WE'RE DIGGING A HOLE, thinking about the little girl we never got to know. Beth has the pick, Nancy has the shovel, Alex has a wheelbarrow full of peat moss.
We never got to know the girl, our friends' daughter, because she passed away.
We met her when she was only a few weeks old, when we attended the baby shower. It was an exciting time: the first baby born among our group of friends. She brought a whole new dimension into our lives, the smells and hollers of parental responsibility. One look at her, one whiff of her, and some of us came to know how much we wanted those things. We discovered huge feelings about tiny things: tiny undershirts, tiny spoons, tiny shoes, tiny joys that seemed to explode inside us.
At the shower, I gave her a rattle in the shape of a cow, a pair of overalls, a top decorated with pigs and chickens, and a pair of miniature work boots. "Her first farm outfit!" I declared.
She never did make it down to the farm.
Jack has the spade and Bill has the camera and I'm holding onto the tree. We're planting a tree for the little girl we never got to know, here at the farm she never got to see.
She moved to Chicago when she was just a year old; her father got a new job. It was a bittersweet goodbye. We were happy to see our friends embark on a new adventure, but sad to see them leave. We vowed to visit them and their girl, to visit again and again.
We never did make it out there.
They were in Chicago for about a year when the accident happened. We got word a few days later. A friend of a friend calling to bear the news. I put the phone down, stared at it, noticed a lot of dust, noticed a pen from Al's Water Service, noticed the dumbest things. Did I really hear correctly? Was this a bad dream? I had half a mind to call that young man back to verify the performance of my own ears. Instead I opened the door, called down to the barn to Alex, asked him to please come inside.
Neither of us slept much that night. We wondered what to say, what to do.
I had the unhappy task of telling the rest of the group. Beth, Nancy, Ellen, B.K., Wendy, everybody had the same reaction: silence. Did they really hear correctly? Was this a bad dream?
We talked about what to say, what to do, how to communicate our grief about losing the little girl we never got to know. We asked over and over again, as if demanding an answer from the wind.
What do you say, what do you do, when there is nothing to say or do?
We made donations to a charity, we sent cards, we made sure to alert the synagogue that our friends had attended for years. We got together, looked at one another, said there must be something else.
Somebody came up with the idea of a tree. It wasn't the worst idea, or the best, but it was an idea. We chose a Mahaleb, or "perfumed," cherry tree, the kind that blooms in May, the kind whose flowers, bark and even seeds put out the sweetest fragrance. We discussed where to plant it. Should we give it a place of honor on the top of the hill, alone? Or should we put it down in the back yard, where we might include it in our daily lives? We chose the latter, a spot where wild cherries grow. Someday they'll tower over the perfumed cherry, framing it.
The hole is dug. Alex is filling the bottom with a layer of peat moss, to assure good drainage. I'm still holding onto the tree. Nancy has a bunch of small white flowers she picked in the field. We don't say much of anything, as we all join in a circle and lift the tree and drop it in the hole. It feels good to plug the hole with this tree; there is no denying that.
When we are finished, Nancy places the flowers just so. We say a few words about the little girl we never got to know, wonder at the mystery of her short life. I think about the babies who have come into our lives since she was born, remember the smell that woke us up.
I think about Anna, the daughter I will soon have, and say a prayer of thanks to the girl I never got to know.
Afterward, we make a bonfire, stare into the flames and, later, up into the stars. Rich has brought his telescope, and so we take turns looking at Saturn. Saturn? Am I seeing this correctly? I expected Saturn to look a lot bigger than that, to be a lot more obvious. Rich turns the telescope to the moon, which appears huge and fat and definite, a most holy comfort.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.