and stuffed animals had been placed at its base.

Mary attends the Walk to Remember just about every year, and the sculptor, Juliet Jansco of Dundas, Ontario, was also there this year.

Once everyone has arrived at the Children's Garden, parents are invited to come to the microphone, say their child's name and significant date(s), and read a poem, if they like, original or otherwise. This year, a woman who looked to be in her 60s stepped bravely to the microphone and told her story in a halting voice. She lost her baby 38 years ago (!!), and only just recently found out where her child was buried. She read a poem she had written after visiting the site, and when she ended it "Love, Mommy," everyone around me was in tears (myself included).

Following the brief memorial ceremony, there is a dove release (children -- brothers & sisters of the babies we are remembering -- are generally asked to open the baskets to release the doves), and then refreshments. Everyone receives a takeaway. Some years it's been a small plant, other years we've received seeds. This year, we each received a white carnation. I took mine to the cemetery & left it at Katie's niche.

On the way back to the car, dh & I stopped at a very unique monument, pointed out to us by a cemetery tour guide at one of the first Walks to Remember we attended. (The tour is no longer a part of the annual walk.) It's completely surrounded by tall cedar shrubs and is barely visible from the road. It is a unique monument, a tall, Zen-like pyramid, balanced on top of a base of three orbs, and made of metal, marble/granite? and etched glass.

It was erected by the drummer of a very well-known, Toronto-based Canadian classic rock band, in memory of his 19-year-old daughter, who died tragically in a car accident in 1997, and his wife, who died less than a year later -- ostensibly of cancer but also, he believes, of a broken heart. He wrote about his losses and the year-long cross-continent motorcycle road trip he took afterwards in a book (yet another volume in my huge "to read" pile…). I'm not naming names here, but I believe it should be easy to figure out, if you're curious.

On each of two sides of the monument, the women's names, birth and death dates are inscribed on the metal panel, and their images are etched in the glass above. The third side of the monument is blank, although the drummer's image gazes out above it in etched glass. It is, I assume, reserved for him, although he has since remarried. Under his daughter's name & dates are inscribed some lines from the poem "After the Funeral" by W.H. Auden, memorably recited by the actor John Hannah in the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral." The last few line of the poem, included on the monument, are:

"The stars are not wanted now, put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour out the ocean and sweep up the wood,
For nothing now can ever come to any good."

It is a very private little space -- a sanctuary from the busy world outside the cemetery gates, and a little world unto itself, even in the middle of a vast urban cemetery. I almost feel as though I am intruding when I step through the narrow opening in the tall cedars & gaze on the monument. I once took a photo of it but found myself regretting that I had as soon as I did. (The space is so small that it's almost hard to fit the entire height of the monument into my camera's lens.) And I feel a little funny writing about it here in my blog, even with the names removed. The band's fans are notoriously fanatic, and I have no wish to draw unwelcome attention to the spot -- and yet it is a place that touches me deeply, as a bereaved parent.

I wonder how often he comes to visit.


  1. Thank you for sharing this.

    After we lost our boys, my husband suggested that poem to be read at a memorial service for them. We haven't had a service yet (can't bring myself yet) but that poem just break my heart. It is absolutely perfect. I would have completely lost it at the service, hearing that.

    I don't know why, but I always have mixed feelings hearing about parents talk about children lost so long ago. I think it has something to do with feeling that hole, that loss forever. I trust that it will be less raw, but it will never go away. And yet, it is comforting to know that, somehow, they will always be with me.

  2. This was the most gorgeous, aching post. From the highs of finding out that you were related to the people in the cemetery and that "small world" exchange. To all of the loss. Just so much loss.

    Thank you for writing this.

  3. Oh Lori... thanks for sharing all these! The Children's Garden is beautiful, and the story behind, just agonizingly beautiful. My heart breaks and sobs to read all you have written, as I sit and think of all us mothers with holes in our hearts.

    Thinking of you, Lori, and wishing you peace and much love. xoxo

  4. Thanks for sharing this with us. I personally believe that whomever this dear man is who lost his daughter and wife and then built a memorial in their honor would be touched that you found it, wrote about its meaning, and felt moved by it. Their lives are still touching others ... I think he would be happy about that. Just as your Katie's story has touched the lives of many as you share about her here.

  5. Your words brought little tears to my eyes.

  6. This is beautiful Lori. I couldn't bear to go this year, but maybe I might go to the Christmas memorial in December.

    Amazing about the rock star's family memorial, but to be honest, I don't think it would be any big deal to write out who it is. I'm sure they already know! But this being Canada, they would show respect.

    I love the story about the Children's Garden. God, everytime I think about this I weep.

  7. Looks like a beautiful place - the pictures are lovely and the way you describe it, it sounds so peaceful there.

    Glad you are posting again. I too have lost track of time the last few weeks, I barely know what day of the week it is. Need to get back into the routine again. I missed "hearing" your voice and this was a wonderful treat. Well-written and lovely as usual.

  8. PS - That group has always been one of my favorites since I was a young teen. :0)

  9. Cemeteries hold so many stories and powerful memories. I find myself drawn to them and come away with great peace after I visit.

  10. Sue, I always feel so sad for parents who lost their children so long ago, knowing that so many of them never had the chance to see or hold their babies, & there was so little support. I mean, things still haven't changed enough today, in my opinion, but they ARE slowly changing, & we today certainly have more choices available to us than they ever did.

    Aurelia, if you're at the Christmas candlelighting, be sure to let me know so I can look for you -- or introduce yourself!! : )

  11. All I can do is sigh after reading that. My heart just feel so heavy, for all of us.

  12. My heart feels so heavy after reading this, Loribeth, and as it should because no baby should have to die in vain, without the love and thoughts of those who could not know them.

    Sometimes, it dawns on me (as though I didn't realize it before), that this will be with me forever. I cannot shed it. I cannot hide it. My son is dead and life, though it goes on, will never be quite the same.


  13. Hey saw your site on the SITS and stopped by to see how are things going.
    That post was so beautiful and the poem as well.
    Our prayers go your way!

  14. What a bittersweet spot the children's garden must be. I walked through one like it here locally with a friend of mine who lost two of her children, and I ache for the families those grave markers represent. Thank you for sharing this.

  15. Wow, what a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your memories and experiences.

  16. What a beautiful and sad post. I wonder about all the stories behind the stones in a cemetery, but never thought to check out potential relatives.

    I don't stop by often, but wanted to comment to let you know I stop by sometimes and think of you even when I'm not stopping by.

    I have often thought that, for me at least, the failed fertility treatments took a greater toll overall than losing our son - although that was by far the worst single event. It seems it would be especially hard to lose a child and never have a living one.

  17. What a beautiful and poignant post. I've not experienced what you have, but I've walked with a friend who lost her son 4 1/2 years ago. I've learned so much from her.

    Thank you for sharing.

  18. I am thinking of your lost babies today. I lost my own son last April and it gives me comfort to know that maybe angel babies can make friends in heaven. I hope you see your angels in the most beautiful moments of your day.

  19. Found you on SITS... This was an awesome post. Gave me a chill, reading parts of it. May our dear, lost children be remembered, forever.

  20. I attended an angel ceremony in SLC once with a friend who had lost a baby. What a special experience. There was a stone angel standing in our midst, but the spirit of the many angels we were there to honor and remember were there with us, lighting our perspectives, touching our hearts, and reminding us that there is something to be said for eternity and hope.

    Thank you for sharing your story. God bless.

  21. I am soooo sorry for your loss. NO words can express it. I came over from SITS. cherry

  22. Thanks to all of you who left a comment... but what/who is SITS???