Category Archives: life after Caemon

soaking

Every parent of a new baby has heard countless times from well-meaning strangers, “Soak it all in. It goes so fast!” Jodi and I are no exception. So often when I am out with Little Sister, strangers will admire her and will encourage me to soak in every last second of her babyhood. They are quick to remind me how quickly this time passes.

Of course, I know how quickly it passes, perhaps all too well. I know how in the blink of an eye, days and months and years slip by, and I know what it means to have the most finite stretch of hours to spend with one’s child.

I spare the well-meaning admirers my story and instead nod, with a sad, knowing smile, and reply, “Yes, I know.”

I know just how to soak it in. I know just how quickly time passes.

Lately, I have found myself holding onto Little Sister while she sleeps because she isn’t enjoying sleeping anywhere else. I’m warned by others to put her down, that she’ll never learn to sleep on her own, and I just can’t seem to do it. What if her life passes just as quickly? What if hers is a bright, brief flame like her brother’s? I know it is not healthy to live like this. I know that I have to, as Jodi puts it, parent for the long term, and for the most part, I do. It’s what we did with Caemon, even during his sickest times. But the soaking it in becomes addictive. The knowing how quickly time can pass becomes obsessive. I am trying to commit every breath to memory all while trying to cling to the moments I had with my son. It’s a fools errand in some ways, but it is also what I must do.

The funny thing is, while I do have this need to bask in these moments with my baby, it does all feel less urgent this time around. When Caemon was a baby, I was terrified of the passage of time. I dreaded his first birthday. It was all speeding by in a flash, and his whole life, I felt I was running out of time with him. My heart somehow knew I was. But for Little Sister, I don’t have that same feeling of dread. I am shocked that she is nearly five months old, but I’m not fearful. Like most parents of infants, I live almost exclusively in the now, but when I think ahead, I’m excited. I can’t wait to hear her talk. I look forward to knowing what she is thinking about. I’m eager to know her quirks and what will make her laugh uncontrollably, what will pique her curiosity. Perhaps this is a gift her brother left me. I know that there is so much good to look forward to, that there are so many moments to take in. Maybe part of me does trust that she will be here.

I suppose that has been what has kept me from writing. I have been taking in all of these delicious baby moments while I can, and I’m remembering Caemon as I do. My grief isn’t always front and center. It can’t be when I’ve got diapers to change and crying to soothe. But it’s there. It’s there, and the stories to share and the thoughts to write about flit by most days, unrecorded. Most days I’m not able to sit down and quiet my mind long enough to process my grief as I once did. For some, I imagine this looks like I have moved on, and certainly the part of me that is actively mothering again has had to in many ways. But the grieving mother is still here. I’m still shattered. I still have a gaping Caemon-shaped hole in my center.

But that Caemon-shaped hole has taught me how to love his sister so fully, to understand the true art of relishing the twinkling smile of my baby when she awakes in the morning, the sweet smell of her breath as she places wide-open-mouthed kisses on my cheek, the feeling–oh, the feeling–of my child’s sweet head resting on my chest. I don’t regret one moment I spend taking my time to know every inch and every breath of my daughter, just as I will never regret the moments I spent basking in my son’s warm laughter or his tender hugs.

Yes, I will take it all in. Yes, I know too well. It all goes far too fast.

 

 

 

 

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my golden-haired muse

Tomorrow, I am going to a conference for bloggers, a conference held by BlogHer*, a large blogging organization who chose to nominate me as one of its Voices of the Year for my post “I Had a Boy.” This is an unexpected and huge honor, something that has humbled me to my bones. But it has triggered unbelievably complex emotions too.

As writers, we all want our voices to be heard. As the mother of a child gone too soon, I have wanted so badly for his story to be read over and over by as many people as possible because if they do, he won’t be forgotten. But I can’t help but be saddened that for me to find my voice, my boy had to get sick. For me to gain this recognition, my boy had to die.

My wife is the first to remind me that I have been writing about Caemon since we started dreaming of having a child. I wrote about the long road to getting pregnant. I chronicled every joyful moment of my pregnancy with him. I wrote a three-installment, eight-page story of his birth. And once he was here, I wrote and wrote and wrote about the wonders and trials and triumphs of mothering a vibrant little crocodile.

And when he got sick, when our lives suddenly turned from trying to feed a picky two-year-old to consoling him through needle pokes and dressing changes, I took to writing through my fear, escaping the hospital through my words. When he died, this was sometimes the only place I felt I could turn to handle my grief, a way I could feel close to him and continue loving him because I have always, always written about my beloved son.

I think I have been surprised that through the terror of his illness and the agony of his death, I have done some of the best writing of my life–but I shouldn’t be. What I share on the page comes from the deepest of places. It is honest. It is raw. It is real. In fact, it is more honest and raw and real than anything I have written until now.

It is sacred.

I would never have chosen this path. I would give up every kind comment, every new reader, every mention on another webpage to have my son in my arms again, but that is not the road I am to take. I do, however, get to be a writer, and I get to share the most beautiful story, memories of a magical child gone too soon.

Tomorrow, I will go to this conference with my golden-haired muse tucked in my heart, and when I do, I will honor this precious gift he left me: a voice borne of hope and fear and love and heartbreak, the voice of a mother’s heart.

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*If you are attending BlogHer, I will be part of a discussion at the WordPress booth on Saturday at 3:30. I would love to see you there.

surrender

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

                  –from Mary Oliver’s “Heavy”

Jodi and I recently took our first road trip and camping trip since Caemon died. This was no small thing. You see, Caemon loved both. He loved going places with us. He loved riding in the car, listening to music, watching the world pass by. He loved anticipating where we would be when we stopped, and because he often did not know where we would be, he loved the exploration of our destination, whether a hotel room, his grandmother’s house, or a campsite in the redwoods. During Caemon’s last summer, we took him camping for the first time, apprehensive at first because we really didn’t know how he would take to it. Like so many new experiences, he embraced it–everything from hanging out in the tent to cooking over the little camp stove to building a fire so that he could have marshmallows for the first time to learning about rock skipping and cold river water. During those first (and last) couple of camping trips, we learned that as still relatively new parents, we needn’t fear losing this favorite part of ourselves, that our boy would be happy to come along, and we imagined the memories we would build with him, fostering his love for the outdoors, feeding our very souls as a family.

It should not have been overly surprising, then, when, while planning this trip, the mere thought of camping again threw me into a panic. While Jodi and I have spent many a night lulled to sleep by owls and streams and wind in the treetops, long before Caemon joined us, that dream of camping with our little family had solidified. It was what we were to have done from then on out. Camping as a family felt right. To go back to camping by ourselves was altogether wrong. But this was not surprising: everything we do for the first time without Caemon is just hard.

The crux of all that anxiety, though, the hardest part to grasp was something else, something that surprised me so much more: What was I going to do with all of that quiet?

I will readily admit that one of the ways I have made it through the past eighteen months without my son is by staying incredibly busy. In the first few months, I sat right in the middle of my grief, but as time passed, I needed productive escapes from it, so I worked, I visited with friends, I started teaching again, I went to meetings for work, I held fundraisers and spoke, I watched a lot of television, listened to a lot of radio programs. I filled my mind with something to process most of the time because to stop meant to sit in the muck of the grief again, to miss my boy so completely that every part of me would ache with his absence. At home, I am able to control how much I do this. I have grown keenly aware of the need to sit with the grief now and then, to give it some space, and I do. However, I can then go to the farmer’s market or watch a home improvement program on television or turn on my laptop and busy myself with work and gain the necessary respite from the pain.

Each time my wife and I would talk about this trip, my stomach would flip-flop at the thought of time with no distractions but the birds and the campfire and the wind in the tops of the trees. When she would ask if I was getting excited, my breath would catch, and while I might nod and smile, inside, I was absolutely not looking forward to this trip. I was terrified.

But I went. We gathered our gear, made some loose plans for where we might end up, and before we knew it, we were in our first campsite at Burney Falls near Mt. Shasta. And there I was, unfolding our tent, weeping uncontrollably because the last time I folded that tent, our son had helped me. The last time that tent had stood, he had been in it. And he wasn’t. And he wouldn’t be ever again. It was torture. I spent the whole first night in a terrible funk. I hated the quiet and the dark and the fact that I had no cell phone service. Even the distant sound of the falls upset me. I didn’t want to be here if I couldn’t have my boy. I went to bed as early as I could, read myself to sleep, ticked off the first of the ten or more days we planned to be gone. I hated that I wanted them to speed past, but I could think of nothing more than returning home to my distractions. Even work would be better than sitting so helplessly with all of this grief.

The next day, I felt a little better. It was nice waking up in the crisp morning air, and the anticipation of a hike to a waterfall was at least something to focus on. I was allowing myself to settle in to my camp chores, making coffee, building a fire, staring at the tops of the trees. Later that morning, we began our hike. Within minutes of walking, as I stared down steep cliffs to the rushing creek below, something began to shift in me, and as we neared the falls, as their roar became louder, and I could feel their thundering in my chest, I began to lighten. Descending to the base of the falls, I began to cry and then smile. I told my wife as we made it to the base that I was happy.

Happy? Had that word really just come from my mouth? I had to sit with it, and I did. I sat at the base of this glorious waterfall, grappling with the idea of happy and finally just decided to feel it because this, a little voice was telling me, was why I was still alive. There was beauty to see, awe to be felt, and so I sat with that too, all the while wondering what Caemon would have thought of the spray on his face, the anglers casting their lines, the funky bridge with the same name as his school. I missed him so, but I felt good too, an ever-present dichotomy with which I had recently lost touch.

As our trip continued, Jodi and I drove up the middle of Oregon. We were following a volcanic trail, some of the land decimated thousands of years ago by eruptions only to be replaced by gut-wrenching beauty. That we were drawn to this was no mistake. We both long to find the sacred and the stunning somewhere in our own lava flows and pumice deserts. This landscape brought me more peace. The thin mountain air overlooking Crater Lake, the majestic peaks of the Three Sisters, the soaring, jagged cliffs of the Cove Palisades–all of it healed me bit by bit.

Our favorite nights were spent in the Columbia River Gorge, where we found ourselves among old growth Douglass Firs and ferns and spectacular views of this landscape carved by ice and fire and water. One morning, we took a hike to a rock overlooking the river, and I snapped photos along the way, a few of which were of Jodi. It was a glorious hike. We were up high overlooking the river and the gorge itself, and I know both of us felt a sense of peace. Later, as I looked through my photos, I found a photo of my wife with a smile that I haven’t seen since that last summer we had with our son: a pure, joyful smile. She stared and stared at the photo, incredulous that this happy woman could be her, now. I marveled too, wondering whether she had seen such an expression cross my own face. She had, she said. On that hike to the falls. It had been there. I was relieved to hear this, that I was still capable of feeling something good, relieved and also sad that feelings like this have been so fleeting, so few.

We hated to leave the Gorge with its own waterfalls and cliffs and glorious beauty born of destruction, but we did, and while the rest of our trip was perfectly pleasant, it lacked the majesty of the first week. Still, we were accompanied by a greater peace, and we carried that with us on the last legs of our journey, easily slipping into afternoons of fire-tending, whittling, tree-gazing, and more. On our way home, we stopped for a night in Eugene, Oregon, stayed in a hotel, cleaned ourselves up, and went for a stroll downtown the next morning to seek out coffee and books. We ducked into a shop filled with hand-crafted furniture made of slabs of wood, stumps, river stones, drift wood. We spoke with the artisan, an older man who sang along with a steady voice to the loud folk music as he dusted his furniture, and then looked around at his work, the tables, the tiny stools Caemon would have loved, and then the art on the walls. In the middle of a set of stairs, I stopped to admire one piece: the frame made of driftwood, four dried maple leaves stuck to a black canvas, and beneath them, written in a whimsical print,

“Your SOUL needs the WILD.” 

Tears were pouring down my face as I began to see this phrase everywhere, on tables, in frames, on bits of driftwood. I picked up one of these pieces of wood, carrying it with me through the store, my face still wet with salty acceptance, and as I looked at the artist, ready to pay him for the little piece of driftwood, he returned my gaze, eyes warm, and told me it was a gift.

Indeed it was.

By the end of our trip, I wasn’t ready to leave the wild. I had grown used to the unparalleled stillness of thin mountain air, to the rush of fierce waters, to the whistles of favorite birds, the crackling of fire. And, yes, I had even found peace with the jags of tears that came when seeing reminders of my boy and the hollowness that came from missing him. On each phase of the trip, there were countless reminders of Caemon, hundreds of times when my wife and I wondered, often aloud, What would Caemon have thought of this? Our answer was always the same: He would have loved it. And this seemed to give us permission to keep moving, to keep enjoying beauty and adventure, even if only for ourselves–because, ultimately, what else do we have? By the time we were seeing our last snow-capped mountains, our last lava flows and pumice deserts, I was already longing to be in the wild again, sad to say goodbye to the stillness I had so feared, for while my back was certainly finished with sleeping on the ground, my soul was ready for more beauty born of devastation, more quiet, more reminders that even in this life without Caemon, joy can grow.

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the magic of 8

From a pretty young age, Caemon enjoyed counting. At first, like any child, he wasn’t entirely sure of the order of numbers, but we could get him to count to three or four, and by the time he was two and half, he was at least counting to ten on his own with relative ease, and if he was feeling cooperative, even higher. But then Caemon’s sense of humor kicked in, and his counting became less predictable. He would be counting along with something in a book, “1…2…3…4…” and somewhere in the sequence, a little glint would appear in his eye, and regardless of where he was in the counting, he would insert, “Eight!” and then dissolve into uncontrollable giggles. There were times when he would count all the way to ten only to jump back to eight.

The number eight quickly became his favorite. When asked his age, Caemon would occasionally reply that he was eight. When asked how many of something he wanted, his sly smile would creep across his face, and he would respond “Eight!” Eight was his go-to number. It was his running joke, particularly with me. He and I would count teaspoons of vanilla or cups of flour, or we would count for the sake of counting, and he would never count seriously (unless he thought I wasn’t paying attention). He always jumped to eight. It made me laugh every time. It made him giggle his infectious, beautiful giggle. It’s no surprise that I came to love the number eight too. Sometimes, when counting with others who didn’t know the joke, he would pull his usual trick, familiar glint in his eyes, and he would always look over at me to make sure I heard the joke, even if the person present wasn’t aware that he really did know how to count.

I will admit that when I count things now, I sometimes shout “Eight!” in my mind to conjure up that silly boy who loved so much to laugh, to make his moms laugh.

After Caemon died, Jodi and I received a number of books and pamphlets on grief, many of which suggested that in the early stages of the grieving process, the bereaved often look for signs of their deceased loved ones; I was no exception. Throughout many of those early days, I would find myself looking for signs of my son, messages he might have left. Unfortunately, I’m also an insufferable skeptic, so the search was often a little frustrating. The morning after Caemon died, I awoke to find a bright green syringe cap in my bed, one of Caemon’s favorite types of caps (he collected various caps in the hospital and knew what each cap belonged to). I tried to explain it away, but ultimately couldn’t. I didn’t know how it got there, so I let myself have that one. My boy must have left it. In the months following, I would find piles of dimes around the house. I don’t know why they were always dimes, but they were. Jodi thought he was leaving these for me, so I agreed to believe, all the while wondering why there were so many dimes and how a spirit would go about moving such things and whether I was just getting sloppy about putting away my change. But in my heart, I wanted them to be from him, so they were, and I left them in their places (after all, I wouldn’t want him to think I didn’t appreciate the occasional thirty or forty cents). There have been a multitude of other signs, some of which my doubtful mind has explained away, some of which I’m still trying to figure out.

It should come as no surprise then that my latest wave of “signs” has been a series of eights. On the anniversary of Caemon’s death—or perhaps the next day, I walked up to our front door to find a purple foam 8 on our welcome mat. It was the sort of foam sticker that Caemon loved IMG_9848crafting with at the hospital playroom, and while chances are it came in on the shoe of a friend whose kids had been working on similar crafts, I couldn’t help but hope Caemon had left it for me just hours after I had wished I could feel him close, had actually wished that he would give me some indication that he was around somewhere. I brought it in and put in on his altar, and it inadvertently became the first of a growing collection.

Most of the eights I encounter aren’t concrete. I will pull out a handful of pretzels, and there will be eight (Not a message from beyond, I will tell myself). I’ll watch Jeopardy, and the answer to a question will be eight. An important event will fall on the eighth of the month. These eights are not signs, not communications, but I notice them, and more often than not, they trigger a replay of my son counting, eyes glinting, and his sweet voice exclaiming his favorite number.

But there are some other tangible eights. My latest findings were on the beach on the Mendocino Coast. Jodi and I were vacationing there, doing some beachcombing and thinking a lot about our son. Caemon loved the beach. He loved “playing buckets,” watching the waves, getting his toes wet, digging them in the sand. And he also loved his special jar full of treasures we had found together at various beaches throughout his short life—shells, rocks, sand, tiny sand dollars, even leaves. He would empty the jar on his bedroom floor and handle each item one at a time and then place them gently back in his jar.

On this particular day, as Jodi and I were remembering these magical times we spent as a IMG_9849family, and I was letting the tears fall freely, I looked down at a small pile of stones and shells to find none other than a small white 8 formed from the calcified case of a tube worm. I picked it up, felt a warm feeling washIMG_9850 over me, and placed it in my pocket, but not before I showed it to my wife, who smiled and noted that Caemon was leaving me a lot of eights lately. Another wave came in, and we ran away and then back to find what the ocean had churned up this time. I looked down, and there again was an 8. I gently pocketed the second eight, my tears and the spray of the surf leaving my face a salty mess.

Honestly, I don’t know that my son’s spirit has any control over shells I find on a beach or foam numbers that appear on my doormat—certainly not over answers on Jeopardy. But I know that the number eight has somehow turned sacred to me. It’s the number of my boy’s laughter, the code to his mischievous grin, and turned on its side, it is the symbol of the connection he and I will always share. Some people think their loved ones are around when they see feathers, others butterflies or rainbows. And we do this too—we think of Caemon when we see crocodiles and bees and the color orange. But my son and I, we have a running joke, even in the afterlife, and that has everything to do with the magical number eight.

You can witness Caemon’s counting joke in the video below (around 1:40–note the little look he gives after). Here, he is “reading” There’s a Wocket in My Pocket by Dr. Seuss to our beloved social worker Peggy. This reveals another of my favorite habits of Caemon’s: his memorization of all of his favorite books and his insistence on reading them to his loved ones. This video was taken a few weeks following his transplant when he was finally starting to feel more like himself again–and just a short time before his relapse.

for the want of a child

From Jodi:

People have been hesitant to ask, but they are curious: Do you think you’ll have another child? This may be the one area of my life where there is zero ambiguity. Yes. I can’t even imagine a meaningful life for myself absent children. Actually, I’m currently living that life, and it’s increasingly untenable. A well-meaning gentleman once advised me to use this time in my life to do something I’ve always wanted to do. It was a very masculine “seize the moment” sort of grief management. “I’ve always wanted to be a Mama.” I responded. It was my truth, spoken wistfully, honestly.

I have written many times that having a son made me outrageously happy, fulfilled, and hopeful, but he did not come to us quickly or easily; it took a lot of intention on our part to bring him here.  The void left by Caemon’s death is enormous, and I yearn for him constantly. I know and accept that he cannot be replaced, but my desire for a new baby is overwhelming. I want to be a mother again, to change diapers and tickle toes, sing songs and read Dr. Seuss books. I don’t need to run a marathon or hike scary mountains to prove that I am strong or that I fiercely love my fallen son. In fact, I don’t need to prove anything.

What I need is a healthy baby. I need a baby who will grow up, who will go to school, get crushes, learn to drive, graduate from high school, fall in love, have children, and not die until long after I am gone.

People have said, “But you have your teaching, and your students really value you,” or have questioned, “You don’t really think another baby will make everything better, do you?” I get it. I’m supposed to find meaning in other areas of my life and not place all my hopes and dreams on having a child. I’m supposed to “nurture myself” and reflect/meditate/grieve, etc. Here’s where I stand on that line of thought: Bullshit, okay. My students aren’t my children, not even close. Professional satisfaction does not translate to a wonderful personal life. And no, I don’t think having another child will make everything better, no more than I thought having a baby five years ago would make everything better, but I knew then, as I know now, that it does make many things better. Primarily, it makes me better.

Not everyone is destined to be a parent, and I hate that we still live in a culture where a woman’s worthiness is often linked directly to her status as a mother or not-a-mother. I know many people who have chosen not to have children of their own but remain devoted to the little ones in their lives. To be clear, I am not one of those people who are content being an auntie, honorary or otherwise. I have always wanted to be a Mama, a desire that solidified when Timaree and I moved in together and began discussing our dreams of family. I was anxious to get started right away, even though we were young, broke, and completely unprepared. Timaree wisely set a timeline of three years. That would give us time to graduate, establish our careers, and start a family. Three years turned to six, then nine, and despite years of dutifully treading water in the adjunct faculty pool, we were nowhere near financial stability let alone “established careers.”

 I remember that frustration of endless waiting, the growing intolerable ache, staring at little ones in stores and flirting with them in parks like some lonely weirdo. Then, in 2009 when I was 37 years old, eleven years after Timaree and I started planning a family, Caemon was born. That’s a long time to yearn so strongly, but so worth it once he was in our arms. I look at pictures of myself from that time and see, maybe for the first time, a whole woman, a happy woman. Caemon was the missing piece for me. Motherhood had changed me.  My teaching took on new meaning; I made new friends with other moms; Timaree and I worked on balancing parenting and our marriage in therapy because we wanted to be our best selves for our family.

The week before Caemon was diagnosed with leukemia, I turned 40. I never felt better. I was healthier, happier, and more professionally settled than ever. I was going to start taking Tai Chi classes and had fun plans to join a drum circle. Caemon had just started preschool, and Timaree was well on her way to becoming a certified doula. The Marston-Simmons family was thriving (If there is any regret or bitter pill, this may be it). We were doing great as a family and as individuals. We had arrived at a special time when we were ready to take on new challenges, begin new careers, and be creative and spontaneous. We could never have arrived there without Caemon, but six short months later that path we envisioned for our family would be completely obliterated, and with it, our hearts and souls, or so it seemed.

I know there’s a cliché that a wounded heart still beats, but I’ve found it can do a hell of a lot more. A shattered heart still yearns; it remembers; it feels joy and sorrow, perhaps not in equal amounts, and the joy, well, it’s muted, barely audible sometimes, but it’s there. It turns out, a broken heart still hopes. It hopes not to be broken anymore, and it hopes for what will heal it. When I hold my niece or any of the babies in my life, I feel a glimmer of it. When I allow myself to envision a future at all worth living, those visions always include a child. The want of a child cannot be replaced by personal or professional achievements, creative endeavors, or spiritual pursuits. The want of a child can only be fulfilled with a child. Everything else is just a distraction.

Mama and Caemon

i had a boy

Today, as I engaged in the otherwise mundane chore of putting away clean dishes, I discovered in a drawer containing lids and other plastic items one of those landmines I have talked about: sitting in the back of the drawer was a sippy-topped water bottle. It was something Jodi had gotten for Caemon in his last days because his throat was hurting, and the only thing that soothed it was his orange tea. We got him the bottle so that he could keep the tea in his bed. He woke up a lot in the night in discomfort, so he would take little sips all night, declaring after so many of them, “Mmm. That’s good. That feels good on my throat.” He was so grateful for this, a comfort from his previous life, the life before leukemia.

I have obviously come across this bottle before, but today, I was organizing the drawer, and I spotted it, and as I was organizing, I absentmindedly picked up pieces of a popsicle mold, and as I held these in my hands, it hit me so hard: I had a boy. I had a boy, and he died.

Lately, I seem to be repeating these sentences at least a few times a week: I had a boy. I had a boy and he died. I say it with incredulity. I say it with obvious pain, but the reason I say it is because I have to remind myself.

The cruel thing about losing my child just three and a half years into parenting him is that it can at times feel like he was a figment of my imagination, like his existence was the best and worst dream I ever had. There are wisps of that life around me, reminding me. For instance, there are these cloth diaper wipes that we made before he was born, little blue and white pieces of flannel, and they still show up in our laundry from time to time, even though neither of us remembers using them in our lives now. A little spoon of his, with an orange handle, remains in our flatware drawer, and I occasionally use it for eating yogurt or stirring coffee. Of course there are whole piles of his things, photos of him everywhere, but there are plenty of days when it is hard to fully grasp that I actually had a child, that we lived the lives of mothers of a small boy every day, that he was the center of our world, that we folded his laundry and changed his diapers and read him books and tripped over his toys and walked to the park. We had a boy.

There are times when I go about my day hardly thinking of that former life. I might be busy with work, cleaning the house, crocheting, watching television, and just going about life. I might even be feeling okay, even slightly normal, but then something reminds me. I empty the dishwasher and that orange-handled spoon is there, or I pull out the iron and see the bandaid he stuck to it over a year ago, and I remember: I had a boy.

I started teaching again recently, for the first time since I was pregnant with Caemon. I write assignments, annotate readings, interact with students and colleagues. My mind is filled with ideas about how I want to approach my class, getting places on time, fitting my old schedule into my new one. There are days when I barely have time to think of my son, even with his picture everywhere.  I didn’t mention until the end of the second week that I had been a mom. It was easy in some ways to slip on this old glove, to be a childless teacher of writing again because the last time I taught, I wasn’t a mom yet. I don’t know what it’s like to leave for work without my child because I always worked from home, so there are days when it just seems like I must have imagined it all.

On one day when I was busy not remembering that life of mine, Jodi showed me a picture of a mother gorilla hugging her three-year-old. I saw on that gorilla’s face a feeling I had had a thousand times as Caemon’s mom. I saw her child snuggled safely in her arms just as I had held Caemon, and I knew just how that felt. I can close my eyes now and feel that sensation of being someone’s home base, of loving what was in my arms more than life itself. This photo of these animals reminded me of sitting on a rock in Yosemite in the same pose, his head tucked under my chin, my heart so full it might burst.

I suppose this is a part of grief that isn’t mentioned so much–the pain of forgetting. How could I not remember life with my son? How could I not remember what it’s like to be a mom? How could I not know that all of it really did happen, that Caemon was real, in fact the most real and exquisite thing I have ever known? But then, how can we even imagine our child having cancer, our child being that beautiful bald boy in the photos for cancer charities, our child for whom there is a funeral and a memorial bench and a death certificate? It’s all unfathomable.

I’m just so afraid to forget him. There are so many days I walk through my life now and can’t believe that instead of spending a day dealing with naps and baths and bedtimes and food thrown on the floor, I’m thinking about what on earth I’m going to do to fill the next few hours, what I can crochet or draw or paint or sew or otherwise distract from the emptiness that was created when my son died.  I had a boy, and that boy made this life so sweet and crazy and unpredictable and messy and loud and sleep-deprived and funny and adventurous and beautiful and precious and full and everything a life should be with a child, everything I ever wanted.

 

I had a boy.

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c is for crocodile: a poem

Sometimes people wonder where the title of this blog–and now our organization–came from. It all started way back in our first days of Caemon’s diagnosis, as I struggled with this shift in our reality from learning the alphabet to learning the names of drugs. Recently I stumbled upon a few lines of a poem I had scribbled down in a book while we were in the hospital. Today, I finally wrote it:

C is for Crocodile

When we first heard the “C” word
That long August day,
I thought, No, no, no!
You see,
C is for crocodile
It’s for cuddles on the sofa.
It’s for cooling off at the lake.
It’s for climbing on my back,
And cackling and giggling and squealing with glee.

We quickly learned
That C was for Cytarabine,
Chemotherapy,
Flow cytometry,
Blood counts, and
Intensive care units.

Yet you showed us
C is for crocodiles
It’s for cars in the hallway.
It’s for calling your grandma,
Kissing your cousin,
And for comfort in your mothers’ arms.

But C was for cancer,
And crying at midnight,
For careening through time and space
With no brakes.
C was for crocodiles
And cuddles with Caemon;
C was for cooking and crafting and counting.

We thought C was for childhood,
Campouts and sand castles,
Coaches and crabfeeds,
Calling your girlfriends,
Going to college,
Cuddling your babies.

But C was for cancer,
And chemo,
And chimerism,
And clinging to cures.

Still, you showed us
C was for courage,
For coming to terms,
For cradling IV pumps,
And Caemon the Nurse.
Yes, C was for Crocodile and coban too,
For cockstops and central lines,
Culture swabs, and supply closets.
And when it got too hard,
C was for Croc, our warrior child,
The boy who would certainly conquer this cancer.

But soon,
C was for chimerisms, counts too low,
Immature cells,
Conference rooms with oncologists.

C became climbing into your bed,
Lying in the crook of your arm,
Clinging to your life.

C was for crash carts,
For calling the code,
For commotion and chaos,
Confusion and dread,
For calling out, “Caemon!”
For cuddling you one last time,
For crumpling to the floor.

C was for crocodile.

-Timaree F. Marston