Last year on a long road trip, we took Caemon to a zoo for the first time–the San Diego Zoo. He had a horrible cold–with a side of undetected leukemia–and he felt pretty surly and awful all day. Most of the day, he wanted to be carried. And when it came to looking at animals, he actually refused. When we came to the elephants, I was holding him and said, “Caemon, look! Elephants!” He quickly turned his head the opposite direction, asserting, “I won’t! I won’t look!” In the moment, I was both frustrated and humored by my son’s decision that he would not be enjoying this strange and special place. He repeatedly avoided looking at animals all day–no small feat at such a large zoo with so many species, and while I had wanted him to look, had wanted him to have this childhood experience, I couldn’t help but be impressed with his assertion of his two-year-old will. Later, Caemon confided to his grandmother with a sly smile that he hadn’t looked when we told him to. It was a secret they shared (although his grandma was so amused, she had to tell us in confidence that our boy thought he had pulled one over on us).
All was not lost, though. By the end of the day, after Caemon had had a long stroller nap, I spotted an area where smaller reptiles were kept, and I snapped Caemon up to take him on a special Mommy-Caemon adventure, thinking maybe this would be a little less intimidating. He was excited that I had a surprise for him, and once inside this area, we spotted a very special animal indeed: a dwarf caiman. This time, Caemon did look as I told him about the animal with his name. We watched this cute bulging-eyed lizard for some time, Caemon resting his head on my shoulder, decidedly not looking away. It was the sort of moment I had hoped for that day, and it was one of the few animals Caemon remembered seeing at the zoo.
This was Caemon’s only trip to a zoo, and while we had hoped to take him to others nearby, he got sick, and this, like so many other opportunities in his life, would be his singular experience. He remembered it fondly, though, but more for his ability to do what he wanted (i.e. not look at exotic animals) than for what one might traditionally remember from a zoo. He also remembered sitting on benches with his grandpa, pressing pennies, and he remembered the caiman.
After Caemon died, a number of people came together wanting to sponsor a memorial for Caemon, particularly a bench. After entertaining a variety of options, they found a spot at the Oakland Zoo–in the Children’s Zoo–right across from the alligator exhibit. Jodi and I were so very touched, for even though we hadn’t had the opportunity to take Caemon to this zoo, it’s a place we wanted to take him, and we’re certain he would have grown into it in a short time, particularly with the opportunity to have seen real-life alligators–or the opportunity to look away while his moms marveled at them anyway.
In just five days after the decision was made to sponsor the bench, this beautiful crew of people raised the money, and we now have a bench honoring our boy. Last weekend, we finally had the opportunity to visit, and we invited family and friends to join us.
I’m certain every one of us has seen a memorial bench for someone and wondered about its origins, who the person was, why the family chose its spot. To see our own son’s name on such a bench, particularly amidst those for people who passed after much longer lives, was surreal and poignant and, yes, very hard. We sat on it, stared at it, stood near it, imagined over and over and over again having Caemon there with us. It wasn’t difficult. There are play structures nearby shaped like giant insects, oversized brass ants embedded in the concrete behind it, a tree right in front of it for hugging, and even one of his favorite machines of tourist stops everywhere–a penny pressing machine–a few feet to its rear. Of course the best part, in Caemon’s eyes would be that it doesn’t face any visible animals; he would have had to go out of his way to see them. He would have loved everything about it.
As his moms, being able to go see his name on a bench, having a place to sit and think about some really funny, quirky, vivid memories of our boy, knowing others will see it and learn a little something about our son means so much. Knowing how much love and support went into it and how many people out there wanted this physical manifestation of something to hold us up touches us to our core. And ultimately, imagining one day taking Caemon’s little brother or sister there is something to keep us going.
Our boy, a lover of benches (he could never resist climbing on them), a lover of seeing his name in print and sharing it with a really cool reptile, has his very own bench. I hope you’ll go see it one day.
Visiting Caemon’s Bench