Recently, 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.
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.
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 the 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.