Stella has been gone for just over four months now. Already it seems like a lifetime ago that I sat with her on the couch, holding her body close to mine and trying to memorize the veins on her eyelids as she napped contentedly on my lap. The days of visitors and noise and food are long gone. It’s mostly just us now. We’ve settled into a quiet and “normal” existence. Aimee goes to work five days a week. I get up and we all get breakfast. Aimee leaves and then I play with the boys and get them dressed and ready for the day. Sam goes to daycare and the I’m home with Hugo all day. Aimee comes home from work and we eat dinner and give the kids baths and put them to bed. Then Aimee and I talk about our days while we tidy up the house and negotiate what will go on the family calendar for the next few days. We watch a bit of tv and then collapse into bed. Wake up the next day and repeat. Time is marching forward and though Stella is never far from our minds, she is no longer a part of our daily routines. No more meds, no more visits from Doctors, no more drawn-out discussions on quality of life versus quantity of life. The hole she has left behind is still big and deep and raw, but we are being propelled forward by the momentum of time passing.
The boys are growing quickly and Sam is entering an age which is slightly more challenging than that of “baby”. At 16 months old, he is quickly developing into a toddler and though that comes with much joy at seeing him learn to speak and come into his own as a person, it also means regular battles of wills and a constant need for attention as furniture is climbed, buttons pressed and drawers opened and closed at alarming speed.
I know that I’ve blogged quite a bit about the difficulties I had parenting Stella who was described as “spirited”, “energetic” and a “force to be reckoned with” by other people— all these terms just synonyms for “challenging”. So, taking with me the very valuable lessons I learned from her life and death, I have been trying to be more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses and the things that trigger me and cause me to lose my cool. I start off every single day by taking a moment to remember my daughter. To picture her face flashing me a brilliant smile, to remember the out of tune cackle of her laugh, to feel her warm hand clutching mine. It’s my own version of a prayer. I ask for patience, for the ability to remember what is important in life, for a day where I appreciate the small blessings that are around each day. I remember what I am grateful for and I promise not to be grumpy or roll my eyes at the fact that it is pitch black outside and all the normal people are still sleeping while my children are calling for me. I do all these things to remind myself all that I have to be grateful for, and to help myself get ready for the day. It’s important for me because I am not, nor have I ever been a “natural mother”. Just to define what I mean by this, I would say a natural mother (or father or caregiver), is someone who is able to handle the challenges of parenting with ease, confidence and a skill that is second nature to them. These people exist, I know some of them personally. Unlike those with a natural knack and parenting instinct, I’m constantly fighting an internal battle with myself to make a conscious effort to focus and enjoy children. I am not a “Camp Counselor” type who can do different voices for each piece of clothing that needs to be put on, make up songs about broccoli on the spot and find a million fun and imaginative ways to make toothbrushing a great pirate adventure. I say what I mean, won’t play it if I don’t think it’s fun and instead of feeling superior or proud, I openly mourn the fact that none of the kids I have ever parented are the least bit interested in television.
I love my children. Especially after suffering the loss of one, I wake up everyday grateful for another morning with my active and growing sons. But many times the joy I feel at being around them goes no further than my face. I still find it difficult to throw myself wholeheartedly into parenting when there are SO many other things I wish I had time to do. Read a book? Yeah right. Take a dance class one evening a week? Not likely. Sleep past 5:30am? Not with my offspring. I thought it would be different. I thought that because of the intense and heartbreaking experience of having Stella die in the way she would, that parenting would suddenly all make sense and come easily to me. But it hasn’t. I still have to take deep breaths on a daily basis, and though I’m much, much better at letting go of the small stuff and much, much better at letting my kids just be themselves and loving them for who they are, I still don’t always feel fulfilled and joyous with all my parenting duties.
Aimee is an extremely involved parent as well and we split the kid duties 50/50. But she is back at work and so when she gets up in the morning, she needs to shower, pack her lunch and get out the door. The kids get up sometime before 6am. So in the mornings, until Sam leaves for daycare around 9:30am, I have them both. Often these are my favourite times. Hugo is exceptionally smiley and easy-going. Sam is the most affectionate child I have ever come across, peppering my face with sweet kisses, hugging his brother, cooing at all the pictures of animals and babies in his picture books. But he is also 16 months old, mobile, learning, exploring and climbing everything and anything. As a result, Sam is now sometimes hard to manage, especially when I am balancing a 6-month old on one hip.
So yesterday morning, after managing to get both kids fed (not myself, but both kids fed is a victory in itself…I can wait), I had to pee. For many people this is not something you need to think too hard about, but it’s a bit of a process for me. I can’t leave the kids alone either together or apart while I accomplish this mundane but important task, so I need to pick up Hugo and cajole Sam into joining me in the bathroom. While I was on the toilet balancing Hugo on my lap, Sam decided to open the bottom of the vanity and began emptying out various toiletries he found. QTips, moisturizer, guest toothbrushes, tampons. That was all fine until he stumbled across some hair elastics that he began shoving in his mouth. Choking Alert my brain immediately processed. “Sam,” I coaxed him holding one arm out, “give those to Mama”. Sam flashed me a mega watt grin and moved just out of my reach. At that moment Hugo decided he didn’t want to be on my lap anymore and began arching his back and crying, trying desperately to wiggle out of my arms. I put Hugo down and lunged for Sam, pulling my pants up with one hand. I got to Sam, but both my sudden movements and my ripping the hair elastics out of his hand scared him so he began to wail loudly. This upset Hugo who also began to cry. As I washed my hands and the two children screamed around me (just so you know our bathroom is about the size of a clothes closet so there isn’t much space to move around), I realized one of them needed a diaper change. After completing the tried, tested and true technique of butt sniffing, I figured out it was Hugo. I keep diapers in the bathroom, so since we were all there I kneeled down to change his diaper. Hugo stopped crying and as I belted out “Twinkle Twinkle” as loud as I could, Sam eventually stopped as well. Success. As I got Hugo’s diaper undone, Sam ran for the toilet and tried to open the lid. I used one leg to slam it down and said, “Sam, No!”. Sam laughed, moved away from the toilet and beelined for the garbage can which he quickly opened and began emptying out. “Sam!” I said leaning over and shutting it with one hand. Back to the toilet he ran, back my foot went to keep the lid down. Meanwhile, Hugo was twisting out of my grip and managed to roll onto his stomach, smearing poo all over the bathroom rug. “Aargh!” I exclaimed trying to push him back over. He wouldn’t go and began commando crawling towards the base of the toilet, smearing poo on the ground as he dragged his naked body across the floor. Sam ran over and began spreading his brother’s feces with his hands. “Sam, No!” I yanked him away and pulling off a large chunk of toilet paper, wiped his hands and placed him in the corner using my body to block him in and he pounded my back. I grabbed Hugo by the ankles and quickly changed his diaper while he basically stood on his head. I had one foot up keeping the toilet seat down and the other foot on the lid of the garbage. Sam was climbing on my back and crying into my ear. By the time all was said and done, both kids were crying. I was sweaty and covered in snot and poo and so was the bathroom.
This entire scenario was only 3 minutes long. But when you have almost 4 hours to kill in the mornings with your two kids something like this can break you.
As it was all happening I kept trying to find my inner zen. I kept trying to be grateful that my kids were healthy and active enough to be doing these things. To remember that Sam was growing quickly and learning new things. But with cacophony of baby cries, the smell of poo and the impending feeling of failure make that a hard thing to keep in mind. All I felt was stressed and overwhelmed. I was frustrated with both boys, but mostly with myself for not being able to “do” parenting. I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to burst into tears. I just wanted to sit down and drink a hot tea by myself. But at that point I was more likely to get accepted into Harvard for Law than accomplish that.
Outside the bathroom, I sat cross legged on the floor of Stella/Sam’s room and watched Sam pull all the books off his shelf while Hugo crawled around (towards the radiator of course— why is it when there’s a room full of toys the kids always gravitate towards sockets, poisons or electrical equipment?). I felt defeated. I had promised myself a million times over that I was going to enjoy parenting these two boys. I remembered sitting in this room with Stella so many mornings and watching her do the same things as Sam and Hugo were doing. I remember her tantruming because I wouldn’t let her rip all the pages out of the books. I remember her hitting me over the head with her toy piano and then laughing— just to see my reaction. I remember epic fights over wanting to wear 7 pairs of underwear to daycare, on the outside of her pants. Was I any different now? Could I have managed it better with all the lessons and knowledge her life and death had given me? I think so, but at that moment, I just wasn’t sure.
Sam ran into Hugo’s room and I could hear the crashing of something being pulled of a shelf. When he returned, he was holding part of a name puzzle we have that spells out Hugo’s name. He proudly handed it to me. “Thank-you Sam” I said accepting it. He held his hands out and I gave it back to him. Back and forth he came with part of the puzzle, about six times, handing it to me and then asking for it back. Finally, instead of handing it to me he placed it on the ground in front of where I was sitting and jabbed at it with his finger. “HUG”. It was the first three letters of Hugo’s name, but they suddenly meant so much more to me when presented this way, at this time. I looked up at Stella’s picture and said a silent, “Thank-you, Stella”. Hug. Hug. I hugged Sam. I hugged Hugo. I closed my eyes and remembered hugging Stella, and remembered how hard I cried the day I realized her body had taken away her ability to give hugs to people any longer. I wrapped my arms around myself and gave a little squeeze.
I realized it was okay. Just because Stella died doesn’t mean I need to love every single moment of being a parent. It’s hard work. It was hard work with Stella and it will be hard work with the boys. But it’s my choice, my pleasure, my honour to do it. Losing a child has made me appreciate the things I get to do with the kids so much more. It’s made me better because I can focus on them and enjoy the moment instead of dreaming of when it will “get easier…better…more fun”. Now is all we’re promised, so even if now consists of having poo under my nails and cheerios stuck to my shoulder, I’m here for all of it- good and bad.
But today was important because it reminded me of something else. When Stella was completely out of control— like rolling on the ground, screaming and flailing her arms I would sometimes just pick her up and hold her until she calmed down. It usually worked and she would end up hiccupping and sniffling in my arms. She just needed a hug. Just like I needed one yesterday morning.
The puzzle Sam brought to me:
Xavier and Sam:
Sharing Fries with Uncle Tristan:
Stella at age two dying Easter Eggs…just before she started smashing them with her hands: