Bridget Anne O’Connor
November 1965 – April 1967
Beautiful little “Bridget” died in April of 1967 after being inadvertently backed over by her father. Bridget was 1 ½ and her sister was 3 years-old when this tragedy happened.
Her sister wrote to us to help our website visitors truly understand how the devastating the loss of a sibling can be. She wants other victims to know how vitally important it is to keep siblings and other children involved in the grieving process. We want you to read her story to learn about the ramifications these events have on the entire family. The secrecy surrounding this event prevented healing and divided her family.
Her story won a national prize and she offered to let us publish it on our website. We hope her story will help others as they move thru the difficult grieving process. Her advice to parents is to not keep the death of a sibling a secret or an event that is not discussed. Don’t let that child just disappear.
The gravedigger jabs his shovel into the lush grass of the cemetery. “This is where most of the babies are buried. When the shovel hits metal, that’s where a disc marks the plot.” Thunk! He is stabbing all the dead babies, I think to myself. Emily and I cast quick glances at each other, the looks polite girls give each other when they don’t want to show how horrified they are. Thunk! “She’s number thirty-six; should be right around here.” Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
The gravedigger pushes a sinewy forearm across the top of his head to plaster a few damp wisps of hair back into place. We pretend not to notice the dark circles of sweat under his arms. He leans on his shovel and considers his watch, his face a map of a life spent working outdoors.
“I got someone to bury in half an hour over there” — he jerks his head toward the newer section of the graveyard, “so how about if you gals come back in a couple of hours. That should give me time to find your sister’s grave. You’ll see which one it is. Number thirty-six.”
Emily and I nod and stumble back to the car. We’re drained from the drive across New York to Ithaca in the throbbing August heat, let down by the delay in finding Bridget’s grave. We knew there was no headstone; the gravedigger had told me that much over the phone, when I called from California to start planning our quest. He’d said he would look up her gravesite and show it to us when we got there. But people kept on dying, and the old man was too busy burying people to find where Bridget was buried.
That Bridget’s grave is unmarked is not surprising. Our family is full of secrets, and this death is only one of them. I violated the O’Connor family law by telling Emily, born three years after Bridget died, that our sister had even existed.
Once we are out of the gravedigger’s earshot, our tension squeaks out in fits of giggles.
“Were you thinking the same thing as me?” whispers Emily. “He was stabbing the dead babies!”
Spasms of laughter grip us, escalating as soon as we are safe in the car. We can barely breathe, we are laughing so hard. I wish I could cry, but the grief is waiting for a better time.
My father killed my little sister Bridget. It was an accident. She was playing in the mud under his car. He didn’t know she was there and backed over her. She was one and a half years old. These are the facts. This much I can simply recite to people. I tell them, too, that we were never allowed to talk about her but I did anyway, swearing my friends to secrecy.
What I don’t tell people is this: when I do remember Bridget, I wonder what she looked like dead. I sent away for her death certificate, checking around the room as I opened it, though my parents were half the country away. The certificate names the cause of death as laceration of the brain. “Was she squished?” a little voice inside me asks. I must have seen her. I was there. So was the rest of the family: my brother Bobby, eleven months older than I, and my young parents, made older before they had a chance to become wiser.
My older brother Bobby and I have had clandestine meetings, sharing what we remember about Bridget, since we were in our early teens. From the basement Bobby unearthed a stash of old slides, some with Bridget in the picture. He kept them in a box under his bed, and we took them out and squinted at them against the light when we were alone in the house.
I remember being at the sink on that day-we-must-forget, washing dishes with my mother. Mommy looked out of the window and gasped, “Mike!” I followed my mother out to the driveway and saw Bridget lying there in her red sneakers: two red stop signs, run through. I don’t remember any blood. Was there blood? I want to know. Some young part of me wants to know, and some younger part of me won’t tell.
In the next house we lived in, a house I don’t remember, my father took Bobby and me out to the backyard and told us, “Don’t talk about Bridget anymore. It hurts Mom too much.” Eyes locked downwards, we two nodded silently. We obeyed, and for nearly a decade did not mention Bridget, not to each other and not to Mom and Dad. We moved often as my father finished graduate school and became a college professor. I had one new friend that I shared my family secret with in each place we lived. I don’t know why, but I always had to tell someone. The telling of the story became a secret within a secret, my own precious puzzle box.
As a teenager, I broke the taboo of silence around Bridget with my parents and asked what had happened. They thought I might have forgotten my sister. My mother told me that she had been afraid the ambulance would drive right by because people often missed our country driveway. And sure enough, though she waved desperately, the ambulance shrieked past, my mother’s hoarse screams overrun by the siren’s banshee wail. From there, my parents’ stories diverged. Mom glared at my father through tears. “He was running out of the house to take the car away from me, so couldn’t take the kids to the park.” I wanted to ask why, to know more, but didn’t want to risk having her pierce me with those glacial blue eyes.
My father slumped in his chair. “No, that’s not true, that’s not what happened!” He shook his head slowly, and I could barely hear his voice when he spoke. “We were so happy that day, until the accident. We were finally getting our bills paid, we were catching up.”
In this scene I am fifteen, and they have never had this conversation. They have never talked about Bridget. Where did they keep their grief? How did they toil through each day together as a married couple, have two more children — how did they plod through twelve years with this secret stone in their hearts?
Ten years later, I asked about Bridget again. In my mid-twenties and looking for reasons for the depression that gripped me at certain times of the year, I called and asked my mother for Bridget’s birth and death dates. Muffled sniffles stole over the phone line, as Mom tried to pretend this was an everyday phone call. She said she couldn’t remember when her third child was born, when she died. There is no granite marker to remind her, only a metal disc stamped with the number thirty-six, buried beneath years of thatch.
Emily and I drive back into town, discussing whether to buy Bridget a headstone. We stop at a florist on College Hill to buy flowers for the grave. Without consulting each other, we both know that baby white roses are the perfect choice. And when the shopgirl asks if we want baby’s breath, I say to Emily, “That sounds appropriate.”
The shopgirl raises an eyebrow as Emily stage-whispers, “You mean, as in ‘baby’s last breath?’” Em has read my mind the way only a sister can. As we leave the florist, we sink into the worst gallows humor. Emily nudges me. “Let’s buy her a headstone. It can say, ‘The Secret is Out!’”
We snort, wiping tears from our eyes.
I drive home the finishing coffin nail. “Let’s have it say, ‘Killed by my father and all I got was this stupid headstone!’”
It’s time to return to the graveyard. Our manic giggles have faded. I can almost hear a soft hiss as the adrenaline leaks out of us. Jokes about “the scene of the crime” no longer bring taut grins to our faces. We used to feel it was a crime: not running over the child, but burying our right to grieve, even our right to know what happened.
As we drive back to the graveyard, Emily breaks our silence only to wonder if the gravedigger has come through. He has. Divots of earth lie scattered all around the area.
Many of the babies’ graves have no headstones, flowers, or other signs of visitation. So many people are trying to forget. Some families grow closer, reach out to each other through tragedy. In my family we all grieve in separate cells, emerging only for our, “I’m-fine” white-knuckle dinners.
I kneel and pry back several thick clumps of grass to unearth a tarnished brass disc with a faint “thirty-six” pressed into it. The story of Bridget is real; here’s her grave. I imagine a headstone that reads, “Bridget Anne O’Connor, November, 1965 — April, 1967.”
Finally, I cry. There isn’t much to do at a gravesite but cry and remember. Emily has nothing to remember, and I have very little. I tell a story of when our mother was pregnant with Emily.
Mom’s friends frequently teased me with, “Now you won’t be the baby anymore!” “I’m not the baby, Bridget’s the baby!” I wanted to protest. But I knew better than to say anything.
After a good cry, Emily and I take pictures. While she poses, hands displaying the flowers with self-conscious bravado, I snap her picture. Then it’s my turn to play Vanna.
The pictures say, “We were here, here with you, sister. We acknowledge you, Bridget, and grieve for your memory.”
I wonder what Bridget would have been like, what we would have been like as sisters. She never had the chance to annoy me, nor to become a friend. She never had a choice between tattling on me or covering up for me. Did I like her? Was I was nice to her?
What would our family have been like if I had crawled into the mud under those wheels instead?
You can never be as good as the memory of the one who died young. You can never compete with the one who was never a snotty teenager, who never got arrested, ran away, or had the wrong kind of boys calling on the phone. In my mind Bridget is the perfect one, pristine as a white rosebud, tightly furled. Our photographs are all we have of her: pictures, and one baby rosebud we each take from her grave.
On our way out, we pass the gravedigger. He turns to his next task in the endless line of the dead, nodding at us before he disappears into a green outbuilding. Emily hands me her rose to hold while she buckles herself into the driver’s seat. She and I are but two travelers on the road that winds forever through these acres of grief and secrets.