once and future mothers

A month or so ago, a very generous new friend of ours bought us tickets to a music festival nearby where we would be able to see some of our favorite artists. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I even realized it was going to be on Mother’s Day. Soon after Caemon died, I found myself thinking about all the holidays we would be celebrating without him, all those days I once enjoyed I was suddenly dreading. Somehow, I forgot about Mother’s Day. On the long road it took for Jodi and I to become mothers we dreaded Mother’s day. For a couple of years, this holiday was a painful one, for we so longed to join this exclusive club of moms with little ones in tow. In subsequent years, having my baby boy in my arms or a toddler on my hip proved good salve for that old self as I easily immersed myself in being Caemon’s mom. Now with Mother’s Day just a couple of days away, I find myself once again without a child, longing to be a mom, longing especially for my boy.

Last year for Mother’s Day, Jodi took Caemon to the drug store to find me a card and a gift. Caemon apparently strayed from the selection of Mother’s Day cards fairly quickly. Instead, he found a card with a drawing of a smiling woman on the front. It was a thank you card. It was perfect, the best card I have ever received. A few days earlier, he and I had sat at our kitchen table and used one of his favorite machines, our label maker, and we made Jodi a special card, complete with a picture of him on the front. We used glue sticks, cut out bits of paper, pulled out some fun stickers. While Jodi and I so delighted in receiving cards that involved his very own decision-making, even better was teaching Caemon the art of giving, seeing his smile filled with pride that he had done something for us. We didn’t need to teach him to appreciate his moms. That was something he did all on his own. The joy and pride we both felt in being Caemon’s moms and in imagining our future together as a family erased any sadness we may have once felt about Mother’s Day. But without him, that old familiar not-a-mom status has returned with a vengeance, and it’s no secret that I hate it.

People often assure Jodi and I that we are still mothers even without a child. I absolutely feel like a mother; there is no losing that. However, the work of mothering is no longer part of our lives. Children of friends and family look at me suspiciously when I reach out to touch their sweet little toes or their soft hair. They reach eagerly for their parents if I try to embrace them, quickly wriggle free if I try to pick them up. And they should. I’m not their parent, not their mom, and as far as many of them can see, I’m not a mom at all. If they do reach out for me, if they do offer hugs, it’s not the hug a child gives a mom; it’s the more trepidatious hug reserved for aunts and parents’ friends because, quite simply, I’m not their mom. I’m Aunt Timi, their mom’s friend, a stranger smiling at them in a store, the weird woman in the elevator who compliments a toy or a book they might be holding, the sad woman who always seems to be crying.

People say we’re still moms, but we don’t act like moms. We do the sorts of things couples without children do.  Jodi and I freely visit restaurants at any time without the slightest concern for how our child will behave. We catch movies or read books, even sleep in late. We drink whenever we want, as much as we want. We  place sharp objects within reach, leave candles burning on low surfaces. We get ready to go places in a short time, and we arrive clean, not disheveled, and without a babysitter to call. I know how this sounds. These are all the things we used to pine for as parents, the stuff of dreams when one is mired in the work of parenting small children. This sort of freedom is foreign to parents, but to have such independence to do what we want whenever we want with no reprieve–to never be called back to duty–is awful.

Last weekend, we were dining with extended family, and my niece wanted a smoothie. On the menu were mango, banana, strawberry, and other fruits, but when she heard the word “banana,” she thought she heard “vanilla” and thus immediately had her mind set on a vanilla smoothie. When her parents told her they had banana rather than vanilla, she was quite disappointed, so I motioned to the server who was taking our drink orders and whispered to her, “In a moment, I’m going to order a vanilla smoothie. You’re going to write down banana smoothie, but we’re going to call it vanilla.” She smiled, and I informed her in a voice loud enough for my niece to hear that the young lady would be having a vanilla smoothie. My niece beamed, couldn’t believe that I had somehow ordered her something special, and the other adults at the table breathed a sigh of relief that the impending meltdown had been averted. That moment felt good. It felt good until I realized that it’s because I was once a mother who had to trick her son into eating foods he didn’t want to eat from the hospital menu by calling them by more appealing names. I was once a mother.

Being a mom was the best thing I’ve ever done. I loved it all, even the hard parts. Every sleepless night was worth the feeling of Caemon’s little arms around my neck, the feel of his sweet little kisses on my cheek, the warmth of his head resting against my chest, the radiant smile he offered me when I came home from running some errands, the sweet scent of the nape of his neck. I miss every moment, even the tantrums, the unwillingness to eat what I’ve cooked, the screaming in public because even though those behaviors may have been challenging, they were the challenges of living and growing and learning to be in the world. So long as we had those challenges, Caemon was a thriving boy, and Jodi and I were his  moms. Without the challenges and the triumphs of the daily mothering of our boy, I don’t know what we are. We’re not actively mothers right now, but we’re not not mothers. That there is no word for what we are says something about the unspeakable nature of losing one’s child and the particular grief of losing one’s only child. It is unspeakable, unthinkable. There quite literally are no words.

As people who spend a lot of their lives thinking about words and language, we have naturally discussed this horrible limbo with friends. A few hours after one such conversation, my friend texted me with this suggestion: “How about, ‘once and future mothers’?” Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s us.

We do pine for another child to parent, and we will have one–we will be mothers again. I don’t know what that will look like; it’s hard to see much of anything from this in-between world filled with longing and sorrow for my only son, but children have a way of illuminating even the darkest of places. Last week as I held my newest baby niece for the first time, I caught a glimpse of that–that healing capacity with which babies are born. When we went to a bereaved family camp a couple of weeks ago, we met another two-mom family who had lost their first child fifteen years ago. They had two more children after that child died, two beautiful, sweet, kind, healthy children whose daily lives have included their moms’ memories of their older sister–a sister they seem to know. The children hadn’t taken away the pain of losing their first child, but they had brought their parents the joy that accompanies children. Jodi and I could easily see ourselves in these moms’ shoes: future mothers.

Being Caemon’s mom was the best thing I’ve ever done, and now that I can’t mother him, I often feel I’m walking around in ill-fitting clothes, sleeping in the wrong house, driving the wrong car, living the wrong life. I’m living the once-a-mother life waiting for the universe to right itself again. I know I can’t have him back, and I know I’ll never be the same, but sometimes the idea of future motherhood is just enough to keep me going.

J3 J7

Images courtesy of In Her Image Photography.

a mama’s metamorphosis: a guest blog from Jodi

As many of you know, my wife knows her way around the English language pretty well herself, and she finally has had time to contribue a post of her own to this space. Enjoy; she’s amazing.


Caemon and Mama

In the post-transplant, post-Christmas, and in-between-semesters lull, I may actually have carved out a moment to write something of my own about Caemon’s diagnosis and journey to healing. I can’t say enough about Timaree’s contribution in this arena, however. Her writing is beautifully expressive and has helped our family process this experience while also coalescing a community around us. What I can add to this blog or to that effort, I don’t know. I only know that today, I must write.  

Right now, as I type, Caemon is across the street at the hospital where he has been almost exclusively for over four months. He’s being prepared to receive blood and platelet transfusions. This will likely be a daily occurrence for some time until his blood counts recover. His body is suffering the effects of hard core chemotherapy from the pre-transplant conditioning; at the same time, his new marrow is settling in, and we very much hope there is not a battle between the new and old (something they call graft vs. host disease).

Last night was my night to sleep away from the hospital, as it is every other night.  It’s one of the more emotionally difficult aspects of this journey, having to sleep away from my family, and yet it is the only time I sleep uninterrupted, so it is necessary in order to maintain any sort of emotional or physical health.  Even so, I am exhausted, and there are days, too many I fear, where I wonder where I will find any more energy. But I look at him, my precious boy, and I think to myself that no matter how tired or fed up with hospital life I might be, he has got to be so much more so. This knowledge gets me through a lot of days; other days, I rely on the compassion and strength of any number of people: generous colleagues, friends near and far, hospital staff, and of course my wife. I don’t think I have ever relied on this many people for this long for anything, ever. As much as Caemon is now being transformed from a bedridden child with cancer into a healthy, normal boy, I too am transformed.

Just a few weeks after Caemon’s initial diagnosis, I met a woman—a mom—in the pantry while fetching a pitcher of water. She had clearly been here a while and was wearing what has become a very familiar expression of parents here on the pediatric oncology unit. We parents see it on each other’s faces and recognize it, a heaviness born of fear and exhaustion, a haunted, helpless, sleep-walking –through-a-tunnel, focused-only-on-what-has-to-be-done-right-now look.  These aren’t really adequate descriptors either because look a little deeper, and you see resolve.  But once in a while, you see it: resignation. This woman was tired and very much on the verge of tears. I asked a question we parents here don’t really ask that much because there is no adequate answer: “How are you?”

She went on to tell me in broken English that her 15 year-old-son had two inoperable brain tumors and that he was being transported back to his local hospital because there was nothing his providers could do for him here. What she didn’t need to say was that he was being sent home to die, for when this place can’t fix your kid, you are being sent home to watch your child die. I didn’t know what to say. I’m not one of those “I’ll pray for you” people, and “I’m sorry” is so insufficient as to not even warrant an utterance. I just reached over and gave her a hug; honestly, it’s all I had. She hugged me back, and we looked at each other without words. In that moment, I was transformed.

I’m also not a “hug a stranger” kind of person, but there I was embracing a woman I had never met and whose name I still do not know. I walked away after a few minutes feeling the weight of that woman’s impending loss heaped on top of my own weight. I carried it as I walked back to my son’s room and then left it in the hallway because I cannot carry it and still function as Caemon’s mother. But I will never forget her or what that moment meant to me.

Life experiences have forced me to be strong, to bear a lot of pain, to suck it up and get through any number of challenges without much self-pity. I can’t say I haven’t been an angry person for a lot of my life, a personality shortfall I have worked hard to overcome and a flaw that the arrival of my son has greatly helped me to reduce. Some will be surprised to learn that when Caemon was diagnosed with leukemia, my first instinct was not toward anger but toward something wholly different. I simply knew, though don’t ask me how, that we were all going to be okay, that it was going to be hard, the hardest time in our lives, but that he would survive, and so would we. I would not tolerate pity from others or doomsday predictions about where his disease was headed.

When offers of help poured in, I felt no guilt, no pride, no suffering of confidence. I couldn’t cure my son or get through this alone. I needed all the help I could get, and all offers were accepted. From offers of prayer to help with my house and pets, to donations and fundraisers, I said yes. People offered advice, gave us cards with phone numbers which we called. Strangers in waiting rooms, friends of friends, people who only existed as internet pixels; they all wanted to help, and I would turn no one away. Just as I carried a bit of that woman’s weight that early autumn day, each of these people have carried a little bit of me, and I daresay of my wife as well. When people do this, I am able to walk into my son’s room and make him laugh or to leave for a few days to teach my classes and come back slightly less fatigued; I am able to prepare a home-cooked meal for my wife or run much-needed errands; I am able to sit up half the night with a crying boy and still function the next day.

I accept all offers of help and, when I am able, try to pay it forward, because it is the only way I am able to walk this journey. It means I have to be humble and accept that I cannot do it alone, that I am part of a larger community that is compassionate and strong, and that surprisingly not all human beings are succubae, that there are people in this world who give a flip about me and my family with no strings attached. Believe me when I say that I was previously not so inclined toward this view of humanity.

So what will I do with this? I will raise my son to know the truth about people, that they are good and can accomplish amazing things when they work together. I will similarly pass this on to my students when they naively assume the worst of people. I will love my wife and my friends openly without hesitation, and I will smile at people, hug them when they need it, and lift them up any way I can. Saving my son has required me to receive the best of people; I owe it to everyone, including myself, to return the favor.


The beautiful images in this post are courtesy of In Her Image Photography.