Tag Archives: grieving a child

the boy and the turtle

I rarely dream about my son. I know people who regularly dream of their departed loved ones only to awaken disappointed, even devastated, that they were dreaming. I don’t typically dream about Caemon though. Oh, but I try. Most nights as I’m falling asleep, I ask to dream of him. I ask him to talk with me in his dreams. Sometimes I beg. Typically, however, my dreams are the sorting-out-my-day variety, and rarely do they contain even a glimpse of my precious boy.

Needless to say, I was surprised when a few weeks ago, I had a very vivid dream featuring Caemon. It was the sort of dream from which I did not want to awaken.

It all started with me seeing Caemon on a bus. It was a crowded city bus, in a city not unlike San Francisco. I could see him sitting in a seat, gazing intently forward with a serious and slightly worried expression on his face. His brow was furrowed. He was traveling alone, but there were many other passengers on the bus. He was older, taller, maybe about five. He had his glorious blonde hair. I knew he was going to some sort of music or art class in this unknown city where were apparently living.

As I watched my son leave on this bus, panic struck me. I was terrified. What had I done sending my small child away on a city bus without an adult? Why hadn’t I thought to take him to his class myself? How would he know where to go? How would I know if he arrived? What kind of mother was I? I spent some time in this agonizing state before the dream jumped into the next day. My son was there, and I had opted to accompany him on his bus trip.

When we exited the bus at its destination, we were in a strange industrial area with vacant lots, warehouses, and construction equipment. It was eerie, quiet. Caemon held my hand as we walked through this space for what seemed like miles, and I wondered again how he had known where to go and why I would have let him travel like this on his own. Soon, we had left the industrial area, and we were on a quaint street with a variety of storefronts. Caemon entered one of these, taking me with him. We ascended some stairs, and I remember dark woods, jewel toned cushions, and a lovely homey feeling. We seemed to have entered what was Caemon’s school, and he was showing me around, pointing things out.

The last bit I remember is that Caemon stopped to show me a plush turtle. He picked it up and told me, “This is the turtle I tell me feelings to.” I was utterly touched. He was worried that if he were to go somewhere else, he wouldn’t have the turtle. I was so comforted that he had such a lovely place to be and even felt reassured that I had let him travel on his own because he was a bigger boy, and he could handle it. And he had this lovely feelings turtle.

I woke up at the end of the turtle scene, and there was that feeling I had heard about: utter disappointment that I had been dreaming. But there was another feeling lingering too, a feeling of dread of panic. It stuck with me the entire day.

I had let my son go off on his own. I watched him go. I let him go.

One doesn’t need a psychology degree to see where my unconscious was going with this, and this strange feeling lingered, this feeling of seeing him looking concerned and serious and noticeably older, this feeling of worry. And I think there is a part of me that feels like I really did see him.

In moments like this, I am always quick to mention that I am a skeptic. Perhaps I should call myself a hopeful skeptic. I want to believe that my son visited me in a dream. I want to believe he is communicating with me, telling me that while I had to let him go off on his own, where he has gone is pretty great, that he has navigated even scary industrial places just fine on his own, and, yes, I even want to believe there’s a stuffed turtle to whom he can tell his feelings. Such beliefs might be comforting.

I want to believe this because in all honesty, I don’t know where my son is.

I have so many different foundations of belief, but mostly, I feel like I simply lost him. There was this feeling of dread for months after he died that I had carelessly left him behind somewhere, that maybe he was riding some public bus with malicious strangers or wandering streets or sitting alone at a park. But I didn’t know. I knew where his body went, but I didn’t know where he went. That my psyche would try to grasp this in my sleep would be no surprise to me, but I still don’t know whether that is the whole story.

Anytime I remember this dream, I come back to this feeling, but I also come back to the turtle. A few days after I had the dream, I told my therapist about it. She smiled and thought maybe I needed to get a stuffed turtle. I agreed and then remembered that Caemon had one, one we had gotten for him at an aquarium when he was a baby. The turtle, while not a favorite of his “Fellas” (the name we all used for his stuffed creatures), came to his tea parties and participated in his “Ten in the Bed” game of throwing animals out of his bed at his moms. I was so comforted to remember the turtle. Maybe I would pull it out, share a few feelings with it. If anything, maybe it would help me remember the dream and what a five-year-old Caemon might look like.

About a week after I had the dream, Jodi and I went to visit a friend whose son Orion has leukemia (AML). He was being treated at UCSF, and we wanted to offer our friend some support after they had received some hard news. Her son was battling a rare infection, and the doctors weren’t sure he was going to be able to go to bone marrow transplant. When we arrived at the hospital, our friend let us know that Orion was up for visitors. We had yet to meet him, and had wanted to for some time, so we both took deep breaths, boarded the all-too familiar elevators up to 7-Long, and prepared to enter the floor where Caemon had lived for nearly six months. Soon, we were entering Orion’s room, which had been one of Caemon’s several rooms as well. And there was Orion, a lovely, bald, blue-eyed, six-foot-something boy. We chatted with him and his family for awhile. Sometimes I would just look at Orion, send him some love, and admire what a strong spirit he has. After some time, from under his blankets, this fifteen-year-old pulled a stuffed animal, and as he nestled it into his neck, my breath caught.

It was a turtle.

My head was swirling with Caemon and the dream and so many feelings. It took me some time to compose myself, but after a few minutes, I asked Orion about the turtle. A friend had given it to him. He found it comforting. As we spoke, he hugged the turtle to his neck, stroked it, rested his head on it when he felt tired.

I didn’t know what this meant. I still don’t. But I know Orion has a turtle, and I know it makes him feel better.

A week or more later, I received a message from Orion’s mom. She wrote that Orion had chosen to spend the rest of his days at home, such a courageous and beautiful and heartbreaking decision. His infection was preventing him from going to transplant. His leukemia wasn’t responding to chemotherapy. He just wanted time with his family and friends, time to be a kid before, in his words, he was to go back to nature.

My wife was not in the room when I received this news, but a few moments later, she appeared, and I told her. After a few moments of sitting with this, Jodi asked me, “Do you know what I was doing just now?”

As I had been reading the email, Jodi had been in the garage. She noticed that some boxes were piled on some of Caemon’s things, and she became upset by that, so began clearing them only to find his box of stuffed animals. When she opened the box, sitting on the top was the turtle. Just moments before she came downstairs and heard this news, she had pulled the turtle out, taken it to our room, and placed it on my pillow.

I know I wondered in that moment if Caemon was going to help, if he was here to meet a friend and usher him on to the next plane of existence. I won’t pretend to know what forces are at work here. I don’t know whether my son is hanging out with this other amazing cancer warrior or whether they just have a shared affinity for stuffed turtles. I don’t know if he’s trying to tell us he’s around, that he wants to help out, or whether I’m just looking for signs. I don’t know. All I know is that this happened and that I can’t stop thinking about it and that I cry tears of relief when I do.

Yesterday, I received in the mail a sweet plush turtle from a friend wish whom I shared this story. I held it in the crook of my neck. I thought of my son, and I thought of Orion, and my heart filled with love. I don’t need anymore meaning than that.

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a letter to my son on his fourth birthday

Dear Caemon,

Four years ago today, I finally got to meet you. For months, you had been rolling around in my belly, sticking your foot as far out as you could (I imagine you were a bit cramped in there, big boy that you were), but finally, on September 5th, just four days after my own birthday, I received the best gift of my life: my beautiful Caemon.

Every month after you were born, I wrote you a letter about all the things you had been doing that month. Some months were pretty eventful, like the one where you learned to sit up or say “mama,” and some months were mostly love letters, telling you just how much love you had brought to me and your mama.  I loved writing those letters, reflecting on who you were becoming, reveling in all the joy you had brought to our lives.

This year, your fourth year, was your last year on this earth, sweet boy, your last year in our arms. I remember last September 5th well. You had gone to the hospital for a platelet transfusion the night before, and in the morning, we got up and went to your favorite place: the Exploratorium. You were tired that day, but you were overjoyed to spend time with your cousin, your aunt, and your moms. I remember soaking in every moment of your birthday, loving that we could be out in the world together. Earlier in the week for your birthday party with the whole family, the local firefighters brought a couple of their engines to our street so that you and your cousins could play on them. Do you remember, Caemon, how the fireman on the medic truck let you lower and raise the ladder? Do you remember how hard you laughed every time it went, THUNK! Afterward, you would tell the story and hit me so hard as you said, THUNK! I didn’t mind; you just wanted to recreate that sensation. You loved that smaller engine with all the medical supplies. You had just started learning about them. We were all fairly certain that one day you would practice medicine one way or another. But what am I saying? You already did.

This year brought us a Caemon who was so very sick, a boy who had to stay in bed, a boy who had to have pokes, who had to go into surgery (the warm room is what you called the OR), who had to be hooked up for ten-day-long chemo infusions, and who had a bone marrow transplant. You had to endure so much, and when I find myself trying to imagine going through the same, it terrifies me. But you did it with such grace, my son. You laughed, and you loved, and you made friends with your fears. You cradled your syringe pumps, made friends with your “sad, sad boingy tubes,” and even scolded your IV pole (“Stop, staring at me, Beeper!”). You showed your doctors and nurses and social workers and dietitians and child life specialists and book buddies and anyone else who came in the room just how brave a person can be when faced with countless medical procedures. You showed them how to play in the face of fear, how to laugh, how to read a good book, how to take on a new name when you don’t feel like yourself, and how to always, always accept a hug from a handsome blue-eyed boy.

And you taught me and your mama, Caemon. You taught us things about ourselves, about just how brave we could be, how we could do anything if it meant saving you, and you taught us that enough love can get a family through just about anything. You danced with us, read with us, made crafts with us, raced with us down the hospital hallways, and you held us in your arms as though you were a big man there to comfort his moms. You hugged me and patted me on the back when I was sad, telling me it was okay, that you had me. You told your mama that the two of you would get through the night together. You loved us as big as you could and we loved you right back.

We started to talk about the big party we would throw you for your fourth birthday, where we would invite all your friends from the hospital and all your friends and family from home, and we would celebrate. We would blow up water balloons, and you would throw them at the cats (that’s another thing you did last year), and you would have as much ice cream as you wanted, and we would listen to your favorite music and dance and dance and dance. We would celebrate being leukemia-free.

I remember a few weeks after your bone marrow infusion, when you started feeling a little better, enough to do some eating, and I said, “It seems like you’re feeling better, Caemon. Do you feel like you’re getting better?” You nodded and smiled. But a week or so later, after your relapse, after you started feeling really miserable, I would assure you that it would be okay, that you would get better. Every time, you would shake your head no. You knew then you weren’t going to be here much longer. You kept us in your bed with you as much as you could, and we stayed because we didn’t want to miss one more moment with our precious boy.

We didn’t get to throw you that fourth birthday party, not the one we talked about. Today, we’re throwing a different kind of party instead, one that you would absolutely love. You see, today, I went teaching with mama. I’m sitting at her school, in her very cool office with the little fridge you liked so much. In a few moments, I’m going to go hang out with people who have a whole bunch of medical supplies: they have blood pokers and different colors of Coban. They have tubing and alcohol swabs and syringes and vials for labs. Lots of people are going to come and get poked and give their blood for kids like you. They’re going to help save kids’ lives so that they can celebrate their fourth and fifth and eighth and fiftieth birthdays. I know you would approve. I wish you could be here to show them how to hook up the tubes, how to hold still when the poker goes in, how to make friends with all the machines.

But mostly, I’m feeling a little selfish. I really just wish you were here so that I could hold you in my arms, kiss your whole face, see that brilliant smile, hear that infectious giggle, and feel the most wonderful feeling in the world again, the feeling I learned about four years ago today: the feeling of being your mommy. I love you more than the ocean and the moon and the stars. I will miss you for the rest of my life.

Happy birthday, my love, my light, my beautiful Caemon.

Love,

Mommy