Gracie was the first baby to be born into our family. She arrived in the spring of 2008 and dozens and dozens of family members and friends celebrated her birth. The first niece. The first grandchild. The first daughter. The first child to carry the hopes and dreams of the next generation in her dimpled little fingers.
When I got pregnant with Stella, Gracie was 4 months old. Aimee and I were thrilled that our child would be so close in age to Gracie. We didn’t find out the sex of our baby, but both whispered excitedly at night as we dreamed of our future, that it would be amazing if it were a girl so that our daughter and Gracie could be “besties” forever. Retrospectively, I’m not sure why we felt so sure that only another girl would be best friends with Gracie. I think it’s likely because Aimee and I are both best friends with our sisters, so it seemed natural that another girl would be the right fit. When Stella burst into the world, just before Gracie turned 13-months old, one of the first things Aimee and I said to each other was that our little girl was destined to be best friends forever with Gracie. With her doe-like green eyes, dark brown a-symmetrical haircuts, lean frame and olive skin, Gracie was the polar opposite (in looks) to our chubby, porcelain, mop-top daughter. But somehow, right from the beginning, they just fit together and complemented each other perfectly.
Everything we did was for or with “the girls”. We bought them matching pyjamas to wear at Christmas. We took them everywhere together…to watch Tutu skate, to Great Wolf Lodge, to Mexico, to the park, to concerts, to drop-in centres, swimming, cottaging, Maple Syrup-ing, etc. etc. The girls were inseparable. Stella became Gracie’s “Stellie” and Stella called Gracie, “Gwacie”. Gracie was the perfect older cousin. She was always very gentle with Stella, very caring and protective. When Stella could only crawl, Gracie would crawl too, even though she was capable of running circles around her. Stella was always more outgoing and daring than Gracie. I remember taking them to a petting zoo when Stella was 11 months old and Gracie was days away from turning two. Gracie shied away from the bleating sheep, while we had to restrain Stella from pushing both her chubby hands through the split-rail fence and into the sheep’s eyes. Gracie was sweet. Stella was cheeky. Gracie was timid. Stella was bold. Gracie was athletic. Stella was clumsy. Gracie was tender. Stella was rough. Gracie liked sitting for movies and shows and books. Stella liked running and throwing and sliding. They both loved to dance. They both loved Great Wolf Lodge. They both loved animals and they both thought the other was the funniest person they’d ever met.
The hours after we received Stella’s fatal diagnosis are mostly a blur to me. I’ve tried hard not to think too much about them because it is too traumatic to relive. But, one memory which always stands out clearly from the rest, is a vivid picture of Andrea–_Stella’s beloved Auntie Andgie—crouched over on a wooden bench on the 5th floor of Sick Kids Hospital, tears streaming down her face. I remember her looking up and saying, to no one in particular, “What are we going to do about Gracie?” Our hearts sunk even lower than they already had. The despair and sadness swallowed me up whole in that moment. Not only would Aimee and I have to learn to let our daughter go, but Gracie was going to have to grow up without her “bestie”. It was nauseating.
With the help of our friend and resident Children’s Grief expert Andrea Warnick, we were all able to speak to Gracie about Stella’s tumor and for the most part we think she understood. As Stella’s body changed, Gracie changed her playing to accommodate her. Chasing each other around in circles became playing tea party together when Stella couldn’t walk anymore. Watching puppet shows became reading books and eventually, when her eyesight and motor skills were fading, watching TV, became just cuddling.
Gracie was present every step of the way as Stella lost her faculties. She never seemed jealous of the attention Stella got, never got mad about the weekly birthday parties we threw for her, never fought for attention from doting grandparents who admonished her to “be gentle” with Stella. Gracie sometimes asked questions about Stella’s tumor, and once in awhile expressed her wish that Stella would be able to run again and talk again and “not die”. But for the most part she just bounded into the house day after day and stretched her imagination to its limit as she found ways to engage with Stella in a much more natural and healthy way than any of the adults ever could. She was always the caregiver in their relationship, but she also took on some of Stella’s bravery and boundless energy when Stella’s started to wane. Gracie was at the house just moments after Stella took her last breath. She spent time with her body after she died, and wailed in raw agony as the black car carrying Stella’s body drove out of our driveway. But for the most part, Gracie seems to be dealing with Stella’s death in the same way she accepted her physical changes—quietly and openly.
Gracie talks often about Stella. Saturday she peeked out the window in Stella’s room and said to us, “I’m just checking to see if Stella’s spirit is still playing outside. She said the backyard is her favourite place”. Gracie constantly draws pictures of herself with Stella. In these drawings, Gracie is always twice as big (because she’s the “big” cousin, after all!) and she always puts mounds of curls on top of Stella’s head.
Gracie still comes to the house. She often goes into Stella’s room and pulls out a piece of her clothing to wear. The clothes are all too small, but she puts them on regardless and breathes life back into Stella’s toys and spaces, which is like a balm for our bruised souls.
Now it is Sam whom Gracie runs to when she walks into our house. It is Sam who follows her reverently around, basking in her energy and attention. It is Sam who she chases and grabs in big hugs. Now it is Hugo who she looks after. It is Hugo she protects. It is Hugo she feeds bottles to, and holds. Gracie has a different relationship with our boys than with Stella. But she loves them just as fiercely, and I am confident that despite a 4-year age gap and difference in sex, their relationship will continue to grow and will become vitally important to all of them. And Xavier is in the mix of cousins too. When Sam and Xavier were born just hours apart in October of 2011, I said that they were destined to be best friends. Then Aimee and I began to cry because we remembered another set of cousins who were supposed to grow up as close as siblings as well. Xavier is a sweet-faced boy who is twice the size of Sam, but a gentle giant who has already shown a love for music and cuddles. Together, this motley group of children bring laughter into an otherwise weeping house and hope where hopelessness grows much too easily.
I am curious to see the kind of person Gracie will be as the years pass. It will always be bittersweet to watch her navigate life without Stella. I know I will always wonder, “what if…” and I know I will always cry when Gracie experiences or accomplishes something that Stella should have been there for. But, in the absence of my own daughter, Gracie is there to wear dresses and listen to my crazy theories on how Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were sisters. Gracie is there to alternatively play with, and tease, Sam and Hugo. Gracie is there to dance in the living room and colour pictures for the fridge.
Just like Stella Joy, Gracie is aptly named. Her name means “Thanks”, and I am very grateful for her indeed.
This is a video made by our friend Chris Yap. It was shown at Stella’s Funeral (aka Stellabration of Life aka Stella’s Celebration of Love). I have never gotten through this video without bawling, because I think it really highlights how much love Stella had in her life. And it shows clearly the adoration of Gracie, and her best friend/cousin:
Some of the drawings Gracie has done recently of her and “Stellie”: