shrunken sweaters and wet blankets: life as a former mother

The majority of my friends, both online and in real life, are parents. This was fairly intentional. I became a part of a vibrant lesbian blogging community when I was trying to get pregnant with Caemon because the support through that process was so important. In fact, with each stage of becoming a parent and then being a parent, surrounding oneself in one’s tribe is the smart thing to do. New parents need to be able to talk about new parent things to ask new parent questions and complain new parent complaints. These communities of parent friends, both online and in real life, were an essential piece in helping us maintain our sanity through Caemon’s illness and in keeping us afloat after his passing. After all, who could better understand the fear or pain of losing a child than those who know the way that parenting bursts the heart open in a million glorious ways?

I still identify with this tribe, still surround myself in these parent communities, but as more and more days and weeks and months pass when I am not actively mothering a child, the more I begin to fit a bit like a wool sweater that has accidentally been through the dryer: it’s still a sweater, but it no longer functions well as such.

On a fairly regular basis, I find myself reading online posts, anywhere from blogs to Facebook, and I see parents ask for advice about something a child is currently doing. Today it was whether a child who is sick with an ear infection would be irreparably damaged by a full day of iPad use. I wanted to respond, to say something like, “When my son was in the hospital, he would often use his iPad for a full day at a time to escape feeling lousy, but then he would emerge, bright as can be, ready to engage with human activity. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” But I stopped myself. I had to ask, Does my son’s experience translate here? Do I have any business responding?

Mostly, since Caemon has died, I haven’t asked myself these questions. I have just responded to posts and questions like these as though I were still a mom, as though my experiences bore equal weight to the mom whose three-year-old watched videos for a full day to get through the stomach flu. But it’s not the same.

In fact, what I am finding is that as my friends’ children grow, my experiences are becoming less and less relevant because their children are growing, and my child, well, he stopped. My experience with being a parent ended at exactly three years and five months into it. I don’t know what it means to parent a four-year-old or even a child of three years and six months. I don’t know what it is to parent multiple children at once. Don’t get me wrong; in general, people are so very generous with me and kindly take the last bits of wisdom I have to share with such graciousness, even if my experiences might be a little off. But I wonder how it makes them feel. I wonder if it grows tiresome to hear my same stories over and over because the sad fact is, I don’t have any new fodder for the parenting fire, at least not fodder people want to have to think about.

I suppose the real question I am asking myself when deciding whether to respond is, Does this parent want to be reminded that children die?

A mom might be complaining about a child being particularly challenging all day, and I might say something like “Hang in there” or “Take a deep breath; it will get better”  without realizing initially that my comment, regardless of its content always, always, always contains the subtext, “Don’t forget: sometimes children die.” It’s awkward for the parent because sometimes a parent just wants to complain about a bad day without being reminded that our precious little monsters sometimes are stolen from our arms. Maybe sometimes a group of parents just wants to share funny stories about their kids, and they don’t necessarily want to hear a funny (but actually heartbreaking) story about a child who died. Most people really don’t need a resident wet blanket, a persistent reality check.

I’m still trying to navigate when I should insert myself and when I should sit back and let the world spin on without my former mom input. Do I respond to that birth announcement when a reply from me might scare the new parents into monthly blood tests for their new baby? Do I attend the baby shower and risk having the conversation move to my child dying? Do I join in the discussion about why your kid won’t eat or how to get a kid to take medicine or how to get a child to sleep when it might lead to the phrase, “When Caemon was in the hospital…”? I don’t know. Sometimes I take the risk and I join in; other times, I recognize a lighthearted moment for what it is and opt to bow out, but I really don’t know what the right choice is.

Alas, there is no Emily Post for parents who are no longer parents. Perhaps this is why for decades, it was the norm for people not to talk of their children who died, for people not to know that they had had a sibling who died because people didn’t dare mention it; they didn’t want to bring up the pain or impose their pain on others. I suppose I don’t know how to live like that. My hunch is that most people wouldn’t want me to.

You see, in my heart, I’m still Caemon’s mommy, and my Caemon’s mommy experiences made me a part of a tribe I had so longed to join. It is hard—no, excruciating—to move to “honorary mom” status, to beloved aunt, to interesting adult friend, to fun babysitter and to not be someone’s mommy anymore. Yes, I will always be a mother, but until I’m a mother of a living, breathing, growing child again (and even then), I will always be the mother of a boy who died. This irrevocably changes my position in my community.

I don’t want to lose my tribe, but more and more, I see that I’m moving to the outskirts of the village. Here, you might spy me dancing my once-a-mom dance and speaking my once-a-mom language off on my own because while I don’t want to rain pain on the other moms around me, I also don’t want to forget who I was when the best part of me emerged.

I still might join you with my wild hair and shrunken sweater sometimes. Eventually, I might even sit around the fire with you again, mommy status restored, with fresh stories of parenting a living, breathing, growing child to accompany my old crocodile wisdom. I hope so anyway. I really, really hope so.

his legacy continues: how you can help

1631CaemonMarstonSimmonsThis month is Caemon’s birthday month. On the fifth of this month, he would have been five years old. Five. It is hard to imagine Caemon at five, heartbreaking to even try. As coincidence would have it, my son was also born during  Childhood Cancer Awareness month and Blood Cancer Awareness month. What better month, then, to launch some endeavors to keep Caemon’s legacy alive?

Therefore, as I take a little break from my usual writing, I wanted to share a couple of ways you can help keep Caemon’s memory going.

2nd Annual C is for Crocodile Children’s Book Drive

Last year’s book drive proved incredibly successful. We were able to bring hundreds of books to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, where Caemon was treated. Many, many patients were able to enjoy the gift of reading thanks to your generosity.

Caemon so loved reading, and so do we. This is, therefore, the project closest to our hearts, and we want to keep it going–to grow it even–so that we can continue giving books to children undergoing cancer treatments in area hospitals.

If you would like to donate books or gift cards for books, we welcome them for the next couple of months. Books need to be new. Children in the hospital, especially those undergoing cancer treatments, often have compromised immune systems, so we need to make sure books are purchased new so that they don’t have potentially dangerous dusts, bacteria, and fungi that can accumulate in pages over time.

You can send books to our post office box at the address below:

C is for Crocodile
c/o Timaree Marston
P.O. Box 9214
Santa Rosa, CA 95405

You can also email us at cisforcrocodile@gmail.com for information or if you want to send bookstore gift cards.

Additionally, should you be interested in putting up a flyer and a collection box, you can download and print a flyer here: Book Drive Flyer.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Light the Night Walk

We are participating again this year in the LLS Light the Night Walk. This walk is in just a couple of weeks here in Santa Rosa, and we would love those who are local to come join us on our team. If you are unable to join us, we are looking for donations of all sizes. LLS is particularly important to us because they helped us in so many ways during Caemon’s treatment, from financial assistance, advocate phone calls, bedside visits, and useful information. Beyond this, though, LLS has provided significant grants to Caemon’s doctors for their groundbreaking research on JMML, and because of this continued financial support, they are making huge strides, and many of those findings have come with the use of Caemon’s cells.

If you would like to join our team or make a donation, we would love the help in making this year’s time a success. We are especially encouraging five dollar donations in honor of Caemon’s fifth birthday. You can find and donate to Team Caemon  here: http://pages.lightthenight.org/gba/NorthBay14/teamcaemon.

Jodi and I thank you for continuing to help us spread the Croc love. These activities really do heOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAlp us continue on, even as we miss our sweet boy so very much.

lessons of a lifetime

My Facebook feed is filled this week with children starting their first days of kindergarten and parents saddened to see their children growing up. There is talk in the air of tearful drop-offs and what to put in lunchboxes. I have seen this week parents with excited children in stores with lists of school supplies gathering crayons and scissors and paper, new school clothes, all the things one needs to have a successful start. They’re all nervous, excited. I stand back and watch or scroll through the pictures, my stomach knotted, my eyes welling, my heart aching. 

Caemon should have started school this year.

Caemon never really got a chance to go to school. No, that’s not true. Caemon went to exactly two days of preschool at a wonderful Montessori school near the university where we teach. He had been going with Jodi for a few weeks to become acclimated, and then the week before his diagnosis, we had two days of drop-offs where Caemon went to school with the other kids and without his moms. We each dropped him off once. We both got to pick him up. I remember watching him before he knew I had arrived, seeing him earnestly helping with lunch cleanup. He was cooperating with the other children, looking so grown up, so capable. Both days, he came home with art projects. He ate all of his lunch. He liked his teachers. He knew the other kids’ names and talked about them.

But then leukemia struck, and he never went back. 

There are many things my son never did, and this becomes more apparent the more we are around the children who were close to Caemon’s age. We have friends whose children began writing letters and soon words when they were three, and watching these children develop written language skills has been surprisingly emotional and bittersweet.

Caemon never learned to write. He didn’t write a single letter.

Caemon never learned to jump. 

He never wrote his name.

He never potty trained.

He never drew stick figures.

He never rode a bike.

And when I think about these classic milestones that Caemon didn’t cross, I sometimes start to worry that somehow, my brilliant boy was falling behind, that he didn’t accomplish what he should have by the age of three years and five months. It’s natural for parents to worry about such things, but it does so little good, particularly when the child is no longer here. Beyond the worry, though, is sadness, a devastation that my son died before he got a chance to do all of these things, before he got a chance to be a normal kid. 

The one message that keeps coming back to me each time I face this regret that he some how missed out is this: He didn’t have time. Caemon had other things to do.

And it’s true. My son didn’t go to school for more than a couple of days on his own, or jump, or write, or draw anything recognizable, but he did do so many things:

He learned how to give warm, strong hugs to people he loved. 

He learned to say, “Excuse me; I have something to say,” when the adults in the room droned on and on.

He learned to tell a story.

He learned to memorize book after book after book and recite them word for word.

He learned to swallow a pill with ice cream.

He learned to make ice cream.

He learned to blow kisses and to receive blown kisses and tuck them into his shirt.

He learned to use “who” and “whom” correctly (although we never once mentioned this or corrected him in this particular usage).

He learned how to help other children who were also sick.

He learned to gently pet a cat.

He learned to make muffins, how to level a teaspoon of baking soda, and that the best part of baking is licking the remaining batter from the bowl. He learned how much patience it takes to wait for anything delicious to bake, and that time always passes more quickly with snuggles and tickles. 

He learned to plant seeds and bulbs. He learned when to pick a tomato and a pea, and he learned just how delicious food is when we grow it and make it ourselves.

He learned to hug trees. 

He learned to program an IV pump, to flush a line, to administer chemotherapy, to ask for a bolus, to sit very still for procedures, to breathe through pain. 

He learned to say, “I love you” when he meant it.

This list could be miles long. Caemon learned so much in his short life. He was so busy doing what he wanted to do, learning what he was ready to learn, that no, he didn’t have time for jumping and writing, but he did have time for compassion, for communicating, for nurturing, for connecting with other people (and machines).

Caemon didn’t need to learn to write. He could speak (very well), and that is all he needed to communicate. He didn’t need to jump; he could run around just fine when he wanted to. He didn’t need school because his curiosity kept him learning constantly, yes, even in his hospital bed. 

Of course it hurts that we have no child’s lunchbox in our home, no first-day-of-school picture to post, no teacher conferences or back to school nights and no “To Mommy” notes scrawled in an early writer’s hand. It’s impossibly painful and poignant that the art Caemon made in his three years and five months is all we’ll ever get from him, that his favorite books sit dusty on a shelf. I can take some comfort, however, in knowing what he could do, what he did do, and knowing how much of himself he left behind. 

My son never wrote his name, but he touched the hearts of thousands of people, reminded us to live, taught us to love more and fear less. How could I ask more of him when he gave so very much?

Caemon's first day of preschool.

Caemon’s first day of preschool.

the boy and the turtle

I rarely dream about my son. I know people who regularly dream of their departed loved ones only to awaken disappointed, even devastated, that they were dreaming. I don’t typically dream about Caemon though. Oh, but I try. Most nights as I’m falling asleep, I ask to dream of him. I ask him to talk with me in his dreams. Sometimes I beg. Typically, however, my dreams are the sorting-out-my-day variety, and rarely do they contain even a glimpse of my precious boy.

Needless to say, I was surprised when a few weeks ago, I had a very vivid dream featuring Caemon. It was the sort of dream from which I did not want to awaken.

It all started with me seeing Caemon on a bus. It was a crowded city bus, in a city not unlike San Francisco. I could see him sitting in a seat, gazing intently forward with a serious and slightly worried expression on his face. His brow was furrowed. He was traveling alone, but there were many other passengers on the bus. He was older, taller, maybe about five. He had his glorious blonde hair. I knew he was going to some sort of music or art class in this unknown city where were apparently living.

As I watched my son leave on this bus, panic struck me. I was terrified. What had I done sending my small child away on a city bus without an adult? Why hadn’t I thought to take him to his class myself? How would he know where to go? How would I know if he arrived? What kind of mother was I? I spent some time in this agonizing state before the dream jumped into the next day. My son was there, and I had opted to accompany him on his bus trip.

When we exited the bus at its destination, we were in a strange industrial area with vacant lots, warehouses, and construction equipment. It was eerie, quiet. Caemon held my hand as we walked through this space for what seemed like miles, and I wondered again how he had known where to go and why I would have let him travel like this on his own. Soon, we had left the industrial area, and we were on a quaint street with a variety of storefronts. Caemon entered one of these, taking me with him. We ascended some stairs, and I remember dark woods, jewel toned cushions, and a lovely homey feeling. We seemed to have entered what was Caemon’s school, and he was showing me around, pointing things out.

The last bit I remember is that Caemon stopped to show me a plush turtle. He picked it up and told me, “This is the turtle I tell me feelings to.” I was utterly touched. He was worried that if he were to go somewhere else, he wouldn’t have the turtle. I was so comforted that he had such a lovely place to be and even felt reassured that I had let him travel on his own because he was a bigger boy, and he could handle it. And he had this lovely feelings turtle.

I woke up at the end of the turtle scene, and there was that feeling I had heard about: utter disappointment that I had been dreaming. But there was another feeling lingering too, a feeling of dread of panic. It stuck with me the entire day.

I had let my son go off on his own. I watched him go. I let him go.

One doesn’t need a psychology degree to see where my unconscious was going with this, and this strange feeling lingered, this feeling of seeing him looking concerned and serious and noticeably older, this feeling of worry. And I think there is a part of me that feels like I really did see him.

In moments like this, I am always quick to mention that I am a skeptic. Perhaps I should call myself a hopeful skeptic. I want to believe that my son visited me in a dream. I want to believe he is communicating with me, telling me that while I had to let him go off on his own, where he has gone is pretty great, that he has navigated even scary industrial places just fine on his own, and, yes, I even want to believe there’s a stuffed turtle to whom he can tell his feelings. Such beliefs might be comforting.

I want to believe this because in all honesty, I don’t know where my son is.

I have so many different foundations of belief, but mostly, I feel like I simply lost him. There was this feeling of dread for months after he died that I had carelessly left him behind somewhere, that maybe he was riding some public bus with malicious strangers or wandering streets or sitting alone at a park. But I didn’t know. I knew where his body went, but I didn’t know where he went. That my psyche would try to grasp this in my sleep would be no surprise to me, but I still don’t know whether that is the whole story.

Anytime I remember this dream, I come back to this feeling, but I also come back to the turtle. A few days after I had the dream, I told my therapist about it. She smiled and thought maybe I needed to get a stuffed turtle. I agreed and then remembered that Caemon had one, one we had gotten for him at an aquarium when he was a baby. The turtle, while not a favorite of his “Fellas” (the name we all used for his stuffed creatures), came to his tea parties and participated in his “Ten in the Bed” game of throwing animals out of his bed at his moms. I was so comforted to remember the turtle. Maybe I would pull it out, share a few feelings with it. If anything, maybe it would help me remember the dream and what a five-year-old Caemon might look like.

About a week after I had the dream, Jodi and I went to visit a friend whose son Orion has leukemia (AML). He was being treated at UCSF, and we wanted to offer our friend some support after they had received some hard news. Her son was battling a rare infection, and the doctors weren’t sure he was going to be able to go to bone marrow transplant. When we arrived at the hospital, our friend let us know that Orion was up for visitors. We had yet to meet him, and had wanted to for some time, so we both took deep breaths, boarded the all-too familiar elevators up to 7-Long, and prepared to enter the floor where Caemon had lived for nearly six months. Soon, we were entering Orion’s room, which had been one of Caemon’s several rooms as well. And there was Orion, a lovely, bald, blue-eyed, six-foot-something boy. We chatted with him and his family for awhile. Sometimes I would just look at Orion, send him some love, and admire what a strong spirit he has. After some time, from under his blankets, this fifteen-year-old pulled a stuffed animal, and as he nestled it into his neck, my breath caught.

It was a turtle.

My head was swirling with Caemon and the dream and so many feelings. It took me some time to compose myself, but after a few minutes, I asked Orion about the turtle. A friend had given it to him. He found it comforting. As we spoke, he hugged the turtle to his neck, stroked it, rested his head on it when he felt tired.

I didn’t know what this meant. I still don’t. But I know Orion has a turtle, and I know it makes him feel better.

A week or more later, I received a message from Orion’s mom. She wrote that Orion had chosen to spend the rest of his days at home, such a courageous and beautiful and heartbreaking decision. His infection was preventing him from going to transplant. His leukemia wasn’t responding to chemotherapy. He just wanted time with his family and friends, time to be a kid before, in his words, he was to go back to nature.

My wife was not in the room when I received this news, but a few moments later, she appeared, and I told her. After a few moments of sitting with this, Jodi asked me, “Do you know what I was doing just now?”

As I had been reading the email, Jodi had been in the garage. She noticed that some boxes were piled on some of Caemon’s things, and she became upset by that, so began clearing them only to find his box of stuffed animals. When she opened the box, sitting on the top was the turtle. Just moments before she came downstairs and heard this news, she had pulled the turtle out, taken it to our room, and placed it on my pillow.

I know I wondered in that moment if Caemon was going to help, if he was here to meet a friend and usher him on to the next plane of existence. I won’t pretend to know what forces are at work here. I don’t know whether my son is hanging out with this other amazing cancer warrior or whether they just have a shared affinity for stuffed turtles. I don’t know if he’s trying to tell us he’s around, that he wants to help out, or whether I’m just looking for signs. I don’t know. All I know is that this happened and that I can’t stop thinking about it and that I cry tears of relief when I do.

Yesterday, I received in the mail a sweet plush turtle from a friend wish whom I shared this story. I held it in the crook of my neck. I thought of my son, and I thought of Orion, and my heart filled with love. I don’t need anymore meaning than that.

alien

I’m at a big blogging conference this weekend, something I’ve been excited about for some time because it is an opportunity to meet writers like me working to share their stories. Any event like this comes with its expectations, so as the conference neared, and I perused the schedule of speakers, breakout sessions, receptions, and parties, I found myself imagining what I would do. Because I was an honoree for the Voices of the Year, I particularly looked forward to the readings and following reception where all of the nominees would be honored. It was to be the highlight of the conference. The parties afterward would be a huge bonus where I could relax a little, meet some people, act like a normal person.

I just forgot one thing: I’m not a normal person anymore.

Cheryl Strayed describes this in her book Tiny Beautiful Things so aptly. She talks to a bereaved parent about why it’s so hard to function in the world after the loss of a child, that one grows to learn that everyone else lives on Planet Earth, while the bereaved parent lives on Planet My Baby Died. I can’t help but apply her analogy to my own situation. In fact, Jodi and I have come to use this regularly to describe a certain phenomenon we have from time to time.

The way I experience it is like this: I plan to attend an event—a concert, a wedding, a party, an amazing conference—and I go. I go feeling remotely human, even a little like I live on Planet Earth. I gear myself up for it, imagine myself talking to people, maybe having a glass of wine, enjoying some conversation. But then I get there, and reality hits. I disappear into dense atmosphere of my own lonely planet, and I float around observing the Earth dwellers, watching as they do normal Earthly things like laughing and relaxing and chatting. I watch, and as I do, my little planet drifts further and further into its own wonky orbit until I have no choice but to leave.

This has happened on so many occasions now that I should know to expect it, but I don’t, and this is inevitably the source of disappointment that I can’t engage in real world activities. But it has decreased in frequency in the last six months or so. I can often walk amongst the Earth dwellers and feel as though I’m assimilating, like I might even be one of them again. This makes it all the harder when it hits somewhere like this, when I’m in the middle of doing something I have been looking forward to for so long.

At this conference, it is common to introduce oneself to strangers, to ask what they blog about. Sometimes I go first; sometimes they do, but it’s almost certain that they will offer up a subject from Planet Earth, and then I offer up the soul-crushing fact that I write from another world, one they wouldn’t want to visit. The people I meet are so lovely, but that sense of feeling alien has not escaped me. If anything, it’s grown stronger.

Tonight, at the much-anticipated reception for the Voices of the Year, I entered the hall, ready to engage, or so I thought. And then I saw my nominated post printed on a giant board, and I saw people reading it. I grabbed a glass of champagne, tucked myself up on a set of stairs, and I watched from Planet I Miss My Son as people strolled by, stopped, read, dug around in their bags for tissues, and moved on. After watching for awhile, I tried to join in the festivities. I walked around myself a bit, reading other nominated blogs on similar giant boards. At one point, I stopped in front of one that had been honored in the Humor category, and as I read it, some women came up behind me to read it too, and they began laughing heartily at what was really a hilarious post. I was startled by their laughter. My response was tears. This was not an Earthly reaction.

I talked with myself for a bit, trying to shape up, trying to encourage myself to have a snack, check out some of these parties, chat with people, and ultimately get myself out of my funk, but that moment saw me drifting away on my little planet again, watching everyone through a saline fog, and I knew as I often do in these moments that I was done. I needed to go.

So I honored that. I won’t say I don’t regret leaving. I miss the festivities of the real world. I long for celebrations without grief riding shotgun. And I know in my heart that these will come one day, as will normal interactions with people and even expectations fulfilled, but not tonight. Tonight, I’m pulled back to this rocky orb with a wobbly orbit, salty seas, and big boy-shaped craters where I’ve made my home. It’s where I’ll be for now.

my golden-haired muse

Tomorrow, I am going to a conference for bloggers, a conference held by BlogHer*, a large blogging organization who chose to nominate me as one of its Voices of the Year for my post “I Had a Boy.” This is an unexpected and huge honor, something that has humbled me to my bones. But it has triggered unbelievably complex emotions too.

As writers, we all want our voices to be heard. As the mother of a child gone too soon, I have wanted so badly for his story to be read over and over by as many people as possible because if they do, he won’t be forgotten. But I can’t help but be saddened that for me to find my voice, my boy had to get sick. For me to gain this recognition, my boy had to die.

My wife is the first to remind me that I have been writing about Caemon since we started dreaming of having a child. I wrote about the long road to getting pregnant. I chronicled every joyful moment of my pregnancy with him. I wrote a three-installment, eight-page story of his birth. And once he was here, I wrote and wrote and wrote about the wonders and trials and triumphs of mothering a vibrant little crocodile.

And when he got sick, when our lives suddenly turned from trying to feed a picky two-year-old to consoling him through needle pokes and dressing changes, I took to writing through my fear, escaping the hospital through my words. When he died, this was sometimes the only place I felt I could turn to handle my grief, a way I could feel close to him and continue loving him because I have always, always written about my beloved son.

I think I have been surprised that through the terror of his illness and the agony of his death, I have done some of the best writing of my life–but I shouldn’t be. What I share on the page comes from the deepest of places. It is honest. It is raw. It is real. In fact, it is more honest and raw and real than anything I have written until now.

It is sacred.

I would never have chosen this path. I would give up every kind comment, every new reader, every mention on another webpage to have my son in my arms again, but that is not the road I am to take. I do, however, get to be a writer, and I get to share the most beautiful story, memories of a magical child gone too soon.

Tomorrow, I will go to this conference with my golden-haired muse tucked in my heart, and when I do, I will honor this precious gift he left me: a voice borne of hope and fear and love and heartbreak, the voice of a mother’s heart.

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*If you are attending BlogHer, I will be part of a discussion at the WordPress booth on Saturday at 3:30. I would love to see you there.

surrender

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

                  -from Mary Oliver’s “Heavy”

Jodi and I recently took our first road trip and camping trip since Caemon died. This was no small thing. You see, Caemon loved both. He loved going places with us. He loved riding in the car, listening to music, watching the world pass by. He loved anticipating where we would be when we stopped, and because he often did not know where we would be, he loved the exploration of our destination, whether a hotel room, his grandmother’s house, or a campsite in the redwoods. During Caemon’s last summer, we took him camping for the first time, apprehensive at first because we really didn’t know how he would take to it. Like so many new experiences, he embraced it–everything from hanging out in the tent to cooking over the little camp stove to building a fire so that he could have marshmallows for the first time to learning about rock skipping and cold river water. During those first (and last) couple of camping trips, we learned that as still relatively new parents, we needn’t fear losing this favorite part of ourselves, that our boy would be happy to come along, and we imagined the memories we would build with him, fostering his love for the outdoors, feeding our very souls as a family.

It should not have been overly surprising, then, when, while planning this trip, the mere thought of camping again threw me into a panic. While Jodi and I have spent many a night lulled to sleep by owls and streams and wind in the treetops, long before Caemon joined us, that dream of camping with our little family had solidified. It was what we were to have done from then on out. Camping as a family felt right. To go back to camping by ourselves was altogether wrong. But this was not surprising: everything we do for the first time without Caemon is just hard.

The crux of all that anxiety, though, the hardest part to grasp was something else, something that surprised me so much more: What was I going to do with all of that quiet?

I will readily admit that one of the ways I have made it through the past eighteen months without my son is by staying incredibly busy. In the first few months, I sat right in the middle of my grief, but as time passed, I needed productive escapes from it, so I worked, I visited with friends, I started teaching again, I went to meetings for work, I held fundraisers and spoke, I watched a lot of television, listened to a lot of radio programs. I filled my mind with something to process most of the time because to stop meant to sit in the muck of the grief again, to miss my boy so completely that every part of me would ache with his absence. At home, I am able to control how much I do this. I have grown keenly aware of the need to sit with the grief now and then, to give it some space, and I do. However, I can then go to the farmer’s market or watch a home improvement program on television or turn on my laptop and busy myself with work and gain the necessary respite from the pain.

Each time my wife and I would talk about this trip, my stomach would flip-flop at the thought of time with no distractions but the birds and the campfire and the wind in the tops of the trees. When she would ask if I was getting excited, my breath would catch, and while I might nod and smile, inside, I was absolutely not looking forward to this trip. I was terrified.

But I went. We gathered our gear, made some loose plans for where we might end up, and before we knew it, we were in our first campsite at Burney Falls near Mt. Shasta. And there I was, unfolding our tent, weeping uncontrollably because the last time I folded that tent, our son had helped me. The last time that tent had stood, he had been in it. And he wasn’t. And he wouldn’t be ever again. It was torture. I spent the whole first night in a terrible funk. I hated the quiet and the dark and the fact that I had no cell phone service. Even the distant sound of the falls upset me. I didn’t want to be here if I couldn’t have my boy. I went to bed as early as I could, read myself to sleep, ticked off the first of the ten or more days we planned to be gone. I hated that I wanted them to speed past, but I could think of nothing more than returning home to my distractions. Even work would be better than sitting so helplessly with all of this grief.

The next day, I felt a little better. It was nice waking up in the crisp morning air, and the anticipation of a hike to a waterfall was at least something to focus on. I was allowing myself to settle in to my camp chores, making coffee, building a fire, staring at the tops of the trees. Later that morning, we began our hike. Within minutes of walking, as I stared down steep cliffs to the rushing creek below, something began to shift in me, and as we neared the falls, as their roar became louder, and I could feel their thundering in my chest, I began to lighten. Descending to the base of the falls, I began to cry and then smile. I told my wife as we made it to the base that I was happy.

Happy? Had that word really just come from my mouth? I had to sit with it, and I did. I sat at the base of this glorious waterfall, grappling with the idea of happy and finally just decided to feel it because this, a little voice was telling me, was why I was still alive. There was beauty to see, awe to be felt, and so I sat with that too, all the while wondering what Caemon would have thought of the spray on his face, the anglers casting their lines, the funky bridge with the same name as his school. I missed him so, but I felt good too, an ever-present dichotomy with which I had recently lost touch.

As our trip continued, Jodi and I drove up the middle of Oregon. We were following a volcanic trail, some of the land decimated thousands of years ago by eruptions only to be replaced by gut-wrenching beauty. That we were drawn to this was no mistake. We both long to find the sacred and the stunning somewhere in our own lava flows and pumice deserts. This landscape brought me more peace. The thin mountain air overlooking Crater Lake, the majestic peaks of the Three Sisters, the soaring, jagged cliffs of the Cove Palisades–all of it healed me bit by bit.

Our favorite nights were spent in the Columbia River Gorge, where we found ourselves among old growth Douglass Firs and ferns and spectacular views of this landscape carved by ice and fire and water. One morning, we took a hike to a rock overlooking the river, and I snapped photos along the way, a few of which were of Jodi. It was a glorious hike. We were up high overlooking the river and the gorge itself, and I know both of us felt a sense of peace. Later, as I looked through my photos, I found a photo of my wife with a smile that I haven’t seen since that last summer we had with our son: a pure, joyful smile. She stared and stared at the photo, incredulous that this happy woman could be her, now. I marveled too, wondering whether she had seen such an expression cross my own face. She had, she said. On that hike to the falls. It had been there. I was relieved to hear this, that I was still capable of feeling something good, relieved and also sad that feelings like this have been so fleeting, so few.

We hated to leave the Gorge with its own waterfalls and cliffs and glorious beauty born of destruction, but we did, and while the rest of our trip was perfectly pleasant, it lacked the majesty of the first week. Still, we were accompanied by a greater peace, and we carried that with us on the last legs of our journey, easily slipping into afternoons of fire-tending, whittling, tree-gazing, and more. On our way home, we stopped for a night in Eugene, Oregon, stayed in a hotel, cleaned ourselves up, and went for a stroll downtown the next morning to seek out coffee and books. We ducked into a shop filled with hand-crafted furniture made of slabs of wood, stumps, river stones, drift wood. We spoke with the artisan, an older man who sang along with a steady voice to the loud folk music as he dusted his furniture, and then looked around at his work, the tables, the tiny stools Caemon would have loved, and then the art on the walls. In the middle of a set of stairs, I stopped to admire one piece: the frame made of driftwood, four dried maple leaves stuck to a black canvas, and beneath them, written in a whimsical print,

“Your SOUL needs the WILD.” 

Tears were pouring down my face as I began to see this phrase everywhere, on tables, in frames, on bits of driftwood. I picked up one of these pieces of wood, carrying it with me through the store, my face still wet with salty acceptance, and as I looked at the artist, ready to pay him for the little piece of driftwood, he returned my gaze, eyes warm, and told me it was a gift.

Indeed it was.

By the end of our trip, I wasn’t ready to leave the wild. I had grown used to the unparalleled stillness of thin mountain air, to the rush of fierce waters, to the whistles of favorite birds, the crackling of fire. And, yes, I had even found peace with the jags of tears that came when seeing reminders of my boy and the hollowness that came from missing him. On each phase of the trip, there were countless reminders of Caemon, hundreds of times when my wife and I wondered, often aloud, What would Caemon have thought of this? Our answer was always the same: He would have loved it. And this seemed to give us permission to keep moving, to keep enjoying beauty and adventure, even if only for ourselves–because, ultimately, what else do we have? By the time we were seeing our last snow-capped mountains, our last lava flows and pumice deserts, I was already longing to be in the wild again, sad to say goodbye to the stillness I had so feared, for while my back was certainly finished with sleeping on the ground, my soul was ready for more beauty born of devastation, more quiet, more reminders that even in this life without Caemon, joy can grow.

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