Last weekend, I kept a yearly appointment, though I was a couple of weeks late.
Every Memorial Day weekend for the past several years, we’ve visited Resurrection Cemetery in Madison. It is the final earthly resting place for my older brother, who died of a brain tumor at 23 months old, 14 months before I was born.
We didn’t get there Memorial Day weekend. I didn’t get there until Friday night, stopping there on the way from Platteville to Ripon for the weekend. (In time to go to Beaver Dam to watch three 9-year-old baseball games, but that’s another story.)
The family’s first Michael is buried in a part of Resurrection Cemetery where very young children from the early ’60s were buried. He is actually one of the oldest to be buried there. Several died the day of their birth. A set of twins are buried next to each other; one died the day of his birth, and the other lived a week. Some died the same year as their birth; others lived a year or so.
There is a lot of pain in that part of the cemetery, though not necessarily among those who are buried there. Thinking of children preceding their parents in death is bad enough. Imagine being in the ’60s, where medical science is not nearly as advanced as it is now, and looking forward to the birth of your child, only to be preparing for his or her funeral right after his or her birth.
Given those advances in prenatal medical science, one can conclude that many of them could have been at least diagnosed with and possibly even treated for whatever killed them, even for a congenital or pre-birth problem. Michael died of a brain tumor. Had a similar situation occurred today, MRIs and CT scans would be able to diagnose a brain tumor. Treatment could at least have been tried, though certainly with no guarantee of success. Even today you hear of instances where someone goes to the doctor not feeling well, gets diagnosed with a terminal illness, and dies shortly afterward. Apparently it’s just their time to go.
The plain nature of their gravestones makes one think they were the children of young, and thus probably not wealthy, parents. You can’t tell whether they were first children, as Michael was, or whether they had brothers and sisters. (Imagine telling your child that the brother or sister he or she thought was coming home from the hospital wasn’t coming home from the hospital.) Some of the gravestones don’t have first names, only “Infant” or “Baby.” Two of our three had names before they were born; it’s hard to imagine a child being born and dying without a first name, though perhaps that was more common in those days.
Do the math from the second paragraph, and you know that all I know about our children’s Uncle Michael is what I’ve been told about him. The same applies to my maternal grandfather, who died of a heart attack in the late 1940s, and my paternal grandmother, who died of a stroke before her 50th birthday.
I am, therefore, either my parents’ second son, or son number 1B, if you want to put it that way. I was raised as the oldest child, which is more significant than actual birth order.
I had a rather negative reaction to finding out that I had an older brother. I’m not sure why, but it (stupidly) made me conclude for some time that I had been adopted. It wasn’t because of discontent with my parents. When you’re in the middle of your middle school years (and middle school sucked), you don’t notice that facially you look like your mother or that you have the same body type as your father and his father. My mother had told me that they had really wanted children and had actually started the adoption process, so I guess there’s some logic in wrongly concluding that they were keeping your adoption secret from you. That was also a time when the common belief was that the parents of someone who was adopted were that person’s birth parents, not the parents who chose to raise an adopted child.
(The irony is that I’ve thought — on occasions other than those when I conclude our three children were between one and three too many — that if we ever won Powerball or MegaMillions one thing that would be worth doing is adopting more children. In addition to cursing even more people with having to pronounce and spell Prestegard, it would be amusing to have in the family a black Prestegard, or a Latino Prestegard, or an Asian Prestegard.)
I have occasionally wondered what not having been the oldest child would have been like. The oldest stereotypically is, or is supposed to be, or is required to be, more responsible than his or her siblings. (Who might look upon their oldest sibling as being “bossy.”) Michael would have been 50 this year, so his younger brother probably would have sent him a nasty birthday card for the occasion. I wonder how many things I would have done because he did them. (There is athletic talent in my family, just not with me.) I look at our sons Michael and Dylan, and wonder if I would have been the drawing-attention-to-myself comedian-in-training that is the middle-child stereotype.
Older siblings are supposed to set an example (their parents prefer a positive example) for their younger siblings. I obviously can’t speak from experience, but I suspect younger siblings sometimes resent their older siblings for what the older brothers and sisters were able to do but the younger ones couldn’t. The converse is that older siblings probably feel like their parents didn’t let them get away with things that weren’t such a big deal in their parents’ later years.
From this father’s perspective, I think the oldest child is most difficult because parenting is very much something learned by experience, and everything that happens to him or her is being experienced by his or her parents for the first time. When your second or third child presents you with the toxic-waste-dump diaper, or refuses to go to sleep, you’ve dealt with that before. Everything with your first child is a first, such as the throwing-up-every-half-hour-for-six-hours stomach ailment. (Our Michael is the only person on the planet to have pulled at his father’s back hair while his father was trying to sleep.)
The same Richland Center cemetery where my grandmother is buried is also the final resting place for my uncle, Gabriel, who died shortly after birth of spina bifida. I believe my grandfather had a brother who died too early as well. Child mortality rates have dropped considerably in the past century, but that is a family trait that should not be passed on.
We named our first child for my brother. There is something life-affirming about your kids running around while you do whatever you’re supposed to do at a gravesite. They weren’t there last week; it was just me and a few other people visiting other gravesites on a steamy Madison early summer evening.
Most Christians believe they will meet loved ones who have preceded them to Heaven. That makes me wonder: When I get there, in addition to grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends, will I meet 23-month-old Michael? I say hello to babies now, and the reaction I generally get from their face is: Who the hell are you? It’s hard to imagine having an adult conversation with a 2-year-old, but as you’ve probably figured out by now from this blog, that’s how my brain works.