Human Dignity

The smallest angel

Not far from my house is an old cemetery where I like to go for walks. It is a quiet, peaceful, meditative place, a shrine to the departed and a sanctuary for the living, a haven of tall shady trees that were planted by the pioneers in the midst of the treeless prairie. Indeed, it is a sumptuous feast for hungry eyes. 

First of all, there are flowers, lots of flowers—
everywhere you look, flowers. Tulips, daisies, daffodils, irises, Easter lilies, marigolds, zinnias, hollyhocks, carnations, chrysanthemums. Eye-dazzling displays in every shade of the rainbow, both real and plastic, wild and domestic, fresh-cut in vases and wilted-dry in bouquets, well-cultivated rose gardens and funeral arrangements from recent burials. 

There are shiny granite memorials, hand-chiseled statues, and exquisite stone angels that have stood guard here for over a century. Marble monuments, family mausoleums, and forever-sealed crypts. Row after impressive row of tombstones bearing inscriptions which tell the story of long, happy, healthy, productive, successful, event-filled lives. Some list military careers, marriage dates, and children’s names, while others depict colleges attended, awards, occupations, hobbies, beloved pets, and even the helmets of favorite football teams. 

Then come the graver gravestones, the ones that are almost blank, the ones that take your breath away with their stunning briefness. The small metal plaques that silently bespeak, even resoundingly so, of much shorter lives. Indeed, as abbreviated as can be.

The first time I encountered Gabrielle’s grave was on a cloudy afternoon in September. No doubt I had passed this spot several times during my walks, but on this day, I felt a sudden chill, quickly, along the spine. For I not only recognized that she had died on the exact same date as her birthday, but also noticed how beautifully decorated her burial site was, even six years after her tragic death at such an early age. So young, so innocent, so pure. So tremendously heartbreaking. And yet somehow, in some way, wonderful.

Gabrielle’s tombstone itself is not large or imposing. The simple black marker sits off in the northeast corner of the cemetery, far away from the traffic on 12th Avenue, where it is not so crowded and hardly anybody ever goes, except for Gabrielle’s family. The face of the gravestone reads “Our Little Angel”, followed by her full name (middle one “Jewel”), the span, or rather date of her lifetime, and then at the bottom, the real tearjerker, “Infant Daughter of Luke and Channa”. To the left of the engraving is a gray
relief of Christ, tenderly holding a sleeping baby in His arms. One who has wings on her shoulders.

Since my initial visit to Gabrielle’s first and final resting place, I have witnessed the decorations change over the years with the holidays and the seasons. In the springtime, there are Easter eggs and bunny rabbits; during the summer, a variety of fresh flowers. Come autumn, there are homegrown pumpkins; at Christmastime a pinecone wreath, scarlet poinsettias, and a miniature manger scene. While every Valentine’s Day, her still-grieving father leaves a single red rose on her grave, lying in the snow, like the pair of large bootprints leading to and from the site.

Also on display are other ornaments and offerings, tributes and prayers, wishes and dreams. Ones that are there year-round, and thus now permanent. Things that are clues to the family that clearly loves Gabrielle to this day. There is a half-size, now-fading, red and white Nebraska volleyball. Two angels, one of them releasing a white dove from his upturned hands. A black bear, also with wings, holding a sign that says, “Thinking of You”. Cards, letters, handwritten notes too touching to read. A sturdy bronze flowerpot, always full. And there, by the base of the tombstone, one small, golden, perfect shining star.

I do not know how long Gabrielle lived on this earth, and I pray I never do. Surely less than one full day. Probably just a few hours, perhaps minutes, maybe only mere moments. Something went terribly wrong, and her fragile body could not survive the birth experience. But, however briefly she may have existed, it was plenty long enough for Mom and Dad to hold her, to hug her, to appreciate her, truly and sincerely, anyways and always.

Most people, the lucky ones, are given many days, many chances, many opportunities to “make our mark” in this world, to leave a lasting and undying impression. But Gabrielle only got one. And did she ever.

For the tiny angel who passed away so very young still found time to wiggle her way into human hearts down here on earth, where part of her yet resides, even unto this day some six years later. You see, death did not kill Gabrielle. It just sent her soul back home to Heaven early, while her spirit remains here. Here with her parents, here with her kith and kin, here at this special spot, surrounded by colorful reminders of what was, what could have been, and what will be forever.

I sometimes wonder if babies who perish at birth are sent by God to show us grownups how short, and sweet, and sacred our time on this amazing planet is, whether we survive for 20, or 50, or 100 years. How vitally important each day is, and can be, and should be. Especially when we consider the sobering fact that some folks get just one day to live. Or even less.

And so, while this tombstone at the local cemetery could well be a sad and mournful place, it is not. For this space is now blessed, indeed, consecrated ground. And, therefore, just as pure and precious as Gabrielle was. And is. If only to her parents, if only to her family and friends, if only to the full-grown angels who stand guard here. And also, now, to me.

I still get a chill along the spine—a warm one, somehow—every time I pass the gravestone that more closely resembles a celebration of life than a lamentation of death.

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About the author

Curt Melliger

Curt Melliger’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic Digest, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Alaska, New Mexico, and Oregon Coast. His new book Heaven Here on Earth is due for release in September 2018 from Ozark Mountain Publishing. For more information, visit curtmelliger.com.