Nine years ago today, I was struggling to birth a nine pound eleven ounce baby boy with a knot in his umbilical cord, a baby boy who would turn me into a mom. What I didn’t know is this same baby boy would also turn me into a cancer mom, and exactly forty-one months later, this baby boy’s death would turn me into a bereaved mother at 9:00 in the morning.
Nines. They followed Caemon his whole life. He liked eight, but nine was the number of his birth month, his birth year, his birth weight, his death time. He beamed with pride each time he shared his birthdate: 9/5/09.
But with all this familiarity of nine, I don’t know my son at nine. My boy should be nine years old today, but to imagine a nine-year-old Caemon is like trying to picture San Francisco in ninety years. Some of the structures are certainly familiar, but most of it is hard to fathom. I don’t know what he would have enjoyed doing today, what sort of fabulous birthday food he would have wanted, what kinds of gifts I might have gotten him. I cannot picture him beyond his blonde hair and blue eyes—but would he still be blonde? I don’t have any idea how tall he would have been or what his nine-year-old hugs might have felt like. Nine-year-old Caemon feels impossible.
But that’s because nine-year-old Caemon is impossible.
I am five and a half years beyond my son’s death, and I hardly know how to celebrate his birthday. His favorite foods of his three-year-old days are obvious. Those red Lindor Truffles will always make their way into my home on his day, and the toasting of his favorite cinnamon bread will fill the house with its warm aroma. Beyond this, beyond talking about him and wearing crocodiles and telling his stories, it becomes harder to know how to set aside the time for my son when there is another life to be lived. And there is grief in that too.
Caemon’s little sister, his three-year-old sister, started preschool today of all the emotionally charged days. The time leading up to this has been so filled with emotion. She turned three at the end of July, and every day since, I have watched her, studied her, because this is my first experience parenting a healthy three-year-old. Two weeks before Caemon’s third birthday was his diagnosis date—just after his own first two days of preschool. He spent all but sixteen of his remaining days in the hospital.
The weaving of these milestones—my daughter starting school, Caemon’s ninth birthday—feels like a handful of tangled necklaces. I can’t figure out which bits belong to my grief and which strands belong to the normal pangs of a mother of a child growing up. To try and disentangle them feels an insurmountable task today, so I feel it all together, this big, shiny, messy muddle of love and anguish and fear and pride. It all belongs to me. It all belongs to my kids. My kids.
I rejoice in watching my three-year-old daughter conquer new fears and learn new words. I delight in her growth. It all reminds me of him though. She is just his size–his height his weight. She, like him, is not fond of babies. She, like him, has an insatiable appetite for muffin batter. And like him, she leads with her beautiful, gentle heart. But this year is where their paths diverge: Caemon will always be the memory of everything before three years and five months. But his sister will be continuing on. She will grow up. She will have friends and multiple first days of school. She will have hair, bruises that heal, and cuts that scar. She will have birthdays, lots of them. And she will have her own favorites.
Right now, her favorite number just happens to be nine.