A post from Jodi:
Last April Timaree and I attended a bereavement camp for parents who have lost children to cancer. We were only three months out from Caemon’s death, so I spent a lot of time crying. Interestingly, one mom was fifteen years out from her daughter’s death, and she cried a lot too; most of us did, really, even the couple with the t-shirts that read “One Rule: No Tears”. This trip would be my first lesson in the grieving process and the journey toward healing. One couple who had come from Mexico with their daughter to treat her cancer ended up staying and making a life in America with their surviving son, a strapping boy who tenderly cares for his parents. The mother spoke so lovingly of her daughter who had passed away in 2011; the love she had for her daughter emanated powerfully in the room as she told stories of her compassion for the younger children in the hospital. I was astounded to hear how she, the mom, volunteers in the very hospital where her daughter died, sitting with patients in the same rooms where her daughter was treated. I couldn’t imagine what that must be like for her, but she sees this as the work that best honors her beloved daughter, and despite painful memories, she soldiers on in her memory. At one point in our group session, she reached out to me, grabbed my hand and told me that it would be okay, that my son was with me. Her compassion was enormous.
But when you are broken, really truly shattered, like I have been, there is nothing to give to anyone. The idea of going back to the hospital where Caemon lived and died, well, it was upsetting. So I have been avoiding it, and although we have been near the hospital, even visiting the lab where his oncologist’s office is located, we have not ventured inside the hospital. Why would we? As we have said, a pediatric oncology floor is the last place any parent wants to be. It turns out to be the last place a teacher wants to be as well.
One of my SSU students has recently been diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated at the same hospital, on the same floor as Caemon. Unfortunately, while this is not the first student I’ve had who has been diagnosed with cancer, she is the first student since Caemon died. It hit hard; I dropped an arsenal of F bombs. I was angry. I wanted to help, of course, and so I reached out, offering to come see her if she wanted a visit. She was thrilled that I was coming, but I was nervous. Would I be able to subjugate the grieving mother in order to be the reassuring and compassionate adult my student needed?
Timaree helped me gather a few items for a care package: blankets, cookies, magazines, croc tattoos, but she would not be accompanying me on this journey. This is my student, and we determined that it would be unnecessary and uncomfortable for Timaree to come. Luckily I am blessed to be friends with one of the nurses on that floor, and she offered to go with me.
As we crossed the street from the parking garage and entered the Emergency Bay as I had done so many times before on my way back to Caemon, I felt the weight of the place again and turned serious. Saturdays are quieter, less hectic, so we quickly made our way down the long hall toward the elevators.
Suddenly, it’s Halloween 2012, and Caemon is dressed in his full nurses’ uniform, walking down this hall, and an ER nurse, clearly smitten with this handsome young nurse, asks him if he wants to come to work with her. He turns to follow her, and we quickly intervene, reminding him he already has a job up on the seventh floor!
I was grateful it was a Saturday and that I wouldn’t have to share the elevator with 30 people. I looked down at my “Visitor” sticker, not the “Parent” one I wore before, and it was the visual reminder I needed to pull me back to the present. I used the ride up to control my breathing and steeled myself for an onslaught of what, I didn’t know. The doors opened, immediately revealing the pink Pac Man tile décor that is unique to Seven. We whisked through the double doors, and I was back in a world I cannot seem to escape. There were those words: “Pediatric Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant Unit.”
I pointed to a room as we passed, “That’s the room where Caemon was diagnosed.”
For a moment I see Timaree sitting on the side of the bed, Caemon drooped in her arms as a nurse works around them to take his vitals.
I approached the nurses’ station and was warmly greeted by the RN who was my student’s nurse that day. I gave a nod to my off-duty nurse friend and followed the other to that very room in which my son was diagnosed. It wouldn’t be until later that night that I would remember being crumpled on the floor of that room with my wife, crying in despair and disbelief that our beautiful son was so sick.
I greeted my student, offered a hug, and we sat quietly as her vitals were taken. Mama Jodi and Teacher Jodi merged. I gave her the care package and helped her unwrap her zebra print plush throw, so much cozier than hospital linens, and I asked after her mom. We took a walk, chatted, and I pointed things out to her as we walked. “Hey, did you know you could bring food from home and freeze it in there?” I asked. She told me about her mom’s posole.
Without thought, we rode the elevator down to the sixth floor, which is as far as she is allowed to go, and I showed her a place her family could go if they needed to use a computer or grab a cup of tea. It was closed, of course, so we kept walking. I caught sight of the ramp that leads to a sitting area outside, but it was raining so we kept walking.
Caemon is in his yellow and red car and we’re racing down the ramp, bumping into walls and laughing. He wants to do it again and again.
We walked past the playroom where Caemon danced and played, past the PICU where he was taken when he coded on his last morning, past the waiting room where we were told he wasn’t going to survive. It was quiet, unpopulated. I suggested we go back up to the seventh floor where I could procure her a cup of tea. We sat in the waiting room admiring a large tropical fish tank, and she said, “I think after all of this, I want to do something in the medical field.” I nodded approvingly, not surprised that she had been inspired by her medical care just as my son had been.
She asked if I would come back and bring her some books, and I offered to talk to her mother if she thought that would be beneficial. After an hour or so, I left to say my goodbyes and retrieve my off-duty nurse friend who had dragged herself and her newborn out in the middle of a rainstorm just to be by my side. I swear these people are real and not literary embellishments. As I was saying my final goodbye, we shared a quick memory of Caemon in the hallway searching for the otoscope (a device for peering into the ear canal), which lives on a rolling cart and is the only of its kind on the floor. Caemon had fallen in love with it and wanted to find it, but it was an elusive hunt.
“Have you seen Otoscope?” he asks nurse after nurse. They all tell him that they will be on the lookout for it, but Caemon is determined. He stands in front of the locked treatment room: “He’s in there. Go get him” he orders, except I don’t have the code. Finally, Nurse Amy tells him that she will find Otoscope and bring it to his room. He complies. He knows she won’t lie to him, and he spends the next hour or so eagerly anticipating the visit from this rare device. His smile when she rolls in with Otoscope is luminescent.
The mother from bereavement camp was right when she said Caemon would always be with me; he was with me that day every step of the way, present in the people whose lives he had touched, present in the memories of his life there, present in me. I don’t need to relive the code, the trip to the PICU, the devastation of walking out of that hospital the last time without him. I already survived it once. Because he is always with me, I can visit my student, speak with her mother, and offer some support without internalizing their tragedy or projecting my own onto them. I’d call that progress.