On Leap Year Day my younger brother called to remind me that today would have been our older brother’s birthday. He would have been sixty-eight. I never met him, and rarely think of him except in leap year. Here is a column I wrote for the North Denver News in February, 2008, the year we celebrated his fifteenth/sixtieth birthday.
This part of the cemetery tells the saddest stories. The tiny lambs with the dates a few weeks, a few days apart. Those with only one date.
It is leap year day. My friends and I stand in a circle around one such grave, the birth date exactly 60 years ago, the date of death three days later. The child was never named, though I know my parents planned to call him Roger after their best friend. He would have been my big brother, the one who would have introduced me to cool music and his cool friends, the one who would have played catch with our little brother and protected him from the school bully.
I was about ten when I learned I almost had had that coveted thing, an older brother. My parents found his birth certificate while looking for something else. They showed it to my brother and me with no fanfare, but told the story of his short life with unhealed sorrow in their voices. I remember a blue ribbon and a tiny, tiny footprint.
I know the death of an infant is a wound that never heals. This one was especially poignant because he was born on leap year day and the entire city of Denver celebrated. Months later, my mother would meet a distant acquaintance who would ask after the baby because she’d read it in the paper. The grief was kept raw for a long time.
My parents rarely talked about that baby, and never about the hopes they must have had for him. Yet he was there, a shadowy member of our family, each of us carrying some thoughts about who he would have been in our lives.
As she grew older my mother began to say how she wished he had a headstone – the young couple hadn’t been able to afford one. She thought maybe she’d do it now, to make sure he had some place in human memory. But she never got around to it.
Because this is a leap year, the baby was in my thoughts. I found that the cost of a headstone was not prohibitive. I chose one, not with the traditional lamb, but with a boy flying a kite, spaniel at his heels, for the carefree childhood I wished he’d had.
And on his birthday I gathered a group of friends for a ceremony at his newly-marked grave. We read poems, sang the songs of 1948, told him how he had been loved and missed. I place on his grave things I wished he’d had in life – a handmade stuffed toy, a family photo, some favorite CDs we could have shared. People placed stones in memory of babies lost in their own families.
This I did to honor my mother’s wishes, to commemorate my parents’ love for that child, to make real his presence in our family, and to help heal for my brother and me the hole he could have filled. I did it to make sure that he is not forgotten.