A few days after Caemon died, Jodi and I were sitting in or kitchen thinking about lunch. I knew I couldn’t cook anything, but she was ready to make a little food, maybe some sandwiches. She suggested tuna. At the mere mention of tuna, I became so anxious and deeply sad. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to eat tuna again.”
My wife thought I was being a little melodramatic. She giggled a little and asked, “Really? Tuna?”
“I just don’t think I can handle pickles.” Again Jodi laughed, and I finally exclaimed, “I just need a break from tuna, okay?!” The absurdity of it all didn’t escape me, and while I laughed, the thought of eating one of Caemon’s last favorite foods rocked me with so much pain that I couldn’t entertain even seeing a tuna sandwich, let alone eating one.
Tuna sandwiches weren’t the first landmine we discovered after Caemon’s death, but they were a memorable one, in part because it is a bit funny to swear off tuna while grieving and in part because I don’t know if we realized just how much the simplest things in our lives could explode in our faces.
Landmines are everywhere in our house, in our lives right now. I might open a desk drawer and find Caemon’s “lists” scribbled all over my notepads. We can be folding our laundry and find one of his little socks stuck to something–or worse, we can find none of his clothes. We are getting accustomed to those little everyday reminders. It’s natural for us to see hints of him, less so for us to see no traces of him, but it is no less difficult to be reminded that he was once here, and now he is not.
We can be going about a day, finding ourselves handling the grief a little more evenly only for the mail to come. Yesterday, it was paperwork from Jodi’s job to remove Caemon from her health insurance plans. When we returned from our trip to Sedona, it was an envelope containing copies of his death certificates. That wasn’t a landmine. It was a dirty bomb, and it’s one that keeps popping up around our house because we honestly have had no idea what to do with a manila envelope full of death certificates for our three-year-old boy.
Yesterday, we set out to do some filing, to take care of things like the death certificate once and for all. We filed those away in Caemon’s file, the one where we have kept his birth certificate, social security card, immunization records–all the things that we needed to prove he was a legitimate person, all landmines themselves. We stashed that folder away, knowing we didn’t need to see it anymore, and set out to tackle six months of backlogged mail and filing. In the process, we found hospital bills, articles on JMML, handbooks for bone marrow transplant, approvals for his transplant itself, lists of his medications, even birthday cards, Halloween cards, business cards for oncologists and hematologists, his little record book for his savings account, the receipt from his three-year-well child visit where he was declared a healthy three-year-old, the notes from the hematologist we met at the hospital a week later where he was declared to have leukemia. What once was the tedious task of sifting through paperwork became a day of explosions large and small, leaving us depleted and broken and riddled with shrapnel by day’s end.
We didn’t think paper filing would be so hard, but that is the nature of landmines; they’re unexpected and completely devastating. Spaces like Caemon’s room are full of stacks of visible TNT. We don’t dare open the door without bracing ourselves for the blast, but these dangers are everywhere we least expect them: the grocery store when we see his favorite yogurt or even watermelons, the bookstore with a huge display of his favorite Dr. Seuss books right next to the section on grief, our DVR where recordings of vacuum cleaner infomercials and Sesame Street episodes sit unwatched, a drawer in the kitchen where he tucked away a prize wooden spoon or whisk for easy access later, even the streets in our neighborhood where we took him to see his last Christmas lights. Our lives are strewn with these things that may one moment bring a smile to our faces and in another moment leave us crumpled and wailing.
The next month is going to be hard. We are moving to a new home without the assistance of bomb-sniffing dogs and mine-seeking robots. We’re going to have to tiptoe our way through the remnants of our son’s life–our family life–to try to forge a new beginning. We don’t yet know how we will do it, only that we must.
There is a part of me that tried to avoid all of this. When we learned Caemon had relapsed and doctors and nurses started using the word “death” about our son, I started worrying about the reminders that would lay us flat. I knew even before he died that if he did pass, our lives would be a minefield, that around ever corner, in every drawer, closet, room, and even song there would be evidence of our son’s short life, and I feared this. But I refused to spend what time I had left with my son–whether ten days or fifty years–worrying about what might happen when he died. I would consider avoiding a song for fear that it would become too loaded if he died and then turn it up louder because I would far rather bring him joy in the moment than protect myself later.
Even so, there was no protecting myself. Children are infused into every bit of their parents’ lives, and Caemon was no exception. Daily, our senses are bombarded with mementos of a life cut short, and we’re left to bandage our wounds and brace for the next hoping one day the explosives are rendered a little less powerful.