Human are hardwired to perceive faces readily, even in patterns that bear only a scant resemblance to faces. Every viewer of this photograph who’s spoken to me about it notes the resemblance to faces. Usually they say the faces look like aliens. But my mom would have said owls. She preferred Great Horned Owls, but she would have liked this photo a lot nonetheless. It’s one of the few things I feel sure of. This ranks among my favorite photographs and I wish she had lived long enough to see it. Taken with a 4-megapixel Pentax Optio at Gator Automotive in Carbondale, 2006. It’s a tiny, sleek little camera with a display the size of a postage stamp, but with a viewfinder.
I find it enraging that although Facebook allows gruesome photos (many of them fabricated or misleading) of aborted fetuses, it recently banned photos of a baby born with a fatal birth defect called anencephaly, in which critical parts of the brain are missing. When the mother reposted the photos, she herself was temporarily banned from Facebook. This video about that baby made me cry, and—yes, it’s a cliché—my heart goes out to this family.
When people ask, I always tell them I have one sibling—one sister. That’s true. But there can be alternative, equally valid truths, depending on how you look at things. This blog post honors my and Carolyn’s other sister, Rosemary, who was born prematurely on April 18, 1960, with anencephaly. She lived about an hour. I was a toddler, 20 months old, and an only child until that day—and then again afterward.
With anencephaly, parts of the brain never develop due to a neural tube defect. In most such cases, part of the skull is also missing and/or the baby’s head is deformed. In the early 1900s such babies were sometimes referred to as “anencephalic monsters.” To my knowledge my mother never saw the baby, although my father did. One of my aunts recalled him saying that the baby looked perfectly normal. Another recalled him talking about defects. Memory is a tricky thing. But the death certificate, which I found online, clearly says anencephaly. Such babies are usually born prematurely due to an excessive buildup of amniotic fluid, which was also noted on the death certificate.
It was a very different time in 1960. My parents, unlike the couple in the video, had no advance warning their baby would die. No photographs were taken. Rosemary didn’t get any kind of memorial tribute such as the video I’ve linked to. My parents, I’m sure, received no grief counseling at the hospital or anywhere else. Relatives have told me that my mother was advised to get pregnant again as soon as possible, and so she did. Carolyn was born a little more than a year later.
I never would have known of Rosemary’s existence had I not asked my father a nosy question when I was in college. My parents never spoke of her. None of the relatives who knew about the pregnancy ever slipped up and let the secret out. I’d like to ask many more questions now, but my parents died years ago. When we cleaned out their house, we found not one bit of evidence, not one scrap of paper, referring to Rosemary. I can’t imagine how badly my parents must have been hurting at the time.
Thanks to one of my uncles, I learned that Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis allowed Rosemary to be buried in a corner of my grandmother’s plot. I’m not sure anyone accompanied my father to the burial; I believe my uncle told me he went alone. There was no service. There is no marker. Cemetery policy might not have allowed one, given the unusual burial arrangement. My parents probably could not have afforded one anyway. Besides, they’d been told by the doctor to move on, not dwell on what happened—to bury Rosemary not just literally, but figuratively as well. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
I’ve decided to check about cemetery policy. It’s ironic, perhaps. Neither my sister nor I, both having decided on cremation, will have a marker when we die. But Rosemary didn’t have a life. Both the least and the most she can have is a symbol of remembrance.
When my sister and I were growing up, we occasionally asked my mom if she wanted flowers and why Dad never got her any—or something along those lines. She said that flowers were a waste of money because they wilted so fast and then were depressing—or something along those lines. I definitely remember the waste-of-money part. Mom’s view seemed to be that only a fool would give someone a bouquet from the florist’s.
So I never gave my mother flowers either.
Mom died when I was 39. My sister flew to Colorado from California; my husband and I drove from Illinois. Dad didn’t arrange for a memorial service, although several of Mom’s seven brothers were still alive and might have appreciated the closure. So it was to be just the four of us viewing Mom’s body in a small room at the funeral home.
As we were making our few little preparations for this event, to my astonishment I learned that Mom’s favorite flower was yellow roses. I didn’t know she had a favorite flower, and I would never have guessed yellow roses. Our houses didn’t have yellow rooms or many yellow things in them. Mom didn’t wear yellow; she favored blues, purples, greens, reds.
But Dad knew about the yellow roses. Evidently Mom hadn’t always thought that a gift from the florist was a waste of money. Did he give her yellow roses when they were dating? Or in the eight years before I was born? And if so, why did he stop? Was Mom’s standard line just her way of protecting herself against disappointment?
If I’d had any idea that Mom had a favorite flower, I would have sent her yellow roses for her birthday, wilting be damned. I would have gotten her some when she came to visit in 1992 and I learned that she and Dad were still living in the same house but communicating only via notes. Maybe I would have sent her some when I learned that she’d sued for divorce (she later withdrew the suit).
Instead, she got them when she couldn’t appreciate them: after she died. Each of us placed one yellow rose on her chest as she lay on the cloth-covered table that would take her down to the crematorium. It didn’t seem like enough of a ritual. It didn’t seem like enough of anything.
We should have given her flowers all the time, and at the end, she should have been resting on a bower of yellow roses.