(This post is the original essay that was published in Las Vegas CityLife February 5, 2004.)
Baby Girl Wiley
A Brother Lost: A Daughter Found
Baby Girl Wiley was interred at Palm Mortuary-Eastern in Las Vegas, Nevada, on August 23, of 1977. No one knew her true birth date or her full name, but one can surmise that she was born in the week preceding August 23. Baby Girl Wiley had no headstone, no marker and had she lived she would have been 26 years old sometime in August 2003. However, up until the spring of 2003, she was just a number in a computer. And the computer lists those types of numbers as “inventory.” She lay unnoticed for over two decades beneath a patch of earth and grass among the many markers in the Garden of Innocence. Unnoticed, that is, until my brother hanged himself.
My brother, Patrick Scott Brehm, died on March 15, 2003. He was 52-years old. A Viet Nam veteran, he was one of those who never really did come home. Along with many other veterans of that era, Pat suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. For many years his condition was unacknowledged and untreated. Due to increasingly uncontrollable behavior he ended up being imprisoned for most of his post-war life. He had no real friends in the outside world. He only had his family.
Death is a personal issue with everyone and all the rituals that surround the passing of a loved one are unique to those that loved them. I am personally no stranger to death having lost my parents and a very dear friend within the past ten years. Recently my beautiful nineteen-year-old godson had passed away; and now my brother, alone in a prison cell, took his life with a bed sheet.
Suicide. A death by suicide, I have discovered, comes with its very own special package. It’s like a hand grenade. The emotional shrapnel pierces a place that death by accident or by disease, or by natural causes, doesn’t dare go. I was still reeling from the intimacy of the pain I was sharing with my friend who’d lost her son; my godson. I was inside of her agony. Yet, this taking of one’s own life, this is a new chasm in the valley. It haunts you. It teams with ghosts, with guilt, with unanswered questions. It wakes you up at night choking with visions of those last moments. Did he say his goodbyes to each one of us, his family, before he put that sheet around his neck? Did he say goodbye to me, his baby sister? Did he say goodbye to his oldest sister who once watched over him and remembers his childhood? Did he say goodbye to his middle sister who was closest to him in age? And what about his two big brothers who blithely ignored his pain for years? Did he still say goodbye to them? What did he feel, what did he think, before he fell—and hung there twisting, swaying, dying—my brother, my brother.
This extra baggage weighed heavily on me when I met with Rick Rico, the manager at Palm Mortuary, to discuss the particulars of my brother’s memorial service and interment. We took a golf cart out to the Garden of Honor where, thankfully, there was a plot available within mere feet of my deceased parents. Satisfied, I asked Rick if we could tour other areas. It was a lovely day and, along with a need to compose myself, I’d never seen other parts of the garden.
When we stopped by the Garden of Infants, Rick mentioned that many of the infants there had no markers. This revelation somewhat shocked me out of my own grief and the feeling of helpless despair brought about by the manner of my brother’s death. It also left me feeling troubled about those untended little bits of earth that covered forgotten babies. Rick explained that when these infants died, either their parents couldn’t afford a marker, or the babies had been abandoned and subsequently buried by the county.
“Palm Mortuary has a policy for infants under three years of age. We’ll provide cremation and funeral services free of charge. We do this as a service to the community whether or not the parents have money,” he said. “We don’t, however, provide plots, headstones or markers of any kind.” He went on to point out that the county also aids grieving parents of infants and they, too, will provide funeral services and plots—but no commemorative markers.
My siblings and I were sharing Pat’s cremation and burial expenses and we’d previously agreed to purchase an additional mourning “package.” We planned on investing three hundred dollars in a one-hour rental of a memorial—or viewing room—then two hundred dollars for the services of a minister. But something began to nag at me.
Pat had never lived in Las Vegas and no one here knew him. There was no minister who could speak personally of him. Only the immediate family would most likely be at the funeral. For some reason it just began to feel senseless to me to spend an extra five hundred dollars on all the pomp and circumstance. Why not simply honor him at his graveside with a military burial attended by those who loved him? Having already agreed to the extra services, why was this beginning to bother me?
I found out two days later while I was at the local athletic club talking to a friend as we worked out. I was complaining about how silly it seemed to be spending the additional money for an empty room and an unknown minister…when suddenly the piped in music changed completely. Instead of the usual techno /pop alternative music I’d been hearing for years, I found myself stopping in mid-sentence as Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” began to play. That was Pat’s favorite song. And more of his favorite songs followed. Jefferson Airplane, “Runaway.” Then more Hendrix, “The Wind Cries Mary.”
The hairs on the back of my neck were raised as I showed my friend the goose bumps on my arms. I could feel my brother all around me. At that moment it became perfectly clear what I was to do. I was going to ask my sisters if it would be okay with them if—rather than renting a room and a minister for five hundred dollars—we could buy an abandoned and deceased baby a memorial marker with the money instead. My thinking was we could make something wonderful happen through Pat and because of him. We could bring some light into the world from out of the darkness, the pain and the desolation that had marked his passing.
I telephoned Rick Rico with the idea. I wasn’t sure if doing something like this was allowed. After I proposed the plan to him there was a thoughtful pause on his end. He said, “You know, that’s really wonderful of you guys to even think about doing this. Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you. No one has ever offered to do this before.”
Can you imagine my surprise when Rick called me back and told me it was not only okay to buy a baby a marker but the management at Palm had decided to allow us to have the viewing room at no cost? They were more than happy to give our brother his memorial hour at their expense since we had provided for one of “their” babies.
Patrick Scott Brehm was officially laid to rest on April 17, 2003 at 2 p.m. There was but a handful of people in the room: me, my son, my two sisters, my former husband, and a few of my closest friends. A military representative stood patiently by holding a folded American flag. My sisters and I had spent the previous night composing a music CD to be played during the service. A friend and neighbor, whose husband was also a Viet Nam veteran, had offered to speak a eulogy for Pat.
My neighbor stood and began to speak of special angels who carry lost souls like my brother, who had taken his own life, into Paradise. At that precise moment the haunting refrain of the song “Angel” by Sarah McLachlin began to play in the background in perfect synchronization with the comforting words. It was simply uncanny: I could hear my friends behind me begin to cry. There was not a dry eye in the room.
Rick Rico spent the next couple of weeks diligently researching the mortuary archives for a list of abandoned infants. We had previously decided to choose an infant who had gone unnoticed for the longest time. Therefore, it was Rick who actively searched for and found Baby Girl Wiley. We met at his office one morning to go over the sketchy details regarding this abandoned child and to decide what was appropriate for her new marker: the gravestone she’d been awaiting for twenty-six years. Oddly enough we were both thinking of Sarah McLachlan songs. I filled Rick in on what had happened at Pat’s service. How the song, Angel, had looped through the custom-recorded CD and had begun to play in perfect accompaniment with the inspirational words of love and hope being spoken by my neighbor.
Rick said that on the way to the office that morning he’d listened to another Sarah McLachlan recording, I Will Remember You. We began to think of epitaphs along those lines. Almost simultaneously we said, “We need to name this baby girl!” We decided on Sarah, in honor of Ms. McLachlan. Rick insisted, “But she should have your name, too!” We then agreed the baby should also then be named after my sisters, Jane Kircher and Cathy Tomasek. Baby Girl Wiley, formerly unclaimed and unnamed, is now officially—at least in stone—christened Sarah Jane Catherine Christine Wiley.
There are no hard statistics on how many infants are lying beneath unmarked soil or aged temporary markers. Rick had to physically go out into the Garden of Innocents and graph Sarah’s burial place. There are scores of unkempt and forgotten temporary markers among the unmarked spaces scattered throughout the cemetery.
The sad truth is there are too many babies in cemeteries here in Las Vegas and throughout the country who are lying alone, unmarked, unnoticed. There are no flowers on their graves, no mourners who remember them. They lie silently. Patiently. Eternity is their home now. The hosts of Heaven are their family. But, in our hearts, my sisters and I have adopted a baby girl. We don’t know the color of her eyes or of her hair. We don’t know what her ethnic background was. We don’t even know how or why she died. But it feels really good to know that on a once barren plot of ground there now sits a rose-colored granite plaque that reads:
Sarah Jane Catherine Christine Wiley
August 23, 1977
“Abandoned in life, loved for all eternity.”
Dedicated in honor of Patrick Scott Brehm
(July 5, 1950 – March 15, 2003)
From this day on, every time I place flowers on behalf of my family on holidays, birthdays and other special occasions, I will also place flowers on Sarah’s brand new, shiny marker. Along with all the other little spaces covered with flowers, balloons and teddy bears in the Garden of Innocents, Sarah’s place will be known, marked, and noted. Who knows? It just may be that somewhere Baby Girl Wiley can see there are those who understand, those who care, and those who acknowledge that no life simply passes by: no soul ever goes unnoticed.
As for my brother, whose death by his own hand brought my sisters and I to the place of finding a deserted baby girl in a cemetery, it took me months to find acceptance of his deed. I wrestled with questions and walked numbly in darkness. Is he condemned from one Hell into another? Is there mercy in the eyes of God for agonized souls like him? Did God hear his last desperate cry? Did He feel the depth of my brother’s aloneness and his sense of separation and his utter despair? Did God see through the drugs, through the abuse and the neglect, and does God see the value of this fallen soldier? This soldier who fell so slowly, so silently, for almost thirty years; falling and falling until there was no one left to catch him. God, do you see my brother?
I believe God does see. I believe God sent one of His own beloved angels to carry my brother home. I believe there was an angel of light, an angel of love and of mercy who helped my brother pass over the threshold of pain, of unimaginable emptiness. In my deepest heart of hearts, I believe that Pat is home at last. He is at peace. He is unconditionally loved. “For lo, I go before you and prepare for you a mansion in my Father’s house.”
I also believe that when my journey on earth is over and the time comes for me to cross over into the great unknown, I just might find that Sarah Jane Catherine Christine Wiley is the name of the angel who came to rescue my brother in his darkest hour. Sweet dreams, Patrick and Sarah… and in the arms of the angel…sleep tight. –Christine McKellar