Tag Archives: bereaved parents

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.

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farewell, dear friend

Yesterday, a friend of mine died, a friend I never had the pleasure to meet. Three and half years ago, she began commenting on this blog. She found me through a mutual friend and followed Caemon’s story to the end. When my boy died, this woman I had never known but who wrote the most beautiful comments reached out to me. Her only son had died too, as had her husband. And so even though we were decades apart in age and oceans apart in space, we became sisters on this dark path that is grief.

When Caemon was diagnosed with cancer, I never imagined the good that could come out of it, and when he died, I certainly never thought that there could be bright spots. I have learned since that the bonds I have formed with other bereaved parents and other parents of children with cancer are some of the truest and deepest I have known.

Throughout the past few years, my friend has come to feel like family. She has sent me voice messages on my birthday, poems and letters for my son, my wife, my daughter, myself. She has shown me that grieving openly and earnestly and without apology is important. Throughout the past three years, she has grieved with me through the magic of the internet, remembering every anniversary, honoring my process, helping me see that one can live with this albatross of grief with grace. We have read one another’s writing, commented thoughtfully, offered words of comfort and warmth, and more than anything, we have understood the other.

I had dreams of traveling to Australia and finally giving her a hug, of sitting with her all night talking about our sons, crying and laughing together as I knew we would. I know I would have enjoyed her cheeky humor even more in person. I think she would have liked my own sly wit. It would have been more a meeting of long-lost friends than internet strangers, for we were two bereaved mothers, two women longing for their sons, two women so familiar with pain but unafraid to laugh, two travelers in lives that became almost too painful to bear, two survivors of the worst loss. We knew one another’s souls. But that meeting was not meant to be.

I will not be able to see my friend off in the traditional sense. I won’t be attending a memorial or visiting her grave, but I can say my goodbyes right where we said our hellos. And as much as I already miss her, and as much as I know everyone she touched misses her, I also know she has finally escaped the unrelenting suffering of her grief.

T, sweet friend, wherever you are, may you finally revel in the twinkling of those lights.

You can read T’s poem “Twinkly Lights” inspired by a post about Caemon on her own blog here

 

 

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

 

 

nothing compares to this

From Jodi

Last week something pretty incredible happened, or at least I think so. I was outside doing chores, and after finishing, I entered the kitchen from the back door. I stopped and observed from the doorway. Our three month old daughter sat happily in her bouncy seat on the floor near the pantry watching Timaree bake. The room was filled with a comforting aroma, banana bread I think, baking in the oven. Music played from the iPad on the counter, “Friday, I’m in Love” by the Cure, one of her favorite bands since adolescence.

And she was singing.

My heart swelled. My breath caught.

Timaree hasn’t sang since our son died over two and a half years ago. Not in the car, not in the shower, not in church. Not at concerts. Not a note.

Grief manifests itself in so many ways, and one of them, for Timaree anyway, was the loss of her singing voice. It makes sense as music is pure emotion; it is joy and sorrow; pain and release. To sing is to feel, and in her case, to feel pain (more than she already feels).

I stood suspended in a moment I didn’t see coming, but I immediately recognized it as a significant shift. You see, Timaree and I had our concerns about certain things during her pregnancy: would we overreact to every cold and be suspicious of every bruise? Would our baby learn how to smile and laugh if we rarely smile or laugh? Would we be able to love her as much as we love our son?

Of course, some of these questions seem ridiculous now because of course we are crazily, ridiculously in love with our daughter. She makes us smile and laugh all the time—not the strained obligatory smiles we memorized for social acceptance—and our smiles are now being rewarded with big, lopsided toothless grins of her very own. Each of these smiles expands us, heals us, and brings us back to life.

And, as it seems, the music of our baby’s newly discovered laughter has returned the gift of music and singing to her mommy. Thank you baby girl. Now I get to see both of you smiling and singing, cooing and laughing, and, I can say with some certainty that absolutely nothing compares to this.

welcome back

A few months ago, I started attending a prenatal yoga class one evening a week. It’s a different kind of class in that we share tea and conversation following our yoga practice, and much of the conversation, as one might imagine, revolves around pregnancy, child-rearing, and general mom concerns. It’s a lovely time for these women to connect with others who are facing similar experiences, whether first-time motherhood or negotiating the waters of second/third-time parenting.

In the first class I attended, I did share that I had a child who died. It seemed appropriate because we were asked to share whether we had other children, but I didn’t say more about it. At the next class, over twice as many women attended, and I chose not to share my story. I didn’t pretend to be a first-time mom, but I didn’t bring up my son dying of leukemia either. So when it came time for our tea and conversation following the class, and a woman was struggling with getting her nearly-three-year-old son to sleep, I wasn’t sure what to do. I had advice, experiences to share, and I wasn’t sure whether to share them as though I had a living child or to stay quiet lest I bring up my son who died and inadvertently shift the focus to myself. I sat and nodded in recognition of her plight, and eventually, our teacher noticed and said, “Timaree, it looks like you know something about this.” It was an invitation. I shared from the experience I had of a child who preferred not to sleep, all while staying focused on the mom, avoiding my own story, pretending if for a few minutes to be one of these second-time moms, even though it felt a bit foreign.

At the end of class, the teacher spoke with me, thanked me for joining in the conversation and sharing my bits of wisdom. I told her that it had been a long time since I had sat in a group of moms talking as a mom, that it was nice to share. She placed her hand on my shoulder, looked warmly into my eyes, and said, “Welcome back.”

Every time I think of that moment, I tear up. Since Caemon died, Jodi and I have wanted to “get back” to parenting. We were just getting started when he got sick, just finding our groove. We loved being the moms of a curious little boy; it was such a singular joy, our primary focus. When he died, not only did we lose our beloved son, but we also lost this enormous piece of our identities. People reassured us we were still mothers, and in our hearts, we felt we were, but we didn’t live the lives of mothers. We haven’t for two years and five months. There have been no bedtimes to negotiate, no meals picked over by four- or five-year-old hands, no loads of small clothes to wash or toys to put away, no scraped elbows to kiss or hurt feelings to hug away. Mothering Caemon has turned to remembering, longing, grieving.

Here we are, though, less than a month away from meeting Caemon’s little sister, and all signs point to us getting back to parenting. But what does that mean for us? We won’t be starting again where left off—and I think for a long time that’s what “getting back” to it meant for us: reading the books we had just discovered with Caemon, repeating our favorite family inside jokes, making muffins on a lazy Sunday while our son tried to lick up all the batter; it meant getting back to mothering the boy we knew so well. It has taken months for me to grasp that getting back to it is really starting over—starting with a whole new little person, a whole new perspective of parenting, and in that, there is both joy and grief, anticipation of the new and longing for the familiar—always this duality of emotions.

As this pregnancy has progressed, I have met other expectant parents—some of them first time moms, some experienced parents with small children to consider—and I simultaneously identify with both sets and none of them at all. I have all the “luxuries” of being pregnant and preparing for a newborn without parenting another child. My wife and I can spend quality adult time together, I can nap whenever I like, I can be as lazy or as productive as I like because I don’t have a living child to consider. But because I am not a first-time parent, I have the wisdom of experience, the serenity of knowing I don’t have to worry about swings and bottle warmers and having the perfect nursery, of knowing that birth doesn’t have to be scary, and more importantly, that we can do this.

Then there is the other side of it all. We have hand-me-downs from big brother–toys, clothes, his precious books—without the big brother attached. There will be no wondering where Caemon should spend the night while we are at the hospital, no first meeting of brother and sister, no little boy jealous of the time his moms spend with the new baby, no watching two siblings loving each other as only siblings do. Coupled with that I have so many of the fears of a second-time mom: the guilt of giving my thoughts and love over to another child, of feeling like I’m somehow neglecting my first child for the other—of forgetting the little details about my son: how he smelled, how his cheek felt under my lips when I kissed him good night, how his laughter rang throughout our home. I worry I won’t love my daughter enough, that she won’t know the best of me, that she’ll always be trying to access that part of me who died with Caemon.

I suppose some of my worries aren’t unlike those of second-time parents at all; I just happen to parent a first child who no longer walks this earth. He was my first love as a mom, and he always will be. Certainly I will love his little sister. Certainly I will continue to love him.

I am not getting back to the parenting I once knew, but I am rejoining the world of mothers of living children. I am growing a little girl in my belly who is likely to split my heart wide open again, who will remind me of her brother in some ways and in most ways will be her very own being. I am soon to meet this soul who will indeed welcome me back to the most treasured role I have ever held. I have her brother to thank for showing me the world through a mother’s heart; I have her to thank for bringing me home again.

Thirty Days of Caemon–Day 25: B is for Books

Today, Jodi and I ventured over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the streets of San Francisco to the new UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Our first visit to the hospital’s new location would bring us hugs and conversation with some of our favorite of Caemon’s caregivers, reconnection with our UCSF family. However, this was not our sole purpose for visiting. Today marked the delivery of our annual C is for Crocodile book drive donations.

In five large tubs, we packed over 350 books for children from babies on up to young adults. These books, sent to us by our generous community, will be distributed today to children on the pediatric oncology floor at the hospital.

Delivering the books.

Delivering the books.

The idea for this book drive was born in the early days after Caemon’s death. We wanted a means of honoring our son while giving back to kids like him. While we had seen many, many gifts of toys  and hats and bears and more during his stay in the hospital, we didn’t see many new books, and Caemon loved books. With two English teachers for mothers, I suppose that is no surprise, but he was enamored of his stories. He would often make stacks of books for us to read, and we would sit on the floor of his room reading together until we made it to the bottom. Our moments reading to Caemon were some of our most precious, and reading to him in the hospital brought us a little taste of home and familiarity. For these reasons and more, we decided to hold an annual book drive in Caemon’s honor, and I can say it is my favorite thing we have done in his name. Not only are we able to celebrate one of our son’s greatest loves (and ours too), but we can use this as a regular connection and expression of gratitude to our UCSF family. Beyond this, the book drive gives our community a way to connect, to give in a very real way to patients just like Caemon.

This past year, my dedication to this effort was renewed when I received an email from the mother of a patient at UCSF. This little girl had received one of our book donations, and it had helped her through a difficult time in the hospital. It was easy to see myself in this mother, to see my son in her beautiful bald daughter bravely battling leukemia. The message brought me to tears, for this one little book had done just what we had hoped: it brightened the day of a family going through the scariest time imaginable; it provided them a little respite from their lives on the front lines, a reminder of the basic routines of families of small children. Since that first message, we have kept in contact with this mom, following her daughter’s progress, cheering them on as this beautiful girl progresses through her treatment. And this year, as our book drive got underway, we received a big package from this family: they made their own donation of some favorite books of theirs, bringing the giving full circle.

Today, as we dropped off our big bins of books, it was hard not to imagine how much Caemon would have enjoyed this process, that he would have loved seeing his old UCSF friends and gifting them boxes and boxes of books. Instead, we pass on the gift of one of Caemon’s greatest loves and take some joy in knowing our boy would most certainly approve.

Thirty Days of Caemon–Day 23: C is for Community

CaemonCroc2Before Caemon’s diagnosis, our little family’s community circle was fairly small. We had close family, a few new friends and colleagues, and a number of friends hours away. As fairly recent transplants to our city, we were still finding our tribe. When Caemon’s illness hit and we learned how very sick he was, we were certain that it was going to sink us. We had health insurance, but this meant Jodi had to continue working, and it wasn’t going to cover everything. We didn’t know how we would keep our residence, how we would afford traveling to and from the city, eating out for every meal, managing all the daily expenses of living in the hospital. But more than that, we didn’t know how we would make it through emotionally. How does one handle day after day in the hospital, the very lonely road of being a parent of a child with cancer?

Within just a day or two of his diagnosis, all of these uncertainties were put to rest.

On the first day of Caemon’s diagnosis, my sister started us a Caring Bridge site, and our friend Carol set up our Facebook presence “Caring for Caemon.” We shared the news with family, with friends from our moms’ group, even with my mom blogger community, and suddenly offers for help and messages of support were overflowing our inboxes and phones. A blogger friend took over my blog for a time, leaving announcements there. She communicated with my sister who communicated with Carol, and they all coordinated to set up fundraising and news dissemination and support. Our moms’ group made up a schedule for caring for our house and cats, and just like that, we had little to worry about but our son.

And for nearly six months, that community support just kept growing. Our neighbors kept our yard up. The circle of moms did our laundry, cleaned our house, cared for our cats. Blogger friends started a t-shirt fundraiser. Carol put together a wine country gift basket raffle. The moms organized a huge event, raising money and celebrating us. Donations came in daily to help us stay afloat such that I was able to take leave from work. Messages of support from family, friends, and strangers popped up in our inboxes on Facebook. A few people set up regular visits to keep us company, to give us respite. An engine company from the San Francisco Fire Department, one of whom is a close friend of my brother’s, came to see Caemon with gifts and donations and words of encouragement. Our local fire department dropped off presents, even brought their engines over for Caemon’s third—and last—birthday celebration.

To list every kind thing that happened to us just in that first ten days of learning our son had a life-threatening disease could take me days. To list the acts of kindness and compassion that came in the coming months, even in the last two years, would take weeks, months. The picture is clear though: from our son’s illness, a community of compassion sprung up, and it grew, and it grew.

To say that this has been humbling is an understatement. I never imagined that over a thousand people would subscribe to a blog about my son, that over two thousand people would follow a Facebook page dedicated to him. And I never imagined what those people—most of whom I’ve never met—might do. From buying t-shirts and making donations to help us out to posting photographs of appliances and lit candles and sunrises to keep our spirits up, sending words of hope and inspiration, and later, when Caemon died, message after message after message of heartbreak and condolence. Members of our community helped our Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Light the Night team raise thousands of dollars and continue to donate to our St. Baldrick’s fundraising efforts; they have donated hundreds of books to our C is for Crocodile book drive; they have given blood and signed up to be bone marrow donors. At least one member of our community has become a bone marrow donor. Our community raised money for a bench for Caemon, and that same community sends photos of their children visiting the bench. This community wears their “Taking a CHOMP out of leukemia” shirts with pride and meet one another in unexpected places—as far away as Brooklyn.

And our community has come together to help other families fighting the battle with pediatric cancer, making donations, offering support, spreading compassion.

And do you know, our community continues to grow? New people join the Facebook page every week. New people follow the blog every day—people who learn of Caemon’s story and go on to think a little differently about their own lives and what they bring to the world, people who remember our golden-haired boy and keep his legacy alive in so many ways.

This community with its remarkable wingspan has held our family up during the most difficult time in our lives, and it just continues to give and give and give. For our little boy with his tight circle of friends and family to draw thousands of people together for good is nothing short of beautiful, and a simple “thank you” will never be enough to express the gratitude we feel for all of you who are the living, breathing envoys of Caemon’s legacy.