seven

This morning, as I took my daughter on our morning walk through our neighborhood, I rounded a corner to find a group of little boys cheering and laughing in front of a house with a sign declaring “The Party Is Here!” It was fairly early in the morning, and I was surprised to see a birthday party starting before 9:00 AM, but then I saw that these boys, taking turns hitting a homemade pinata, were all clad in their pajamas and must have been at a sleepover birthday party. The boys laughed and chided one another; the dad of the birthday boy provided counterweight to the pinata as they took one last swing, and candy spilled everywhere. He smiled at me as I pushed the stroller across the street. He was beaming, brimming with all the feelings a parent has upon watching a child celebrate growing up. As I passed, I took one more glance at these boys, trying to guess their age, and I concluded they must be seven.

Seven-year-old boys.

I sobbed silently as I made my way down the street. Caemon should be seven today. We should be holding a birthday party. He should be hitting a pinata, reveling in all that a kid’s birthday is with his closest friends. He should be, but he is not.

Since Caemon died, I have found myself watching boys from a distance trying to figure out if they are his age. I want to be able to imagine what he would look like at five and six and seven. It’s really hard to do. Would he have been tall and skinny? Would his treatment have made him shorter-statured as it can do? Would his hair have remained the same platinum blonde? Would it have grown back wavy? What about his voice? All I can do is guess. I can piece eyes and hairlines and mannerisms together from boys I see like cut-out pictures from magazines, but none of them really help me see my boy’s future. There’s a reason for that. He only lived until he was three years and five months. There is no seven-year-old Caemon or five-year-old Caemon. There never will be. But I still play the game. My heart appreciates the momentary fantasy of picking up Caemon from school or watching him read to his little sister. Fantasy, though, is all it will ever be.

I am finding my son’s birthday this year to be more difficult than years past. Last year, I had a newborn to care for and a Little Free Library to open. This year, well, I don’t quite know what to do. I have been thinking about his birth, how seven years ago I stood laboring under the full moon supported by my wife and my mom, how I stayed so strong even though my big baby boy took his time and didn’t arrive for a full 36 hours after my water broke. I remember knowing him the moment I saw him. I was so excited, so overcome with love for this gorgeous child.

And I remember his birthdays, the ones we got to celebrate: his first when we barely had enough money to buy him balloons, his second when we took him to Train Town, and his third–just after diagnosis–when the whole family came, and so did the fire department with their hook and ladder truck, and later on the day of his birthday itself when we met up with his cousin at the Exploratorium, but only after a platelet transfusion. He was so sick and so, very happy to be at his favorite place with his favorite kid. I remember how he didn’t quite know how to blow out candles. He would blow through his teeth to make the sound. I remember how our dear friend Carol made every one of his beautiful birthday cakes. I remember them all, but, then, there aren’t many to remember.

My birthday is just four days before Caemon’s. I turned 41 this year. It’s shocking to be in my forties. I wasn’t ready–not last year, not this year. And it isn’t so much that I am afraid of aging. It’s more that I feel like the last years of my thirties were stolen. I was almost 37 when Caemon was diagnosed, and from there, the years got dark for me. I remember trying to celebrate my birthday after he died only to fall apart. My birthday sends me into a tailspin. I was supposed to share this month with my son. The year Caemon was born, I went to birth class on my birthday, ate spicy Thai food in hopes of bringing on labor. I was so full of joy that I would soon meet my baby boy. My birthday is forever tied to my son’s because when mine came, it meant we were just about to celebrate him, and that, to me, was the best gift. Now, mine comes, and then his looms heavy. We celebrate that he was here; we mourn that he is not. None of it feels fair.

When Caemon turned two, we had done a lot of celebrating. Jodi’s birthday is just two weeks before mine, his cousin’s a week before that, and then we had mine and his, and later that month, my grandmother was turning 90, so we all went to celebrate with her. When it came time for us to sing “Happy Birthday” to her, we tried to get Caemon to join in. Instead, he announced, “I’m tired of happy birthdays!” I think about that day sometimes when my birthday is a struggle, think about his pout, the way he wanted to hide under a table or go outside to play. It makes me smile because sometimes I get it. Sometimes happy birthdays are just too much.

But I haven’t mentioned one thing: I am a lover of birthdays. I love to celebrate the people I love. I even love my own birthday–or I did. This July, I got to throw a first birthday party for Little Sister, and I wept with joy finding decorations, making her a strawberry cake, watching her take pleasure in unwrapping gifts. Hers is the beginning of our family’s season of birthdays, and I’m glad. There is no birthday fatigue when hers rolls around–just joy that she is here to celebrate. She deserves that. I deserve that, and, oh, how I missed it.

So today, because I am a lover of birthdays, and despite my tired heart, I celebrate my son, a boy whose lifetime was far shorter than any of us wanted it to be. I celebrate the vibrant soul I had the honor of ushering into the world. I celebrate the love he showed me, the laughter he brought to me, the wisdom he taught me.

But I won’t stop wishing he was here to do it too.

Happy 7th Birthday, Caemon the Croc, my favorite boy in the whole universe. I hope wherever you are the chocolate is plentiful, the music beautiful, and the love as big and bright as the sun.

secrets

Below is a post written by Jodi.

I get credited with a number of positive traits like strong, capable, generous, and even inspirational. What if I told you that those are lies and you shouldn’t believe them? What if I told you that I am not at all strong, in fact that I am permanently broken and only a fraction of the person I was four years ago. What if I told you that I am sometimes incapable of even the most mundane tasks? And that what you see is what you want to see projected back. We all want to read the story of the hero who overcomes insurmountable odds, inspiring us to overcome our own sorrows and regrets, and I wanted to be that hero. For Caemon, for you, for my daughter, I have wanted to live up to that image. Fake it until you make it, I was told. I showed up to the events, stood on stages and told my son’s story again and again.

Right here on the pages of this blog I lied, or omitted the truth, and sought to project an image of strength and courage. In fact, I was losing nearly every friend I ever had for reasons I couldn’t understand; my marriage was crumbling; my hope dwindling. I drank until I could no more, and I didn’t tell you when I stopped. You might have congratulated me, but I didn’t want the attention on me.

I didn’t want to damage his legacy, my sweet Caemon. Losing almost everything wasn’t part of the story I was trying to write, but it is the truth. In all things, I wish to be truthful. Caemon was the strong one, the generous spirit, the inspirational figure, and I am just trying to be worthy of telling his story.

four augusts

It’s hard to go much of anywhere on social media this month without seeing parents rejoicing at the end of summer and the start of a new school year–that time of year when parents get more freedom and kids are the responsibility of some other adult for at least a few hours a day. Advertisements on television, mom blogs, displays in stores all point to the same euphoric feeling of relief that parents have this time of year, counting down the days until school starts. The culminating event of all this build-up is the iconic first-day of school photo, kids all decked out in their new-school-year finery captioned by their parents’ lament: “I wish she would just stop growing.” August on social media is a minefield for the bereaved parent.

All that festive back-to-school clamor hurts for fairly obvious reasons, but for me personally, it also heralds the beginning of the darker months, the time when, four years ago, all of the outside world became a jumble of voices and lights, and I focused everything I had on saving my son, only to find that these were the last months I would share with him.

My wife’s birthday was a week ago. It was a lovely day of celebrating, but that day too is marred by the beginning of the end. Four years ago on her birthday, we had our last family photos taken–the iconic photos that have become Caemon the Legend, Caemon the Hero, Caemon, the Beautiful Boy Who Had Cancer, Caemon the Poster Child for JMML. Exactly one week following that day, August 21st, was D-Day: the anniversary of our initiation into the cancer club.

In fact, four years ago at this very moment,  Jodi and I were sitting in the hallway of the children’s oncology unit at UCSF, talking to a hematology fellow who would confirm that our son had some form of leukemia. I remember shaking so hard I could hardly sign the consent forms for the studies he was entering. It was just the beginning.

August is the keeper of so many beginnings. It holds Caemon’s first day of preschool, his first camping trip in the redwoods, but after August 21st, it held his first stay in the PICU, his first chemo, his first oncologist. After February, this is the month I dread the most. One might think, four years on now, that I should be getting over the diagnosis, that I should learn to move on, that I should place all my focus on my healthy baby girl and teaching and new hopes and dreams and somehow forget. But how can I when it’s August?

It’s August, and before I know it it will be September and his birthday, October and November and the memories of the hospital, December and his bone marrow transplant, January and his relapse, and February, the end–the end of my beautiful Caemon.

It’s August, and I don’t have my boy who should be going to school, and I am not rejoicing. It’s August, and my son did stop growing. August is just too heavy to forget.

The coming months are the hard ones for me. They bring with them so many difficult memories, and while my daughter and my imaginings of her future do certainly provide a counterweight–even respite–to some of that pain, this time of year will forever be changed for me. There will never be a back-to-school season when I don’t wonder what a seven-year-old or thirteen-year-old or college freshman Caemon might have been like. There will never be a Halloween when I don’t think of his return to the hospital in his nurse costume or a Winter Solstice when I don’t think of his transplant.

And so, with August 21st, I enter the season of missing my son more poignantly. Another year has passed since the beginning of his end, four years of Augusts without him.

 

the beauty of bald

In eleven days’ time, I will be waking up bald in a Las Vegas hotel room. While that may sound a bit like I’m about to be the victim of some urban legend, this will, in fact, be by choice. I will be shaving my head with a group I have wanted to join for three years now: The 46 Mommas. This is a group of cancer moms who raise significant amounts of money for St. Baldrick’s through annual head shaving events. They are fierce and brave and strong and singularly motivated to end the disease that has impacted their children and far too many others. They are clearly my tribe.

No mother ever expects her own child will become that beautifully bald cancer poster kid. I certainly didn’t. I couldn’t imagine my son without his hair, but that baldness became our reality. Caemon was that child. He still is.

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The night of Caemon’s diagnosis, that first night we ever spent in a children’s hospital, I remember the hematologist complimenting Caemon’s hair. He couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. And it was beautiful–like corn silk kissed with sunshine. But I also remember wanting to tell this young doctor that he couldn’t have it, as if my protective mama bear instincts were any match for chemotherapy. I  remember that night telling my brother that as soon as Caemon’s hair started falling out, I would shave my head. He agreed that he would too. I felt a tiny spark of power in that decision on a day when I had never felt more powerless. But the head-shaving was not to be.

When Caemon’s hair did start falling out, he had what we called his “hospital haircut.” We opted to shave his head to keep the falling hair from annoying him. I offered at this time to shave my head too. After all, we had the clippers in hand, and I was ready. When I said, “Caemon, what if Mommy has a hospital haircut too?” He yelled at me. “No! I don’t want Mommy to have a hospital haircut!” I was a little surprised, but then I shouldn’t have been. Caemon had a thing about wanting me to look a certain way. There were days when I would come in from staying the night at Family House, and he would point at my various accessories: “Mommy! Take off your scarf and your headband and your jacket and your purse and your glasses!” I think he wanted me to look simple. like I did on our days at home, maybe even disheveled. I think he needed the comfort of a mom who wasn’t going to change in the midst of a world that was so unpredictable; the only constant there seemed to be change. And a mommy with a shaved head was just too much. He needed normalcy. His own freshly shorn head was too much already.

So I didn’t shave my head, but I did watch as my son’s IMG_8023haircut became less a haircut and more the signature look of a child with cancer. At first he still had a bit of stubble, his beautiful widow’s peak still framing his face. He had eyebrows and his glorious eyelashes too. But after a couple of months of his most intense chemo regimens, all of his hair was gone. He looked like a cancer patient.

Caemon didn’t like being bald. He didn’t recognize IMG_8402himself. One of his favorite nurses was a brilliant caricaturist, and he drew Caemon a portrait one night, complete with his bald head. Caemon, in a rare turn from his usual polite self, threw the picture and had a fairly epic meltdown. Later, we gathered that he didn’t like himself bald, and he confirmed this. (This same nurse would later draw a picture of Caemon with a full head of hair in our guest book at his memorial service.) There were times Caemon wanted me to take photos of him with some of the fancy machines that visited his room, and he insisted on putting a hat on for the picture. He needed so desperately to  look more like himself.

I would think abouscrubst the other kids we encountered in the hospital halls, the teenaged girls who had a much more established physical identity than my three-year-old son, and I know it had to be painful at times for them not to resemble their former selves. But there was a sense of solidarity around it too. When Caemon did finally get his first hospital haircut, we took him for a walk around the halls, and he saw other kids bald like him, and he would comment on their hospital haircuts. Some of his favorite nurses also sported bald heads, and he began to see them as kindrid spirits, asking if he could touch their heads. He needed that baldness to have meaning–not to represent illness and helplessness, but instead to symbolize something more important. His bald nurses were in control, so maybe his baldness could be power. When those nurses were in the room, it certainly was.

But baldness was still not acceptable for Mommy. I broached the subject of shaving my head more than once throughout Caemon’s treatment, thinking he might change his mind, and, selfishly, thinking it would be so much easier for my life in the hospital. He was always just as adamant that I keep my hair, and I respected that.

As strange as it may seem, after Caemon died, one of the clearest physical memories I had was of his bald head. It still is the most visceral, the most easy to recall. I kissed and stroked and held his head hundreds–maybe thousands of times–his scalp smooth, but slightly sticky. I can recall that sensation more easily than I can the feeling of his little body wrapped around me in a hug. It is at once comforting and heartbreaking.

So now, as I prepare myself for this shave, I find myself thinking that he might be mad at me if he were here. I try to imagine what an almost-seven-year-old Caemon would think. Maybe he would have gone with me. Maybe he would have shaved his own head too. Maybe, instead of being mad, he would have been proud of me. All I have are maybes, and then the memory of his protests. But I am still shaving in my son’s name, in his memory. I will say a quick hello to the clippers, maybe give them a little pat like Caemon used to do. And when I am bald, I will admire that my head is shaped like his was, and that my ears stick out like his did. And in my heart, I will stroke his sweet pate, give him a kiss, and remember why work like this must be done.

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Now, I humbly ask for you to support me in my efforts to raise some serious cash to help beat childhood cancer. St. Baldrick’s provides more funding to childhood cancer research than any other private organization. They directly fund the work Caemon’s doctors are doing with his cells, and they are committed to putting an end to childhood cancer. On a very special note, any donations to my fundraising efforts will funnel directly to Caemon’s Hero Fund for JMML research grants, and even the tiniest donation makes a significant impact. I thank you for helping me make my first shave with the 46 Mommas fruitful and memorable. To donate, you can click the link below: Timaree Marston’s 46 Mommas Fundraising Page

 

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three years, five months

Three years, five months. Three years, five months. Three years, five months. 

This has been the refrain playing in my mind since July began. Three years and five months ago, my son took his last breaths.  He has now been gone as long as he was alive: Three years and five months.

I remember talking with another mom just three months after Caemon died. Her daughter had been gone for fifteen years, and she spoke mournfully of the day she was gone longer than she was alive. I remember thinking in that moment that this was a day I would dread. It was something that would loom long in the future. Would I even manage to survive three years and five months without my son? And then longer? Years later, here I am, still living, still breathing, still remembering.

And although this day has been looming in my mind’s calendar for years now, I have had trouble with what to make of it. I can hardly grasp that this time that has gone so quickly without him was the same time he spent on this earth. It feels unreal, but then, so does his short life sometimes.

The first three years of Caemon’s life were the best of mine. He made me a mom, something I had longed for for years, showing me the expansive love that comes along with that role. And Caemon himself, oh how he lived! In the time leading up to Caemon’s diagnosis, our little family was thriving as a triad. With his illness and then death, it was like the worst of eruptions, leaving nothing but a smoldering crater where my joy, my hope, my family, my son had been.

Two years ago, Jodi and I took a trip to Crater Lake–a lake formed in the caldera of a volcano. What was once a mountain is now a crater filled with the most pristine cobalt waters. Trees and wildflowers grow around the rim of this catastrophe-turned-wonder. But Crater Lake, as beautiful as it is, was forever transformed by the eruption that created this hole.  It will never be filled with the same material. It will never again be a mountain top.

This I am learning to be true of myself. In three years and five months without my son, I have not become the person I was before. Three years and five months have not reset me. I am a mother again, but I am not the mother I was with Caemon. That smoldering crater leukemia left is filling with beautiful things, yes, but never again by my boy. And we may be a lovely family of three, but we will never be the family we were, the family we were meant to be.

This week marks three years and five months since Caemon left my arms, three years and five months since I said my final goodbyes, since I drove with my wife back to our home without our healing son in the backseat of the car, three years and five months since the worst day of my life. Such a span is far too long to live without him. That I have to keep going, that he will forever grow increasingly further from my memory’s grasp is a new sort of heartbreak.

Three years and five months were all the days that Caemon lived, and in that time, he taught me to be a mom, showed me love like I had never known, fostered in me courage and strength. For three years and five months, he brought me joy bottled up in a blonde-haired cherub and the sort of laughter and wonder and light that no earthly body could possibly contain. 

Three years and five months was not nearly enough, not for me, but for Caemon, that painfully short lifetime was all he needed–to change me, to change his world.

farewell, dear friend

Yesterday, a friend of mine died, a friend I never had the pleasure to meet. Three and half years ago, she began commenting on this blog. She found me through a mutual friend and followed Caemon’s story to the end. When my boy died, this woman I had never known but who wrote the most beautiful comments reached out to me. Her only son had died too, as had her husband. And so even though we were decades apart in age and oceans apart in space, we became sisters on this dark path that is grief.

When Caemon was diagnosed with cancer, I never imagined the good that could come out of it, and when he died, I certainly never thought that there could be bright spots. I have learned since that the bonds I have formed with other bereaved parents and other parents of children with cancer are some of the truest and deepest I have known.

Throughout the past few years, my friend has come to feel like family. She has sent me voice messages on my birthday, poems and letters for my son, my wife, my daughter, myself. She has shown me that grieving openly and earnestly and without apology is important. Throughout the past three years, she has grieved with me through the magic of the internet, remembering every anniversary, honoring my process, helping me see that one can live with this albatross of grief with grace. We have read one another’s writing, commented thoughtfully, offered words of comfort and warmth, and more than anything, we have understood the other.

I had dreams of traveling to Australia and finally giving her a hug, of sitting with her all night talking about our sons, crying and laughing together as I knew we would. I know I would have enjoyed her cheeky humor even more in person. I think she would have liked my own sly wit. It would have been more a meeting of long-lost friends than internet strangers, for we were two bereaved mothers, two women longing for their sons, two women so familiar with pain but unafraid to laugh, two travelers in lives that became almost too painful to bear, two survivors of the worst loss. We knew one another’s souls. But that meeting was not meant to be.

I will not be able to see my friend off in the traditional sense. I won’t be attending a memorial or visiting her grave, but I can say my goodbyes right where we said our hellos. And as much as I already miss her, and as much as I know everyone she touched misses her, I also know she has finally escaped the unrelenting suffering of her grief.

T, sweet friend, wherever you are, may you finally revel in the twinkling of those lights.

You can read T’s poem “Twinkly Lights” inspired by a post about Caemon on her own blog here

 

 

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the boy behind the glass

 

 

IMG_0017Recently, I was looking at photos on Caemon’s iPad, a gift our family gave him for his bone marrow transplant. When he received it, my budding photographer quickly found the camera function and began snapping pictures. He
photographed his feet, his hospital room, his bed, the ceiling, and now and then, he captured his gorgeous face. These images of his face, though, are usually somehow obscured. Some are blurry. Some capture only a small glimpse of him–a sleepy eye, a sly smile. And then there are these odd photos resulting from him tinkering with his camera settings, thermal images of sorts, which capture him in the midst of expressions so uniquely Caemon, moments when his lips were pursed in concentration or his grin seemed to broaden because he was in my arms. These are the pictures I want to see most. But instead of appearing true to life, they feature wild, Technicolor versions of Caemon. It’s him, but not quite. I can’t quite see my boy. IMG_0019

Three years and one month have passed since I last saw my son. Soon–in four months– Caemon will have been gone longer than he was alive, and as this reality looms, I find myself straining more and more to remember his voice, to feel his little arms around my neck, or to quickly pull his face into view

Naturally, I rely heavily on photographs and videos. Any time I find an image of him that I either haven’t seen or have scarcely seen, my breath catches. For a moment, I see a new expression on his face, an angle that may not have been captured before. I study the image, commit it to memory. It becomes one more piece of him that I can carry, one more inch of my son for me to know.IMG_0015

But I can’t quite do that with the iPad images. I have tried my hardest to edit them into normal colors or black and white or some form that is more recognizable, but to no avail. These are Andy Warhol’s version of Caemon, not the boy I birthed and held and kissed. They won’t quite let me access the nuances of those moments the photos were supposed to capture. This has plagued me for three years and one month, and any time I see those images, I strain to see him. 

I can’t help but notice that this is how so much of my memory of Caemon feels now. I can see his face, but I can never fully bring it into focus, as though I am perpetually looking at his image through foggy glass. Lately, I find that the photographs are all I can remember, and this is unsettling too. I can remember the days that were chronicled with pictures; the others are hazy, and while I am glad to remember them, I am also troubled by how much less real Caemon feels. So I challenge myself, and I challenge Jodi, and she challenges me to remember him without pictures. We recall moments. “Tell me about what you two would do when I left for work,” she will ask me, and I will piece together bits of memories of baking muffins or walking to the park until soon I am remembering a life with my son more fluently.

We do this more regularly now. “Do you remember what he looked like when he sat at the counter drinking his tea?” one of us will ask. “What about when he would make a stack of books and sit in your lap to read?” “Remind me of how he looked when we turned that cardboard box into an oven.” It’s a game we play, Jodi and I, the game of remembering our son as he was, the way only she and I knew him. Those are the memories subject to decay as our minds age, as time wields its relentless eraser. We tell these stories and invoke these images, remind one another of the tiniest details the best we can. We do it over and over in hopes that we will etch them permanently into our consciousness. But for all that work, there are still things we have both forgotten. I will try to remember a certain phrase he used, and it will be gone. I try to remember the lower register of his voice before leukemia, and it’s just beyond my reach.

He is always just beyond my reach.

I so desperately want to see him, to hear him, and oh, to smell him, but he is fading with time as he must. It would be too hard for us to keep living were we to remember him with the same detail as we did the day he died. Time must soften the edges of our boy in order to ease the pain, but isn’t this the rub? I don’t want the haziness of a soft-focused son; I want the sharp clarity of a boy still here.

Recently, Little Sister has started to notice photographs of children in our home. Naturally, among these are photos of her brother. She smiles at the images when she sees them. Just last week, she was expressing even more interest in the photos of her brother, so I carried her around looking and then stopped in our hall where our family pictures line the walls. “This is your brother Caemon,” I told her. She grinned widely, eagerly. She seemed so happy to see him, and I wept to think she wouldn’t know him, but I delighted in her joy all the same.

The next day, I wanted to show Jodi her reaction to her brother’s photos, so I took her to IMG_1099the hallway. I told Little Sister, “Let’s go look at your brother,” and her head quickly turned toward his image. Once again, she grinned broadly, cooing, giggling even. She reached her tiny baby hands toward the glass, wanting to touch him, and Jodi and I both welled with such a flurry of emotion: relief that she seems to love him even without knowing him on this plane, sadness that she doesn’t know him here and now. More than that, we keenly understood what it is to want so fiercely to touch that handsome face only for the glass, time, and the cruel, cruel reality that is Caemon’s mortality to keep him forever out of reach.

Still, there is something in her desire to reach out, something from which I can learn. Her joy doesn’t end when she cannot feel him. She continues to smile and coo and even squeal just because she can see him. Of course she continues to try, and the glass is amassing a wonderful collection of baby finger smudges as a result of this new ritual she enjoys, but she seems to revel in just being able to see him at all.  I’m trying to allow myself a similar joy, trying not to feel only a greater sense of yearning when my hand is stopped by the two-dimensional representations of a boy no longer here.

I am fortunate to even have these images of my son–vibrant, shining, alive. So long as the photos are here, I can remember that I did indeed have a son, that my daughter had a bigger brother. Time will undoubtedly continue to steal strands of his memory. He will grow more and more difficult to reach. But nothing can rob me of the way he burst my heart wide open. Nothing can erase the imprint that boy has made on me.J17J6