Last July, I took my daughter half an hour away from home for a week of pony camp. She stayed with my friend Kristin’s family, but it was as long as she’d ever been away from home before.
I dropped her off at the ranch Monday morning, waved goodbye with a lump in my throat, and went off to a cafe to research the cemetery I’d heard about farther south, down in Pescadero, California. Kristin said she’d tried to find the grave of that little girl who died in a plane crash there, without any luck.
After a little poking around on the internet, I learned that buried in Pescadero was Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old who died in 1996 while trying to become the youngest person ever to fly across the US. While trying to keep up with their media commitments, her flight instructor had taken off in a storm over Wyoming and couldn’t keep the plane aloft. Everyone onboard was killed.
Like Kristin, I looked and looked around the little graveyard, without being sure I’d found Jessica’s monument. There was a strange cement monument that reminded me of a porthole in a ship or a plane’s window, but I didn’t see Jessica’s name on it.
While I searched, the little stone dedicated to Nellie spoke to me more clearly. Surrounded by Spanish lavender, which doesn’t mind California’s long dry summers, the white marble stone was decorated with a lamb, the symbol of innocence that often marked Victorian children’s graves. Little Nellie had been gone a long time, but evidently she wasn’t forgotten.
Before I became a mother, I never understood the depth of pain that could be summarized by a child’s headstone. After I struggled through my pregnancy — facing both my own death and that of my daughter — I began to understand what it meant to have something entirely irreplaceable. I wondered if I could survive if she died. I wondered if I could ever let her out of my sight.
Seven years later, I knew — even if she didn’t — that pony camp was dangerous. She could fall from her mount and break her collarbone, as my father had. She could be thrown off and strike her head. Perhaps I had already said goodbye to her for the last time.
Nellie’s stone was one more reminder that life is fragile, and precious, and every moment together should be savored. I hung around the California coast until pony camp got out for the day, so I could snatch a few more moments with my daughter. She never knew why I hugged her so tightly.