“You never write on the blog anymore,” is a common refrain amongst my family and friends. People demand to know why, as though I owe them an answer. Well, I don’t have one. I write when I want to, I write when I have something to say. I don’t write for anyone but myself. And Stella. This blog was to tell Stella’s story, to make a record of her extraordinary life for her brother’s and Aimee and I to look back on and remember. So that we would never forget all the things she taught us and all the ups and downs we weathered. We were writing her story. Now that she’s gone, we are still writing her story but it is a little bit slower. More spaced out.
So I didn’t write before Christmas, or during Christmas. Or on the New Year. But I can write about it now. Now that we’ve gotten through it and I’ve had time to digest it all. To remember and reflect.
“How was your Christmas?”
It was heavy. And not heavy as in I gained 20 pounds from eating chocolate and and gravy-covered meat dishes (although that part is true too). It was emotionally heavy.
That is the only word I have to describe it. I went through all the “special” days feeling as though there was a huge weight on my chest. The Holidays’ this year were fast and furious, and I missed a lot of it because I was working. I straddled my life and the life of a funeral director and sometimes the two parts crossed over into one another.
Christmas Eve I wrapped presents and visited St. Lawrence Market with Aim and our friends Kate and Christie, then rushed off to work where I embalmed and dressed people and answered calls from people whose loved ones had just died. When I got off work, I arrived at my mom’s just as everyone was sitting down to the table for Christmas dinner. I scarfed down some food then rushed home to fill stockings and prepare for the next day. Christmas morning, the kids started opening presents, and I quickly shoved breakfast down my throat then ran out the door to work as they were opening gifts. Work was another whirlwind of answering calls from people, preparing bodies and rooms for visitations, paperwork and picking up bodies. At the end of the day, I rushed to Aimee’s moms and arrived just as dinner was being cleared from the table and the kids had finished opening their gifts. Boxing day I woke up and headed off to work again, leaving the kids and Aimee playing with all the new toys. Back and forth I ran, a series of spending time with the living and then leaving to go care for the dead.
The last couple of months the management has let me do more than just parking lot duty and flower runs. I have gotten to help run some funerals, I have been on the front line with families. And the truth is, I have seen a lot of death in the last 7 months. Witnessed a lot of heartbreak, tears, shock, fear, raw pain. And as the holiday season approached, I found myself feeling weighted down, not only by my own struggle to continue to survive in a world without my vibrant daughter, but by the pain of all the families I had helped over the last half year.
Just days before Christmas I ran my first solo service. It was at a crematorium and I was the only one from the Funeral Home who was there. I brought with me, buckled in the front seat of a black sedan, a tiny white 18” casket containing the hopes and dreams of a young couple. A beautiful, full-term little girl who was born dead and no one knew quite why. I had gently dressed her in a pink knit bonnet and frock, covered her in a white crocheted blanket and then placed her in a casket. At the crematorium chapel, friends and family gathered to pay their last respects. I guided everyone through the impromptu, informal service where we covered the baby in rose petals, spoke about how she had been taken too soon did some prayers, and then I pressed a button that opened a metal gate. Behind the gate was a concrete room, cold and grey. My footsteps echoed loudly on the cement floor as I placed the tiny casket on a rolling table and helped load it in to the retort (aka the kiln), then stood by while a solemn faced crematorium operator pressed the button which ignited the fire inside. Flames rose up and quickly swallowed up the physical body of that baby and casket, filling the room with dry heat and an orange glow. The parents stood together, sobbing loudly and clutching their hearts in pure agony as we all waited for the right moment to retreat from that room, close the heavy metal gate and return to the chapel full of its flowers and stained glass windows.
I didn’t go to the crematorium to watch Stella’s little body get swallowed up. I didn’t want to be haunted by the nightmare of it all. Aimee and her sister and mother went and though I have never asked Aimee about it, and don’t want to know any details, I know she is deeply scarred by it. Her eyes go empty when she remembers that day. I don’t know what happened with Stella when she went into the retort, but I know the process. I know the sights and sounds and smells of it all. I know the horror and the emptiness.
So when I entered into the Christmas season this year, I took with me the memory of that couple at the crematorium who had likely already bought a “Baby’s First Christmas” outfit for their dead daughter. I took with me the memory of the three teenage girls who had buried their cancer-ravaged mother just the month before. I took with me the memory of the grey-haired widower who had just buried his wife of 52 years. I remember his heavy footsteps as he trudged out into the winter weather, and I wondered how it would feel for him to wake up Christmas morning alone for the first time in more than half a century.
As I drove around Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, picking up dead bodies all over Toronto, I thought a lot about Stella. I thought about how hard holiday’s are without her and how difficult they would be for each of the families that I was going to meet in the next few days. Each death call we received over the holiday’s was magnified by the fact it was “Christmas”. There were the daughters who went to their dad’s house Christmas morning with all the grand-kids and found him dead in his bed. The husband whose wife put the turkey in the oven then said she didn’t feel well and went to lie down, dying a few hours later. The two stillbirths— Christmas babies who didn’t make it. Whether the death was expected or unexpected, someone old or young, each story left its weight in my heart. So though my heart swelled with happiness Christmas morning when Sam and Hugo joined Aimee and I in bed to rip open their stockings, and though I loved seeing their rapt faced when Santa Claus showed up at my mom’s house Christmas Eve (thanks Uncle Daniel!!!), all my joy came with a certain amount of sadness. Maybe it’s not sadness so much as perspective. Knowing that there is more going on in the world than what was happening in my little living room with the wrapping paper and brightly coloured toys.
On Boxing Day the front of the Toronto Star newspaper featured stories of “the best gift ever”, highlighting babies born on Christmas Day. I wanted to rip it into tiny pieces. All I could think about were the parents whose babies were born and died on Christmas Day. As if they weren’t hurting enough, now they were going to be tortured by reading about other people’s Christmas babies— the amazing, beautiful story that should have been theirs too.
I still feel the weight of all these stories now, two weeks after Christmas. I feel the weight of the knowledge that there are countless families like Aimee’s and mine which are not quite ever complete at the Holiday’s. Or any day. Aimee and I only got three Christmases with Stella, and only two “pre-diagnosis” when we still believed in the magic of Christmas. Christmas had never really been the same to me.
But even though I missed most of the “traditional” aspects of Christmas this year… the dinners and the present opening and the frantic pre/post holiday shopping, I found my own Holiday spirit. In the quiet, in-between moments where there was sun shining down and Christmas carols playing on the car radio. When the boys first laid eyes on their bulging stockings. When I bit into my favourite Christmas morning breakfast of bagels, lox and cream cheese. When I got warm hugs and hot chocolate. The heaviness was still there. The grief of Stella’s absence went with me everywhere. But every time I saw a star light up on someone’s house, or the street, or a tree, I could hear a high-pitched cackle-y laugh and knew that Stella was with me.
Reminding me that the heavier the weight, the stronger I will become.
Sam and Hugo play at the park on Boxing Day:
Hugo, Gracie and Sam have a movie-night sleepover:
One of the very few photos Aimee and I have of all three of our children. Stella died 3 weeks after this photo was taken: