5:18am and I’m sitting at the airport waiting for a flight to Kentucky so I can further my training as a Funeral Director by becoming involved in something called “Life Well Celebrated”. Due to poor weather in Toronto, I missed my connecting flight to Kentucky last night and spent all night in the airport. Armed with a thin blanket and $10 food voucher (thanks United!) I have spent the last 12 hours in relative quiet. And the same thought keeps going through my head… how did I get here? Not just here at the Washington airport, but here… in this life.
While trying to sleep last night (a task made nearly impossible by the hard seats, 24-hour blasting of CNN on multiple television sets, bright fluorescent lights and cold air being pumped in from somewhere), the last 7 years of my life kept playing in my head like a movie reel. Stella’s birth. Her first steps. First birthday. I remember who was there, what we all wore, the songs we sang. I think about her special Easter dress, I remember her diaper bag in great detail. The way her forehead smelled. The way she laughed and ran away. Like a scratch on the DVD, my brain skips over the diagnosis part of her DIPG and settles in on ice cream for breakfast and trips to cottages and Riverdale Farm. I remember the puppet shows in the living room, walks to the park and trips to the grocery store for avocados. Somehow the pictures in my brain erased the morphine pump and chapped lips. Sometimes I don’t know if my memories are real or just a combination of photographs we have and stories that have been told and retold until they are almost fables whose message is clear, but whose details have been changed somewhat so that the truth lies somewhere between the lines of the story. Her story has been retold so many times, in so many ways, to so many different people. But still I know that I am the only person in the entire world that knows what it was like to hear her call, “Mama!” from her crib at 5 a.m. and then greet me with arms outstretched and a big smile, floppy curls framing her blue eyes like a porcelain doll.
Aimee has been bugging me to write on the blog for weeks. Months really. My dad too. No one else really mentions it though. Sometimes I don’t know why so much time passes between blog entries these days. Part of it is that we live in a state of constant exhaustion as we try to navigate the age-old tasks of working full time, parenting, going to school part-time and trying to maintain relationships at the same time. There are days I write entire blog posts in my mind as I drive to and from work, but by the time I get where I am going, the tiredness sets in and I find myself unable to type even one word. My new identity as a Funeral Director is wonderful, for the most part. I really feel like I have the opportunity to make a difference but it is gruelling at times. Aside from all the details… music, food, speeches, clergy, cars, maps, flowers, caskets, candles, bodies, cosmetics, etc. etc. there is an emotional weight that comes with every family. Sometimes the family reveres the funeral director, other times they loathe them. Some regard us with quiet awe, others think we are blood-sucking salesmen trying to prey on them in their hour of need. But regardless of how others see me, I try to give each and every family 100%. Which can be totally exhausting at times. Sitting with them as they sort through decades of family dynamics that seethe just under the surface, trying to keep them focused on the tasks at hand, but knowing that the 20-year old sibling rivalry sitting across from me will eventually boil down to, “does mom prefer yellow or pink roses for her casket spray?” I love it, but it’s sometimes hard to balance. There have been many nights— too many recently— where I have needed to miss bedtime snuggles and family dinner because I had to work late. But Aimee and I are managing. We are learning together, and separately.
A few weeks ago Aimee drove Hugo and Sam past the place we got married almost 10 years ago. This led to a discussion about what it means to be married (after a long explanation, Sam summed it up perfectly by stating with complete certainly, “getting married means you are going to stick together”). Since that day, the boys have asked about our wedding and so finally I dragged out the wedding album. As I flipped through the photographs I barely recognized the people captured that beautiful evening. My heart aches when I see the youthful optimism we exuded. We had no idea what was coming, how could we have known? Many of the people that are in the photos from that night are still with us, still very much the foundation that holds us up each and every day. Others have disappeared completely from our lives, casualties of time or space or change. Even death. I used to love looking at my grandparents wedding album. Tracing the outlines of the faces I knew, but when they were younger and full of the unknown of what life would bring. I did the same to my own face now. Remembering when the hardest decision I had to make was whether to choose Belize or Costa Rica for our honeymoon destination. When I look in the mirror, I don’t think Aimee and I have changed that much in the near decade since our wedding. But when I look more closely I can see a few more wrinkles now. Grey hairs popping through. An extra 15 pounds on my frame. But most of all I look at the photos and see our eyes. Shining, glowing, so full of hope and optimism. The world was at our feet. It still is in many ways, but now we step more gingerly into the future because we know nothing is certain.
I have needed to mould my life and my grief into something I can tolerate. I need to be deliberate about it. For example, I can talk about Stella to anyone and everyone, but I will not allow myself to look at photos of her on the computer, or watch videos. I will not allow myself to fantasize about what she would look like or be like had she lived. It makes the loss too real. I have learned the hard way that letting myself go there is like a rabbit hole of grief from which I have to claw my way back out again. So I make a choice to keep myself at the edge of that place. I balance tenuously, and on the occasions that Aimee tears up and says, “I can’t believe that happened to us…” and begins watching hour after hour of video, or thumbs through thousands of digital photos on the computer, I manage only a cursory, “I know” and then leave the room. It may seem cruel to her, I don’t know, I’ve never asked. But it’s the only way I can protect myself from going to “that” place again. The fear of teetering one step too far and plunging back into the darkness of painful anxiety, grief and depression keeps me at arms length sometimes. When I start to feel myself losing my balance on the edge of the black hole, I pull myself out by willing myself not to remember. Maybe it’s not the healthiest thing to do, but I need to survive and that’s how I’ve figured out how to do it.
On the outset, Aimee and I and our families have healed well from our journey with Stella. But we all still carry the deep battle scars and sometimes speak very slowly and deliberately with each other so as not to disturb the careful scabs that are covering gaping wounds just beneath the surface. We have all changed. So drastically. And it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the people we were then compared to the people we are now.
Our boys, Hugo and Sam, are thriving. Both perfectly healthy, happy little people who are allowing Aimee and I to live out our dreams of parenting. They are both older now than Stella was when she died. Stella’s friends will all be turning 7 shortly. They are so far removed from what they were when Stella was alive that it is hard to reconcile they are the same. They have lost their front teeth, entered French Immersion school, ice skate, play musical instruments. Age 3 & 4 where our boys sit, and age 7 where they are, seem like light years apart in kid-time. We have stopped trying to run and catch up because we realized that we never will. Our friendships have changed as well. They are not lost, but rather reimagined. We see people less, but the bond is still there and still strong. While our friends kids are being shuttled to various organized activities, we are still building forts from sheets in the living room and visiting Riverdale Farm. The boys are so different. Different from Stella and different from each other. They are not babies anymore, but becoming fully formed humans with their own strengths, weaknesses, fears and dreams. They have a strong relationship with each other, and with cousin Xavier and cousin Gracie. They accept that Stella is their sister in a way that is so natural and pain-free for them. They draw her pictures and sometimes tell me that they love Stella. They include her in their recitation of who is in their family. And when we go to Riverdale Farm, along with visiting Stella’s bench and tree and stinky pigs, they have taken to enjoying visiting the cemetery across the street where Stella’s official “grave” is. They especially love to run among the stones on the ground, and then enter into the small, victorian chapel that sit on the premises. There, they gleefully slide into hard wooden church pews and then I go to the front of the chapel and we “play” funeral. They prompt me from their seats and shout things like, “don’t forget to say we love and miss you Stella!”. I give my funeral “speech” and then they applaud happily. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. A childish game that carries so much weight with it. But I have to admit, I get strangely giddy when they ask me if we can visit the cemetery and play. Because in my world where death is more than a preoccupation, I relish sharing some of the feelings of peace and, yes, even enjoyment, that a funeral can give to someone. I love that the children along with playing lego and superheroes have an interest and reverence in our death rituals as well. It’s a funny feeling. A wry pride.
My fears of Stella being forgotten have abated somewhat. When I get chided for not writing on the blog, people tell me that no one will come visit anymore, no one will remember her if I don’t keep writing. Two years ago, I would have agreed but now I have come to a tacit understanding with the universe that those who remember Stella, will always remember her and those who don’t, probably never would have anyway. And I can’t be responsible for the big or small ways in which her life affected others. I often think it’s similar to the job I do as a Funeral Director. For a moment— a few days at most, I am important to a family. I am their link, their connection to the loved one they have lost. We work closely together, we share highly charged, emotional moments. And then, when the funeral home services are no longer needed, they disappear. But for a moment, I was there. And I helped them. It’s a mutual relationship as each family stays with m somehow. Teaches me. Even if it’s just for a second. Even if they are meld together into one big funeral, and their names become unfamiliar to me. For a moment, I was changed by them and the thousand tiny changes all combine to make bigger change. One day at a time, I am still learning to live, learning to cope in this world I now see from a different lens, and in my new role of being a bereaved parent.
And I still grieve, everyday. The tears don’t come as often, the tightness around my heart has loosened, but that sense of cavernous loss has not dissipated. Stella and her short life are integral in every aspect of my life. When I breathe, it is her breath that enters my lungs and permeates my soul. When I smile, it is the noise of her mouth smiling that I hear. When I hold someone’s hand, it is her hand that I see.
As I get ready to board the plane to Kentucky now, I am struck by the irony of what I am doing. Flying halfway across the continent to learn how to effectively commemorate a life through funerals. “Life Well Celebrated” is the name of the training.
I’m excited to be going, the funeral geek in me thrilled to share ideas with other funeral professionals on unique funeral ideas and experiences.
But I don’t believe we can use funerals to make a life memorable because, as the saying goes, the true way to never be forgotten, is to first live a life worth remembering.
Like Stella did.
Our boys are growing and changing each and everyday. My greatest joys are seeing them grow into their own people, and watching their relationship with each other as well as Gracie and Xavier:
Remember when. June 2011: