On August 2nd, our youngest child turned one. It was an odd feeling as we came up to it. Most “dates” are, because you naturally think of where you were at that ecact time in previous years. I remember clearly the day Hugo was born. I was a few days before my due date, and started feeling the onset of labour at Omo and Jean’s little girl Kari’s first birthday party on August 1st. By the next morning, I was having regular contractions but I wanted to keep busy so Heather, neighbor Ken and I took a drive up to WalMart where I calmly shopped, walking through my contractions. By the time we got home, labour was ramping up and I remember going to see Stella and telling her that her new baby brother would be coming soon. She smiled up at me, but I couldn’t hold her on my lap for very long, because the contractions made it uncomfortable to sit so I disappeared to the basement and labored alone for a couple of hours, pacing and watching old reruns on TLC.
I remember the pain getting really intense, and rushing over to the hospital. I remember being in a lovely and large room with Aimee, my dad and our two lovely midwives and, once the epidural kicked in, I remember lying in the bed and feeling relaxed and happy as we chatted and joked. It felt shockingly normal for a time in our lives when “normal” was relative.
After Hugo was born, I have only sporadic memories of the times Aimee and the kids and I lived as a family of five. We spent a lot of time sitting under the tree in our front yard. Aimee and I took the kids in two strollers for walks along the Danforth, and to Dairy Queen for ice cream. We went apple picking with Omo and Jean’s family, and to the Thursday Farmer’s Market with our friends. Time was so meaningless back then, but the reality is that by the time Hugo was 11 weeks old, Stella was dead. Such a short time we were all together, yet I remember clearly looking at my three children sitting together on the front lawn and wondering how life had changed so drastically in less than a year and a half.
As July petered out this year, Aimee and I threw around ideas on how to celebrate Hugo’s birthday. We were very conscious of the fact that Sam and Xavier’s big 1st birthday blowout bash scheduled for last October 21st was cancelled as Stella was actively dying at that point. We held our breath as October 20th and 21st passed, hoping against hope that our girl would hang on until all the birthday’s were through. Of course she did— she never liked missing a birthday party- and died October 22nd. But their birthdays will always remind us of the fact that Stella died just hours after they each turned one. So, we decided to keep Hugo’s first birthday low-key. We had our immediate family over for a small BBQ, ate cupcakes and simultaneously celebrated and mourned. It turned out nicely, but as we lit the candle we keep on our mantle for Stella, there was a definite feeling that someone was missing. We were celebrating Hugo, but with the knowledge that without Stella’s death, he would not be here. It’s an odd thing to reconcile—knowing the child you have now that you love so much, is only here because you lost a child that you loved equally as much. It’s a hard feeling to describe.
Hugo’s first birthday was also a time for reflection for me about our youngest child. Hugo, a son that is very much loved, but never planned. My children were supposed to be Stella and Sam. For months after Aimee got pregnant, we planned a future and pictured life with our new baby and daughter. Then, everything changed. With those four letters- DIPG- the rug was ripped out from under us, the breath was yanked from our chests and our dreams for the future lay shattered on the ground, forming a carpet of agony and tears.
But somehow, some way, we found the courage to keep going and to open ourselves up to the possibility of more children. Getting pregnant with Hugo when Sam was only two weeks old and Stella was so sick was something that shocked even our most ardent supporters. It seemed crazy—it was crazy. But, a credit to those we choose to surround ourselves with, he was welcomed with open arms and open hearts by our friends and family. Aimee and I were so happy that Stella got to meet and name him, and though by the time he was born she had lost any capabilities at all regarding movement or speech, she smiled each time we put Hugo’s heavy newborn body on her chest, and she giggled when he gave her sloppy baby kisses. We know that neither Sam nor Hugo will have any memories of their sister, but we have a few dozen photographs of them together to show the boys as we teach them about her. Already Sam ends every night of his life by kissing a painting of Stella that hangs on his bedroom wall and saying, “good night Stella”, and soon Hugo will be able to do the same. Its not enough. It will never be enough to look at two-dimensional photographs of her, but it’s all we have.
Because of the time in our lives that Hugo was born, it took me a long time to feel bonded to him. He was there, but he was a newborn, and newborns are easy to put down somewhere and come back to much later, still sleeping or staring up at the ceiling. I’ve had trouble with all my kids as newborns, I learn to love them slowly, and it’s never been a lightening bolt of “everlasting love and affection” when a baby is placed in my arms. I need time, but in that time I struggle with self-doubt and fears. Because Stella required so much of our physical, mental and emotional energy when Hugo was born, and because Sam was actively crawling and moving around, Hugo was often put aside. We met his basic needs and he was held and cuddled by many people, but I feel like I never really go to know him until after Stella died. Even then, the first few months the only thing that I, or many people, could do was compare him to Stella. He looked like her, and early on he began to show some of the stubbornness and intelligence that she exhibited. “Just like Stella…” we would laugh.
But slowly, as time passed and the dust surrounding Stella’s death settled, something happened. Everyone drifted back to work or school. Sam started daycare. So day in, day out, it soon became just Hugo and I. I finally had the time and energy to turn my attentions to this little person and learn about him. I had the opportunity to get to know my son as an individual, not “just like” anyone, but unique and special in his own ways.
Hugo is incredibly driven. He walked before he was a year old and at just over 12 months, reliably says almost a dozen words. He is fiercely independent, rough-and-tumble, fearless and does not believe he is a baby, but sees himself as a toddler just like Sam and Xavier. He keeps up with them quite readily and though he seems to get hurt quite often, he just gets back up and continues on. Hugo has a great laugh, and he finds his brother Sam endlessly entertaining. Sometimes they crack each other up with a type of gibberish that makes no sense at all to the rest of us. He is easy-going, game for just about anything, and he actually likes sitting in my lap while I read to him. Perhaps out of necessity, he has learned to keep himself occupied and sometimes will wander away from the group and play quietly by himself. He has a beautiful smile, a cackling laugh, and crazy blonde hair that is so straight it sticks straight up if we don’t brush it. Like his older brother, he is crazy about construction vehicles, and loves peek-a-boo. He is not clingy, not whiny, and hasn’t met a food he doesn’t like.
I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, just like I’m not sure when it happened with Sam, but I’ve fallen in love with my littlest guy and can no longer imagine life without him. I didn’t get Stella and Sam, but Sam and Hugo are incredibly special together, and I can’t wait to celebrate them and their burgeoning relationship as the days and years pass. Hugo is also important symbolically to Aimee and I, as he was the first concrete sign that we gave ourselves and the world that we were going to continue to embrace life and live it as well as we could, despite the fact we were going to lose our daughter to a terrible disease.
So, Happy Birthday Hugo! Thank-you for giving me a million more reasons to smile.