We all know loss. It’s been a close companion to each of us at some point in our lives. I think that’s why this project felt so apt, so appropriate for the situation. A book about loneliness written by a boy who knew its face well, heard its whispers more than most, and ultimately left us with his loneliness and our own.
Publishing The Bubble Garden in the span of 2 weeks is one of my life’s most impressive achievements; but it doesn’t leave me feeling impressive. I felt unworthy and ill-suited to the task even as I knew I wouldn’t have had any other soul set pen to paper to create this book. Funny how emotions contradict even themselves.
When my oldest brother called me a few weeks before the 1st year anniversary of our middle brother’s death, I didn’t even let him finish asking his question before I interrupted with, “Yes. Yes. Stop talking, I said yes.” I’d never taken on a project like this one, but I knew it had been what my heart was looking for as the days marched closer to the 23rd and I felt adrift even in my own skin. It’s like my fingers knew they needed to create, even as my mind couldn’t wrap itself around doing so.
And so I created. For 8 days, I storyboarded & sketched & ate chocolate & ignored the world turning beyond my nose and the color palette in front of me. Every few days, I’d surface for more potato chips & input from my 6 year old, who would tell me in the sweetest voice you can imagine, “Oh, mommy, I love it. I’m a child and it’s a childs book and I think all childs will love it.”
And so I let go of all of my inhibitions and doubts and terror at failure, and I drew. I drew knowing he’d never know that I was capable of drawing. I painted squiggles & splattered spots & used the undo button on my iPad more times than is appropriate and I did it knowing he wouldn’t have chosen me to illustrate his book; he died before I got up the courage to tell him that I did this sort of thing. That I had discovered (somehow, accidentally, in a round-about-way) that I, just like him, possessed the drive to create beauty.
And in between drawing, when I couldn’t stare at another shade of green for a second longer, I would walk down to the memorial garden, the spot where we planted an apple tree while my family gathered around on the coldest, windiest day in April and we said goodbye. And then I would walk back inside and pick up my pencil again and keep drawing. Because while it hurt to draw, it hurt more to do nothing.
And that’s why this book exists. Because it hurts to think about him and it hurts to see his photo and it hurts to hear his melancholy siren voice in the music he created… but it hurts more not to. So we created something inside of the void, something beautiful and melancholy and somehow, beyond reason, something hopeful.
Life is full of doors.
In this story, doors can bring those we care about back to us, but from some doors, once walked through, there can be no return.
On March 23rd, 2020 Caleb, the author of this story, walked away from those who loved him, never to return. In sparking the creation of this book, it is my desire that we can walk into a story that brings back good memories of Caleb and the brother, son, and father that he was. While his death was tragic, the memories we choose to hold on to don’t have to be. I hope that, as we turn the pages of this children’s book, it allows for good memories of the author to walk through the open pages into our hearts and minds.
Excerpt from the Afterword, written by Nathan Caldwell
The Bubble Garden by Dr. Caleb Caldwell can be purchased here.