lessons of a lifetime

My Facebook feed is filled this week with children starting their first days of kindergarten and parents saddened to see their children growing up. There is talk in the air of tearful drop-offs and what to put in lunchboxes. I have seen this week parents with excited children in stores with lists of school supplies gathering crayons and scissors and paper, new school clothes, all the things one needs to have a successful start. They’re all nervous, excited. I stand back and watch or scroll through the pictures, my stomach knotted, my eyes welling, my heart aching. 

Caemon should have started school this year.

Caemon never really got a chance to go to school. No, that’s not true. Caemon went to exactly two days of preschool at a wonderful Montessori school near the university where we teach. He had been going with Jodi for a few weeks to become acclimated, and then the week before his diagnosis, we had two days of drop-offs where Caemon went to school with the other kids and without his moms. We each dropped him off once. We both got to pick him up. I remember watching him before he knew I had arrived, seeing him earnestly helping with lunch cleanup. He was cooperating with the other children, looking so grown up, so capable. Both days, he came home with art projects. He ate all of his lunch. He liked his teachers. He knew the other kids’ names and talked about them.

But then leukemia struck, and he never went back. 

There are many things my son never did, and this becomes more apparent the more we are around the children who were close to Caemon’s age. We have friends whose children began writing letters and soon words when they were three, and watching these children develop written language skills has been surprisingly emotional and bittersweet.

Caemon never learned to write. He didn’t write a single letter.

Caemon never learned to jump. 

He never wrote his name.

He never potty trained.

He never drew stick figures.

He never rode a bike.

And when I think about these classic milestones that Caemon didn’t cross, I sometimes start to worry that somehow, my brilliant boy was falling behind, that he didn’t accomplish what he should have by the age of three years and five months. It’s natural for parents to worry about such things, but it does so little good, particularly when the child is no longer here. Beyond the worry, though, is sadness, a devastation that my son died before he got a chance to do all of these things, before he got a chance to be a normal kid. 

The one message that keeps coming back to me each time I face this regret that he some how missed out is this: He didn’t have time. Caemon had other things to do.

And it’s true. My son didn’t go to school for more than a couple of days on his own, or jump, or write, or draw anything recognizable, but he did do so many things:

He learned how to give warm, strong hugs to people he loved. 

He learned to say, “Excuse me; I have something to say,” when the adults in the room droned on and on.

He learned to tell a story.

He learned to memorize book after book after book and recite them word for word.

He learned to swallow a pill with ice cream.

He learned to make ice cream.

He learned to blow kisses and to receive blown kisses and tuck them into his shirt.

He learned to use “who” and “whom” correctly (although we never once mentioned this or corrected him in this particular usage).

He learned how to help other children who were also sick.

He learned to gently pet a cat.

He learned to make muffins, how to level a teaspoon of baking soda, and that the best part of baking is licking the remaining batter from the bowl. He learned how much patience it takes to wait for anything delicious to bake, and that time always passes more quickly with snuggles and tickles. 

He learned to plant seeds and bulbs. He learned when to pick a tomato and a pea, and he learned just how delicious food is when we grow it and make it ourselves.

He learned to hug trees. 

He learned to program an IV pump, to flush a line, to administer chemotherapy, to ask for a bolus, to sit very still for procedures, to breathe through pain. 

He learned to say, “I love you” when he meant it.

This list could be miles long. Caemon learned so much in his short life. He was so busy doing what he wanted to do, learning what he was ready to learn, that no, he didn’t have time for jumping and writing, but he did have time for compassion, for communicating, for nurturing, for connecting with other people (and machines).

Caemon didn’t need to learn to write. He could speak (very well), and that is all he needed to communicate. He didn’t need to jump; he could run around just fine when he wanted to. He didn’t need school because his curiosity kept him learning constantly, yes, even in his hospital bed. 

Of course it hurts that we have no child’s lunchbox in our home, no first-day-of-school picture to post, no teacher conferences or back to school nights and no “To Mommy” notes scrawled in an early writer’s hand. It’s impossibly painful and poignant that the art Caemon made in his three years and five months is all we’ll ever get from him, that his favorite books sit dusty on a shelf. I can take some comfort, however, in knowing what he could do, what he did do, and knowing how much of himself he left behind. 

My son never wrote his name, but he touched the hearts of thousands of people, reminded us to live, taught us to love more and fear less. How could I ask more of him when he gave so very much?

Caemon's first day of preschool.
Caemon’s first day of preschool.

22 thoughts on “lessons of a lifetime

  1. Jodi and Timaree, what a beautiful way to express how you deal with every day life especiallty this time of year, i was thinking about you all and Caemon and the start of school. Caemon toched so many and his life and story will live on by you two sharing and reminding us all the impact in his short life that he had, Love and bless you both.

  2. I have nothing to add except that this is a beautiful post about your boy. I hope you can feel the virtual hugs from this stranger who has read your blogs since Caemon was just a baby and who feels like I knew him.

  3. Every time we cross another milestone, we think of you and J, and of Caemon. It is truly heartbreaking, and at the same time, helps us treasure each one more than we might have before. Caemon lives on and on, and though he might not have attended more than a couple days of school, he is teaching every one of us so much.

  4. I thought of you both today and your sweet boy. Lachlan spoke about you and Jodi just this past weekend and said, “I’d really like to meet them.” You are NEVER far from my thoughts, friend, nor is Caemon, and our family talks about your son often. He has left such a mark on me personally – and many others must feel the same way. What he did with his time here was make an impact on so many people’s lives. Sending you love and strength – always. xo

  5. Besides his learning – he taught…. his story , and yours- has taught me to appreciate the little things with my now 11 yr old girl…to take time,to try to not be frustrated at minor issues and to hug and snuggle whenever possible… big hugs from far away to you two remarkable mom’s.

  6. It is amazing to me how much living you three packed into such a short amount of time. I am constantly struck with how you recognized the magic in your days with Caemon, especially those day to day moments that can’t be replaced or replicated but tend to get overlooked in life’s general busyness.

  7. You three filled years with your days, and I hold you all in my heart with tea, baking, paintings filled with spirit…huge love.

  8. In looking back you see how you lived your family days and how amazing it felt and we can see a fraction of depth in how much it meant and what has been lost and in that, the rest of us, the rest of you especially if you have not lost a child, know we must savor and cherish and breath our grateful prayers for all we have, and never ever, ever forget.

  9. “My son never wrote his name, but he touched the hearts of thousands of people, reminded us to live, taught us to love more and fear less.”

    And he still touches us, reminds us and teaches us..through you, your memories, your heart songs…he is here.

    He writes with the pen of love and jumps with the blessings of remembrance, graciousness and True heart.

    A truly beautiful post.

    With blessings,

  10. Hi Timaree and Jodi – I read every entry and my heart went through a lot of loops with this one. Oh how much your son learned – how amazing he learned so much in his short life! How amazing that you can step back from the things he might not have learned to focus on all that he did. Precious learnings. What brilliance his spirit shines out to the world.

    I was at a marrow registry drive on Friday night and a woman who had lost her son at 11 talked about how much she loves your blog; how much it hurts to re-live her pain and how much joy she carries each day…from her son.

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us all,


  11. Caemon experienced more joy and love and warmth in his 3.5 years than many will know in a lifetime. You gave him your very best. It is crushing and unfair that he is gone, but also wonderful and comforting that he was so treasured and adored. Thinking of you all.

  12. If I can steel a word from others this post was powerful. I’m so sorry for the loss of your son way too early. We’ve been trying to get pregnant for years and just two weeks ago lost our twin boys at 21 weeks. I only had them in my arms for 4 hours but they will be with me forever. Thank you for letting me read your post.

  13. I know this is like the absolute opposite of your post but when I read this post I felt sad at all the things I’ve missed out on w/ my son being taken away from me. Kinda, sorta related to it. Hang in there, the sting shows up on e in a while but it abates.

  14. Love your writing-Caemon taught so much, and learned so much too. I follow another blog/FB page of a mom who lost her young child to a brain tumor and she is posting different stories of families and kids touched by cancer for September pediatric cancer awareness month. Would love to put you in touch as this post would be perfect being what September should represent (kids going to school, groweing up etc…). Her FB page is Mary Tyler Mom and her blog can be found through there (it is on Chicago Now). I wish there were a way for all the moms and families to ban together as one huge, strong entity to become a louder voice for more research and better treatments and of course a cure. Way too many moms, kids and families are touched by this awful disease. Peace and love to you!

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