The angel weeps

Feb. 14, 2023, 5:49 p.m.

Nestled off of Quarry Drive and Arboretum Road on the grounds of Stanford University, an angel weeps amongst the trees. Her cool Carrara marble belies the grief living within her and the agony of those who weep with her. She kneels, draping herself over the altar of the dead, wings buckling with the weight of savage sobs that cannot be contained. Head bowed, broken at being left behind.

She sailed from Italy and then traveled by train to the arboretum at Stanford University in 1901. She was to be installed for Jane Stanford in honor of her younger brother, Henry Clay Lathrop, whose death Jane had suffered after already grieving the loss of her husband and son, Leland Senior and Leland Junior. The angel holds her weary pose in a small grassy clearing surrounded by a black wrought iron fence. Each rectangular frame of the fence is ornate. The center rods extend in spiraling points, emphasizing the harsh reality of the angel’s grief. Mounds of blue fescue, like small clouds, are planted inside the gate, encircling the mossy platform that the statue rests upon. Steps lead up to her, but the iron gate remains locked against those who would think to disturb her.

The Stanford Mausoleum lies not far from the grieving angel. Its pale gray, granite walls can be spied through the trees should the angel ever raise her gaze. The mausoleum was to have been the location of a new country home for the Stanford family, but when Leland Junior died as a young teen in 1884, Jane and her husband deeded the land instead, establishing and naming the university in honor of him. Abandoning the idea of a country home, they moved forward with plans for the mausoleum. Less than a decade after his son’s death, Leland Senior died from heart failure, shortly after the university opened and the mausoleum was finished. Just 12 years later, Jane came to lie next to them. A fierce advocate for the school she helped establish and took over as trustee after her husband’s death, Jane struggled financially for years to keep the school going until her legal issues were resolved and her assets restored. Ongoing issues with the school’s then president, David Starr Jordan, were at the forefront of her concerns before her death. After an attempt on Jane’s life by strychnine poisoning in her own home terrified her into traveling to Hawaii with trusted companions to recuperate, it was a great shock when just two short weeks later, she was once again poisoned. This time, it was successful. Her death by strychnine poisoning remains a mystery to this day. Despite documented evidence as to the strychnine poisoning, her death is still attributed to heart failure at the school due to interventions by its then president, David Starr Jordan, whom some suspect may have played a role in her death. But within these granite slab walls of the mausoleum, guarded by Egyptian sphinxes in the sheltering shade of the trees, Jane now rests with her husband and son — while the angel weeps.

Along the trails of the arboretum is a cactus garden that makes the angel’s grief even harder to bear. It was the dream garden built in the late 1800s for the future country home that Jane had planned. Left abandoned for several decades after the Great Depression, the garden was only recently refurbished about 20 years ago. It sits in front of the mausoleum where Jane would have walked amongst the plants selected by famed landscaper, Rudolph Ulrich, who is best known for his Arizona Garden style. It is a garden planted for a family whose potential was lost to time until only recently. Ground squirrels cavort among the massive agaves and succulents, while little lizards scurry through the prickly thorns. The drought hasn’t been kind to the garden in the past few years, but it lives on.

This angel is not the first of her kind, and sadly will never be the last. The original angel’s name is Angel of Grief Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life. She lives in a cemetery in Rome as she was carved by sculptor William Wetmore Story upon the loss of his wife. She weeps not for his wife, but for the devastation of those who lost her. Replicas appear in other cities across the world, her grief recognized by all who have lost far too much. The first Angel of Grief at Stanford, that Jane so carefully brought over, was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906 when a cupola fell on her. This current angel has been grieving here in her stead since 1908, weathering years of neglect and even an amputation of her left forearm from where it draped over the altar, when a thief butchered and then stole her dismembered limb. Her tragic story hasn’t changed her, though. Lovingly restored, she continues to represent the grieving. 

As the mom of a medically complex son, Jake, I walk these paths thinking of all this grief and find a sense of companionship. I could not care less about the railroads that Leland Stanford presided over, nor his history as governor of California or even as a U.S. Senator. I walk instead in the footsteps of a grieving mother and sister. I don’t know this woman; if she was generous or kind or perhaps cold and bitter. I know her instead as a mother and understand her loss and the wounds left behind. 

My footsteps find their way amongst scattered leaves, bikers, joggers, dog walkers and moms with strollers. People living their lives perhaps unaware of the tragedy that seeps through these woods. Maybe they do know the history, but don’t want to wander in it. On this day, I am walking with another mother with a medically complex kid. Becky is like me. She forces a smile and would rather laugh than cry. I have walked these paths many times before alone, but today as we walk, we stop in front of the angel. As we study her, achingly beautiful in her grief, our tears flow like the robes enveloping her. This is not the life we want for our children. They are alive, but they are not living — leading lives intolerable to others, trapped in a world that moves on without them. A world where there are no easy answers and relationships are few and far between. A world glimpsed by others during the COVID pandemic, where people finally understood a fraction of the limitations our children face every day; limitations that have lasted for years and limitations they may never escape.

Jake and McKenzie, Becky’s daughter, choose joy to survive, and hide their grief as much as they can from us. Sometimes their strength fails and they break down, their burdens too heavy to bear and their loneliness intolerable. We stay weeping silently along with them so they are not alone. It is a constant struggle, a delicate balance between encouragement and grief, to keep them mentally strong. While we want to scream, curse and rip the heavens open with our own grief, we instead breathe through it, so that they can find their way back to us from the edge of darkness that surrounds them. But in this moment, here amongst the trees, Becky and I wrap our arms around each other, our sorrow overwhelming as our tears fall, and the angel hangs her head to cry with us… letting us know that we too are not alone.

I know Jane Stanford must have walked these paths. I sense her presence with us also. A woman who turned her future home into a gravesite overlooking the garden she dreamed of. A woman who placed an angel overlooking the mausoleum and garden to grieve over all her loved ones after her brother died too. She is here, on this land that remains in the shadows of the oaks and palms that surround the university. This university, which she and her husband created in honor of Leland Junior when he died from typhoid fever as a young teen while they were traveling in Europe. Here, where dreams have been made and education has flourished. Where cutting edge technology is interwoven with the new construction of the Stanford Hospital and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, helping to pioneer new imaging techniques and treatments for the patients within.

I will head home soon with Jake. Most likely he will still be in severe pain, and I will once again board a plane broken at the thought I cannot fix him and all this technology still cannot help him. I know I am leaving behind others like me and that all our hopes are placed in those who keep dreaming the impossible so that they might find solutions that will one day help. I think of Jane and how she lost everything yet still had so much to give, and I thank her for paving a path for the rest of us. As I board the flight, I know that part of my heart will remain here… with the angel that weeps.

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