This morning, as I took my daughter on our morning walk through our neighborhood, I rounded a corner to find a group of little boys cheering and laughing in front of a house with a sign declaring “The Party Is Here!” It was fairly early in the morning, and I was surprised to see a birthday party starting before 9:00 AM, but then I saw that these boys, taking turns hitting a homemade pinata, were all clad in their pajamas and must have been at a sleepover birthday party. The boys laughed and chided one another; the dad of the birthday boy provided counterweight to the pinata as they took one last swing, and candy spilled everywhere. He smiled at me as I pushed the stroller across the street. He was beaming, brimming with all the feelings a parent has upon watching a child celebrate growing up. As I passed, I took one more glance at these boys, trying to guess their age, and I concluded they must be seven.
I sobbed silently as I made my way down the street. Caemon should be seven today. We should be holding a birthday party. He should be hitting a pinata, reveling in all that a kid’s birthday is with his closest friends. He should be, but he is not.
Since Caemon died, I have found myself watching boys from a distance trying to figure out if they are his age. I want to be able to imagine what he would look like at five and six and seven. It’s really hard to do. Would he have been tall and skinny? Would his treatment have made him shorter-statured as it can do? Would his hair have remained the same platinum blonde? Would it have grown back wavy? What about his voice? All I can do is guess. I can piece eyes and hairlines and mannerisms together from boys I see like cut-out pictures from magazines, but none of them really help me see my boy’s future. There’s a reason for that. He only lived until he was three years and five months. There is no seven-year-old Caemon or five-year-old Caemon. There never will be. But I still play the game. My heart appreciates the momentary fantasy of picking up Caemon from school or watching him read to his little sister. Fantasy, though, is all it will ever be.
I am finding my son’s birthday this year to be more difficult than years past. Last year, I had a newborn to care for and a Little Free Library to open. This year, well, I don’t quite know what to do. I have been thinking about his birth, how seven years ago I stood laboring under the full moon supported by my wife and my mom, how I stayed so strong even though my big baby boy took his time and didn’t arrive for a full 36 hours after my water broke. I remember knowing him the moment I saw him. I was so excited, so overcome with love for this gorgeous child.
And I remember his birthdays, the ones we got to celebrate: his first when we barely had enough money to buy him balloons, his second when we took him to Train Town, and his third–just after diagnosis–when the whole family came, and so did the fire department with their hook and ladder truck, and later on the day of his birthday itself when we met up with his cousin at the Exploratorium, but only after a platelet transfusion. He was so sick and so, very happy to be at his favorite place with his favorite kid. I remember how he didn’t quite know how to blow out candles. He would blow through his teeth to make the sound. I remember how our dear friend Carol made every one of his beautiful birthday cakes. I remember them all, but, then, there aren’t many to remember.
My birthday is just four days before Caemon’s. I turned 41 this year. It’s shocking to be in my forties. I wasn’t ready–not last year, not this year. And it isn’t so much that I am afraid of aging. It’s more that I feel like the last years of my thirties were stolen. I was almost 37 when Caemon was diagnosed, and from there, the years got dark for me. I remember trying to celebrate my birthday after he died only to fall apart. My birthday sends me into a tailspin. I was supposed to share this month with my son. The year Caemon was born, I went to birth class on my birthday, ate spicy Thai food in hopes of bringing on labor. I was so full of joy that I would soon meet my baby boy. My birthday is forever tied to my son’s because when mine came, it meant we were just about to celebrate him, and that, to me, was the best gift. Now, mine comes, and then his looms heavy. We celebrate that he was here; we mourn that he is not. None of it feels fair.
When Caemon turned two, we had done a lot of celebrating. Jodi’s birthday is just two weeks before mine, his cousin’s a week before that, and then we had mine and his, and later that month, my grandmother was turning 90, so we all went to celebrate with her. When it came time for us to sing “Happy Birthday” to her, we tried to get Caemon to join in. Instead, he announced, “I’m tired of happy birthdays!” I think about that day sometimes when my birthday is a struggle, think about his pout, the way he wanted to hide under a table or go outside to play. It makes me smile because sometimes I get it. Sometimes happy birthdays are just too much.
But I haven’t mentioned one thing: I am a lover of birthdays. I love to celebrate the people I love. I even love my own birthday–or I did. This July, I got to throw a first birthday party for Little Sister, and I wept with joy finding decorations, making her a strawberry cake, watching her take pleasure in unwrapping gifts. Hers is the beginning of our family’s season of birthdays, and I’m glad. There is no birthday fatigue when hers rolls around–just joy that she is here to celebrate. She deserves that. I deserve that, and, oh, how I missed it.
So today, because I am a lover of birthdays, and despite my tired heart, I celebrate my son, a boy whose lifetime was far shorter than any of us wanted it to be. I celebrate the vibrant soul I had the honor of ushering into the world. I celebrate the love he showed me, the laughter he brought to me, the wisdom he taught me.
But I won’t stop wishing he was here to do it too.
Happy 7th Birthday, Caemon the Croc, my favorite boy in the whole universe. I hope wherever you are the chocolate is plentiful, the music beautiful, and the love as big and bright as the sun.