In 2017, I wrote the following post as a response to a tale weaver prompt death:
She never tries to cheat death — with marked cards or weighted dice. When his shadow passes over her, rather than breathing her last, her lungs refill with air, her brain synapses re-spark, her heart beats in rhythm to her rebirth.
She is not an immortal. No contract signed with Mr. Down Below for a life extension. No possession of philosopher stone turning lead to gold; death to life. Each time, she thought, “If this is it, then this is it.” Feels absolute calm and serenity flood her mind and body in transcendental bliss. But, then her feet find grounding on the seaweedy, rocky tidal river bottom, legs push herself upwards towards light and air. Or food, caught in her airway, dislodges – coughed out onto an ER floor. Always, it seems, last gasp becomes first breath.
She thinks perhaps it was because Death forgot their first date, missed their first dance. The inevitable one in both her family trees: a first child did not live long enough to celebrate a first birthday. Death dropped by – sometimes sudden, sometimes slow. But, always before the 12th month fully passed.
Her parents counted weeks, then days. To ensure Death did not RSVP, no preparations of cake, or blowing up balloons for a first anniversary of her birth. Then on 53rd week, her parents exhaled, and celebrated. A picture survives somewhere, she is sure, of that day. Smiling face smeared with chocolate ice cream. Not yet understanding how special she is, that first first.
This is a tale of me; I really was the first first to make it to my first birthday. By the time I was born, infant mortality was roughly 36 deaths for every 1,000 live births. Many, but not all, of the first firsts in my family were stillborn or miscarriages. My survival, unfortunately, did not break family curses: the some of firsts (pregnancies/births) did to not make it to age one
The rate of infant and child mortality dropped dramatically in during the century before I was born. One graphic way to experience this is to visit a graveyard. I was wandering through one this weekend and I came across a gravestone too weathered to make out all the details, but the story it told of child mortality is stark (and also of the fertility rate of women in this time period):
Name date obscured age 6 years
Harp*** May 1845 aged 8 months
John September 1846 aged 2 years
Louisa November 1856 obscured
Mary Jane January 1856 aged 16 years
Alice obscured 1866 4 years
Father and Mother of above mentioned are buried in Oaks Cemetery Fairfax County, Va.
By looking at census data about births and infant/child mortality statistics, (as well as the mother’s death as a result of complications during and after giving birth); graveyard stories; diaries; obituaries; funeral records and postmortem photography (“mirrors of memory” – the practice of capturing images of the dead), much can be learned about women’s history.
I took my students on field trips to cemeteries to do primary source research on things such infant mortality; women’s roles; disease; “death” (as in rituals/symbolism) and migration/immigration.
Some of my early memories are visiting old, over-grown, forgotten church and family graveyards alongside country roads with my father. When we traveled there were few things my father would stop the car for; a graveyard was one of them.
Given my first firstness, my father’s perchance for old graveyards, no wonder I remain fey. And drawn to gravestones.