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Why I don’t want to visit the cemetery for my son

Early spring flowers in Henry's Garden - April 2011

When I read Elizabeth Edwards’ first book a few years ago, I was extremely moved by the chapters in which she described her unbearable pain at losing her son, Wade in a car accident when he was only 16 years old. Of course, at the time, my emotions in reading her words were abstract, not personal; I never imagined that not so long after reading the book, I too would be the grieving mother of a dead teenage boy.

One of the things Elizabeth Edwards described in great detail was her almost compulsive need after Wade’s death to fuss over, perfectly maintain, and spend time at her son’s gravesite in a local cemetery – the same cemetery where Elizabeth herself now lies next to her beloved boy.  When I first read this part of the book, I couldn’t understand why she would find a grass plot with a marble statue on it to be so important. It’s just a place, I thought. It’s not her son. The “real” Wade Edwards is gone.

But now I understand that part of her story, too.

We chose not to have Henry buried. Instead, he was cremated. As I’ve written previously, as hard as it was (and is) for me to think about Henry’s beautiful body being consumed by fire, I simply could not bear the idea of him being in a box, in the dark, under the ground. As irrational as this is, I would worry that if he were in the ground, in a cemetery with other dead people, he’d be frightened and alone and cold. I realize how insane that sounds, but frankly, losing a child can make you feel a bit insane.

So he was cremated. My sister Betsy took on the terrible task of going to the place (I can’t bring myself to write the word) where his ashes were ready to be picked up, retrieving them and taking them home, to her house. And that’s where they remain – somewhere in Aunt Betsy’s house.  Neither I, nor as far as I know, Henry’s father, has yet been able to bring ourselves to actually see or touch our son’s ashes. For me, the thought of seeing my son’s body reduced to ashes and – if Dr Google is to be believed – bits of bone – is enough to make me want to pass out with grief.  I simply cannot do it yet. I have held it all together pretty well since Henry died, but I am pretty sure that the first time I see Henry’s ashes, I will be immediately cast into a circle of hell beyond my worst imagining. I just.can’t.do.it.

And of course, it does not help that Henry’s body was not whole when the cremation took place, something we had no idea of at the time. An important part of Henry’s body is still with the local Medical Examiner, and I have yet to figure out how to reconcile my son’s body. Like, literally, I have no idea how to accomplish the logistics of this problem that must be solved. Who would retrieve his missing remains from the local morgue?  And how? After I realized what had been done, the ME told me that cremating what she retained would largely be pointless, because the brain is almost all water. There would be nothing left. So should we donate his brain to a research facility? Should we bury it separately? I am tormented by all of this, and I can’t figure out what the right course of action is.

So for now, Henry’s incomplete remains – his ashes – are with his Aunt Betsy, and the rest of him (my favorite part of him, actually) is in a jar at the morgue, surrounded by strangers and cold metal and death.  Obviously, Henry’s father and I have to face this issue soon. I know that. I think about it all the time. I dream about it.

But because Henry was not buried, and we have not yet made any decisions about a final place (or places) for his ashes, there is no headstone. No cemetery. And honestly, I like that.  I like knowing that the same  kinds of strangers who would pick my dead child’s character and personhood apart in newspaper comment sections have no access whatsoever to any physical representation of him. They can’t walk on his grave, or say ugly things as they pass his headstone – nothing like that.  And the people who killed him, who remain free, can’t go visit his cemetery plot for whatever sick reason they might decide to do that. No, he is with us, with his family, and that makes me feel like I am able to protect him just a little bit from the kinds of people I failed to protect him from before he died. I will feel even more at peace with this once we reconcile his entire body, and make it whole again.

But although there is no cemetery marker for me to visit, there is a special spot that I find myself drawn to again and again, to “be with” my dead son.  Just like Elizabeth Edwards described, I find some of the only peace available to me since my child’s death in puttering in this specific place, and weeding, and tidying, and adding things that I know Henry would like and appreciate.  For me, that place is the little garden that friends and neighbors created in our yard in the week following the death of my son – Henry’s Garden.

This is where I find my son. And he’s at home, with his mama, where I wish he were in person. The garden isn’t huge, but I can spend many hours in it, plucking weeds, pruning roses and just sitting. I think part of this is that I SO long to mother my child. To feed him or wash his socks or drive him to school… Sometimes I literally ache to mother my missing child.  So when I fuss over Henry’s Garden, I get to expend some of that pent up mothering energy on something for my boy, even if it’s just plants and quirky garden art.

Soon, I hope to extend Henry’s Garden across more of our front yard, but for now, I am enjoying working on the plot that’s already growing. Every week, a new flower or plant pops up in the arden – one I hadn’t known was even there. Just this morning, I found two nice mint plants growing in a spot where there was nothing only a week ago. The Garden keeps changing and evolving. I love that.

Last night, after a day spent downtown at the courthouse, and on the first anniversary of Henry’s death, I built a little stone wall around his Garden.

Henry's Garden - June 1 2011

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Also yesterday evening, Henry’s Aunt Betsy and Henry’s cousins El, M, and NC came over to install this garden peace sign that Betsy got for Henry in Asheville last weekend. This is sooooo Henry, and he loved Asheville more than just about any other place on earth, so it’s extra special that it came from there.

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Beautiful wild geraniums (I think) that started blooming in April

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Henry’s electric orange garden gnome, compliments of little brother E and the Easter Bunny, and added to the Garden on Easter morning this year.

Henry's Garden Gnome, Courtesy of Elliot and the Easter Bunny

Aunt Betsy also added this little angel to Henry’s Garden.

A very sweet blog reader sent monkeys for the garden because Henry looooooved monkeys.

Henry's Garden Monkey

This stone head is something Henry and I picked out together many years ago at a funky little garden shop that used to exist on Northshore here in Knoxville. He saw it and HAD to have it for our yard. I totally agreed with him. We had to have it. And so we have, ever since then. And now Mr. Grouchy Garden Head keeps watch over Henry’s Garden all the time.

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