I love graveyards. I’m not ghoulish, I just love the stories that cemeteries tell. Gravestones encapsulated brevity long before Twitter. A birthdate, a date of death, some family members and maybe a religious quote. And that’s it: a whole life, summarised.
Our new house is near a large cemetery and I often walk through it with my daughters on the way to the park. And I am struck by the stones which speak of sadness. Those whose birth and death dates are just a few years apart. Those which begin with the names of a couple, followed by a relentless list of the children who predeceased them.
Any child’s death is a tragedy, but in Western society it is also now a rarity. Reading these gravestones reminds me that this is a very recent state of affairs. I look at these names of stillborn babies, tiny infants who didn’t make it to school age, teenagers destroyed by diptheria or whooping cough, and I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a parent in those days. To see your baby born, to stroke their soft perfect face and know they are uniquely yours, but to know also that every day is a treacherous assault of germs, dangers and infections for most of which science had no ready answer. I imagine mothers, broken from earlier losses, tiptoeing into a child’s room at night, peering into the crib where an older brother or sister once lay dead, anxiously counting the breaths.
My younger daughter had her first vaccinations today. It was awful, of course, to hear her scream as the needles went in. But it was also a kind of miracle. Today she was immunised against diptheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough and meningitis B. Think of the misery these diseases have caused throughout human history, the agonised farewells, the desperate deathbeds, the pitiful funerals of child after child after child. Those parents who had to watch helplessly as their children slipped away would have given anything, literally anything, for a magical liquid that would save their son or daughter. I get it for nothing, simply by popping into our doctor’s surgery.
I am ashamed to say I have no idea who invented these vaccines, which even now are settling into my daughter’s body, ready for a lifetime of protecting her from harm. But I do know this: whoever it was, they truly lived a life to be proud of.