Now Peter's at peace we can rest too
NORMA DICKSON scoops up a handful of the newly-turned earth and places it carefully inside the silver casket. "We won't have a permanent marker. We know where he is now. We'll let the grass grow back as we won't be back again. But at least I have this," she says, patting the carved lid of the trinket box.
Standing on a windswept rise inside Liberton Cemetery, a sunlit view of the city spread out before them and Arthur's Seat rising majestically in the background, 71-year-old Norma and husband Peter, 72, take once last moment at the tiny grave at their feet.
"It's amazing to know he's here," says Peter. "This place is beautiful. We couldn't have picked a more perfect place for him to be buried." He wipes away a tear. "It's just the wind," he smiles.
For more than 40 years, the grass they are standing on had lain undisturbed, but thanks to a Lothian charity which offers support to parents whose children are either stillborn or die soon after birth, a small patch was redug just last week, finally marking the grave of the Dicksons' baby, Peter.
Since December 3, 1963, when he was stillborn at their home in Muirhouse Park, neither Norma nor Peter knew what had happened to their third child. Life and work took them from Edinburgh to London and then Toledo, Ohio, but memories of that fateful day never left them. So when Peter suffered a stroke two years ago, and was then diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the couple decided they had to make one last trip back home – and to try to finally discover what had happened to their baby boy.
"Peter was our third child," says Norma, clutching at a gold chain around her neck, from which three precious birthstones hang – one for each of her other children, Susan, Paul and Margaret, who was born after Peter.
"I had been in labour all day and when Susan and Paul went to their beds, and because it was near Christmas, we told them that when they woke up Santa would have been to leave a new baby brother or sister for them to play with.
"Of course, when they did get up the next day I had to tell them that he hadn't been after all . . .
"We'd put all the baby things away and we gave them a couple of presents early instead."
She adds: "I was at home for the birth. Susan was born in Elsie Inglis, but Paul had been born at home – in fact my mother had delivered him. So when I fell pregnant again everything felt fine, so I wanted to have this baby at home as well.
"He was two weeks late though, and then two doctors came to see me and told me he was lying the wrong way and so they tried to turn him round. I think that's when something went wrong.
"He was born at 7.15pm. It was a normal delivery, although he was a big baby, 12lb 4oz, but immediately I knew that something was wrong.
"The nurse grabbed him and, because it was winter and so cold, she held him by his feet out of the window and shook him.
"It was as if she was trying to wake him up."
Meanwhile, Peter was pacing the living room. "I knew something was wrong, but nobody was telling me anything," he recalls. "The nurse came running through with the baby and started to wash him. I knew that wasn't normal. No-one said a word to me, not even a sorry. Then I had to go and get Norma's mum. I had to get a bus to Royston Mains and bring her back."
Norma adds: "I did get to hold him for a while after the nurse had washed him. Then two men came with a white box and took him away and that was the last I knew of him. My mother arrived and said 'that's it, it's done, we won't talk about it again', and so I never did. In those days I suppose you didn't. You were supposed to just get on with things.
"I didn't even discuss it with Peter. I didn't even tell my other children – two of them still don't know about any of this. Nobody came to visit me afterwards. I was on my own because Peter was working away. It's probably terrible but I put Paul back in nappies, even though he was three. I just needed a baby at that time.
"It felt like every time I went out the house, every second woman was pregnant or pushing a pram. Then, of course, I got a letter asking me to send back my milk book and my orange book – which you got to make sure you kept your strength up after having a baby."
She adds: "The thing was, I didn't know where they'd taken him. My mother said because he wasn't baptised he might be buried in a field somewhere – certainly not hallowed ground. Then I thought maybe he'd been used for medical science. The not knowing has been a real burden all these years. To know where he is now . . ."
She stops to wipe the tears spilling from beneath her glasses. "It's been a wonderful trip."
The couple waited three years before trying for another baby. "When I fell pregnant with my daughter Margaret I was terrified every single day thinking something would go wrong again," says Norma.
"I had to have injections every day to keep my iron levels up and when the time came I had to go to hospital to have her because of what had happened before.
"She ended up being born too quickly. One push and she was out. She was blue, so they rushed her away, and I was left thinking it was all happening again."
Luckily, Margaret survived and five months later the family decided to move to Haverhill in Suffolk where Peter was able to get more work as a plasterer. "We started a new life down there," says Norma. "It was easier to put things to the back of your mind. We were there until March 1983, when we moved to America."
Their emigration – along with Margaret – was prompted by their daughter Susan's marriage, and a year or so later their son Paul also joined them in the States. Now they have eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild, but still, every December 3 they would remember baby Peter.
"I had tried before to get some information," she says. "I wrote to Register House, but they told me they had no records. Then when we decided on this trip I told Susan what I wanted to do. She was amazed I'd never mentioned Peter before. In two days she'd been in touch with a chap at Register House who told her to get in touch with Dorothy at SANDS. I didn't tell Peter at all.
"Then Susan called me one night. Dorothy had phoned her – and she had found him."
The couple arrived in Edinburgh last week, and on the Wednesday they met up with Dorothy Maitland of the Stillbirth and Neo-Natal Death Society at the gates of the cemetery on Liberton Drive.
"I had the travel wheelchair for Peter as I was sure we'd be trudging through fields," says Norma, placing a bunch of red roses on the grave. "But to come here, to this beautiful place . . . to know he is buried in a church cemetery and not in some God-forsaken field. I still can't quite believe it."
"We've got photographs and we've got it on video," says Peter.
"We won't be back again, but now we know he's at rest, and where he is. It means we can be at rest too."
HELPING FAMILIES GRIEVE
BABY Peter Dickson's grave was found thanks to the research of SANDS.
His is not the only unmarked grave in Liberton Cemetery – and there are a handful of other baby graves already marked thanks to the charity.
There are about 100 stillbirths or neonatal deaths in the Lothians every year, and while SANDS can offer practical help by arranging funerals and offering counselling, for those who lost a baby decades ago, tracing the graves can prove difficult.
"We were able to get a copy of the birth record for the Dicksons," explains organiser Dorothy Maitland. "Finding the grave though was down to the great record-keeping of Mortonhall and Liberton Kirk."
The charity relies on fundraising and donations to survive and will hold its annual Forget-Me-Not week this month, including a coffee morning on April 18, at St Cuthbert's Church Hall, Colinton.
• For more details on SANDS call 0131-622 6263 or visit www.sands-lothians.org.uk
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