Parents whose children have died have to think about and overcome small daily struggles that other people never have to think about, or even pretend to understand.
For example, when I go on the Toronto Community Centre websites to register the boys up for swimming, I need to select from a drop-down list the child that I’m trying to sign up. Next to Stella’s name is a note that says Stella Bruner-Methven: INACTIVE. I asked them if they could just remove her name from the list, but they’re insistent that they can’t (which is total bullshit but you try getting someone who works for the City of Toronto to listen to you), so now each time I’m on the system I have to scroll past my daughter’s name and that horrible note until I get to Sam or Hugo’s name. It makes my eyes prickle with tears every single time. She is not “INACTIVE” I bluster to myself. She is DEAD.
And when I called the Canada Revenue Agency just after Stella died to tell them of her death so that they would stop sending the $100/month “baby bonus” you get here in Canada for each child, they advised me sternly that I owed them $100. Why? Because the October baby bonus for Stella had already been deposited into my account, but she died October 22nd, before the end of the month. So I shouldn’t have gotten that $100 for October and needed to give it back. “If she had lived to October 31st, you could have kept it,” the woman on the phone helpfully explained to me. “Oh, and you will also see a reduction in your GST cheques because you’re going from 3 children to 2”. Thanks, Canadian Government.
In the last two months we have gotten phone calls from daycares that we put Stella’s name on the lists for years ago. Once in awhile, we still get chirpy messages saying, “This is Dandelion Daycare. We just wanted to let you know that we have a spot for Stella. Please call us to let us know if she is able to start on Monday March 25th…” Aimee is the one who always calls back. In case there was any doubt, she is a much nicer person than me. She always just politely says that we are no longer in need of the spot, and leaves it at that. If I were to call back I would tell them why. I would say, “You can take us off your list because Stella DIED last year”. I would want to shock them, to jolt them out of their sleepiness about the harsh reality of life and the fact that the little girl I hopefully and excitedly put on their stupid lists 4 years ago is gone now. I want them to whisper about it in the staff room, and think about it and want to know more about the little girl that could have been there, but isn’t. However, I am well aware it’s mean and pointless and petty, so I let Aimee make the calls.
Each birthday party invitation for Aimee and I needs to be weighed and measured and discussed for days as we lay in the bed our daughter died in. Who is it for? How old are they turning? What types of feelings does the party bring up? Jealousy? Anger? Sadness? Bitterness? Joy? Hope? Celebration? We bat words back and forth like a tennis ball until we come to a decision about it. We always have good intentions, but sometimes we just can’t take the final steps out the door and go to the party we had RSVPd for.
A dash to the supermarket for milk becomes an exercise in grief as I hurry past the inviting piles of green avocados that Stella used to shop with me for. A trip to the attic to bring down an extra blanket fills my heart with heaviness as I see the line of boxes in the corner neatly labeled “Stella’s Room”, “Stella’s Memory Box”, “Stella’s Funeral”. A walk to the library past giggling 5-year old girls in pink jackets and jaunty winter hats makes my chest burn. You go on living your life, even loving your life, but the grief is always there, just beneath the surface, ready to burst through at any moment with its heavy, hot lava of pain.
Even happy moments have a twist of sadness to them. Aimee had always fantasized about Stella joining soccer, but she never got the chance. She was supposed to join up in the fall, but was diagnosed at the beginning of summer and by fall she couldn’t walk anymore. So, this time, as soon as Sam and Hugo were old enough, we signed them up. Even though it’s expensive and they are really still babies, we have waited a long time to see one of our kids in a soccer shirt so we love taking them. You should see Sam and Hugo and Xavier all running around a gym in these tiny soccer uniforms… it’s just about the cutest thing ever! No matter that most of the time it’s like herding cats trying to get them to do anything they’re supposed to, it is a joy to watch and experience. But it’s sad too, of course, because we are all thinking about Stella and how she should have been there too.
After soccer yesterday, Aimee and I took the boys home and Gracie was with us as well while Auntie Angie volunteered with Baby Stephanie (she is going to write an update about baby Stephanie for you all soon!!!). The three kids literally destroyed our house playing in it. I’m surprised no one broke a bone they were so energized and excited. They adore each other, and it’s fun to see them playing together even though my throat is in my heart most of the time as they leap from high heights and careen screaming through the halls narrowly missing furniture corners as they run by.
After Gracie went home and dinner was over, Aimee took the boys downstairs so I could make a weak attempt to put the house back together after a long weekend of chaos and activity. I thought rather grumpily about how pointless it is to have nice things when you have young children. The house we had painted a year ago is already in need of painting again— there are scuff marks and chips and dirt and crayon marks all over the place. The nicely recovered couch is used daily by the boys as a trampoline. They throw pillows on the ground and drool and pee and spread crumbs all over it. Dishes from our matching set have been broken. The tiny iron angel we got from Aimee’s Nana’s house when she died had its wing broken off on Friday when Sam threw it. Photographs in frames are knocked over constantly. We have about 6 broken frames laying around waiting to be repaired. There are dried cheerios in the sink, piles of laundry that we just can’t seem to get under control and a fridge that could be a science experiment. There is stuff everywhere. It’s overwhelming. It’s not that I need things to be pristine or totally clean and organized, but it’s also disheartening to constantly be putting a million tiny pieces of toys away only to have the bins dumped back out moments later and toys strewn around in every crack and crevice within seconds. So, I took a deep breath and started to tidy up a bit, just enough so I felt like I had a tiny bit of control over my environment.
After picking up by hand tiny grains of rice from between the floorboards and stacking books on top of more books in the living room, I stood at the sink washing pots. As the warm soapy water poured over my hands and I sighed thinking about ll the work left to do, I heard Aimee singing loudly in the basement. I cocked my head slightly to the side to see if I was hearing what I thought I did. And I smiled.
Aimee was playing guitar for Sam and Hugo.
She used to play guitar for Stella all the time, and so did our friend Brad, but since Stella died there has mostly been silence where the music used to be. It was too sad to hear her favourite songs and remember her crooked smile and the way she danced with her arms waving and head bobbing. I put the pot down, wiped my hands on the tea towel and headed downstairs. As I walked into the basement, I saw Aimee standing in front of the boys with her guitar strumming and making up words to a silly song while they danced. Sam strummed Stella’s old ukulele and Hugo was going between a maraca and bells, shaking and shimmying. They both danced comical little dances, rocking their hips back and forth. I laughed out loud to see how alive and happy my family was. I grabbed the camera and tried to capture the moment, but it wasn’t really possible. Photographs are amazing for certain things, but I’m not convinced they can fully capture off-the-cuff moments of silliness and love. After a couple of shots, I put the camera down and joined my family. We danced and played music until past the boys bedtime.
The dishes would wait until later. The laundry would wait until later. The music was here, and it was making me laugh and making my heart sing. And Stella’s watchful eyes from the photograph on the wall, twinkled down at us. I realized that my life is not perfect, and never will be. But it is mine and I treasure it.
As I picked up Hugo and spun him in a twirl with me, I remembered one of my favourite sayings about how if you did not know true sorrow, you would not recognize true joy. So while I would never go so far as to say I am grateful for Stella’s death, I am grateful for her life. And I am lucky to have experienced gut-wrenching, terrible pain and sadness because now, when the music is happening, I can hear it clearly.
Last Night’s Impromptu Dance Party:
Gracie and Sam playing some odd game they invented that required face masks:
Winter trip to Jungle Cat World (photos by Kenneth Tinnish):