Happy Birthday Big Girl! (By: Aimee Bruner_

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Happy Birthday Big Girl! (By: Aimee Bruner)

My firstborn and the love of my life turned four last Thursday. As I sit on our beloved couch and write this, an oversized helium balloon hovers over my shoulder. It has a big, yellow star on it and an even bigger picture of everyone’s favourite mouse – Chuck E Cheese. In black marker, it reads “STELLA 4!”

Right now, at Riverdale Farm, Stella’s tree shows signs of new life. Buds are starting to find their place on the branches and there are four balloons gently tied there, dancing overhead. The balloons are each a different colour – green, pink, purple and blue. Stella’s favourite.

On Thursday morning, Mish and I woke up under the weight of the day. This day that was once so sacred, so joyous, has become one that’s riddled with the greatest heartache we have ever known. She’s not here. On a day that we should have been racing around planning our daughter’s 4th birthday party, wrapping presents and putting the finishing touches on loot bags for her friends – we were baking a cake that she would never get to eat. We were wiping tears away as we piled into the van to go to Riverdale Farm to visit her tree. We were broken. We ARE broken. As we pulled up to the farm, our friends and family were waiting for us. We all took the day off work to be together and to remember our girl.

We brought the essentials with us – a “Stella Star”, a birthday candle and the biggest box of chocolate Tim Bits you’ve ever seen. The birthday candle was one that I bought last month and is in the shape of a 4. When I bent down to place the candle at the base of the tree, I felt like I could never get up. It was as if someone was standing on my chest, pinning me to the ground. I remember thinking “how the hell did we get here?” How is it that I’m leaning over a plaque with my child’s name and the dates marking her short life on it? It’s a question that I know no one will ever be able to answer for me. Just when I felt stuck there, holding the bottom of the tree as if it was a piece of Stella, that huge box of Tim Bits that Poppa had brought in memory of his girl, caught the corner of my eye.

There it was, sitting proudly in the middle of Stella’s bench that’s right beside her tree. A smile washed over my face and my cheeks forced the tears that had been brimming in my eyes, to fall. Stella loved Tim Bits. There they sat, right underneath her beautiful name. Not only did Stella love Tim Bits – she LOVED her birthday! Right then and there, the day became just a little bit easier for me. I wanted to celebrate her. I needed to celebrate her.

For the rest of the day, I found myself being comforted by the thought of her being so happy on her birthday. She would have let everyone know (in the loudest voice possible) that it was her birthday. She would have loved her number 4 candle and her balloons but most of all – she would have loved the fact that she was surrounded by all of her favourite people in the world. After making the rounds at the farm and paying a special visit to “Stella’s pigs”, Poppa played his famous rendition of Happy Birthday on his trumpet, our eyes filled with tears once again and we took the kids home for a nap. As family and friends started to trickle into our house, it began to fill with a soft but ever present energy. I know this energy. This is the energy formed by the people who held us up during the darkest days of our lives and it’s what became the small glimmer of joy that came out of the most horrific reality Mishi and I could have ever imagined for our lives. It was nice to have our house brimming with people again. I find so much comfort in having Gracie, my niece and Stella’s big cousin, around. Watching her bounce around the room, picking up Sam, reminds me of when she used to do the same with Stella. My heart breaks when I watch her make up her own games. I wish Stella was here to play with her, to keep her company.

I wish Stella was here.

Mish planned a big party at Chuck E Cheese for Stella that evening. She invited our family and friends, booked the reservation, ordered the food and made a cake covered in chocolate Tim Bits. She did all of this for Stella. She did this to celebrate a day. This day. This incredible day that marks the date that both Stella and Mishi came into the world decades apart. On a day that she should have been showered with birthday wishes and cracks about getting older – she ran a birthday party for her dead daughter. Not only did Mishi lose her daughter, she lost her birthday too (she’s asked us not to celebrate it because it’s too painful for her). I hope that one day, the thought that they share a birthday, makes Mishi feel tightly tethered to Stella instead of shattered and unraveled.

When we arrived at Chuck E Cheese, Mishi and I took a deep breath, held hands and braced ourselves for what we were about to walk into. Chuck E Cheese was exactly how I remembered it from the last time we were there with Stella – bright, loud, over stimulating and FUN! It really is a kids dream. Stella loved it (and so does Mishi). When we arrived at the table, it was flooded with decorations, party hats and balloons. I felt like my heart was in a vice, crushing further everywhere I looked. There was a big balloon tied to the table with her name on it, only, she wasn’t there. Her friends started to arrive and so did their parents – many of whom were wearing green for Stella. As people started to file in, it occurred to me, that they were there not only for us but for their profound love for Stella.

As we spent the rest of the evening running around, chasing kids, stuffing our faces with greasy pizza, dancing, laughing and crying – all I could think about was how much Stella would have loved the party. When it was time to sing Happy Birthday, you could feel the adults in the room quietly brace themselves. We sang Happy Birthday to our girl and then her best buddies in the whole world blew out her candles.

Happy Birthday Big Girl!





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Sunday One Day

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Sunday One Day

Last Sunday morning Aimee, Heather, Daniel and I got our three boys Baptized.  It was a fun and happy occasion.  We invited our families to come, named our best friends as Godparents and got the kids dressed up in cute matching white shirts and ties.  We all traipsed to Church and they boys were hilarious.  Hugo was cranky as heck because it was his naptime, Xavier was confused because all of his grandparents were there and he wanted to be with them instead of onstage and Sam had no intention of staying anywhere and spent the entire time running up and down the aisles, up and down the stairs and valiantly attempting to knock down the pottery containers of water sitting by the Baptismal Ponce.  It was challenging, but since we were all missing Stella, it was nice too because her spirit seemed to be all around us.  When it came time for the boys to be Baptized, Rev. Sarah said a few words about Stella and placed a Stella Star on the Baptism Table.  It was very moving and probably would have resulted in me crying buckets except for the fact that I was busy trying to hold a squirming Sam back from running up the stage towards the choir. After the Baptism, we had everyone back to our house for pizza and cake.  It was very celebratory, very light, and very happy.

Last Sunday afternoon Aimee and I and our families sat in a room on the University of Toronto campus with 17 other families who had lost children to cancer in the last year.  It was the annual Sick Kids Hospital Hematology/Oncology Memorial Service and it was very, very, sad.  It was a solemn occasion with a quartet singing sad and beautiful songs that vibrated through the old hall we all sat in, guitar chords and harmonies bouncing against the walls and hitting us all in the gut as we cried helplessly.  A bereaved father whose 6-year old son, Steven, died 15 years ago to the day spoke about his family’s journey without their son.  Candles were lit and the names of those who died were read aloud as we hung construction-paper leaves with our children’s names on a small collection of branches.  A table set up at the back of the room featured photos of children, from babies to teenagers all beaming up at the camera, all beautiful with their eyes shining their whole lives in front of them.  All dead.  It was so difficult to fathom.  And it was impossible to believe that Stella’s face was one of them.  Spirited, funny, mop-topped girl laughing into the camera.  Dead.  The photos prove without a doubt that cancer does not discriminate.  There were children of every age, every race, every religion represented on that damn table, including our neighbor’s boy Johnny whose smile in the photo reminded me so much of my brother Tristan’s, and whose baseball cap sitting next to his picture made me want to scream at the injustice of it all.

I never thought I would go to something like this.  I never thought I would purposefully go into a place that I knew would be awful and hard and bring up all the sadness and horror we’ve been trying so hard to control since Stella died.  But for some reason, I wanted to be in that space.  I wanted to be in a controlled environment where, for just an hour on a Sunday afternoon, Aimee and I and our parents and sisters could just sit and reflect and be sad together.   It was incredibly empowering to be sitting amongst other families, sharing our profound sadness.

This Sunday was split between very happy and very sad moments.  It was reflective of our lives, and also how I imagine Thursday is going to be.

Thursday has been looming in my brain since Stella was diagnosed.  Stella’s birthday.  How do you mark the birthday of a child who died?  I’ve been worrying and fussing about it for months.  How to mark it, how to get through it.  It’s unnatural to go through the birthdate of your child when you have had to live through their death.  A birthday marks the beginning of getting to know this little person whom you infuse with a hundred years of wishes and hopes and dreams.  You marvel over the fact that this child “belongs “ to you.  The little ears.  The impossibly small fingernails.  The tiny turned up nose and translucent eyelids. The smell of a baby’s forehead which is something that can’t be described or duplicated, but if you’ve smelt it you never forget it.  You pour your whole heart into this little being, dreaming of the day that they will attend their first soccer game, graduate from university, perhaps give you grandchildren and, of course, look after you in your old age and make you glow with pride at their accomplishments and contributions to society.  This is an expectation, a simple give and get relationship.  Basic economics.  But life betrayed Aimee and I in the most heartbreaking way.  We gave and gave and instead of getting something, our most prized possession was ruthlessly taken from us.

I spent hours holding Stella’s little hands and teaching her how to walk, applauding and singing songs for her.  But cancer took away her ability to walk.

I made all Stella’s baby food.  Boiled sweet potatoes (organic, even!) peeled them and put them in the blender.  Cooked apples for applesauce, mushed up broccoli and sang “Sitting in my High Chair” from Rainbow Songs a dozen times a day while she ate.  Taught her to use a spoon, drink from a cup and love lima beans.  Then cancer took away her ability to chew anything.

I taught her to sing the ABC’s.  Taught her the names of all the farm animals in both French and English.  Taught her to recognize the “S” for her name, and all the first names of her family members.  Cancer took away her voice.

I held her for hours at night.  When she was a newborn sitting in the pitch black, willing her to sleep.  I held her when she peed on me, vomited on me, cried and cried when she was a baby.  As a toddler, I held her when she had fevers, carried her around Riverdale Farm and the zoo, taught her to ride a bike.  When cancer took her ability to walk away, I carried her again.  Carried her on my hip, then in a baby carrier, then in my arms like a baby.  Carried her from the bed to the couch and then back to the bed.  When cancer took her life away, Aimee carried her out to the waiting car and watched as she was driven away from us forever.

Now, on Stella’s birthday this Thursday, Aimee and I want so badly to try to remember all that Stella gave to us before she was taken away.  We want to try to make it a celebration as much as possible.  I don’t know if we will succeed, but we will try to keep the lessons we learned this Sunday with us.  Cry when it feels right to cry.  Smile when it feels right to smile.  Celebrate the gifts we were given in the 3-½ years Stella was here, while wishing fervently that she was still with us.

This will be her first “forever” birthday.  If you think of it, if you want to honour her with us, take a moment on Thursday to do something “Stella-like”.  Eat a chocolate Timbit for breakfast.  Have a birthday celebration for someone “just because”.  Dance to the music in your own heart.  Or just bite someone, and then laugh at his or her shocked reaction.  (O:

Oh, Stella.  I remember so well the first moment I laid eyes on you.  My heart was so full.  I would never have guessed how broken it would be a mere four years later.  Miss you so much baby girl.

Boys get Baptized:

Happy Baptism Day! (R-L, Brad, Ray, Aimee, Mishi, Peter and Cheryl):

Boy-Mobile (Hugo, Sam and Xavier) at the Science Centre:

Sam showing Hugo the birds, that Stella used to feed and still come around for bread.  Now Sam feeds them:

Stella, 8 months old:


 

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April Showers Bring May Flowers

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April Showers Bring May Flowers

 

“April showers bring May flowers”, so the saying goes.  As we head into April, Aimee and I can’t stop thinking about Stella.  More than any other time of year, this is when we feel Stella’s absence most.  This is the “season of Stella”.  Her birthday, the beginning of warmer weather when we would have trips to the park, farmer’s market, cottages.  We attended a baby shower last weekend for our best friend, who is expecting her first child (a little girl), around Stella’s birthday.  It was so easy to be with her and remember when it was Aimee and I hosting a shower with our friends, eagerly anticipating the birth of our first child.  And as happy and excited I am to welcome this new little girl into our family, there were tears behind my eyes the whole time as I remembered the little girl who wasn’t there.  A Stella Star hanging from the corner of the room was her symbol, so in a way she was there.  But not in the way I had always hoped and dreamed.  It was yet another reminder of how Stella was missing out on a special and important thing in our lives— the birth of a little girl who would have been one of her best friends in the whole world. 

 

Sometimes I feel like I’m living somebody else’s life.  I don’t recognize so much of my reality any longer.  I had planned to have Stella and Sam, but now I have Sam and Hugo.  And instead of Sam being the younger brother, he’s now the older brother.  I am sometimes caught with a case of “it wasn’t supposed to be like this”.  In so many ways I feel a strange sense of déjà vu with what we are doing with the kids.  Sam just started swimming lessons on Sunday, at the very same pool Stella went swimming in for her first lessons.  As he laughed when the water splashed around him, I felt a pang.  Other parents in the change room assumed that Sam is my first, my eldest child.  I would assume the same thing in their situation.  So we all make small talk about what the kids think about the water, how to get yourself changed while managing your toddler, what kinds of things the kids will learn at such a young age, etc.  But I’ve already done all this once before.  I took Stella to this very same pool, changed her in the very same change room, sang the very same lame “Fish Hokey Pokey” in the water with the instructor.  It doesn’t make it any less special to be doing it with Sam, and someday Hugo, but it feels strange.  Stella was diagnosed when she was 26 months old, so we never really got past the toddler phase with her.  As a result, Aimee and I have been raising toddlers/babies for the last 4 years straight.  Diapers and learning to walk and talk and all the other “firsts” that come with babies we are living over again.  It’s lovely and heart wrenching all at the same time because we want to know, we demand to know, “where is Stella?”  No matter how many times I ask this question to the universe, only silence answers me.

 

But, as unbelievable as it seems, we really are learning to live without her.  What choice do we have?  I find that her name runs through my head constantly.  As I walk, each step I take is to the rhythm of her name, right-left, right-left, Stel-la, Stel-la.  Aimee and I start countless sentences with, “Remember when Stella…” and then follow it up with a funny memory.  “Remember when Stella coloured on the fridge”…”Remember when Stella refused to take her bike helmet off and tried to wear it to bed”…”Remember when Stella wanted to send baby Sam away to Catrina the dog walker”…”Remember when Stella dumped the full cereal bowl, milk and all, on her head and declared, ‘hat’ ”…  We are constantly thinking of ways to include her or remember her in our daily lives.  Lighting a candle with a hand-scribbled “Stella” note on it from Nanny Sandy.  Calling all the little red-headed girls in Sam and Hugo’s picture books “Stella”.  Bringing her photo to Gracie’s sleepover birthday party because Gracie wanted Stella to be there.  Wearing Stella Stars whenever we go out to parties or places so people ask about them and we can talk about Stella (by the way—Stella Stars are available.  Our webmaster hasn’t had a chance to put them up on the Stella Stars website, but if you can’t wait just email stella@stellabrunermethven.com and we’ll hook you up!).  I find it unbearably sad to watch videos of her or look at too many pictures right now because my brain just can’t compute how this child is no more when I see her so clearly alive and energetic dancing and talking on my computer screen.  How can it be?  How did this happen?  It sometimes feels like a bad dream, but when I pinch myself I don’t get to wake up, it just hurts more. 

 

As the weather is getting warmer and Stella’s birthday approaches, Aimee and I find ourselves getting sadder and sadder.  I am trapped in reliving the days leading up to her birthday.  It was only four years ago that at this time I was hugely pregnant with her.  I remember I wrote a statistics exam on April 15th (which was my official due date), and spent the week leading up to that date studying and hanging out with my dad.  He took me for fish and chips at our favourite place, I folded and refolded all the tiny baby clothes in the drawers a dozen times, and Aimee and I spoke constantly of how unbelievable it would be when our long-awaited first child arrived.  We even practiced pushing our new stroller around the house and diapered and swaddled Aimee’s childhood bear to practice.  I remember staring at the empty bedroom we had created for our baby and trying to picture what it would be like once it was full of new life and promise. Now that room holds the life and promise of Stella’s little brother, her watchful eyes looking down from an encaustic painting.  Now we have Hugo, a child we never planned on or dreamed of but who has been helping to heal our battered hearts with his crazy hair, blue eyes and temperament that is so much like his big sisters, I sometimes slip and call him “Stella” by accident when I get overwhelmed with his constant need to move, climb, bounce. 

 

I don’t recognize my life.  I don’t recognize myself.  It’s not all bad as I do feel more connected, more aware, less scared and more confident in many ways.  But this April the showers pouring down from the sky feels closer to the tears pouring out of my soul than the promise of happier days ahead. 

 

I realized this morning that my heart is broken and there is nothing that anyone can do in this entire world to change that.  No amount of money or power or prayer can stop the sadness that lives deep within me.  I long ago surrendered to the natural ebbs and flows of this river of grief, but it still surprises me how much has happened in the mere 6 months Stella has been gone from this Earth.  Six months of living while she lay dead.  It’s crazy to think about. 

 

Today the spring weather was a bit crazy.  It was cool and clear this morning.  Then this afternoon it got really warm and sunny.  Then this evening the clouds rolled in and it poured rain.  The weather is kind of like my emotions leading into this month.  Good and bad, warm and cold, bright and dark all whipped together in a frenzy of action that I have little control over.  April showers bring May flowers.  What else will it bring?  Some peace, I hope.

The boys celebrate Easter with DeeDee, Uncle Tristan and an egg hunt:


Sam, Hugo and Xavier in the sandbox:


Sam and GrandPa have some quiet time:


Poppa enjoys the spring weather…Hugo enjoys a nap!:


Stella, a year ago:


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