Tag Archives: childhood cancer

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 Caemon Marston-Simmons Hero Fund

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Today is Giving Tuesday, a day amidst all of the holiday bustle when people worldwide find ways to give of themselves. So today, we would like to share with you a way that we have been honoring Caemon, a way we can all give in Caemon’s memory.

Just a few months after Caemon died in 2013, I got in touch with a representative from St. Baldrick’s, an organization whose sole purpose is to fund pediatric cancer research, and I spoke with them about ways in which we could honor our son, one of which was a Hero Fund that would be directed to JMML research. In June of that year, Jodi shaved her head at our first St. Baldrick’s fundraiser, organized by Caemon’s uncle. A year later, we did it again, and this time one of Caemon’s oncologists joined us. With that fundraiser, we finally had enough to start our fund.

Today, we would like to unveil to you the Caemon Marston-Simmons Hero Fund. Caemon’s fund will provide grants specifically for JMML researchers as they continue to try to understand this disease. It is yet another way for Caemon to continue to make a difference, another way for him to live on.

But why should you give to St. Baldrick’s on Giving Tuesday? For us, this is personal in so many ways. You see, that same oncologist who shaved his head at our event last summer is also making some truly groundbreaking discoveries using Caemon’s own cells. You can read an article about the important work he is doing here: Rare Childhood Leukemia Reveals Surprising Genetic Secrets (note that the boy mentioned in the end of the article is, in fact, Caemon). His research is funded in large part by St. Baldrick’s grants, and his research is inspired in so many ways by our son. St. Baldrick’s continues to seek out the best researchers in pediatric oncology to ensure they have at least some of the funding they need to understand pediatric cancers.

We want to see an end to JMML–to all childhood cancers. We want these kids to have a greater chance at survival, and we know that supporting St. Baldrick’s is one way we can help ensure that happens. Please join us today in giving to St. Baldricks. Help us grow Caemon’s Hero Fund, and help us support these researchers who want to put an end to this disease.

Thank you!

The Marston-Simmons Family

 

Thirty Days of Caemon–Day 26: Caemon and Carol

Today’s post comes from our very dear friend Carol. She was a special friend to Caemon and an incredible support to Jodi and I both in the hospital and after Caemon died. Her presence during Caemon’s treatment and her countless efforts to help support our family in innumerable ways during the course of Caemon’s treatment will always be a treasured gift to us. Below, our beloved friend shares Caemon’s impacts on her.

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I met Caemon before he was born – really, before he even was conceived. Jodi and Timaree wanted so much to be parents, were so sure that this was their path, and so dedicated to making it happen. Their child was a tangible presence before he arrived on Earth.

I was overwhelmed with joy when they shared their news. Timaree was pregnant and the embodiment of Mother, and Jodi equally diligent and dedicated to being Mama. I remember the day they showed me his room, which also revealed his name and its meaning. C A E M O N was spelled out in colorful wooden letters, and a large stuffed crocodile was waiting for him.

When he was born, I visited them at the hospital and got to hold him when he was barely 24 hours old. I never dreamed that just three years later the four of us would again be sitting together in a hospital room.

Croc snuggling with our special friend, Carol.I  am one of the lucky ones that knew Caemon. I have more treasured memories than I can list here: making cakes for all three of his birthdays; walking along with him in a stroller sucking my finger when he was teething; playing in his room on what turned out to be his last day at home; sharing a special crystal just before his transplant; a magical connection while napping with him just days before he died.  The last treats I baked for him were cream cheese brownies. He loved them. I promised to make them again when he finished his treatment and felt well enough to eat.

When Caemon was diagnosed with JMML, I knew I would be IMG_0073showing up in some big way for this journey. I was so grateful to be able to help: I created his Facebook page, did fundraising, and spent time at the hospital for several hours every week. Those visits were precious and also could be very intense. While I found myself rising to the challenge of this, I was astounded at what I witnessed in Timaree and Jodi. My experience was the tiniest sliver of what they were going through. I am still in awe of the tremendous love that fueled them through more trials on every level than I can begin to describe or imagine. To be able to give even a small amount of support was humbling. They are a testament to the power of unwavering love.

I received so much during this time. Not only from Jodi, Timaree, and Caemon, but from new friendships, relationships that deepened, and the experience of spectacular loving kindness that flowed with beauty and force from all directions. People are capable of such extraordinary love and generosity, and it seems we are just waiting for an opportunity to show that.

My spiritual beliefs include the idea that the Universe has a bigger plan, that we are all connected, and that no matter what happens, there is purpose and choice.  Caemon’s illness and death tested me. I was furious when he died. Why did he have to suffer so much and die so young? Why was his incredible potential snuffed out? Why did his parents, who wanted him more than can be measured and did everything to deserve a happy ending, have to endure this grief? It was so incredibly unfair. But in the end, I still believe in a loving Source and a choice made by our souls as part of a much bigger picture than this one life on Earth. It doesn’t make his absence less painful. But I know that Caemon’s soul still shines, that his short life had and continues to have a great impact on so many, and that because of what happened, more people were transformed without ever meeting him than maybe would have been had he lived much longer. This helps give me perspective and some peace.  In spite of how I still feel about this outcome, my love for and trust in something bigger than us remains strong. The incredible courage of his soul to come to Earth, knowing what was in store, tells me he knew it was worth it. Yes, I wish Caemon were still here. I wish I were making him birthday cakes and cream cheese brownies. I wish his moms didn’t have to live with this gaping hole in their hearts. And I also know his life had a purpose that continues to unfold through his soul, his legacy, and through those of us who are better for having been touched by him.

Recently I had a dream about Caemon. I was in the bottom part of a split-level room, and he came over to me. It felt so lovely to hold him. He spoke to me in a child’s voice that gradually became more articulate and mature. While I don’t remember his words, the memory in my body is of wisdom and comfort.

And then he had to go. He climbed up to the level above me and scampered off with a couple of other children. In my dream, I was okay with that.

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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.