Paul Prather

I said ‘I’m so sorry’ to my brother when I found his grave a half-century later

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Among my earliest memories is the death of my baby brother. It was 1960. I was 4.

Timothy — I’ve always thought of him as Timmy — died during birth, a full-term baby, chubby and healthy.

My recollections are fragmentary.

At the funeral home, during the wake, I sat next to my dad on the front row. Mom was in the hospital, recovering from Caesarean surgery.

“Can I touch him?” I asked.

Dad nodded.

I slid off my chair and stood before the tiny casket, which was blue. With one finger, I pressed a soft cheek, then scurried back to my father.

“His skin is cold,” I said. “Why is it cold?”

“Dead people don’t have any warmth in their bodies.”

The next day, I rode to the grave site in the funeral home’s limousine, sitting between Dad and Granny Prather.

As the big car rolled slowly down the street, Dad sobbed. Heaving, he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

“Why is Daddy crying?” I asked Granny.

“He’s sad,” she said. “Shhh.”

I remember visiting my mom. In those days, children weren’t allowed into the hospital’s wards. Dad went up to Mom’s room, and I stayed on the lawn with Granny.

Mom came to a window and waved.

“Look,” Granny said. “There’s your mother.”

It took me a minute to find her among all the windows. But when I did, I waved back.

That’s about it. The rest of what I know I heard later from my parents.

They told me how much they’d wanted a second child, how overjoyed they’d been when they’d discovered that Mom was pregnant again.

They’d had a tough time conceiving me, and my delivery had been hard.

When it came time for Timmy to be born, again Mom had difficulty. We lived in a small town without specialists or sophisticated diagnostic equipment.

Mom’s doctor was young. Unsure what to do, he let Mom lie in the hospital in distress for three days. By the time he finally performed an emergency operation, my brother had died.

A nurse told my dad the doctor went back to his office, sat at his desk and wept, knowing he’d accidentally killed a healthy baby.

“If I hadn’t been a Christian, I would have sued him,” Daddy said once.

That part of my story all relies on my parents’ telling. I have no idea what the doctor’s version would have been. I don’t even know his name.

About a year and a half after the stillbirth, my parents adopted my sister, Cathi.

Not long after that, we moved to Ohio.

I don’t remember us ever visiting Timmy’s grave again. I don’t know why we didn’t. My mother was so shattered she rarely spoke of him. My dad had taken photographs of the baby in his coffin, in case she wanted to see what he looked like, but Mom never could bear to view them. Maybe visiting his grave would have been just as traumatic.

Through most of my life, Timmy’s death didn’t affect me much.

But as I’ve aged, that has changed. I feel his loss more keenly. I guess it’s connected to my growing sense of my own mortality.

Recently, my wife, Liz, and I happened to spend a weekend getaway in the small Kentucky town where Timmy was born.

While we were there, I said, “I really want to find my brother’s grave.”

I had no idea what cemetery he was in or where in that cemetery he might be.

So Liz went online and found the town’s main graveyard. We decided to start there. I wasn’t sure his grave was even marked. We went searching on a Sunday morning, and I knew there’d be no sexton to help us.

Liz asked the Lord to please help us find Timmy.

I started remembering things. It seemed to me that he was buried on a knoll, beneath a tree. It seemed that my parents had bought a little headstone, the kind that lies flush with the earth.

We drove into this cemetery, and within minutes, among the hundreds, probably thousands, of graves, we walked right up to Timmy’s: on a knoll beneath a tree, with a flat headstone.

I stared down at that stone.

Like my dad in the limousine and that doctor in his office, I cried. I couldn’t hold it back.

I thought about what was lost when that baby died. About the years he and I might have enjoyed growing up together. About the children he would have fathered. About their children. About the children’s children. All of them locked forever in that tiny blue casket.

It wasn’t exactly as if I wished Timmy alive. To wish him alive would have been to wish my sister away, because if he’d lived, my parents never would have adopted her, and I couldn’t imagine my life without her.

But my brother had lain in the ground 56 years. For reasons now lost, we didn’t visit.

And even though I realized that talking to a headstone was worthless and even melodramatic, I said, “I’m so sorry, Timmy.”

By which I meant, sorry for all of it.

Sorry for him. Sorry for that young mother who couldn’t bear to look at pictures of her lost child. Sorry for that bereft dad heaving with grief. Sorry for that doctor brokenhearted at his miscalculations. Sorry for that older brother, a child himself, touching that lifeless cheek and wondering why it was so cold.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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