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United States


A Hard Job

alec vanderboom

I picked out my baby's headstone yesterday.

It was such a weird moment. I sat in the funeral home parlor instead of their regular office. I had Abigail Clare asleep in my arms and 3 year old Tess next to me. Tess had packed three rings inside her winter Hello Kitty knit cap and kept accessorizing the horn of her Valentine's Day Unicorn with the rings. She decided the pink ring looked better on her pink unicorn than the green one.

I'm a normal Mom having this normal conversation with a member of the Funeral Home in my town, only there is nothing normal about this situation.

I didn't know how to design Leo's headstone. I  have my son's name and his sex. Yet that's all I have. I felt flummoxed about the man's second question. "October 19, 2013, right?" "Oh, is that the date?" I wondered. I remembered Oct 7, 2013 as the date we found out that Leo had died and October 26, 2013 as the date that we buried him. The hospital stay was just sort of a blur in the middle of this situation.

Then I started wondering "How do you record Leo's life?" Do I put the gestational age? The standard birth date to death date formula doesn't work with a miscarriage. I went with the single date on his headstone because I didn't know what else to do in the moment.

So then we moved into the choice of clip art. I'm sure I over thought this. But I'm a Historian, and an Artist, and a grieving Mom. What else do I have left on my "to do list" for Leo? I wanted back-up. Three times in the past week, I've tried unsuccessfully to talk about the headstone etching with my commercial artist husband. Each time, my normal supportive spouse who enjoy the creative challenges of logo design and book covers for whatever pro bono project I normally unearth during my day, this time looked at me with shock and horror. "Why the hell do you want to throw this at me right now," his blue eyes seemed to say. His lips stumbled out "I'm sure whatever you decide will be fine with me."

I went into this meeting with a few ideas. A Catholic Cross. A butterfly. A Lego (my older kids decided that his nickname would have been "Lego" since it's so close to Leo.) Then I got the order book for 1,000 pre-selected images of clip art. The two butterfly pictures looked horrible. There were no Catholic crucifixes. Or Legos. Of course, I couldn't pay the cheap rate for a headstone and get the full range of awesome choices. All my pre-meeting brainstorming ideas went out the window.

So I sat there without my husband or my opinionated older kids and looked through this big batch of bad clip art. At first I was surprised. There were so many career options--does someone really want "surveyor" on their headstone? I skipped over the musical instrument choices because I have no idea if Leo was an electric guitar guy like his brother or an acoustic guitar guy like his Dad. I really started to feel emotional when I got to the motorcycle pictures. We never got to have that fight that he wasn't allowed to ride a moped at 15. Flipping through the clip art guide was a reminder how little I know about my son.

Then I got to the "baby" section. I can't even write about that one. Lots of sad images. I didn't cry at this point, but I could have.

Running out of energy, I skipped forward to the "Catholic" religious section. There were lots of badly drawn pictures of hearts pierced by thorns and homely pictures of Jesus looking really odd. Then there was one pretty picture of Mary, holding a baby on his back, like he was a newborn and she was being careful with his floppy neck, and her hands were praying. It floated up above all the other pictorial nonsense. I picked it up like a life-raft.

Then we came to the decision about the inscription. I couldn't decide on a Bible Verse. I hated the cliche about "Beloved". So I went with the simple "Our Son And Brother." When the funeral guy recorded my wishes he wrote out AND. I corrected him. "I want the & sign." What does that look like he said flustered. I took the contract from him and suddenly I couldn't picture the & in my head anymore. When I tried to draw it out I wrote down the Treble Clef Sign. My hands started shaking, so I gave it back to him. "I guess it's okay written out."

The funeral guy looked at my sad face and said "It doesn't matter does it?" I wanted to say, "Of course it matters!" It's a headstone. This inscription is literally going to be carved in granite. I should be able to communicate exactly how it looks in my mind. Yet I'm so helpless I can't even remember how to draw the & sign. Then, I give myself a break. I can always go home, look up the & sign on my computer, and correct it later. No need to push myself too hard in this moment.

I signed the contract. I paid my 10% down. I walked out holding the hands of my two little girls while the snowflakes started to fall.

I walked out of that meeting feeling like an inadequate failure. But my husband was happy when he heard about it at 6 PM last night. Leo will have a temporary marker that will appear in 7 to 10 days. We can go visit and see his name recorded in the earth. Somehow that will make it a little easier for everyone.

This morning when I woke up late, and there was a love note written on my kitchen table. "Thank you for all that you do to care for each of us, even Leo" my husband wrote. I really prefer the task of changing smelly diapers to picking out infant headstones, but I suppose it's all part of the same job of Motherhood.