Dancing in Heaven
I’ve been home full-time caring for kids for over two years now. The last day I worked was June 23, 2011. I have really let myself go. I weigh 15 pounds more than I did when I worked (thanks to a steady diet of Jos Louis and Pepsi), and wear the most comfortable clothes possible. Clothes that daily have baby barf and spit and pee and splashes of yogurt on them. I shower a couple times a week if I’m lucky, and only wear make-up at weddings and funerals. I caught site of myself in a store window last week, pushing Sam and Hugo along in the double stroller and was horrified at what I saw. Ill-fitting jogging pants that hugged all the wrong curves, a loose t-shirt with stains and a hole in the sleeve, a bandana over my greasy hair and my shoulders hunched over as I pushed the boys along the street. Ugh. Though I loudly proclaim to anyone who will listen (usually only Aimee), about how I have no one to impress, I think there’s a difference between dressing for comfort, and wanting to disappear. The events of the last two years have broken me somewhat, and though I am trying to piece things back together, I don’t look after myself. Pedicures are an expense we can’t afford, my last haircut was done at the kids place the boys get their hair cut at, my clothing all comes from Value Village, I despise high heels and given the choice would eat Lucky Charms for dinner any day of the week. The outward demeanor says I’ve given up, but that’s not true. Yes, Stella died. Yes, my heart is broken, but I am continuing to live a very full life. With that in mind, I ridded my closet of all my most “comfortable” (aka—ugly) clothing, and decided it was time to start caring a little bit more.
Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to get a little bit dressed up on Saturday night. Last month, Aimee and I received an invitation to a joint 40th/50th birthday celebration from friends of friends at one of the nicest hotels in town. It would be most like us to decline such an invitation, but at my urging, we RSVPd. “It will be fun,” I told Aimee, “these people are going to put on one Hell of a party, and some of our friends will be there. It will be good for us. A night out”. The people putting it on (Marjorie and Deb) sort of float in our outer circle of friends. They are best friends with some of our best friends, but we don’t really know them that well. They have always been incredibly generous people, truly good hearted, and even threw Stella and incredible birthday party (when it wasn’t really her birthday) not long after she was diagnosed. They dubbed in “Stellapalooza” and it had face painting, Sesame Street decorations, balloons, music, etc. It was awesome. They also had us over to their house for a swim a couple of times last summer. We knew they were kind and generous, but were a bit mystified as to why we were included in their party invitation since we were “second tier” friends. But whatever the reason, we were invited, and decided to go.
So, feeling a little bit ridiculous, on Saturday night Aimee and I booked our friend Tasha to watch Sam and Hugo and got dressed. It was a white party, and though I had gone to Value Village and picked up a white skirt I planned to wear with a T-shirt, at the last minute Aimee convinced me to wear a white dress of her mothers that was decidedly fancier. I dug through the drawers of the bathroom looking for makeup and came up with some dried up mascara that I added water to, and some sticky bubble gum pink lip gloss that I used as blush. It wasn’t exactly top of the line, but it was about all I could muster. I went to our friend Christie’s house early as she had rented a limosine for the occasion, and I had never been in a limo before. It was light-hearted and fun. Maybe because Aimee wasn’t there (she was meeting me at the party as she was at her moms that day), and the other people were in couples, maybe it was strange for me to be dressed up…but I felt like I was acting. Acting like I was socially smooth, when really I felt like a big dork wearing a white dress and clumpy mascara. It reminded me of my awkward teenage years when I wanted badly to “fit in” with the cool kids, but kept looking over my shoulder wondering when they were going to realize I was a nerd, and kick me to the curb.
Christie is lovely enough to have a big, beautiful picture of Stella up on her fridge and as I stood in her beautiful kitchen making small talk, my eyes kept wandering over to Stella’s big blue eyes and red curls. The two things didn’t connect in my brain. There is a picture of Stella on that fridge. Stella is dead. I’m dressed up. I’m going to a party. This is happy. But my daughter’s dead. Am I happy? I can’t tell. It was so disconnected. A little while later as I sat in the limo, sipping champagne and giggling at my friends antics, I wondered if I would ever feel as though I belonged again, or if there would constantly be this “fish out of water” feeling. In my grief I feel as though I am constantly straddling two worlds and trying to figure out my place in both of them.
The party was just as I had imagined it— a sea of gorgeous, put-together people sipping champagne and eating finger foods with grace and ease, the beautiful backdrop of the city behind us, shimmering in the floor-to-ceiling windows. These people were definitely one echelon up on the social ladder. Aimee laughed at my clumsy attempts to manage the hors d’oeuvres (seriously though, how do you balance the food, napkin, your drink and purse without dropping something???), and came to the rescue when I dropped a big plop of dip onto my foot and the carpet. “Can’t take you anywhere,” she teased. It seemed as though everyone who walked in was gorgeous and smart and oozed self-confidence. I was in awe as I shoved chicken skewers and mahi-mahi tacos down my throat, comfortable in my flat ballet slipper shoes even as I gawked at all the women wearing 6 inch heels.
As the evening progressed, I ate, spent time with Aimee and our friends and laughed. It was fun, and beautiful. I realized it had been a long time since I socialized without kids and it felt good. I even took part in a surprise flash mob that I had gotten an invitation to join. I’d always wanted to be part of a flash mob, and thought it was such a hoot. We were near the back so couldn’t really see anything, but I waved my arms and shook my butt just like the other participants. It was a fun, silly moment that had me dissolve into giggles when it was all over.
Near the end of the night, the hosts made a speech. It turns out that this joint 40th/50th birthday party was just an excuse for them to have a really great, fun party. It was neither Marjorie nor Deb’s birthday. They explained that when thinking about what they each wanted for their birthday’s earlier in the year, they came to the conclusion they didn’t need anything. They just wanted to have a great time and celebrate life. “You are our gift,” said Marjorie in her speech, “your joy is our gift”. I knew she wasn’t thinking specifically of Stella when she said that, but it felt as though a lightening bolt went off in my brain. Joy is the gift. “Choose Joy”. Isn’t that what Aimee always said, because that’s what Stella and our family had done? Faced with the worst news possible, and a long, tumultuous journey with cancer and illness, we had chosen joy over sadness and celebration over wallowing. I felt Stella’s presence in that moment, felt her urging me to choose joy. As the speeches ended and the DJ began to play music I did something completely out of character— I grabbed my friend Omo and told her that I wasn’t leaving until we had danced to at least one song. It was wayyy past my bedtime at this point, and I felt awkward on the dance floor, but I didn’t care. Stella would have danced, and so did I. Forming a small circle of some of the people that had held us up through Stella’s illness, Omo, Jean, Christie, Kate, Aimee and I danced together. Aimee twirled me around and gave a little fist pump into the air that made me laugh. In that moment, it occurred to me as I looked out from the 21st floor of the Ritz-Carleton hotel in Toronto that it felt like we were literally dancing in the sky. With everyone around me dressed in white (it was a white party after all!), I wondered if this is what it would be like to be dancing in Heaven. I wondered if Stella went to dance parties in the sky like this where the stars were the wallpaper, white swirled all around, and laughter and light were more important than whatever song was playing. The thought of Stella dancing in the sky made me smile. Surrounded by friends, throwing my arms up in the air and wiggling around like a fool, I felt Stella’s approval around me. As Aimee and I descended the elevator from the party, I felt truly happy. I had chosen joy, and my reward was feeling Stella’s spirit around my shoulders in a warm hug.
The thing about joy is that it comes from deep within. It’s not the same as other emotions that are a result of circumstances beyond your control. Joy is always inside you, and it’s always there ready to be set free. So, in honour of Stella, let us all CHOOSE JOY today.