Family Secrets

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Giovanni Bellini: Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child, early 1460s

My baby’s headstone stands taller than everyone else’s. I mean this literally—it is a great, solid slab of Hornton stone that dwarfs the surrounding memorials in the graveyard in an almost embarrassing way, given his tiny dates: June 19th–20th, 1996. There is a practical reason for this mismatch. When my partner and I bought the plot, we learned that each eight-by-two-and-a-half-foot patch of earth could accommodate two and a half people. Better leave room to write in ourselves, we thought. Why waste the space? And I was rather comforted by the notion that I knew where I was headed in the end. But my partner and I are no longer together, and now when I think of the headstone I imagine my parents’ names inscribed below my son’s, and their bodies lowered into the plot alongside his small bones—although I do not tell them this.

The huge stone wasn’t all about conserving resources, however. It was also a way of insisting on his little life. He died shortly after he was born in the small hours of the morning, in a hospital in the London borough of Hackney, after I hemorrhaged during labor. When the hospital chaplain came to see me later, I still had Thaddeus lying next to me in the bed, and I asked to have him baptized. Er, no, the chaplain explained, he couldn’t do that, because he was already dead. He kept fiddling with the little metal paperclip he had used to attach some records to the inside cover of his black notebook. I was out of it on the morphine I had been given for the emergency Caesarean section, and I remember feeling not merely confused but astonished. He was so lately dead! Barely dead at all! Wasn’t he still warm? Couldn’t the chaplain do it anyway? The paperclip went up and down.

Later, the priest from my parish in Stoke Newington turned up and baptized away without any qualms. Or he blessed him, or something. It wasn’t that I had faith; I just needed a ritual. After that I went into ritual overdrive. My partner and I drove out to graveyards all over London, surveying the desolate plots beneath overpasses and within hailing distance of the North Circular. And we arranged a big funeral mass, with all the works—the coffin on a little stand at the front of the church, cousins over from Ireland, readings, poems, hymns, flowers. All this for a baby who had lived for less than an hour. I look back and wonder why someone didn’t take me aside, although I would have reacted as I reacted to the hospital chaplain, with uncomprehending blindness. The whole thing—the big Mass, the big stone, the big family event—it was madness, but it was also necessary.

The revelations in…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.