I hate coming here. It's always windy! It can be as still as stones at home and here, three miles away, an unceasing torrent of whipping and lashing air currents, pound this Southern California hillside cemetery overlooking the frenzied 14 Freeway. Eternal Valley...more like Eternal Wind. There's nothing luxuriant about this place with its steep slopes and bent trees, hunched over like old men, grotesquely disfigured by the constant onslaught of air movement. I find the traffic noise is strangely soothing. I try to pretend it's the ocean.
I couldn't get the rest of my family to come with me today but I don't blame them. It is far too beautiful a fall day, sunny and warm, with just a hint of a cooling breeze. There are more attractive places to be on a day like this, unless you are a toddler, like little Jacob. At my side, he has no choice, and even if he had, he'd likely choose to be with me. Toddlers are like that about their mommies.
I have come because it's been too long. A child's grave should not go unmarked for nearly four months, unidentifiable, a rectangular plot, recognized as new by its elevated patch of grass-perfectly edged, only the number on a generic circular plate gives it identity; small round discs of metal which mark the cemetery like some kind of over sized dot to dot puzzle gone wrong.
I long to see the name we chose for him at his birth fifteen years ago, even if carved into a cold marble slab...at least marble lasts. I must see his name for myself, on this wind whipped hillside, for this is where he lies, beneath the sprinklers, the sod, and the baby trees lurching in the wind trying desperately to hold on to the earth which anchors them.
I have difficulty carrying a wiggly toddler and flowers at the same time. I prop little Jacob on my hip and step respectfully toward the oak sapling halfway down the hill and perpendicular to the trashcan at the curb. Flags wave as if to greet us, balloons bobble violently as if to warn. Jacob's soft brown hair blows wildly.
It stood out like a silver coin on a busy street, the morning sun reflecting off of its newly polished surface. I swallow hard, pull Jacob tight, and come closer. It's a steep slope and difficult to navigate alone, add a weighty toddler and you get the picture. Gravity prevails and I lower my little boy; the writing on the smooth, cold stone of the freshly placed marker has little effect on Jacob as it meets the bottom of his tender little soles. He is too young to weep at moments like this, but I am not.
My tears sprinkle the name of my firstborn, etched in stone, his name seems too young to be here-Justin after all is a young person's name. There should only be Henries and Harvies and Charlies and Janes on a stone of this nature. Fifteen is too soon.
Jacob picks a rainbow pinwheel from a neighboring grave: it spins faster as he lifts it triumphantly. I lower my head realizing that Jacob would never remember seeing Justin's giant smile, or recall hearing his silly giggle, or feel the strength of his teenage arms holding him. Ironically, this means Jacob would never know the pain of living without him.
Tears splatter the front of my shirt as the wind catches them and throws them back at me. My head feels heavy, as though it is filled with sand, at least it can't blow away. I lower myself closer and press my fingertips along the clean sharp edges of every letter as Jacob toddles close by. I lift my eyes to the horizon, my back to the blows of the wind, longing for a glimpse of some kind: a heavenly hint at a purpose for all of this. I met a woman once, whose son had seen Jesus in the clouds, and another who felt the presence of her beloved daughter as she mourned at the cemetery. All I felt was wind. If he were in the wind, surely I would feel him pass through me.
The trees here are young and small, except for the ones down below at the base of the hill, in the older part of the cemetery. Down there, near the entrance, the trees are giants, pines and oaks. They sway gently at the incessant wind, established, rooted, un-moveable. The dead have head stones there, the old fashioned kind that pop up out of the ground proudly, in an "I'm right here, mom" kind of stance. Those aren't allowed anymore, it must take too much time to groom them. It is so much easier to plow over the ones lying down.
Lilies in metal vases lurch and hold tightly to their stems. Jacob plops himself next to a marker several grave sites over and pets a fuzzy plastic puppy left behind by previous visitors, its head nods in obedience to the wind. I look across the wide expanse of lawn; we are the only ones visible and again I lower my heavy head.
The fear of losing Justin began in 1990 when he was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at the age of five, when he relapsed nearly ten years later, suddenly and unexpectedly, I realized that fear. And now here I was at the foot of his grave, living with the aftermath of every mother's worst nightmare.
I call to Jacob to come back but my voice is blown down wind, now too far up the hill to ignore, my bruised maternal instincts still manage to flicker a response. I stand up and gesture for him to come near.
"Come back to mommy," I cry. He turns, spies a "Happy Birthday" balloon dancing before him and snatches it up. Heading straight for me, picking up speed like a runaway freight train, arms loaded with confiscated trinkets, trampling over stones marked "beloved" and "precious", he smiles and uncontrollably draws closer. Releasing his treasure on top of his brother's stone, he drops everything, wraps his soft, chubby arms around me, and squeals "Mommy!" knocking me backwards onto the grass. He kisses me strongly.
I can't help it...I laugh out loud. Kissing his tender cheeks he doesn't seem to notice the tears. Pulling him onto my lap I tell him, "You are like good medicine." He leans into me content to be in the comfort of my lap. I nicknamed him that day: My "Medicine Man" for his touch and his laughter cure me for the moment, staving off the pain like the finest of analgesics.
I stand...my head is not so heavy and my arms feel lighter. I look out toward the bustling freeway, beyond the old part of the cemetery, at the passing cars rushing north and south. Taking Jacob by the hand we return the trinkets as best we can. We walk taking his baby sized steps, up the hill, the wind blows our hair and it whips at our eyes. We blink and return home.
Six years later Jacob too, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Lisa Delong, a registered nurse and certified bereavement facilitator, lives with family in Southern California. Her son, Jacob, has been in remission for almost two years and continues with maintenance treatments at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.