This past August, as autumn began to show its face a bit early in the trees and vineyards where we live, I found myself in a panic more than once to see the vibrant greens turning so early to ambers and reds. As the month progressed, and we passed Caemon’s diagnosis anniversary and this his fourth birthday, and a year since his first chemo infusion, and then the autumnal equinox itself, I found myself in less of a panic as the leaves kept changing and then falling.
When Caemon was diagnosed with leukemia on August 21st of 2012, time stopped. Yes, months passed by. We saw dates on the calendar move from September to October, even to December, and, yes, February, but in my mind, I was stuck in August, at the beginning of the school year and the end of summer. I was stuck in warm weather and sunshine, a garden heavy with ripe tomatoes, and a family so filled with new adventure and possibilities. A very big part of me stayed in August of 2012 and will likely always live there.
It should be no surprise, then, that the changing seasons have been a bit torturous and confusing to me, particularly the transitional seasons. Last year, we were in the hospital for fall and winter. We watched the leaves change and the rain come from our big windows and occasionally on trips out into the cold of the city. But it all seemed fairly abstract in the grand scheme of things. All that mattered, really, was that we get home with our cured son. We imagined a winter and spring and summer confined to our house with a recovering boy. I imagined a big family birthday party at the end of summer. For some reason, having Caemon with me meant the seasons could go on. Together, we could marvel at the new green of spring, enjoy the warm sun of the summer, and crunch, crunch, crunch through piles of leaves in the fall.
After Jodi and I left the hospital to find ourselves nearing the end of winter and not summer, everything seemed wrong. It should have been no surprise that the seasons were opposite what they should have been because everything else in my world was turned on its end. I had gone from getting precious little sleep to sleeping much of the day, from constantly needing to be present and aware for my son to having nearly no responsibilities, no one to nurture except my grief. When spring did come, it was felt like something of an assault. I wrote in my journal as the warm weather came:
Spring feels like a great betrayal to me this year. How dare the daffodils and the tulips show off their promise of bright blossoms when my boy’s light ceases to shine. The eighty-degree heat feels cruel, the sun torture. We should be donning our short sleeves, flinging off our shoes to run around in the spring-green grass. Caemon should be begging to “play buckets” at the beach. But this year, spring feels like a cruel, cruel season. We had all the promise of seeds lying dormant with his transplant, and all that promise died with him. Yet the spring, as one writer says, “is persistent.” So much so that it ignores the grief of a mother who has lost her child. It is ripe with all its fresh beginnings, just as it should be. And I am angry about that.
Honestly, the summer wasn’t much better. It had me miserable and wanting to hide from its brightness because how could a world without Caemon be anything but dark and dreary? How could a world where my beautiful son died be resplendent with new green growth and then with the bounty of harvest? How could life move on?
But the wheel of the year turns and turns whether a child has died or not, and as the calendar flipped to August this year, there was something that began to settle in, despite my resistance to the early signs of fall. Suddenly, we were in the time of year when the calendar stood still, and slowly, slowly, it began to creep forward. Instead of hiding from the shift from summer to fall, I opted to live it. I started daily morning walks in our sweet little community, wandering from one tree-lined street to another, noting the changing sky, watching very carefully as mushrooms popped up, certain trees turned to bright crimson, and others rained golden leaves into glorious pools on the now-damp earth. With each walk, I began to embrace the turning of the season, the passage of time, yes, even without my son. So often on these walks, as I feel overcome with the beauty of a misty autumn morning and the way it feels to move briskly and to see my breath out in front of me, I tell myself, “This is what it means to be alive.” Despite the feeling that part of my life ended with my son’s, somehow, I keep breathing; the days and months and years move forward without him, and so do I. While I still find myself in days when I just want it all to stand still, I have finally surrendered to the changing seasons, embracing that time will keep passing and I will keep living.
As the days pass with a more natural pace now, I force myself into them, eager to don warmer jackets and scarves, to crunch, crunch, crunch through any pile of leaves I see, and Jodi now joins me on some of these walks as together we come to terms with passing time. Just yesterday, we were walking through our neighborhood, and we spotted the most beautiful maple growing atop a small hill. Beneath the tree was a perfect pile of leaves, and we stopped to admire this perfect spectacle. With a glint in her eyes, my wife ran to the tree, dropped into the leaves, and rolled down the hill, emerging covered in signs of the season, a satisfied smile creeping across her face as she returned to hold the hand of a teary-eyed me.
Yes, this is how it feels to be alive.