In the days and weeks following Caemon’s death, I found myself wanting to pick up heavy, bulky things. I needed to feel the resistance of weight in my arms. For three and a half years, I had been building my strength as my son grew from his sturdy nine pound eleven ounce birth weight to the thirty or so pounds he was in his final year of life. As a mom of a young child, I became accustomed to having this boy in my physical presence at nearly all times, his weight in my arms. Jodi and I were fond of being close to our son, and he felt most at ease in our arms, so we kept him close throughout his early years knowing that soon he would be taking steps away from us as he went to school and began gaining more and more autonomy. For those first few years, though, that physical proximity of Caemon to me or Caemon to Jodi was a fact of life that we cherished.
In the hospital, we also stayed close. From his first night there, we would lie in his bed offering comfort and familiarity in a place where everything seemed scary and foreign. I think we took comfort there too, for lying in his bed meant being the one thing that meant the most: being Caemon’s parents. When we found out Caemon relapsed, and everyone around us was telling us that the end of his life was near, we got the big bariatric bed so that we could all lie in it together, so that we could stay as physically close to Caemon as possible. He insisted at that point, even as miserable as he felt most of the time, that someone be in his bed at all times. Usually this meant me or Jodi, but sometimes it meant he would ask a nurse to lie down with him (for one favorite nurse visiting on her day off, he actually kicked me out of the bed so that she could lie next to him). He wanted the closeness with everyone, and we all obliged because if we could offer this beautiful boy of ours some comfort we would do anything we could. In those final days, we couldn’t hold him, for he was in too much pain, but we kept him so very, very close.
In those first few weeks and months after Caemon died, I physically felt like I was missing something. I was missing a good thirty pounds that I needed to heft. I was missing the closeness a little boy shares with his mommy too: skinny arms draped around my neck, a sleepy head resting on my shoulder, soft little hands playing with own hands or moles or—one of Caemon’s favorites—my collarbones. In those early months, I could close my eyes and instantly feel the weight of him.
It’s harder to access that sensation now. After nearly ten months without touching or holding my son, sometimes I have to reach further to remember that feeling of carrying his weight, and there is a new grief in that. I am finding my arms that were once strong enough to carry around thirty pounds of boy as well as all of our gear, maybe even a cat, are weakening such that I don’t want to heft heavy objects anymore. I find myself surprised when I strain to pick up something that was once so easy, saddened that such resistance is so unfamiliar now.
The sort of strength training we undergo as parents is the best sort. Our muscles adapt slowly to our growing children so that we become stronger as their weight becomes greater. It was true in the hospital too that the more burden we were offered, the more we carried and even normalized because what else is a parent to do but carry the weight of the child, and when necessary, the weight of the child’s illness, the weight of circumstance and need and fear and pain?
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the central character, a little boy who has lost his father, frequently describes his grief as “heavy boots,” and this is one of the most apt descriptions of profound grief that I have found. There is an immense weight to grief, one that makes the bereaved feel the gravitational pull is somehow magnified with the loss of a person. Sometimes it feels like a lead apron was somehow sewn into me, that this new burden is forever part of me. But even that I am learning to carry, some days with a bit of grace and others in a lumbering, faltering, fashion that reveals just how heavy this weight really is. But this is the weight I have left; it is my duty to carry it with me, just as it was my duty as Caemon’s mother to carry him. This lead apron, my own heavy boots, they make up the 3-G force of loving my boy and losing him.