Category Archives: life after Caemon

this is halloween

Today is Halloween. It’s Halloween, and I have a three-year-old to dress up, a three-year-old with whom to share the wonders and strangeness of this day. It feels like a miracle.

2012-10-31-12-54-59.jpgSix years ago today, I also had a three-year-old with whom to celebrate Halloween. Caemon was dressing up as his favorite superhero: a nurse. He had scrubs the same shade of blue as his nurses, a pretty amazing counterfeit UCSF ID, a surgical mask, and a bald head to match all the nurses who cared for him.

But his mask, while conveniently thematic, was not necessarily part of the costume, and his bald head resulted from the chemo that dripped into his body to try to cure the most terrifying monster of all ravaging his little body. Still, my boy was ready for Halloween, and the fact that we were home for a rare few days from the hospital meant he got to enjoy the thrill of walking out into the world wearing the disguise of someone who was, in his eyes, invincible. Wearing his costume to have blood drawn meant wearing a surgical mask, which he needed to protect him from all the viruses fall has to offer, wasn’t so strange out in public. It also meant that the providers in the clinic we went to gave him more candy. But most importantly, it meant he felt like he was one of them and that he had some control over circumstances that so rarely seemed to be in his control.

I remember it rained that day, that we would get a call from our Nurse Practitioner at IMG_8183UCSF telling us we would need to come back that night, telling us to take him trick-or-treating first, telling us they would make it special for him when he arrived. I remember walking him in the rain to four houses in our neighborhood, the rain on my face hiding the tears that were flowing freely. As the neighbors handed him very special treats, I remember wanting so much just to have a normal Halloween for my boy, a normal childhood, a normal anything.

I remember driving that night over the Golden Gate Bridge, the rain and the lights of the city twinkling so magically and how sharply that contrasted the thick blanket of disappointment in the car as we returned to the hospital early with a very sick boy. I remember going through admitting at the hospital with my little nurse in tow, and as we walked the hall to the elevators to go up to the pediatric oncology floor, a nurse in the ER swooned when she spotted him and asked if he was ready to get to work that night. “Of course!” was his reply, as he began so earnestly to follow her. I remember arriving on his floor to find his room prepped by a favorite nurse with treats in the form of exciting medical supplies to find. And I also remember an hour-long attempt at getting him an IV from a beloved nurse in an Alice costume because in the morning he’d be getting his Broviac surgery—a central line—and he needed to be topped up on platelets.

I remember that Halloween more than any other. Trauma has a way of tattooing memories onto our minds, and while I have soft-filtered images of his first three Halloweens, that last one may as well have happened yesterday.

And it was his last. Caemon had four Halloweens. He was a polar bear, a skeleton, a kitty, and a nurse. That’s it. He carved pumpkins once. He trick-or-treated twice. He loved every bit of it, even as a sick little boy.

But here I am six years later. I am sitting in my car, dressed as a black cat, complete with drawn-on whiskers, because my three-year-old is at school, and I am to help with her Halloween parade. She is also a kitty, all in pink. She chose my costume so that I would be like her. The idea for her costume came from her love of the cat in the book Room on the Broom—a book of her brother’s, a gift from one of his beloved nurses. Even though he is not here, her big brother influences her. Our stories of him, the photos of him all inform her existence and my parenting. I treasure that, but sometimes I have to pause. Is my pain and grief somehow tainting how she celebrates these days? Am I wrong to let her images of her big brother color choices she makes?

As much as I have feared her living a life in Caemon’s shadow, I need not worry. This child shines in her own brilliant way, and she reminds me when I find myself lost in my grief this time of year that I have to keep celebrating. Though I was reluctant to do so, just as I have been every year since he died, she encouraged me to pull out the Halloween decorations. She reminded me that, yes, this is what we do. We display the big spiders and the cauldrons and candles and the purple lights. We visit the pumpkin patch and drink too-sweet freshly-pressed apple cider. We decorate pumpkins, first in stickers and paint, then with whichever design we opt to carve into them, and always at the last minute. We put on as many costumes as we can for the entire month of October. We eat the treats. We go to the parties. We celebrate.

And because of her brother, she gets to eat some candy despite my reluctance to give my kids sugar. Because of her brother, I go to her school and volunteer in costume even though I should be working. And because of her brother, I face this day with reverence, with poignancy, with an ache in my heart. But because of my daughter, I can finally see this holiday with joy again.

And isn’t that perfect? Halloween is a time when we celebrate the dark, when we look at the underworld and peek behind the veil to see what we don’t normally want to acknowledge. We see fear and horror and even death on parade. And to that we add the light–of sparkles and jack-o-lanterns, and, yes, little pink kitty cats. I can think of no better day to honor my two children, to see the intersection of the lost and the living, to embrace everything they are to me, to one another. And for the first time in so many years, I am grateful as can be to celebrate this day.

 

 

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opening day

Grief season began today. Every year as I spy August around the corner, and people start talking about kids going back to school, I start to feel incredibly uneasy. And before I know it, there it is on the calendar: August 20th, the day the crack in the ice opened up, the day the oxygen left the atmosphere, the day I learned the monster under the bed was real.

The months between August 20th and February 5th are filled with daily reminders of Caemon’s treatment. I obviously think of him in the “off” months. I grieve him openly and heartily. But August through February are peppered with memories of some of the most terrifying moments of my life, all culminating in the nightmare of losing my son.

Today, it has been six years since I rode for the first time in the back of the ambulance, my son strapped into his car seat, strapped to a gurney. Six years on, it is hard to know what to do with a day like today. I am careful these days not to relive too much of the trauma. I don’t need to sit in the moments when I was shaking so hard I couldn’t sign my name or shivering in the sweltering August heat because I was in shock. I don’t have to feel the trauma of holding him down for his first IV or the world going dark when I first heard the word leukemia. I know that I don’t have to relive the worst days of my life to see that they are there, but as this year’s grief season begins, I’m a fool to think I can avoid them entirely.

I know so many families now, so many families who have lost children to cancer, families who endured years of treatment, families for whom the entire year is filled with traumatic date after traumatic date. In this way I am lucky if there is luck to be found in losing my son. My dates are condensed, cooked down into the most concentrated and potent five and a half months imaginable. Much like Caemon’s disease. Much like Caemon’s life.

Grief season is upon me. My birthday comes soon. Then four short days after, Caemon’s birthday. There’s the day he first went back to the hospital, then Halloween, when we had to return early again. The last trip home in early December, then Winter Solstice and and bone marrow transplant and Christmas. And there is relapse, and there is his death day, and then it’s done. Grief season is over, just like that, and before I know it, I have memories free of hospitals. I have hikes in the redwoods and trips to the beach with my boy, whimsical weekends in hotel rooms, or days at home, walking to the park to swing. I ache for my son just as much during these days, but the off season is lighter, less shrouded. I can breathe.

But grief season is here with its dark, heavy cloak, and tonight, as I sat with the heaviness of that familiar garb, I lit a candle in front of Caemon’s photo.  I touched his face. I spoke with him. I wished so hard that I knew what he would be like now. I apologized to him that I couldn’t save him, and then I walked away for a moment. I wandered my house looking for something to hold, feeling my arms were empty. I scanned the room looking for something of him to hold. I walked into my room, earnestly searching, for what, I did not know. But my son was not to be found. His ashes rest in his box on the mantle, but this box, the crocodiles, even his favorite teddy bear, none of it were what my arms craved. I panicked for a moment. What could I hold? Finally, I stopped. I stood again, staring at his photo, held my arms out as if to welcome his embrace, pulled them back to my chest, empty, and wept.

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Image courtesy of In Her Image Photography

secrets

Below is a post written by Jodi.

I get credited with a number of positive traits like strong, capable, generous, and even inspirational. What if I told you that those are lies and you shouldn’t believe them? What if I told you that I am not at all strong, in fact that I am permanently broken and only a fraction of the person I was four years ago. What if I told you that I am sometimes incapable of even the most mundane tasks? And that what you see is what you want to see projected back. We all want to read the story of the hero who overcomes insurmountable odds, inspiring us to overcome our own sorrows and regrets, and I wanted to be that hero. For Caemon, for you, for my daughter, I have wanted to live up to that image. Fake it until you make it, I was told. I showed up to the events, stood on stages and told my son’s story again and again.

Right here on the pages of this blog I lied, or omitted the truth, and sought to project an image of strength and courage. In fact, I was losing nearly every friend I ever had for reasons I couldn’t understand; my marriage was crumbling; my hope dwindling. I drank until I could no more, and I didn’t tell you when I stopped. You might have congratulated me, but I didn’t want the attention on me.

I didn’t want to damage his legacy, my sweet Caemon. Losing almost everything wasn’t part of the story I was trying to write, but it is the truth. In all things, I wish to be truthful. Caemon was the strong one, the generous spirit, the inspirational figure, and I am just trying to be worthy of telling his story.

four augusts

It’s hard to go much of anywhere on social media this month without seeing parents rejoicing at the end of summer and the start of a new school year–that time of year when parents get more freedom and kids are the responsibility of some other adult for at least a few hours a day. Advertisements on television, mom blogs, displays in stores all point to the same euphoric feeling of relief that parents have this time of year, counting down the days until school starts. The culminating event of all this build-up is the iconic first-day of school photo, kids all decked out in their new-school-year finery captioned by their parents’ lament: “I wish she would just stop growing.” August on social media is a minefield for the bereaved parent.

All that festive back-to-school clamor hurts for fairly obvious reasons, but for me personally, it also heralds the beginning of the darker months, the time when, four years ago, all of the outside world became a jumble of voices and lights, and I focused everything I had on saving my son, only to find that these were the last months I would share with him.

My wife’s birthday was a week ago. It was a lovely day of celebrating, but that day too is marred by the beginning of the end. Four years ago on her birthday, we had our last family photos taken–the iconic photos that have become Caemon the Legend, Caemon the Hero, Caemon, the Beautiful Boy Who Had Cancer, Caemon the Poster Child for JMML. Exactly one week following that day, August 21st, was D-Day: the anniversary of our initiation into the cancer club.

In fact, four years ago at this very moment,  Jodi and I were sitting in the hallway of the children’s oncology unit at UCSF, talking to a hematology fellow who would confirm that our son had some form of leukemia. I remember shaking so hard I could hardly sign the consent forms for the studies he was entering. It was just the beginning.

August is the keeper of so many beginnings. It holds Caemon’s first day of preschool, his first camping trip in the redwoods, but after August 21st, it held his first stay in the PICU, his first chemo, his first oncologist. After February, this is the month I dread the most. One might think, four years on now, that I should be getting over the diagnosis, that I should learn to move on, that I should place all my focus on my healthy baby girl and teaching and new hopes and dreams and somehow forget. But how can I when it’s August?

It’s August, and before I know it it will be September and his birthday, October and November and the memories of the hospital, December and his bone marrow transplant, January and his relapse, and February, the end–the end of my beautiful Caemon.

It’s August, and I don’t have my boy who should be going to school, and I am not rejoicing. It’s August, and my son did stop growing. August is just too heavy to forget.

The coming months are the hard ones for me. They bring with them so many difficult memories, and while my daughter and my imaginings of her future do certainly provide a counterweight–even respite–to some of that pain, this time of year will forever be changed for me. There will never be a back-to-school season when I don’t wonder what a seven-year-old or thirteen-year-old or college freshman Caemon might have been like. There will never be a Halloween when I don’t think of his return to the hospital in his nurse costume or a Winter Solstice when I don’t think of his transplant.

And so, with August 21st, I enter the season of missing my son more poignantly. Another year has passed since the beginning of his end, four years of Augusts without him.

 

the beauty of bald

In eleven days’ time, I will be waking up bald in a Las Vegas hotel room. While that may sound a bit like I’m about to be the victim of some urban legend, this will, in fact, be by choice. I will be shaving my head with a group I have wanted to join for three years now: The 46 Mommas. This is a group of cancer moms who raise significant amounts of money for St. Baldrick’s through annual head shaving events. They are fierce and brave and strong and singularly motivated to end the disease that has impacted their children and far too many others. They are clearly my tribe.

No mother ever expects her own child will become that beautifully bald cancer poster kid. I certainly didn’t. I couldn’t imagine my son without his hair, but that baldness became our reality. Caemon was that child. He still is.

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The night of Caemon’s diagnosis, that first night we ever spent in a children’s hospital, I remember the hematologist complimenting Caemon’s hair. He couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. And it was beautiful–like corn silk kissed with sunshine. But I also remember wanting to tell this young doctor that he couldn’t have it, as if my protective mama bear instincts were any match for chemotherapy. I  remember that night telling my brother that as soon as Caemon’s hair started falling out, I would shave my head. He agreed that he would too. I felt a tiny spark of power in that decision on a day when I had never felt more powerless. But the head-shaving was not to be.

When Caemon’s hair did start falling out, he had what we called his “hospital haircut.” We opted to shave his head to keep the falling hair from annoying him. I offered at this time to shave my head too. After all, we had the clippers in hand, and I was ready. When I said, “Caemon, what if Mommy has a hospital haircut too?” He yelled at me. “No! I don’t want Mommy to have a hospital haircut!” I was a little surprised, but then I shouldn’t have been. Caemon had a thing about wanting me to look a certain way. There were days when I would come in from staying the night at Family House, and he would point at my various accessories: “Mommy! Take off your scarf and your headband and your jacket and your purse and your glasses!” I think he wanted me to look simple. like I did on our days at home, maybe even disheveled. I think he needed the comfort of a mom who wasn’t going to change in the midst of a world that was so unpredictable; the only constant there seemed to be change. And a mommy with a shaved head was just too much. He needed normalcy. His own freshly shorn head was too much already.

So I didn’t shave my head, but I did watch as my son’s IMG_8023haircut became less a haircut and more the signature look of a child with cancer. At first he still had a bit of stubble, his beautiful widow’s peak still framing his face. He had eyebrows and his glorious eyelashes too. But after a couple of months of his most intense chemo regimens, all of his hair was gone. He looked like a cancer patient.

Caemon didn’t like being bald. He didn’t recognize IMG_8402himself. One of his favorite nurses was a brilliant caricaturist, and he drew Caemon a portrait one night, complete with his bald head. Caemon, in a rare turn from his usual polite self, threw the picture and had a fairly epic meltdown. Later, we gathered that he didn’t like himself bald, and he confirmed this. (This same nurse would later draw a picture of Caemon with a full head of hair in our guest book at his memorial service.) There were times Caemon wanted me to take photos of him with some of the fancy machines that visited his room, and he insisted on putting a hat on for the picture. He needed so desperately to  look more like himself.

I would think abouscrubst the other kids we encountered in the hospital halls, the teenaged girls who had a much more established physical identity than my three-year-old son, and I know it had to be painful at times for them not to resemble their former selves. But there was a sense of solidarity around it too. When Caemon did finally get his first hospital haircut, we took him for a walk around the halls, and he saw other kids bald like him, and he would comment on their hospital haircuts. Some of his favorite nurses also sported bald heads, and he began to see them as kindrid spirits, asking if he could touch their heads. He needed that baldness to have meaning–not to represent illness and helplessness, but instead to symbolize something more important. His bald nurses were in control, so maybe his baldness could be power. When those nurses were in the room, it certainly was.

But baldness was still not acceptable for Mommy. I broached the subject of shaving my head more than once throughout Caemon’s treatment, thinking he might change his mind, and, selfishly, thinking it would be so much easier for my life in the hospital. He was always just as adamant that I keep my hair, and I respected that.

As strange as it may seem, after Caemon died, one of the clearest physical memories I had was of his bald head. It still is the most visceral, the most easy to recall. I kissed and stroked and held his head hundreds–maybe thousands of times–his scalp smooth, but slightly sticky. I can recall that sensation more easily than I can the feeling of his little body wrapped around me in a hug. It is at once comforting and heartbreaking.

So now, as I prepare myself for this shave, I find myself thinking that he might be mad at me if he were here. I try to imagine what an almost-seven-year-old Caemon would think. Maybe he would have gone with me. Maybe he would have shaved his own head too. Maybe, instead of being mad, he would have been proud of me. All I have are maybes, and then the memory of his protests. But I am still shaving in my son’s name, in his memory. I will say a quick hello to the clippers, maybe give them a little pat like Caemon used to do. And when I am bald, I will admire that my head is shaped like his was, and that my ears stick out like his did. And in my heart, I will stroke his sweet pate, give him a kiss, and remember why work like this must be done.

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Now, I humbly ask for you to support me in my efforts to raise some serious cash to help beat childhood cancer. St. Baldrick’s provides more funding to childhood cancer research than any other private organization. They directly fund the work Caemon’s doctors are doing with his cells, and they are committed to putting an end to childhood cancer. On a very special note, any donations to my fundraising efforts will funnel directly to Caemon’s Hero Fund for JMML research grants, and even the tiniest donation makes a significant impact. I thank you for helping me make my first shave with the 46 Mommas fruitful and memorable. To donate, you can click the link below: Timaree Marston’s 46 Mommas Fundraising Page

 

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three years, five months

Three years, five months. Three years, five months. Three years, five months. 

This has been the refrain playing in my mind since July began. Three years and five months ago, my son took his last breaths.  He has now been gone as long as he was alive: Three years and five months.

I remember talking with another mom just three months after Caemon died. Her daughter had been gone for fifteen years, and she spoke mournfully of the day she was gone longer than she was alive. I remember thinking in that moment that this was a day I would dread. It was something that would loom long in the future. Would I even manage to survive three years and five months without my son? And then longer? Years later, here I am, still living, still breathing, still remembering.

And although this day has been looming in my mind’s calendar for years now, I have had trouble with what to make of it. I can hardly grasp that this time that has gone so quickly without him was the same time he spent on this earth. It feels unreal, but then, so does his short life sometimes.

The first three years of Caemon’s life were the best of mine. He made me a mom, something I had longed for for years, showing me the expansive love that comes along with that role. And Caemon himself, oh how he lived! In the time leading up to Caemon’s diagnosis, our little family was thriving as a triad. With his illness and then death, it was like the worst of eruptions, leaving nothing but a smoldering crater where my joy, my hope, my family, my son had been.

Two years ago, Jodi and I took a trip to Crater Lake–a lake formed in the caldera of a volcano. What was once a mountain is now a crater filled with the most pristine cobalt waters. Trees and wildflowers grow around the rim of this catastrophe-turned-wonder. But Crater Lake, as beautiful as it is, was forever transformed by the eruption that created this hole.  It will never be filled with the same material. It will never again be a mountain top.

This I am learning to be true of myself. In three years and five months without my son, I have not become the person I was before. Three years and five months have not reset me. I am a mother again, but I am not the mother I was with Caemon. That smoldering crater leukemia left is filling with beautiful things, yes, but never again by my boy. And we may be a lovely family of three, but we will never be the family we were, the family we were meant to be.

This week marks three years and five months since Caemon left my arms, three years and five months since I said my final goodbyes, since I drove with my wife back to our home without our healing son in the backseat of the car, three years and five months since the worst day of my life. Such a span is far too long to live without him. That I have to keep going, that he will forever grow increasingly further from my memory’s grasp is a new sort of heartbreak.

Three years and five months were all the days that Caemon lived, and in that time, he taught me to be a mom, showed me love like I had never known, fostered in me courage and strength. For three years and five months, he brought me joy bottled up in a blonde-haired cherub and the sort of laughter and wonder and light that no earthly body could possibly contain. 

Three years and five months was not nearly enough, not for me, but for Caemon, that painfully short lifetime was all he needed–to change me, to change his world.

the boy behind the glass

 

 

IMG_0017Recently, I was looking at photos on Caemon’s iPad, a gift our family gave him for his bone marrow transplant. When he received it, my budding photographer quickly found the camera function and began snapping pictures. He
photographed his feet, his hospital room, his bed, the ceiling, and now and then, he captured his gorgeous face. These images of his face, though, are usually somehow obscured. Some are blurry. Some capture only a small glimpse of him–a sleepy eye, a sly smile. And then there are these odd photos resulting from him tinkering with his camera settings, thermal images of sorts, which capture him in the midst of expressions so uniquely Caemon, moments when his lips were pursed in concentration or his grin seemed to broaden because he was in my arms. These are the pictures I want to see most. But instead of appearing true to life, they feature wild, Technicolor versions of Caemon. It’s him, but not quite. I can’t quite see my boy. IMG_0019

Three years and one month have passed since I last saw my son. Soon–in four months– Caemon will have been gone longer than he was alive, and as this reality looms, I find myself straining more and more to remember his voice, to feel his little arms around my neck, or to quickly pull his face into view

Naturally, I rely heavily on photographs and videos. Any time I find an image of him that I either haven’t seen or have scarcely seen, my breath catches. For a moment, I see a new expression on his face, an angle that may not have been captured before. I study the image, commit it to memory. It becomes one more piece of him that I can carry, one more inch of my son for me to know.IMG_0015

But I can’t quite do that with the iPad images. I have tried my hardest to edit them into normal colors or black and white or some form that is more recognizable, but to no avail. These are Andy Warhol’s version of Caemon, not the boy I birthed and held and kissed. They won’t quite let me access the nuances of those moments the photos were supposed to capture. This has plagued me for three years and one month, and any time I see those images, I strain to see him. 

I can’t help but notice that this is how so much of my memory of Caemon feels now. I can see his face, but I can never fully bring it into focus, as though I am perpetually looking at his image through foggy glass. Lately, I find that the photographs are all I can remember, and this is unsettling too. I can remember the days that were chronicled with pictures; the others are hazy, and while I am glad to remember them, I am also troubled by how much less real Caemon feels. So I challenge myself, and I challenge Jodi, and she challenges me to remember him without pictures. We recall moments. “Tell me about what you two would do when I left for work,” she will ask me, and I will piece together bits of memories of baking muffins or walking to the park until soon I am remembering a life with my son more fluently.

We do this more regularly now. “Do you remember what he looked like when he sat at the counter drinking his tea?” one of us will ask. “What about when he would make a stack of books and sit in your lap to read?” “Remind me of how he looked when we turned that cardboard box into an oven.” It’s a game we play, Jodi and I, the game of remembering our son as he was, the way only she and I knew him. Those are the memories subject to decay as our minds age, as time wields its relentless eraser. We tell these stories and invoke these images, remind one another of the tiniest details the best we can. We do it over and over in hopes that we will etch them permanently into our consciousness. But for all that work, there are still things we have both forgotten. I will try to remember a certain phrase he used, and it will be gone. I try to remember the lower register of his voice before leukemia, and it’s just beyond my reach.

He is always just beyond my reach.

I so desperately want to see him, to hear him, and oh, to smell him, but he is fading with time as he must. It would be too hard for us to keep living were we to remember him with the same detail as we did the day he died. Time must soften the edges of our boy in order to ease the pain, but isn’t this the rub? I don’t want the haziness of a soft-focused son; I want the sharp clarity of a boy still here.

Recently, Little Sister has started to notice photographs of children in our home. Naturally, among these are photos of her brother. She smiles at the images when she sees them. Just last week, she was expressing even more interest in the photos of her brother, so I carried her around looking and then stopped in our hall where our family pictures line the walls. “This is your brother Caemon,” I told her. She grinned widely, eagerly. She seemed so happy to see him, and I wept to think she wouldn’t know him, but I delighted in her joy all the same.

The next day, I wanted to show Jodi her reaction to her brother’s photos, so I took her to IMG_1099the hallway. I told Little Sister, “Let’s go look at your brother,” and her head quickly turned toward his image. Once again, she grinned broadly, cooing, giggling even. She reached her tiny baby hands toward the glass, wanting to touch him, and Jodi and I both welled with such a flurry of emotion: relief that she seems to love him even without knowing him on this plane, sadness that she doesn’t know him here and now. More than that, we keenly understood what it is to want so fiercely to touch that handsome face only for the glass, time, and the cruel, cruel reality that is Caemon’s mortality to keep him forever out of reach.

Still, there is something in her desire to reach out, something from which I can learn. Her joy doesn’t end when she cannot feel him. She continues to smile and coo and even squeal just because she can see him. Of course she continues to try, and the glass is amassing a wonderful collection of baby finger smudges as a result of this new ritual she enjoys, but she seems to revel in just being able to see him at all.  I’m trying to allow myself a similar joy, trying not to feel only a greater sense of yearning when my hand is stopped by the two-dimensional representations of a boy no longer here.

I am fortunate to even have these images of my son–vibrant, shining, alive. So long as the photos are here, I can remember that I did indeed have a son, that my daughter had a bigger brother. Time will undoubtedly continue to steal strands of his memory. He will grow more and more difficult to reach. But nothing can rob me of the way he burst my heart wide open. Nothing can erase the imprint that boy has made on me.J17J6