Two years ago, I sang my last song. Caemon struggled to breathe that night as his lungs were being overtaken by leukemia, but we didn’t know that at the time. What I knew is that Caemon wanted comfort, and one of the many ways a mother comforts her child is through song. The haze of grief keeps me from reaching what the song was—perhaps “Three Little Birds” or “With My Own Two Hands.” Maybe it was a Jack Johnson song like “Upside Down” or “Better Together.” I have spent hours agonizing over this, trying to pin down the last song I sang while my son was still living, the last song I sang without crying. I should be able to remember.
I do remember the last song I sang. It was shortly after he died, a song Jodi and I made up when Caemon was a baby, a jazzy little number about frog feet. We sang it every night between tooth brushing and bedtime stories. It was the first song I heard Caemon sing, and he sang it over and over. We didn’t sing it much in the hospital. So much of our routine was gone, but sometimes we did sing, and he would try to sing. In the hospital, Caemon began to call it “The Marston-Simmons Family Song.” He needed to own some of these pre-hospital parts of his life, and the song was one of them. The last time we sang it, Jodi and I held his little body, so battered and defeated by his disease, and we sang through searing tears the Marston-Simmons Family Song.
I haven’t been able to sing since.
At Caemon’s memorial service, we had a couple of sing-alongs in honor of his love of music. I tried to sing but found myself mouthing the words. It was then that I began to learn how much it hurts to sing in my son’s absence.
It’s not that I have ever been much of singer. My voice is fine. I can typically carry a tune well enough, and most of my life, I have enjoyed singing along with songs I enjoy, particularly in the car. A fairly self-conscious person, I have never been one to sing in front of others, but something about being Caemon’s mom made me happy to sing, to sing out even. I sang to him from the day he was born, confidently, lovingly. I made up songs. I began to like my voice, and mostly, I think he did too.
Jodi and I wanted Caemon to love music, so we exposed him to as much as we could, and not surprisingly, he adored it. We sang as a family, went to music classes, and always, always had music playing. We even gave Caemon his own little CD player with a collection of CDs when he was two so that he could have control over what he wanted to hear. Fortunately, he had pretty great taste. From jazz to folk to African guitar, Caemon loved music. We would wake to him playing what he called his “morning jazz” when he got up in the morning. He would play reggae and slow dance with his favorite machines. He would put on specific songs to go to sleep to. He would ask for his favorites from Mumford and Sons and Bob Marley in the car. I remember a day when Caemon was running errands with me, and he discovered a new Lumineers song he liked. When I stopped the car, he pleaded with me to leave it playing, so I did, and he sat in his car seat, staring out the window, quietly taking in every note. Music was everything to him, so much so that when Caemon met a new nurse in the hospital, one of his first questions was whether he or she liked Van Morrison. If the nurse answered in the affirmative, he knew he would have a good day.
I remember reading a book by and for bereaved parents shortly after Caemon died, and the authors all agreed that they could no longer listen to music after their children died because it was too painful. I remember scoffing. We couldn’t seem to stop. I found after I lost my son that I heard and felt every song so much more keenly, that music touched me so profoundly, that it helped remind me that despite the pain, I was still living. I could never imagine giving up music, particularly not when it was something he loved so much. How fortunate for Jodi and I, then, when we grew closer and closer to two mom friends who are extraordinary musicians, friends who decided that in order to help us distribute the weight of our loss, they would see us each week. Those visits have been filled with some of the most beautiful music. One of these friends has written music for Caemon, for us, on cello and guitar. My heart always leaps a bit when I see her at my door with an instrument in tow. The other friend has a glorious and powerful voice, and when she sings one can’t help but stop everything and listen.
At times, when they are singing along casually to music playing in the background, and Jodi joins in, I find myself sitting back and just watching the ease with which songs escape their lips. I marvel at how these women can continue to access their hearts so thoroughly through song when for me, it feels impossible.
I have tried to sing a few times when we have gone to our Unitarian Universalist church, but with only a few notes, tears begin streaming down my face, and all I can do is listen. I sang my wife “Happy Birthday” for her birthday last year, and it came out in the smallest of voices, and even then, I wept. Recently, Jodi left one of Caemon’s favorite CDs playing in the car, and driving home from an appointment, I listened and once again attempted singing. Within moments, I was engulfed in so much agony, weeping uncontrollably. I just wasn’t ready to sing.
Singing accesses our emotional centers in a way unlike anything else. When I try to sing, all of the pain and sorrow of loss comes pouring out with unstoppable force. Two years of trying to find my voice again has left me knowing that it will take a special sort of healing for song to return to my lips.
You see, we didn’t just bring music to Caemon. He brought it to us. Our lives before that soul entered this world felt droll, predictable. He added such a fantastic rhythm, such glorious melodies, such color and vibrancy and joy. Being Caemon’s mother was living with the most glorious music after years and years of silence. And his death has left my world so very quiet and for far, far too long.
Jodi sometimes asks me when I will sing again. I can’t say I know. I hope that if we are blessed with another child, that my voice will be restored, that I will be able to sing as I did for Caemon. I know well that Caemon would want his siblings to know music as he did. Of course I would honor that, even if it means singing through my tears. But until that day comes, I can’t help but see my break from song as a shrouded mirror, a veiled face, another way of carrying the pain that is living without my boy.