I should have been dropping you off at school today Stella. Just like all the other parents are doing as they wrestle through the chaos of their morning routines, sipping coffee while trying to get to work on time. This warm Wednesday in June should have been like any other – but it’s not. This is the day, three years ago, they told us you were going to die. June 24th, 2011 – the worst day of my life. This day is one that your mama and I, along with those who love us, have tried to erase from history. It’s one that I’ve buried as far down into the depths of my being as it will go but it always manages to creep back up and make its way through the cracks in my heart. If you scratch just beneath the surface – it’s there. The trauma of that day is etched into me with no detail left behind. I remember what I wore that day. I remember what you wore. The green shirt with a bicycle on it, the brown hat I had just bought you from Roots and of course – your new “doctor’s shoes”. Those white and pink shoes mama bought you were what we used to bribe you into going to SickKids that morning. I remember the smell of the atrium, the echo of the Starbucks line and the green cages above the railings on each floor. I remember your aunties arriving one by one as they (unbeknown to us) became increasingly worried about what could be wrong with their curly haired, smart mouthed, exquisite, imp of a niece.
I remember the subtle glance that the intern neurologist gave to the 3rd specialist that examined you when he caught sight of your big toe sticking up. Looking back now, I know they knew something horrific was lurking in your head. I remember wandering through the gift shop looking for the best thing to buy you. I settled on a little Dora doll and you loved it. I remember glancing down at a book in that store – “C is for Cancer” it was called. When I saw it, I felt sad inside for the parents whose kids had cancer. I remember the toy doctor’s kit your aunties bought you from that store, equipped with everything a doctor would need, including the little, round, blue glasses that you would put on and never take off for the 5 days that followed.
I remember all of it and it makes me sick.
I remember hearing the words “mass”, “oncology” and “brainstem”. I remember the sad, weighted look on the doctor’s face when I asked him whether there was a chance that the tumour was benign and I remember how quickly and confidently he said “no”. I remember watching your mama fall to the floor as the medical team worked to revive her from her terrified, faint and traumatized state. I remember retreating to the bathroom near the nursing station over and over. Staring at myself in the mirror, pregnant belly and all, asking myself out loud “what are we going to do? why is this happening?” while pounding my fists against the wall.
I remember how much fun you were having in the hospital. Running from floor to floor, wearing a pink tutu, eating 3 hamburgers a day, holding court while surrounded by your family, friends and favourite people in the world. I remember how hard I laughed when you started to cry and tantrum when it was time to leave the hospital. “I don’t want to go home!” “I want to stay in this hospital!” It was the first time I had laughed in days.
When I look back on the horror of that day, four years later, I am amazed that we lived to tell about it. Human survival is an amazing thing. That, the army of people that joined forces to lift us up and hold us where we needed to be to make it through each day, and of course – you.
Last week, as I sat in the 3rd row at your mama’s graduation, I was overcome with emotion. There I sat, for over an hour as I waited for the ceremony to start, in a fountain of tears. Flashes of June 24th, ran through my mind and I my thoughts were filled with the weight and enormity of what your mama had to overcome to be there. Standing in a graduation gown, holding her diploma – a funeral director, because of you. You would be so proud of how she has chosen to live the rest of her life honouring you and what you’ve taught all of us.
Stella – because of you, we are still here. In so many extraordinary ways, you’re still here too, tethered tightly to us.
We love you big girl – on this day and every day.
Sam & Hugo, Stella’s greatest legacy: