A few weeks ago on one of my (extremely rare) Saturday’s off, I wanted to take the boys to Kimbourne drop-in centre. This is a place that Stella spent a lot of time at when she was young, and a place that both Hugo and Sam went to with cousin Xavier almost every single Saturday for almost two years. My sister Heather and I had a routine. She would come over on Saturday mornings at around 9 with Xavier and the boys would play while one of us went to Tim Horton’s for tea. We would leave just after 10am and play at Kimbourne until about 12. Then we would come home, give the kids lunch and it would be nap time. We did this every weekend almost without fail. Then we got a cottage and I got an internship that has me working 4 out of every 6 weekends, and suddenly we hadn’t been there in over 7 months. When I called Heather to tell her we were going to Kimbourne she paused for a moment on the phone then said, “Actually, Daniel [Xavier’s dad] takes Xavier on Saturday’s now. They go to Scarborough Town Centre Mall then to his dad’s and then his mom’s so I can clean the house and do my homework”. Daniel used to work every weekend, but several months ago he got a Mon-Fri job, and I hadn’t realized since I was working/cottaging so much that they had slipped into a new routine. “Oh,” I said, “Okay, no problem”. When I hung up the phone, I felt like bursting into tears. Change has never been harder for me than since Stella died. Although I continue to move and grow, I somehow forget that the rest of the world is doing the same thing. Changing. Moving.
Luckily, Aimee agreed to come to Kimbourne with me, so I still got to go. As I walked through the doors and smelt the familiar smells, I heard the unmistakeable shriek of laughter that always hits me when I first walk in. I smiled at the familiarity of it all. But once I got the kids out of their jackets and watched them take off towards the toys, I realized something was different.
I didn’t recognize anyone.
For so long I had been going there on a regular basis and knew all the parents, all the children and all the teachers. But now there was nothing but new faces filling the nooks and crannies. And suddenly, my kids were “big”. Kimbourne is popular with the baby/toddler set and my 2 and 3 year olds were now amongst the biggest, fastest, strongest there. It felt strange. I also found out that one of the teachers that had worked there for close to 2 decades had died recently. “Stella’s Snuggling Corner” that opened at Kimbourne back in 2012 is still there, but her photo is gone as is the little plaque explaining who she was. These people didn’t kmow Stella. They didn’t know me. I felt awkward. The kids had a great time, but I kept looking around trying to figure out who all these people were. I finally did see a mom I knew and she was balancing a new baby on her hip. I didn’t even know she was pregnant last time I was there.
I left feeling a bit sad. Although I knew that stepping into a new career of Funeral Directing would be challenging for my family and I, I underestimated how difficult it would be to lose so much of the life I was familiar with. I rarely get to see the group of moms and kids that were so close to me when Stella was alive. I work evenings, I work weekends. I work when they are all socializing and hosting birthday parties and taking the kids to swimming lessons. Stella’s friends have formed new friendships, the parents have paired off into different cliques and groups. I find that it feels like I’m swimming against the current. Needing to move forward, but wanting to allow myself to be pulled back as well because it’s just so damn exhausting to just leave it all behind and forge forward.
I plugged in an old external drive that housed photos and videos from Stella’s days pre-DIPG diagnosis. I got sucked in to watching video after video of her and it truly felt like I was watching somebody else’s life, somebody else’s child. There was Stella carving a pumpkin with a younger looking, thinner version of myself. My brother was there in the video too, shorter with a slightly higher voice. I heard her voice and saw her facial expressions and felt somehow disconnected from it all.
I don’t remember that life, that world.
Maybe that’s part of grief, to block it out because it hurts to much to realize all that has been lost. Here I am forging forward with life and getting caught up in my new career, my sons, cooking, cleaning, laundry. I don’t remember that life and that world on a daily basis. I watched video after video and tried to understand what happened to that world I was watching. What happened to the bright-eyed, chatty, beautiful little girl that in one of the videos walks up to her Uncle Tristan and out of nowhere nails him on the head with a huge metal spoon, then smiles and walks away nonchalantly.
The truth is, I was always so afraid that I would forget Stella, but that hasn’t happened. I have, however, started to forget the person I was when she was alive. I have forgotten the way the house looked when it wasn’t covered in the boys dinosaurs and train sets. When I zipped up dresses instead of fly’s. When mornings started at 5am and I struggled to explain to my daughter why Tutus weren’t considered winter outer wear.
On November 13th, I went to a very special event at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. it was the opening of “Stella’s Playroom”. This room is a free, supervised playroom for children to be in while their families are in healthcare appointments at the hospital. Aimee and I know firsthand from having to drag Sam and/or Hugo to psychiatrist appointments there when they were babies how disruptive and difficult it can be to balance caring for your child while you are trying to deal with your own health concerns. You can read more about it at:
Anyhow, there was a big ribbon-cutting event at the hospital. Aimee had taken care of inviting all the people there as I was drowning in work and life. As the people started to arrive and fill the room, I got a crazy sense of being catapulted back in time. There, standing in one room, were the people who had been there through Stella’s illness and death. Her friends, their parents, Cath Porter the Toronto Star reporter who followed us for a year to write newspaper articles about Stella, the psychiatrist that we saw every single week for over three years, our family, friends, neighbours.
Aimee and I stood in front of these people and cried and spoke about our little girl. They were there. And so was I.
Afterwards, Sam said to me from the backseat of the car, “I didn’t see Stella at the party”. I felt my heart smash into a thousand pieces as I realized that he was probably excited to go to “the party for Stella” (as we kept calling it), because he assumed she would be there. That girl from the photos whose toys he plays with, whose mommies he shares, who he looks for but can never quite see. “Stella wasn’t there because she died,” explained Aimee without missing a beat, “Remember? Her body didn’t work anymore”. Sam nodded, content with that explanation, but I still felt sad. How badly I wished that Stella was able to be at that party. But maybe she was, in a way.
It’s different now. I don’t get to see those people very often anymore, or experience things the same way. But that old world, it’s still there. It’s in the personal memories of all the people whose lives Stella touched, no matter how fleeting or small. It’s in the ways she changed Aimee and I from the inside out. It’s in those videos, those spaces she once skipped through.
It’s on the carpet of Great Wolf Lodge that she threw up on when she was 11-months old in the front lobby. When we were there with the boys last month, I purposely sat right on the spot I remembered she had been sick.
It’s in the silly singing snowman she used to crawl towards and laugh at when she was 8-months old for her first Christmas that I just unpacked for the boys from the attic and introduced them to last night.
It’s in her Olivia blanket that Sam had claimed for his own, and her purple teddy bear that Hugo cuddles up to at night.
It’s in me. She grew in me, she died in my arms, she has seeped into my pores and affected every inch of me.
I think whenever I really want to find Stella, all I have to do is look in the mirror.
P.S. Catherine Porter did a follow-up article on Stella’s Family for the Toronto Star in honour of Stella’s death-anniversary last month. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, check it out!!!
Gracie and Sam at Great Wolf Lodge, October 2014:
Hugo and Sam helping to close the cottage, October 2014:
Ready for daycare! (Nov. 2014):
Stella in Auntie Heather’s arms, June 2012: