Thirty Days of Caemon–Day Sixteen: The Symbols He Left

Today, we have another guest blogger, Ali, a friend and former colleague with a beautiful voice and a message I think many of you will identify with. 

This morning I shuffled to the kitchen with my toddler straddling my hip.  I mechanically grabbed a bag of bagels and was about to drop one in the toaster when he grunted and pointed, indicating that he wanted to do it himself.  He clumsily wrestled each half in the slots, pushed down the lever until it clicked, and then peered eagerly inside the toaster to watch the coils heat up.  He waved his hand over the top and told me, “ah” (hot).  When I began to walk away, and he grunted more urgently, letting me know that he intended to watch the entire toasting process from start to finish.

Remembering that it was snack-sharing day at my daughter’s school, I rummaged through the pantry and pulled down the air popper from the top shelf.   My son’s eyes lit up as I carried it to the counter.  They said, “What is this marvelous thing you’ve been hiding in there?”  We carefully poured in the kernels, and he gazed through the plastic top as they began to swirl around and around.  I could feel my own excitement begin to swell despite myself, as I anticipated his reaction.  And then the first one popped and flung itself from the machine into the bowl.  “Pah!” he shouted, grinning like a maniac.  “Yes, pop!” I told him.  We watched the bowl fill, never taking our eyes off the magical appliance.

Like many of the mothers who deeply felt his loss, I didn’t know Caemon.  I met him once when he was a baby, long before his illness would draw me into a meaningful friendship with his mother.  Despite my not being a person in his life, I have felt that I know him through the stories and photographs that have both broken and lit up my heart.  It is the eccentricities of children that always enchant me far more than their cute faces and other more obvious perfections.  Caemon’s love of appliances, his personal relationship to inanimate objects, is one of my favorite things about this boy I never met.  I will never tire of hearing about the way he danced with, cradled, nursed to health, gave names to, and befriended appliances at home, and then later in the hospital.  I loved seeing the way his mothers embraced this charming, quirky passion he had and how well they understood the deeper needs he was communicating through these “relationships” he formed.  Undoubtedly, his initial love affair was sparked by the inborn curiosity that children arrive with, (and that we often lose, sadly, in adulthood) and the simple magic they find in the flipping switches and the setting of things motion.

This morning, as I watched my son’s eyes fixate on the red hot coils of the toaster and the whirring of the popcorn maker, I realized how actually “unquirky” Caemon’s  attraction to household appliances really was.  I found myself thinking, “Yes, Caemon and August!  There is magic and mystery and even a bit of power in these appliances.  There is wonder in the world.  There is wonder right in your kitchen pantry if you just pause long enough to let it in.”

The morning that Caemon was having a stranger’s healthy marrow put into his body, I woke up at birdcagedawn and went out on the deck where I had an antique birdcage hanging.  The wisteria that grew along the railings had coiled itself around and through the birdcage in a way that was too beautiful to disrupt.  The deck faced the east where the sun was rising, and the beams of light began to shine through the cage and the cracks between the vines.  I took a few photos of it.  I thought about the profound nature of life and of dawn, and I felt blessed to be awake to see it.  I visualized Caemon’s body being flooded with light and health and comfort.  I promised myself to be mindful of each dawn, to pause for a moment when the sun rises and to remember that in life, the sunrise is really all that matters.  There is wonder in the world.  There is wonder right on your back deck if you just pause long enough to let it in.

When Caemon died, that birdcage out on the deck became very tied up with him in my mind.  Each morning it said, “Live!  Love your children! Don’t worry about trivial burdens!”  The last time I went to visit with his mothers, I got tingles when Jodi showed me the beautiful birdhouses she’s been making as she works through a grief that will never be done.  There are so many metaphors to be made from birds, birdhouses, birdcages, and it seems that there is a kind of magic in the way this imagery manifests, appears, reappears and overlaps in my life and in the spaces left by Caemon, a boy I didn’t know.

I don’t know how these things connect, and I have sat before this computer for days, trying to figure out how these pieces weave together.  There are so many ways that Caemon flutters and buzzes around my head from time to time, and they are momentary and fragmented and not neatly tied together.  He reminds me to hold my children tight, to never run from a grieving friend, to donate blood and gifts to children’s hospitals, and to stop and pause in reverence to toasters, birds and to the rising sun.   This morning he reminds me to really feel the weight of my son’s legs around my hip, to marvel at the electricity and heat running through our daily lives, and to take long moments to believe in the everyday magic of ordinary things.

Thirty Days of Caemon–Day Fifteen: Caemon in Print

There have been so many ways in which people have asked to honor our son, but one message from a dear friend shortly after he died took my breath away. She wanted our permission to use his name for a little boy in a series of books she is writing. How could we say no? Such a gift it is to see our son kept alive in the pages of her beautiful writing. But she hasn’t just kept Caemon alive through her books. As you will see, like many who loved him but didn’t know him, Caemon has wiggled his way into a number of facets of her life. Below, I share her tribute:

I never got to meet Caemon. I remember reading Timaree’s post when she revealed the secret she’d been carrying and following along as he caught up and passed his stuffed crocodile in pictures she posted. Every time I read about him, I hoped that someday we’d get our kids together to play. His death hit me deeply, which my eldest saw and asked about. I talk to him about how sad I am that Caemon’s moms don’t have him anymore. We wear our orange Take a Chomp out of Leukemia tees. The most significant effect that Caemon has had on me as a parent has been to show me how blessed I am when I am drowning in the challenges of parenting. When I’m up at three in the morning because one of my kids has wet the bed, I remember Caemon and am able to see how lucky I am. I am a better, more patient parent because of Caemon.

I still grieve that I never got to meet Caemon and am so honored that you have let me use his name in the novel I’m working on. Finding the right name for a character is tricky business, and I’d been having as much trouble thinking of a name for the first-born for the couple who started my writing career as my wife and I had finding names for our own children. When I did the math from book one to three and realized that my characters’ boy was close to three, I knew his name had to be Caemon. I’ve been surprised by how much he sneaks into scenes and am always delighted by his presence and the way he shapes the lives of the characters around him. In that way, I see his legacy alive–how powerful your boy is at shaping so many lives. That is what I want to honor.

If you would like to see what our friend is writing, check out her books here under Laina Villeneuve. Her forthcoming third book, Such Happiness as This, is the book in which Caemon will be featured. 

30 Days of Caemon–Day Two: Letter From a Mom

Today, we mark Day Two of our 30 Days of Caemon with a letter from a dear friend from our moms’ group, one of the angels who swooped in and took care of our lives when Caemon was diagnosed, one of the loyal and treasured friends who has helped distribute the weight of his passing. The legacy Caemon has left for her is multi-faceted, as it is for so many of us, and she describes it in the stunning letter below.


Dear Caemon,

Oh, sweet boy. How I wish I were writing this, my first letter to you, upon the occasion of a birthday or other such letter-worthy childhood achievement. Your sweet mamas have asked for stories of your impact on this world, so I hope you will forgive a lady from mommy group, who never got to know you as well in your brief, beautiful life as she has in the many months of grieving since your death, for writing to you as to a close friend. We were just getting acquainted before your leukemia was discovered, but I now count both of your mommies among my dearest of friends. And those friendships are only the first of the many ways your small-but-enormous life has twined around mine, like sly, persistent ivy, forever altering it in more ways then I will ever be able to quantify.

I have had a hard time beginning this task. I felt the weight of it, of course, and knew that if ever there were a time for picking the right words, this was it. But beyond that, embarrassingly, I was afraid to admit that I have not been changed enough by the boldness of your living, by the gut wound of your death, by the phoenix of a legacy that has sprung up across the globe ever since.

Because I still have these moments, terrible ones, when despite your loss I take my children entirely for granted. I still have times, many of them, in which I squander my time and talents on frivolous things. I am still surly and ungrateful and, above all, lazy.

But I am beginning to realize that this unsettling uneasiness of not-enough-change is not necessarily the bad thing I feared it was.

You see, thoughts of you overwhelm me when I come out of those terrible moments. In my ignorance before your diagnosis I would swat at my insufficiencies like a dozing cat twitching an ear at a fly. But now, oh, the moment immediately following one of my failures is filled with your absence from this world. And my resolve is ever-growing.

Fiona and Keith would not have half the mother they currently have without you. The evidence is myriad and ironclad.

As you may remember, you and I share a passion for music. So many of the stories your parents have told me involve your love of making and listening to music. You fell in love with the violin due to a magical volunteer who brought hers to your hospital room, and the plan was for me to be your teacher after you came home. Like my daughter, you had a musician’s compass pulling you along, and as I watch her learn her way around the violin like a nimble little monkey, I know I am watching a journey you would have taken right in step with her. No matter in what arena you would have settled on to make a living, there is no doubt that music would have remained the language of your soul.

I practice more, since your death, and with greater intent. I compose more, too. I used to compose as an indulgence, almost as a source of entertainment. Something grownup musicians struggle with is the relevance of their work. I had felt, before knowing you, that since I was unlikely to ever “make it big,” my composing was going to be only for me, a sort of lyrical diary. I am learning with your death that I can write to great purpose.

I wrote something for your parents last summer, a cello piece which has more love and true life packed into it than anything I have ever written. I wrote them a song for soprano and viola this spring, using a poem I think anyone who reads this letter will find soothing. I will include it below.
More than anything, I am learning, if not to live in the moment, then at least to stop raging against the uncertainty of the moment.

I don’t want to finish this letter. There are so many ripples of your existence that I have not yet mentioned, an unceasing ocean of impact that will always be with me. And I find that it helps to write directly to you. For the moment, for this letter, you stand before me. Small and strong and full of a blazing fire of intelligence and wit. I want to pick you up, to cradle you against my chest as I dash out into the night to bring you back to your mothers’ loving arms. To see their grieving eyes ignite to meet yours again, as they never stop hoping to do.

Please visit their dreams at just the right moments, all through their lives. Wrap your arms around their necks almost unbearably tightly and say something, so that your voice rings clearly in their ears when they awaken, so that the smell of your sweet head lingers throughout the day. It is so hard to feel loss anew after such a dream, but the rekindled imprint on the senses is worth it, especially as time goes by.

Oh, beautiful boy. I think of you each time I hear a song you loved. I think of you when I look at a teapot or a vacuum cleaner or the clothes and toys my kids have that were once yours. I think of you when my children are impish or strong-willed or full of a grace beyond their years. I think of you in my quiet moments alone and while surrounded by ferocious chaos. What is your legacy for me? It is impossible to measure, so seamlessly has it become part of who I am. Part of who I always will be.

With so much love,

P. S. Here’s that poem:

Beannacht by John O’Donohue

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

If you have a story or idea you would like to contribute to our 30 Days of Caemon tribute, please email us at or message us on the Caring for Caemon Facebook page.