On the morning of Stella (and my) birthday, I took Sam and Hugo to McDonald’s for breakfast. I have a weak spot for Bacon’n’Egg McMuffins and since it was my birthday, I thought I’d treat myself. Sam and Hugo had been particularly active that morning, perhaps channeling the energy of their sister, and by 8:30am when I finally decided to go to McDonald’s, I already felt like I had been running a marathon. Both the boys like to climb things and that morning I had been dashing between the living room where Sam was climbing and leaping off the back of the couch, and the dining room where Hugo kept attempting to use the chairs to boost himself onto the top of the table. There was crushed Cheerios crumbs spread from one side of the house to the other that kept getting more and more pulverized by little feet, and both boys were stark naked as they streaked by in a flash of shouts and laughter. Hugo had a fresh-looking cut over his eye from a fall into the coffee table a few days earlier and Sam had matching bruises on both his knees from a leap off the beanbag chair that had gone wrong the day before. I felt like they were wild monkeys. Laughing, leaping, untamed little urchins. I had on sweatpants and my winter jacket, my hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. I chased them until I could pin them down long enough to dress them, then bribed them into their stroller with promises of breakfast at “the restaurant”. I love the stroller. It’s like a legal prison for children. I can sit them down, strap them around their waists and shoulders and take them wherever I want. But, by the time I got them both dressed and in the stroller, I was sweating. Panting a little. I was frazzled, but intent on going to McDonald’s to get my birthday breakfast.
Once outside, with the boys securely strapped into the stroller, happily playing with toy cars they had brought with them for the walk, I began to relax a bit. I thought back about the day 5 years ago that Stella was born and let the tears trickle down my cheeks as we walked. I looked down at the two little blonde heads in front of me and felt amazed at how much Aimee and I have been through since that day 5 years ago when Stella burst into the world, changing us all forever. I remembered the anticipation and excitement of waiting for her birth, and then the awe and raw fear I felt when she finally arrived— a red-faced, red-haired crying bundle of pure perfection. Remembering her birth was emotional for me, and though I was enjoying being out in the quiet morning sunshine with Sam and Hugo, I was pretty raw by the time we got to McDonald’s. Luckily it’s busy and chaotic there, so no one paid much notice. I moved the boys from their stroller into chairs (nothing to strap them down in, damn!) and began throwing all kinds of food at them in the hopes they would sit still long enough for me to enjoy my McMuffin and tea. Alas, within a few minutes they were leaping off the chairs and attempting to make a break for the doors…into the parking lot, of course. There was remnants of food everywhere and Sam had managed to dump an entire bottle of chocolate milk on his pants, so was whining about wanting to take his pants off as well. By the time I had cleaned up the table and rounded up the boys, I was sweating again. And I was hurting because I was missing my girl. I felt like crap. Tired, sad, worn-out. Just as I opened the door to leave, a woman called my name. I turned around and a stranger thrust a McDonald’s gift certificate into my hands. She breathlessly explained to me that she was a blog reader, and was amazed to see me at the McDonald’s that morning. I was stunned. And then, she said that before she recognized me, she had thought to herself what a “supermom” that woman was at the McDonald’s early on a Friday morning with two toddlers in tow. As I thanked her and walked away, her words seemed more and more amusing to me. Here I was feeling almost hysterically out of control and ragged, and this woman had dubbed me a “supermom”. She had no idea how much I needed to hear that on my birthday morning. I realized that I often label other parents I see as being more put-together, more able, and better than me. But to a stranger at a McDonald’s on Stella’s birthday, I was the “supermom”. Back at home, I unloaded by wet, dirty, bedraggled boys out of the stroller and focused on making the day as fun as possible in honour of Stella. I could get through the day. I was “supermom”.
A group of us headed to Riverdale Farm and visited Stella’s tree and bench. The boys oinked at her pigs, mooed at her cows and then we tied balloons to the tree and shed a few tears as Aimee carefully placed a candle with the number “5” at the trunk. Back at home, we ordered food for everyone and sang a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday dear Stella”, after which Sam, Hugo and Gracie blew out the candles. Then everyone went home, Hugo went down for a nap and all was quiet. Juju and I walked Gracie and Sam to the dollar store where they picked out a gift for themselves (matching pink Easter baskets), and one in honour of Stella (a plastic chicken in a nest), and then dinner. 4:03pm, the exact time that Stella was born 5 years earlier, passed unnoticed. There was food to pack up, dishes to do, laundry to fold, exams to study for.
The next day, life continued on with Easter celebrations and family visits. Monday I started to write final exams for school and now, almost two weeks later, Stella’s birthday feels like a distant memory already. That is the way life is now. We carve out moments, specific times and days to remember and celebrate, but as soon as you turn around, life sweeps you back up again. We got some lovely messages and texts from people that day letting us know they were honouring and celebrating Stella, but then it was all over. We blinked and that moment of remembering Stella was over. I mean, we remember and think of her everyday, but the special compartmentalized day to celebrate her lasted only a few hours. The next morning, Aimee and I woke up and nothing much in the world had changed. That’s how it is when your child dies, the world spins around you, and you are just standing alone wondering what the hell happened.
Recently, I’ve become aware of the stories of two other children who died in the past few months. I read the words of their parents on blogs, and met with one set of parents last week. I saw the haunting horror of losing a child in their eyes, and it made my heart hurt. They wanted help, advice, confirmation that the horrific pain will someday cease. The words others told me when the diagnosis and death was fresh, ring hollow. “It will get better”. “Just give it time”. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them those lies. I told them all the things that were hard. How Stella’s friends keep getting older, and moving further and further away. How we wept on the first day of kindergarten. How we feel that we are now “behind” where we are supposed to be in our parenting. How the sense of injustice and sadness never leaves you. But I wasn’t sure if it was what they wanted or needed to hear. How do you tell them? How do you make them understand that it doesn’t really get better, and time is as much an enemy as a friend, but you get used to the pain and if you continue to look for tiny moments of pleasure each and everyday, you will be okay. I can viscerally feel their desperation and pain. I want to help, but the truth is, everyone has to walk their own path of losing a child and it is different for everyone. But I am glad that I am no longer “there”, in that place of darkness and anguish when the grief is so fresh and raw that it hurts to breathe. As unbelievable as it is that I had to celebrate the birthday of my eldest child at a tree and bench, instead of holding her tightly in my arms, I am glad that I am on the other side of those early moments.
Sometimes, I find myself daydreaming about her. I wonder what she would look like and sound like at age 5. I ponder if Sam would be a bit “tougher” if Stella were here to boss him around. I try to imagine her and Gracie going to the movies together to see “Frozen”, and how good she would have been at sports. But I never daydream for long, because my life is good now and I don’t want to miss out on the here and now thinking about the could have beens.
The truth is, as much as my heart aches for Stella, I can’t imagine life without our two boys anymore.
Life looks differently then I ever imagined it would be five years ago. Life for us now is not about kindergarten or playdates at the zoo or dresses or hair ribbons. Life is naked boys leaping from furniture and food on the floor and trucks in the toy box.
Life is writing exams and talking about paint colours for the cottage. Life is getting a driver’s license and cutting coupons for orange juice. It’s messy and frantic and so very deliberate. Stella and I have both turned a year older, and as the old adage says, you should count your years in smiles, not tears. I’ve had a lot of tears the last few years, but I’ve also had more than my share of smiles and laughter. And the best way I can think of to honour Stella is to keep her love in my smile. So my dear Stella, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. Today no one else is more youer than you” – Dr. Seuss
I think I’ll take the boys to McDonald’s with my gift card tonight. I’m feeling a “Supermom” moment coming on.
The boys at McDonald’s, morning of April 18th, 2014 (Stella’s birthday)
Easter fun! (Xavier, Sam, Hugo):
Happy Birthday, baby girl: