I had forgotten that Stella’s first word was “Dog”.
Sitting in the library at my school Wednesday, I was working on an assignment that made my eyes burn with boredom. Needing a break, but not wanting to lose my coveted private study desk, I idly scrolled through the photos stored on my computer. A still of Stella caught my eye because it looked unfamiliar. It turned out to be a video. There was Stella, sitting on Aimee’s lap while I filmed. Our dog Lucy walked by the frame and Stella pointed and said, “Dod, dod!”. The next 38 seconds is Aimee and I doing the typical, annoying parent thing of saying over and over again in baby-talk voices, “Yea Stella, that’s the dog. Who is that Stella? The d-o-g, dog”. You can see Stella in the video trying to escape from Aimee’s lap, twisting and turning. A few times she indulged her parents by saying “Dod”, a feat which we exclaimed and applauded over. I watched the video over and over again, tears streaming down my cheeks. I had forgotten this video. Forgotten this moment. Forgotten that Stella’s first word was “dog”, and that she was only 9 months old when she started forming words.
How could I have forgotten? I felt so guilty as I wondered what other treasures of Stella’s life my brain had buried so deeply that I couldn’t find them anymore.
I moved to the next video, and the next one, and the next one. As I watched the smudged computer screen come alive with Stella’s voice, Stella’s curls, Stella’s smile I could physically feel my heart breaking over and over again. The world around me melted away and all I could see or hear was Stella. I lost track of where I was and how long I was sitting there. I didn’t even feel the tears that were streaming down my cheeks. It was as though the shell I had carefully constructed around my soul was crumbling piece by piece, leaving my wounds open and raw. I sat alone in the library and just watched and cried. There was nothing and no one else around in those moments, just Stella and I.
Eventually, I looked up from the computer screen and remembered where I was. I could feel that my face was hot and puffy from crying, but I really didn’t care. No one sitting in the library pays attention to the person sitting in the little desk cubby next to them. Some people sleep, some people eat, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first to leave puddles of salty tears on that scarred veneered desk. I tried to collect myself, but the same sentence kept running through my head, “Stella’s first word was dog”, and she was still a baby when she started saying it. How could I have forgotten that? I racked my brain to see if I remembered the boys first words. Sam’s first word was “durd” (bird), Ernie” (his Sesame Street stuffed animal), and “Stella” followed quickly by “mama” and “baba” (bottle). Hugo’s first word was “ball”, then “baba” and “mama”. Yes, the memories were all there, all intact.
Watching those videos taken of Stella in the first two years of her life made me remember that before DIPG, before this blog and the Toronto Star stories and the friends and strangers and family who loved Stella, before all that there was just Aimee and I and our baby. First-time parents in the videos, we clap enthusiastically as she eats the portable telephone. We took a 1min 8 second video of her eating toast the morning of her first birthday. We have Stella at 8 months eating cereal while Aimee and I fill in what we think she is saying in a long monologue off camera. We have a 3 minute and 45 second video of Stella at 9 months old crawling around my grandparents house in New York. Crawling around and exploring. Even then, she never stopped moving. There is a 29 second video of Stella sleeping in my arms, snoring quietly as we giggle in the background. There are others. Christmas, birthdays, her first trip ever to Great Wolf Lodge at 11 months old. But what struck me the most was how normal and mundane it all was. We were just an ordinary family, and Stella was our firstborn so every burp, every fart, every smile was cause for a picture and a phone call to our parents to brag.
Although Aimee and I are so happy that so many people have gotten to know and love our girl, there is sometimes a feeling that when stories about her are repeated over and over again, they move from being narratives to becoming almost a caricature of who she was. The stories are true, but they could never truly capture the nuances of who Stella was. And the stories and anecdotes are such a teeny tiny part of the life that we had with her. Because when she wasn’t doing or saying something extraordinary, she was just being a typical child. Most days were the same. Stella went to daycare, I picked her up and brought her home. Aimee would come home shortly afterwards and one of us would start dinner while the other one played with Stella. After dinner it was bath and bedtime. There was nothing extraordinary about it, nothing remarkable. And there is no blog or no story that can ever truly capture those early days of bliss and struggle and ignorance. The softness of her cheeks, the brightness of her smile, the chubbiness of her cheeks. Aimee made up a special song for Stella that we used to sing to her almost every night as we bathed her…
You got a cheesy chin
And blue-ue eyes
You got re-e-e-ed hair
And chubby thighs
Cuz you are beautiful
And you’ve got two moms
You’ve got two red lips.
You have a button nose
And a space between your toes
Cuz you’re my perfect girl
And I love you so
You’re my perfect girl
Never gonna let you go
But the tune is something Aimee made up, so there is no one in the world that knows how to sing it to Stella other than Aimee and I (maybe Auntie Heather too, as she spent a lot of time here). There is no one in the world other than Aimee and I that knew the dull nausea you felt when Stella called from her bed at 5am. You just wanted to cry as your feet hit the cold floor and, shoulders hunched in exhaustion and defeat, you plodded into the darkened bedroom to retrieve her. There is no one that was here for the long Saturday afternoons when we would sometimes entertain her by taping newspapers on the floor and letting her paint while Treehouse played, ignored, in the background. No one who knows the relief I used to feel when she finally fell asleep in my arms at the end of a long day. I would often keep holding her for a few moments, enjoying the fact that she was finally still and look at her chest slowly rising and falling as she breathed. Aimee and I would trace our fingers across her chipmunk cheeks and try to guess where the first freckles would pop up. These moments have no photographs to accompany them. No videos to remind me. There is no one that will say, “remember when…” because these were the private times. Like a corsage placed between pages of a book, these memories are so fragile and tenuous. There is no one else who can record them, remember them or speak about them. Just me. Just us.
I remember now. I remember that Stella’s first word was “dog”. I remember that she cut her first tooth on Hallowe’en. I remember that we called her “Ella” for the first three months of her life, until we decided that she was too spunky and energetic to be anything other than a Stella. I remember that she insisted on wearing her green rubber “froggy boots” in the middle of winter. I remember she couldn’t tell the difference between yellow and orange. I remember how I cried every morning for the first 11 weeks of her life because I was overwhelmed and miserable and convinced I was the worst mother in the world. I remember how she used to smack her lips in her sleep and how when she felt warm her cheeks would get so red it would look like a rash. I remember how her forehead smelled like sweetness and sweat.
Don’t worry Stella, I remember you.
Sam at Science Centre:
Stella and Gracie, Dec. 2010: