Children's Literature at the Cemetery
By adina giannelli on April 03, 2011
When I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter Talya in October 2009, I knew three things. First, that I would have the baby, despite difficult timing. Second, I knew that I loved her, from the moment I learned of conception, from the time when she was little more than an idea, a tiny spark of an existence, unknown outside my body. Finally, I knew I would read to the baby, gladly and often. What I did not know, what I could not have known then, was that six weeks after she entered the world, I'd be burying her tiny body in the warm August earth.
Like many parents, months before her birth, I made fanciful, half-joking projections about Talya. A strong and frequent kicker, I’d expected she’d play soccer; my pomegranate and kale cravings foretold to me her future as a good eater. After her birth, her long fingers and toes convinced me her future was in piano and swimming. I’d mused from the start that the child of a leftist law student and an anti-establishment musician would end up apolitical, or ultraconservative. I expected, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, that she'd be an architect, although in truth I have no idea what or who she might have become. I expected that I would take her to Paris, which was my favorite city, and to the ocean with my sister, and to visit Yoona in Seoul and Sharon in London. I wanted her to see the world, but this was not to be.
What I know: her fingers and toes were long. She was highly alert. She never ate pomegranate or kale, but gained two and a half pounds in her short life on breast milk, nursing vigorously and often. She never played piano, but listened closely whenever her father tapped out a melody for her on his piano, cradling her tiny body in one strong forearm. She burst into the world, wailing and certain of her own presence.
Had she lived, I would have read to her constantly.
I visit her grave as often as possible. Talya does not have a headstone yet, her stone will be unveiled on her yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death. All she has is a small patch of grass and four studs, marking the boundaries of her plot, a tree which in the early days provided frequent shade, lots of sunshine. Summer turned to autumn, and the leaves fell, sharing a beautiful New England vista. Winter came, covering her earth in snow so deep I could not reach her burial plot, offering a sad metaphor.
The love I felt for her, the love so many people felt for her in her short life, lingers on. But I am still in the deepest throes of grief, an agony from which I'm not sure I'll ever completely recover. From which I am not sure I ever want to recover. I mourn her death, and I cry to have lost her in the world. I cry for myself, admittedly, selfish tears, to be without her. I cry for all of the things she'll never get to do and for the person she won't grow to become. I cry for all of the books I thought I'd read to her, and will never be able to read to her.
So when I go to the cemetery, I bring her the books I might have read. And I read.
I read to her because I wanted her to love literature, and because in my life, books saved me, enabling me to cope with all of the things that I have not known how to handle. And maybe they still do. And I am not so detached from reality not to realize: I am reading not to her, but to myself. Still, I read for her. I read the books I loved as a child, those that saved me from the perils of an unhappy girlhood, and those I came to love in adulthood. Maurice Sendak. Judith Viorst, Ludwig Bemelmans, Maira Kalman, among many others.
I think of all of the books I thought I'd read to her, but will never be able to read to her. I wanted for her to hear the wild things roar their terrible roars. I wanted her to experience an old house in paris that was covered with vines.But she is gone, and she is never coming back. Goodnight stars, goodnight air--her body, decimated by a medical examiner, only perhaps to find nothing? Goodnight creatures everywhere. She was a sweet, wonderful baby, and I loved her more than words can say. Baby coos, as mama plays, papa laughs, summer days. I will survive it, but I will never get over this loss, I am confident. For you are my little bunny. As long as I live, I will never get over it.
I read the books I loved as I child, but I also read the books I swore I'd never read to her. Specifically, Martha Wise Brown's entire oeuvre. When pregnant, I flatly rejected many suggestions to purchase Goodnight Moon. A classic, I am told, but I never understood its appeal. The very idea of it numbed my brain, but in those early months following Talya's death, I read it. I could not stop myself from reading it.
The book I read most, however, was The Runaway Bunny. A strange choice, so oedipal and codependent. I almost never made my way through the entire book without weeping hysterically, like a maniac. Jack, the cemetery manager, drove by me in his green station wagon and speeds up or assumes an alternate route. He is embarrassed by my crying, or perhaps wants to offer me peace and space. But there will never be enough space, and I am confident: I will never know peace.
After Talya died I carried The Runaway Bunny everywhere I went. In the weeks before Talya's death, I had started to call this tiny, beautiful baby bunny, a diminutive that surprised me, as I bore no real fondness for animals and eschewed nicknames generally. So maybe the fact that the book was, well, about a bunny influenced my desire to read it at her grave. But if know the story, you'll see that there is probably something else at work. As the title suggests, the text is about a small bunny who expresses a strong desire for running away from his mother. For every getaway plan the bunny devises, his mother offers her interventionist strategy for tracking him down and bringing him home. You don't need to think much of Freud to understand the appeal of this plotline for a mother whose child has recently died.
And so for many months, I clung to that book, sad and demented as it sounds, and read it at Talya's gravesite. I still carry the book along with me when I visit the cemetery. I don't need to carry it, really; as I knew this baby, I now know the book--by heart.
As a work of children's literature, the text is not that great. It's sentimental, and not especially well-written. It's a little dull (though not so dull asGoodnight Moon, its more famous counterpart).Yet, I can't help myself from reading the book, still. It is an incredible challenge for me to wade through the muddy water of this text, the emotional equivalent of reading Ulysses in a very foreign language, but the text compels me.
If you become a bird and fly away from me, said his mother, I will be a tree that you come home to, for you are my little bunny. Most days, I can barely get the words out. If you become a bird and fly away.
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