5:18am

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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:

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Remember when. June 2011:

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20 thoughts on “5:18am

  1. Mishi and Aimee, I’m so glad that I dropped into this blog today. You see, I think of you often, how you’re doing, and remembering your absolutely beautiful girl. Your words resonate with my heart and I feel everything you both feel every day, most especially when it comes to remembering our children. I just want to say that although I never met your daughter and you never met my son, our worlds are connected in the ever so slightest way. For that reason, your story of your family, your love, and Stella’s memory will never leave me.. Thank you for continuing to share Stella. My thoughts are with you always. Ice cream for breakfast will remain with me forever.

  2. So good to read a post from you again, Mishi. I check in often. The boys are growing so fast. I think of Stella often and am amazed that someone I never met has such an impact on my everyday life and the way I live it! I wear a bracelet most days that has “choose joy” engraved on it, every time I glance down I smile, it makes me think of your Stella. I am a librarian and one of my favourite books to put on display is “Stella the star fairy” the little girl on the front cover has curly red hair and every time I see it it makes me think of you all! I will never forget your beautiful Stella. x

  3. Thanks for continuing to post on your blog.
    You make me aware of how precious life is.
    Blessings to you and your family.
    Mary

  4. hi mishi and amy,
    its josh’s mom, i think of you both often as well stella, and your adorable boys.
    big hugs to you all….

  5. Glad to see this blog b/c though I don’t know you personally, I still think about Stella and her family all of the time. I’ll never forget her!

  6. Thanks for posting again. I often wonder how you are doing. I moved across the world, back to Germany about a year ago but I often think about little Stella. She has touched my heart in a way that will always stay with me. No matter where I am in the world she will always be part of my memory. I love seeing pictures of her and I’m glad that the boys are doing great. They are adorable. Congrats on the job. What a tough thing to do given the circumstances by I know that you’re doing an awesome job and will be there for so many people going through loss. Lots of love from Germany. Daniela

  7. I am so moved by your beautiful way of capturing the most true, painful and raw emotions. You and Aimee are so true to yourselves and each other, to life and all it hands us, and to moving forward each day at a time, giving the best you can. I am in awe of you everyday and love you both so much.
    xo Mango

  8. I have to admit…my heart fluttered when I checked your blog today and seen this update. I am always checking your blog….even though I have never met Stella I will never forget her and the huge impact she has on me.

    I would like to share a story……I live in Nova Scotia but I was in Toronto in November for a conference (first time in Toronto). I arrived very early on a Sunday so I had a full day to do my own thing. What did I chose? among all the options that downtown Toronto has to offer……to go on a “Stella” adventure 🙂 I was determined to find Stella’s tree and bench. I don’t usual venture out alone, especially in a big city that I’m not familiar with but this was a great opportunity to go outside of my comfort zone. I looked up the bus routes that would take me as close to Riverdale Farm as I could get. I set everything up in google maps on my phone, left my hotel and off I went. Let’s just say the bus ride alone was a little interesting and when the bus took a turn that was not the same as my phone was showing I almost panicked haha. I get to where I think I should be and start walking. I’m using my phone like it’s a compass and I get to the top of the staircase that is beside the farm. At this point my phone is useless for directions sending me up and down the stairs, telling me to go left, go right. I putcomment=I in my pocket, took a deep breath and just started walking towards the open park. I just had a feeling I was going the right way. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, it was about 12 degrees, and the air was filled with the laughter of kids running around playing in the leaves. There it was…I noticed it right away and it was just as beautiful as the pictures. My heart was so full as I sat on Stella’s bench taking in the beautiful day and reflecting on all the things that are going on in my life, especially in my role as a mother to my two children 5 and 2. I thought of all the things that I learned from following Stella’s journey and all the things I would try to change. I watched a little girl get excited when she seen the little pumpkins and scarecrow and it made me smile. I stayed for about an hour before I tied an ornament on one of the branches, a white dove and started heading back…I was scared, as my phone battery was almost at 0. I really enjoyed my “Stella” adventure and stepping outside my comfort zone. Sorry this was such a long post but I really wanted to share it. I also have a beautiful picture of Stella’s tree that I would love to share with you if there is anyway someone could send me an email address. In the picture the sun is shining through the clouds and a big ray of sunshine is going right through the tree. in my pocket, took until later that night but I honestly think it was Stella guiding me to her beautiful tree.

    • Christa – Enjoyed reading about your Stella day very much. Thank you so much. Not sure if my daughter Michelle (Stellas mom) has seen it yet – I will ask her tomorrow and see if she sent her email to you for your picture.
      No doubt we will visit the tree with the boys April 18 which is both my daughters birthday as well as Stellas.
      Poppa – Stellas grandfather

      • I will be sure to have chocolate timbits with my kiddos on April 18th….I will be thinking of Stella and her family even more on that day 🙂 And yes, I would love to get the picture I have to Mishi…..if any family member would like to email me at christadev20@hotmail.com I can send it along and you can ensure Mishi gets it 🙂

  9. Thanks for your post, Mishi. It is always nice to read how the boys and your and Aimee are doing. I will always remember Stella’s life and the wonderful memories you created with her.
    Hope your conference went well!

  10. Mishi and Aimee…I’m still here and I think of you often. And never do I buy timbits for the grandchildren that I don’t think of Stella.
    Connie-Marie Yasney

    When you are sorrowful,
    Look again in your heart,
    And you shall see that, in truth,
    Your are weeping for that
    Which has been your delight.
    Kahil Gibran

  11. No matter how far apart your entries are, I will always read them. I although j never met Stella I will always remember her. Big love to you all. X

  12. Another “never met but always read” visitor here. I too enjoy reading whatever you have time to write, and I still think of Stella, this little girl I never met, on a regular basis. I’ll drop you a little line to show how she was a part of our Christmas this year. Keep on keeping on, and know there are still a lot of people out there pulling for you.

  13. Hi Mishi & Aimee,
    I check the blog every so often for updates. Its a nice way to see pics of the kids and keep up with how you are doing. Stella will never be forgotten in our house. Hope you are well. Looking forward to the nicer weather. Holden and I will have to come and visit Riverdale.
    Keep well. xxoo

  14. We don’t know each other, and I didn’t know of your family before I read about Stella during her illness, but I too continue to check for updates and smile when I see a new post in my feed reader. Thanks for letting us all know how you are doing. xo

  15. I still check in on your blog often and will never forget Stella or the impact she and your family had on my life. I’m glad you are continuing to write, even if it’s not often.

  16. I just wanted you to know that I’m still here and will check for new entries regardless of the length of time between them. I always enjoy reading about how you and your family are, new happenings and developments etc.
    Mishi, in your professional life I have to say I believe you’ll be remembered for what you brought to your clients experiences. I remember the funeral director who helped us arrange our dads funeral. His name was Jay. I will always remember a humorous exchange between Jay and my brother, even though we were sad having to say goodbye to our dad.
    Congrats to you and Aimee on 10 years of marriage! Sam and Hugo are growing up fast, they are both so cute. Yours and Aimee’s strength and determination is very inspiring for me, thank you ladies!
    I

  17. Thank you for writing. I think of Stella and her mom’s often. She will never be forgotten. Your boys are beautiful. xo

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