The Day That Was

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October 22, 2013 started like any other day in our house.  Aimee and I got up, got dressed, fed the kids, dressed them and shipped them off to their respective daycares (each wearing their Stella Stars T-Shirt).  But then, instead of rushing off to work/school, Aimee went to Tim Horton’s to bring us breakfast, and then we retreated to home and settled ourselves into the couch.  We each ate two chocolate Timbits in honour of our little girl and lit candles on the mantle next to Stella’s picture.  A white candle Aimee bought, a Jewish 24-hour candle from our friend Sheri, and a red glass Catholic candle from Johnny’s parents.  We are neither Jewish nor Catholic, but I figured it was a good idea to hedge all our bets so we lit everything and stood back and watched the shadows of flame dance across the walls.  Little bits of fire and energy, just like our Stella.

 

Mid-morning, Auntie Heather and I took a quick trip to our local Value Village, which was a place I often escaped to on my darker days of Stella’s cancer.  Whenever I felt overwhelmed, somehow I found comfort wandering through the racks of clothing and books hunting for the elusive “must have” deal.  I hadn’t been in a long time, so Heather and I trekked out and spent an hour laughing at the things you can buy there.  When I arrived home afterwards, I found Aimee lying on the couch under a pile of Stella’s blankets and stuffed animals.  Her eyes were red and puffy from crying.  I sat next to her and rubbed her back.  We didn’t need to say anything at that point, so we just sat in silence and watched the candles burn.

 

After a good cry, Aimee and I settled into the couch and watched episodes of The Golden Girls on TV.  Our friend Christie popped by for a visit in the early afternoon.  Christie was one of the people who came by sometimes in the middle of the day, because you could always bet that someone would be home with Stella.  But since we’ve gone back to work and school, our house is empty during the day now, so it was lovely to sit there and reminisce and drink hot tea while Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia made wise-cracks in the background.  At around 2pm Auntie Angie and Gracie and Auntie Juju arrived, bringing homemade cookies with painted toenails and cupcakes that Juju and Gracie had made to honour Stella.  Aimee went to the garden and brought back some rocks and we all sat around with stickers and markers and paint and decorated stones to leave at Stella’s tree in Riverdale Farm.

 

By 4pm we had picked up the kids from daycare, and gathered around Stella’s tree.  Poppa was too sick to come, but DeeDee and Uncle Tristan, Auntie Heather, Juju, Angie, Gracie, Neighbour Ken, Tasha, Tutu, Nanny, GrandPa John, Hugo, Sam, Aimee and I put out a picnic blanket near her bench and tree and unpacked food and toys for the kids.  We spent a long time visiting the farm, especially the pigs that were Stella’s favourite and are now Sam’s.  Then as the temperature dipped and the sun dropped behind clouds, we lit a few candles and the kids sang Happy Birthday to each other.  The candles kept blowing out and we were all freezing.  It was fun and silly and totally Stella.

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After the farm, everyone trekked back to our place and Auntie Angie and Juju went to our local hamburger joint (Square Boy) and brought back armfuls of burgers for everyone.  We reminisced about how there was a period of time in Stella’s illness that I would walk up to Square Boy every single night with her in the carrier snuggled into my chest and she would order a hamburger.  She would never eat it, she would just clutch it to her chest all the way home.  It got to the point where one of the guys working there would recognize us and have the hamburger ready long before I made it to the front of the line.  I’m sometimes curious to know if he ever thinks about the girl with the curls who used to come each night, and whether he wonders where she disappeared to.  As we ate hamburgers in Stella’s honour, the house was absolutely bursting at the seams with people and energy and action and laughter.  Johnny’s parents came over with a beautiful plant and warm hugs and joined the chaotic festivities.  It was the first time since Stella died that we had so much action and energy around.  It was nice and an unexpected way to remind ourselves of all the good that Stella brought into our lives.

 

One by one everyone left the house, and after 10pm Aimee and I crawled into our bed listening to the silence around us.  With nothing left to be said, we did what we’ve done every night since Stella died; held each other, closed our eyes and waited for morning to arrive.  Each day we wake up to face one more day without Stella, but gathering strength from the lessons she generously shared with us about bravery, being true to yourself, and finding the joy in everyday life.

Here are some of the lovely people who shared photos with us of them Stella-brating:

Caitlin and Natalie:

CaitlinNatalieDay

 

Zev, Maya and Nate:Maya Zev Ice Cream

Nate Ice Cream

Cheryl and Stella’s beloved “Lucky Dog”:uckyDogTreat

Peter, Nicole and Angela:Farrrugia IceCream

Jaclyn:

Jaclyn Atkins

Arin and Kari:ArinKariTimbit PinePoint 9am Board Meeting: PinePointTimbit Danielle and JohnDanielle and John Weisbrod

HayDraude’sHayDraude Candle

Eamon: EamonTimbit

Holden:

HOlden Ice Cream

Jack, Nicholas and Ellie:

Jack Nicholas Ellie Timbit

Camp Oochigeas:

OochTimbit

Stella Joy, we miss you.

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To My Big Girl (by: Aimee Bruner)

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Dear Stella,

 

It’s been a year since you left this world draped in your mommies arms.  A year since we looked down at the porcelain shell your tiny body had become.  Our hearts breaking into a million pieces onto the big girl bed that had become your home in the weeks that you clung to life, slowly easing us into what would be the darkest days we had ever known.  I will never forget the shallow rhythm of your breath as it faded further away from us and I will always remember what it felt like to reach out in the middle of the night to hold your little bicep in the palm of my hand.

 

The truth is, Stella, I want you back.  I want to hold you in my arms and feel the weight of your head on my shoulder and the back of your knees draped over my right arm.  I miss sitting in a heap on the couch with you and trying all day to make you laugh.  I miss taking you to swimming classes on the weekend and I miss the way it felt to watch you run towards me with your arms stretched out when I picked you up from daycare.  I miss your voice and your ridiculous sense of humour.  I miss the way you used to laugh at us when we tried to give you a time out – not only did you laugh at us, you took the wind right out of our sails and actually asked to have time outs!

 

I want you to know what an incredible mark you’ve left on this earth.  In your short life, you’ve transformed people to the core.  I want you to know how proud your mama and I always were, and still are, of you.  There has never been a kid as cool as you.  Ever. That’s the truth.

 

I miss watching you play in the living room after daycare carting around a little Tupperware filled with mini cheese flavor rice cakes.  The evidence that they were your favourite was all over your orange little face.  I miss the hair bands that you used to wear, curls spilling over the top of them.  I now wear them on my wrist from time to time because it makes me feel closer to you.  I miss the sound of your cackle and the sight of your smile that seemed to stretch to the ends of the earth.  I miss watching you play with Gracie and I’m so grateful that you were able to get to know, love and bully your brothers and cousin Xavier, even if it was only for a short while.

 

My heart hurts a little more than it usually does today and I feel like there’s a bowling ball in my chest.  As your mama and I sit on your couch today, surrounded by Pink Kitty, “Fred”, Carrot and the sound of the Golden Girls in the background – we will think of the incredible life that we created and lost.  We will eat Tim Bits, bagels and cream cheese and vanilla ice cream.  We will laugh and cry our hearts out.  We will remember you.

 

We will always remember you.

 

I love you with all of my being.  You’re my big girl.

 

Mommyxoxo

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TFK Play House

When we were three:IMG_0109

 Stella and Sam:

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Stella and Hugo:

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Shouting at the world:

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Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving

You know, thanksgiving has always been one of my favourite holidays. Not only do you have the benefit of what most holidays consist of (family and good food), but there is no gift-giving or bizarre rituals you are expected to do in return. You just eat and visit.

This Thanksgiving, Aimee and I took the boys up to our beloved BlueBird Cottage. The weather up there was nothing short of phenomenal. Golden sunlight and warmth highlighted long days of play and visiting as we spent time with Poppa, neighbor Ken, Flora’s family, Tutu, Gracie, Auntie Angie and Juju, Aimee’s great Aunt Arlene and great Uncle Frank. All weekend people came and went, filling our days with conversation and friendship.

After a busy few days, on the holiday Monday at 9am, Auntie Juju and I took Hugo, Sam and Gracie for what should have been a 20 minute walk into the nearest town. We were gone for over two hours. As the kids began the walk, they were constantly being distracted by things in nature. Bullrushes that had exploded into big balls of cotton proved to be an endless source of entertainment as Sam and Gracie ran up the road shaking them and filling the air with cottony fluff that landed on our hair, clothes, stroller and faces. That game lasted quite awhile! Then they discovered a series of mud puddles that splashed big waves of greyish guck on their pants when they took a running jump at them. There was a dead snake that caught Gracie’s eye, and a dead frog Sam insisted was sleeping. We noted tree roots and looked at birds and flowers. Julia and I just strolled along, enjoying seeing life from our children’s eyes as each rock they picked up was declared more beautiful than the rest and each leaf more perfect. Eventually, we ended up at a local antique store that was closing down and Gracie and Sam each bought a wooden wagon for $5 that they then insisted on pulling all the way back home as Hugo toddled along behind them. They stopped continuously to make adjustments to their wagons, fill them with items, get them unstuck from rocks and roots. It was slow progress, but so refreshing to, for once, have nowhere to rush to and nothing particular to get done. It reminded Julia and I of the old days with Stella when the only goal was to fill her days with joy and wonderment. As much as we try, the demands of everyday life generally make it impossible to be leisurely anymore and so moments like this where dawdling and enjoying the small gifts of life are more precious then ever before.

Back at the cottage, Gracie jumped into a huge pile of raked leaves, followed closely by Sam and Hugo. As they frolicked on the grass, running and rolling in the bright colours, I thought about how this was a picture-perfect moment, right down to the sun glinting off the lakes and the echoes of unbridled laughter dancing across the crunching leaves. The moment I felt that sense of pure bliss, I also felt my heart constrict and my eyes begin to burn with unshed tears. Here, in a moment where I felt lightest and happiest, my heart broke yet again as I wished that Stella were there with us. I cleared my throat and tried to push the thoughts away. Not because I don’t want to give grief its space in my life, but because I knew that Stella would have encouraged me to focus on the present moment and the joy in front of me, not the sadness inside me. I reflected on the fact that already Sam and Hugo are growing up so fast. It won’t be long before neither one of them turns to me with their arms outstretched and a huge grin each time I walk into the room. It won’t be long before our cuddles and kisses get fewer and further in between. It won’t be long before they become their own people and start to move away physically, emotionally. I can hardly believe that Sam will be turning two this weekend, and shortly after that we will mark the one-year anniversary of Stella’s death.

Speaking of Stella, many people have been asking us what we have planned for that day— if there will be a public celebration or party of some sort. Aimee and I have talked a lot about it and decided that she and I are going to spend the morning together, just the two of us, the way it once was before kids, before DIPG, before all the lessons on life and loss. We will sit on Stella’s couch by ourselves with the door locked and eat Timbits and ice cream. We will light our special Stella candle and let the flame flicker for 24 hours straight. We will watch episodes of the Golden Girls and wait for the waves of sadness to splash against us as we huddle together against the storm of tears and rage that we feel will come. At some point in the day we will likely end up at Riverdale Farm and leave little trinkets by her tree, but we’re not really sure.

As for people who have been telling me they feel they want to mark the day, we were thinking that the best thing to do would be to create your own ritual or tradition. One of the things that I kept thinking as this day approached was that if we had a public memorial this year, would we have another one next year? What about the year after? And as so many people who have walked this journey before have told us, as the years go by and changes occur, less and less people tend to come to these public memorials and/or events. Things change. People move and grow and fade away. There’s a saying in the world of bereaved parents, “where did all the people go?”. I just can’t stand the thought of seeing 100 people come out to honour Stella one year and only 7 people five years later. Even though it’s not what it means, it would feel like people had forgotten or didn’t care anymore and I’m afraid that would hurt more than I’m prepared to deal with right now.

So, instead of anything formalized or public, we are telling people that if they feel it’s important to mark the day Stella died, they should start their own tradition. For example, our friends Caitlin and Natalie have told us that they will be having ice cream for breakfast on Tuesday morning, and plan to do this every October 22nd no matter where in the world they are. Another friend told me they will surprise their kids by picking them up early from school and heading to Chuck-E-Cheese for a “fun night” that they hope will become an annual tradition. Others may choose to light a candle, eat ice cream for breakfast, visit Riverdale Farm, pick up chocolate timbits after work, eat copious amounts of avocados, hit a friend for no reason, watch Golden Girls or throw a birthday party for someone when it isn’t their real birthday. The idea would be for other people to create meaning in their own lives in honour of Stella. Something that becomes meaningful and special for you personally, that 12 years from now you can say to someone, “Oh, we always have Dairy Queen on October 22nd, it’s tradition”. And when you’re asked why, you can tell them about Stella. And if you or your family does end up doing something on October 22nd for Stella, please feel free to snap a picture and send it to us. I’d love to post a bunch of photos on the blog of people honouring Stella in their own way (you can email to stella@stellabrunermethven.com).

Life moves so quickly. It feels like we’re always waiting. Waiting to get a job, find a partner, get a house. Waiting for the pregnancy to be over, then the teething, sleeping through the night. Waiting for everyone to grow up and move forward. With Stella we were constantly waiting for the next phase. For her next progression, for the day of her death. Waiting for the funeral we had planned, the cremation garden plaque we ordered. Waiting for the fear and pain to subside. But this thanksgiving, I was grateful for the opportunity to realize that I wasn’t waiting for anything in particular. I was just spending time outside with my friends and family, honouring my daughter by finding the Joy, living in the now and appreciating the thousands of things I had to be thankful for. The first on my list, of course, was the chance to be- forever- Stella’s Mama.

Things to be thankful for…

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The Club

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Both before and after Stella died, I found myself drawn to reading books by other parents who had lost their children.  I started with one I found in the local library called The Grief Knot written by a woman whose 4-year old daughter Gracie died suddenly from sepsis. Then I moved on to Working It Out, the story of Abby Rike who was a contestant on The Biggest Loser after she gained weight in her grief of losing her husband, 4-year old daughter and 2-week old son in a car crash.  I read Notes Left Behind which is the book version of a DIPG family’s blog and You Can’t Let Cancer Ruin Your Day which is book of a father’s emails to family and friends as his son went through a fatal bout of neuroblastoma.  I also read “Ill See You Again” by Jackie Hance, whose three daughters were killed in a car accident in a van driven by her sister-in-law

 

Why am I drawn to these books?  Why do I read them?  One would think it is because I feel a kinship to the other parents who have lost their children, but actually that’s not it.  I’ve been playing the “at least that didn’t happen to us…” game.  Actively searching out stories of families whom I think had it “worse” than us.  ‘Wow,’ I remember thinking, ‘at least I didn’t lose my whole family…’ or ‘Well, a least Stella didn’t suffer at all in death the way this child did’.

 

But the thing is, it doesn’t really bring me any true comfort.  I’ve learned that grief isn’t something that’s comparable.  It doesn’t make sense to play the “who has it worse” game because heartache is heartache, heartbreak is heartbreak, grief is grief and pain is pain.  There is no worldwide marker that standardizes it for anyone.  The only thing you can measure your own life against is yourself and your own ability to live.

 

Recently my brain has started a file of famous people who lost children and not just survived, but flourished.  When I hear of someone, or remember, I file it away under “They Survived” in my brain.

 

Abraham Lincoln…Pierre Trudeau…Johnny Carson…Dean Martin…Eric Clapton…Frankie Valli…Doris Day…Bill Cosby…John F. Kennedy…George Bush

 

There’s so many more.  When I see a celebrity, like John Travolta for example, walking the red carpet and smiling and doing whatever it is that celebrities do, I wonder if he wakes up at night with his cheeks wet from tears from dreams he can’t quite remember.  I wonder if the hole in his heart is just as raw and jagged as mine and he is just going through the motions of smiling and signing autographs because that’s what you have to do.  I wonder if his family still talks about Jett and lights a candle for him the way we do.  I try to picture him and his wife having to make decisions about what to do with his clothes and what they tell his sister when she calls for him.  It’s not that I feel particularly close to John Travolta or something, it’s just so strange to think that he must be just as broken as I am, yet he appears “normal” in the media.

 

There’s something strangely comforting about knowing that even when you are loneliest in your grief, you’re not really alone.  I am also email friends with a couple of other moms who have lost their children, and have felt close to our neighbor Johnny’s family since we lost children 11 days apart last year.  It really is a club.  A club you don’t want to be part of, but a club nonetheless.  And like all memberships in clubs there are rules and expectations and a common thread.  But there is no obvious signs.  No little fez hats to wear, no matching T-shirts that say, “My child died”, no handshakes or secret passwords.

 

The membership cards for this club are found in a grief so deep and raw it takes your breath away. We are the walking wounded and a lot of the time we are in the same spaces and have no idea because the world demands that we move only forward and for some reason this definition of “forward” means leaving pieces of the child you lost in the past.  But I’m not willing to do that.  I am a reluctant member of this club, but I will not be a silent one.  Even though it generally makes new people I meet uncomfortable, I seem to always be talking about Stella.  I say things like, “Before my daughter died…” and wear my green “F—k You Cancer- Stella” bracelet every single day because when people ask me about it, I am hppy to tell them all about my little girl.  My standard answer to the dreaded, “How many children do you have?” question has become: “I have three.  Two sons, who are one and two and a daughter who would be four, but she died of cancer last year”.  In school when people ask me the casual, “Hey how are you?” question, I answer it honestly.  Sometimes I say “fine” and sometimes I say “okay but…” and elaborate and sometimes I say, “I’m having a really shitty day’.  I figure anyone who doesn’t really want to know will eventually stop asking the question.  I’m glad for “The Club” because it gives me strength and hope and a light at the end of the tunnel.  But the membership dues to be in it are way, way too high.

 

Our walls at home are still covered in photos of Stella.  There are some of the boys as well, but it’s mostly Stella, Stella everywhere.  And even though I’m sure it’s unhealthy and I’m just setting myself up for heartache one day, I monitor other people and their Stella photo placements.  For example, when we go over to our friends house for dinner, I check to see that all the pictures displayed of her are still there.  It’s just some kind of reassurance I get that she isn’t forgotten.  I know she is still a huge pat of my life.  When I think of Stella, she is still sharp and clear in my brain.  My favourite thing now is when someone tells me a “Stella story” that I didn’t know about.  For that brief moment when I am hearing something new, or looking at a photo I’ve never seen, she is alive again.  Because that’s one of the side-effects of your child dying; you have a finite amount of stories and photos and memories of them.  So a new memory someone has that they share with you is something so incredibly beautiful and sweet.  I savour those stories and let them roll around in my head and heart for weeks afterwards, committing them to memory as if I had been there for it myself.  That’s one of the reasons that I still go and read Catherine Porter’s eBook about Stella over and over again: http://www.stardispatches.com/single.php?id=13&utm_source=Star-Editorial&utm_medium=Content-Stella&utm_campaign=SDLaunch

because she talks about things that I don’t remember.  Days that slipped through my fingers were caught in the palm of her hands and committed to history via an electronic book that floats around cyberspace and can be purchased for $2.99.  What an odd thing to know that my daughters story costs $2.99 to read online.  Not that it’s too little or too much, just the whole idea of putting monetary value on the life and death of my sweet girl with curls is still so bizarre to me.

 

I am still not sure what I am searching for after all these months in reading the books and looking for photos in other peoples houses and listening for new stories about Stella.  I guess I’m just trying to hang on and to make sense and meaning of something as senseless and meaningless as her death.

Or maybe, I just miss her so much I can’t take a breath without wishing she was here playing with her brothers and friends, making me laugh and cry at the same time and teaching me more about love and life than I thought possible.

I think that must be it.  Searching for something that can’t be found, grasping at something intangible.  Thank goodness that when my arms feel empty I can fill them with the giggling, wriggling bodies of two active boys that dull the pain to a steady ache and make me smile even on the saddest of days.

Stella and Sam making cookies, June 2012:

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All of Stella’s cousins and siblings play together at BlueBird cottage (Gracie, Sam, Xavier and Hugo):

IMG_0260DeeDee and Uncle Tristan help teach Sam to roast marshmallows:

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Get rid of Hugo’s straight, blonde hair and replace it with strawberry blonde curls and you would have Stella smiling at you!

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Sam and Xavier set up a bus and sing “Wheels on the Bus”

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I love this photo because it really shows the personalities of our boys.  Sam is sitting, studiously reading a book and Hugo is in the background rolling around like a goofball:

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