Today, as I engaged in the otherwise mundane chore of putting away clean dishes, I discovered in a drawer containing lids and other plastic items one of those landmines I have talked about: sitting in the back of the drawer was a sippy-topped water bottle. It was something Jodi had gotten for Caemon in his last days because his throat was hurting, and the only thing that soothed it was his orange tea. We got him the bottle so that he could keep the tea in his bed. He woke up a lot in the night in discomfort, so he would take little sips all night, declaring after so many of them, “Mmm. That’s good. That feels good on my throat.” He was so grateful for this, a comfort from his previous life, the life before leukemia.
I have obviously come across this bottle before, but today, I was organizing the drawer, and I spotted it, and as I was organizing, I absentmindedly picked up pieces of a popsicle mold, and as I held these in my hands, it hit me so hard: I had a boy. I had a boy, and he died.
Lately, I seem to be repeating these sentences at least a few times a week: I had a boy. I had a boy and he died. I say it with incredulity. I say it with obvious pain, but the reason I say it is because I have to remind myself.
The cruel thing about losing my child just three and a half years into parenting him is that it can at times feel like he was a figment of my imagination, like his existence was the best and worst dream I ever had. There are wisps of that life around me, reminding me. For instance, there are these cloth diaper wipes that we made before he was born, little blue and white pieces of flannel, and they still show up in our laundry from time to time, even though neither of us remembers using them in our lives now. A little spoon of his, with an orange handle, remains in our flatware drawer, and I occasionally use it for eating yogurt or stirring coffee. Of course there are whole piles of his things, photos of him everywhere, but there are plenty of days when it is hard to fully grasp that I actually had a child, that we lived the lives of mothers of a small boy every day, that he was the center of our world, that we folded his laundry and changed his diapers and read him books and tripped over his toys and walked to the park. We had a boy.
There are times when I go about my day hardly thinking of that former life. I might be busy with work, cleaning the house, crocheting, watching television, and just going about life. I might even be feeling okay, even slightly normal, but then something reminds me. I empty the dishwasher and that orange-handled spoon is there, or I pull out the iron and see the bandaid he stuck to it over a year ago, and I remember: I had a boy.
I started teaching again recently, for the first time since I was pregnant with Caemon. I write assignments, annotate readings, interact with students and colleagues. My mind is filled with ideas about how I want to approach my class, getting places on time, fitting my old schedule into my new one. There are days when I barely have time to think of my son, even with his picture everywhere. I didn’t mention until the end of the second week that I had been a mom. It was easy in some ways to slip on this old glove, to be a childless teacher of writing again because the last time I taught, I wasn’t a mom yet. I don’t know what it’s like to leave for work without my child because I always worked from home, so there are days when it just seems like I must have imagined it all.
On one day when I was busy not remembering that life of mine, Jodi showed me a picture of a mother gorilla hugging her three-year-old. I saw on that gorilla’s face a feeling I had had a thousand times as Caemon’s mom. I saw her child snuggled safely in her arms just as I had held Caemon, and I knew just how that felt. I can close my eyes now and feel that sensation of being someone’s home base, of loving what was in my arms more than life itself. This photo of these animals reminded me of sitting on a rock in Yosemite in the same pose, his head tucked under my chin, my heart so full it might burst.
I suppose this is a part of grief that isn’t mentioned so much–the pain of forgetting. How could I not remember life with my son? How could I not remember what it’s like to be a mom? How could I not know that all of it really did happen, that Caemon was real, in fact the most real and exquisite thing I have ever known? But then, how can we even imagine our child having cancer, our child being that beautiful bald boy in the photos for cancer charities, our child for whom there is a funeral and a memorial bench and a death certificate? It’s all unfathomable.
I’m just so afraid to forget him. There are so many days I walk through my life now and can’t believe that instead of spending a day dealing with naps and baths and bedtimes and food thrown on the floor, I’m thinking about what on earth I’m going to do to fill the next few hours, what I can crochet or draw or paint or sew or otherwise distract from the emptiness that was created when my son died. I had a boy, and that boy made this life so sweet and crazy and unpredictable and messy and loud and sleep-deprived and funny and adventurous and beautiful and precious and full and everything a life should be with a child, everything I ever wanted.
I had a boy.