The young American couple, bound for home with their first child, board the Queen Elizabeth in August, 1951. People smile at the juxtaposition of little Lizzie, three months old, with the huge ocean liner that shares her name. Ellen and Kerro are returning triumphantly from Kerro’s fellowship in Cambridge, where he earned a second Ph.D. and became a father, all in the space of two years. Family awaits in New York to greet the first grandchild, first niece, first of her generation.
I try to imagine their little cabin. Lizzie’s crib next to their bunk, or perhaps settled across the room. The waves rocking her to sleep.
Ellen finds her first, then cries out for Kerro. The ship’s doctor comes, though it is too late. Her body already cooling.
My mother always said Lizzie was buried at sea. I found this poetic and somehow comforting, as if my parents had an array of choices and chose the sea. I imagined them getting on a boat, holding a bundled baby, choosing just the right spot for her. It was only as an adult that I realized she had died on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, and that the sea was the only burying ground available.
The passengers on the Queen Elizabeth were kind, my mother said. Did some of them stand with my parents as they released their beloved child into the sea?
Crib death was what they called it then. This sounds more natural and inevitable than SIDS, those medical initials, naming and classifying the tragedy that all parents fear. Sudden Infant Death—a syndrome, not a disease, or an injury acquired by violence. Something casual that creeps up from nowhere, wreaking devastation in a wide circle. Syndrome does not give it its due.
Did they cable ahead before arriving in New York? Who met them with their empty arms? How did they not just stop, then and there, but go on living? To Kerro’s first university job at Chapel Hill, where they had another daughter, and another. Then a move to New Jersey, an industry job, a son, another daughter.
My mother developed great skill in the art of condolence. In her letters, she would quote a friend who had written of Lizzie, “Be grateful for one perfect little life.” The length of a life does not determine its value, she realized, and these words helped her separate the gift from the loss—the gift of knowing this delicious infant for three months as separate from the loss of that very life. Perhaps this was Lizzie’s gift as well, the opening of Ellen’s heart, and her discovery of just the right phrase to ease the burden for others, just for a moment.
Buried at sea, crib death, one perfect little life. These are the phrases I grew up with, the way I knew my eldest sister. I don’t know the hovering and terror of late nights with their second child, my oldest living sister Isabella. My mother spoke of the relief of seeing Isabella reach four months, five months, six. I know that I hovered over my own child’s crib almost nightly, thinking of Lizzie, and that it wasn’t hard to let my baby settle into my bed. I needed her warm, sleeping body near me, breathing regularly. The syndrome seemed to loom over a child alone in a crib—in my bed I could protect her from pillows, blankets, bad air, death.
In a crib on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, a boat bearing the same name as the infant in the crib, death came. Not a syndrome. A wide ocean of grief.