Making Memories

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In October of this year it will be 5 years since Stella died. Most days it seems like a lifetime ago when we held her warm weight on our lap for hours at a time on the couch and spent our days feeding her porridge, doing puppet shows and watching Dora the Explorer. I wonder sometimes who those people were sitting on the couch. So unrecognizable from who we are today.  Strangers living in our house.

I was telling Aimee a few weeks ago that I feel so badly because I don’t really have any memories of the boys as babies. We were there and I thought we were present, but either I was so distracted just trying to survive, or my memory refuses to go back to that place of intense fear and grief, that I have no recollection of that time when the boys were babies. Particularly Hugo. I don’t remember his first word, when he first walked, what he and I did all day when I was on maternity leave with him. With Sam I have some sporadic memories, mostly connected to Stella like the first time she held him, taking them both out for Hallowe’en, watching her burp him, going for walks and feeding the birds. But Hugo— almost nothing. So one night when I was up at 2am with baby Adele, it occurred to me that through my writing, I had captured my life back them.  Like a journal. I went back to my blog and I started to read.

I read entries that I haven’t looked at or lay eyes on in over 4 years. It was like reading a novel for the first time. Through the writings I began to piece together what life was like for Sam and Hugo just before and just after Stella died, when my memory is a black hole. As I read more and more entries, I started to feel like I was creating the memories of them. One particular entry titled “Hug”

Hug

and one called “Happy Birthday Hugo”

Happy Birthday Hugo

were especially helpful to my learning about the early years of the boys. After I read the one called “Hug” I sat back and thought to myself, “Wow! That sounds so crazy and chaotic…how on Earth could someone deal with two such young kids?” As though I was reading a stranger’s story instead of my own. I ended up staying up way too late— long after Adele was fast asleep in my arms I sat in the dark livingroom and read blog entries from the dim light of my cell phone. I did close ups of the photos and marvelled at how much Adele looks like Hugo at this age, and how cute Sam was when he used to wear little dress shirts and fedoras.  It was like discovering a lost friend and catching up.

The memories I have of the boys come into clear focus around the same time we bought our cottage, Bluebird, in July of 2013. Maybe it’s because that’s when we started to make memories as a family experiencing things we never did with Stella– canoe rides, walks in the woods, campfires roasting marshmallows. Maybe the cottage was my reset button. I’m not really sure, but I know that I have a really hard time recalling much about them before that summer after Stella died.

Now with cottage season upon us again, I am able to watch the boys and who they have become with a genuine excitement. And little Adele wrapped snugly in my arms is a promise of the future, of making more memories with our family and keeping our promise to Stella to find joy in day to day life.

Xavier, Sam and Hugo start another summer season at the cottage:

The boys have really started to differentiate themselves. Up until now “the boys” as we call them have been bought the same things, put in the same extra-curriculars, treated the same way. But now they are asking for change. Xavier and Sam love sports and want to play baseball, hockey, do karate, run around everywhere. Hugo has no interest in sports but has a newfound passion for building things with wood, hammers and nails. He wants to do build with lego and asked me to find him a choir to join so he can sing. It’s fun watching the kids develop into individuals. It makes me excited for the future.  But as with everything, it also comes with a certain sadness.  Who would Stella have been?  What would she have liked to do?  Would she have been heading off to overnight camp with Gracie this summer?

Sam kayaking

Hugo ready to build

Aimee and I have realized that there is great normalcy in our abnormality. I know this may not make sense, but on the surface we are like all the other families. Wake up in the morning, get ready for work/school. Have conversations about what to have for dinner, bicker with kids about wearing sunscreen, eat dinner, do laundry, read kids books at night, tuck them in, clean the kitchen, pack lunches. But in between all those normal moments there is a sadness and a knowledge of something much deeper that simmers just below. The abnormality. Waking the boys up in the morning at 6:30am and remembering how for Stella that would have been a big sleep-in. The little moment as we discuss what to make for dinner when we giggle about how Stella loved edamame. The empty bottle of sunscreen we keep in the bathroom with Stella’s faded name still on it from when she was at daycare. Realizing the boys don’t want to read Stella’s old books anymore but are asking for ones about superheroes and construction. Tucking them into their beds with a full awareness that this is Stella’s old room. Singing lullabye’s to Adele and trying NOT to sing the same ones we did to Stella because it feels like we are betraying both our daughters somehow.

Adele. The only child that Stella never laid eyes on, but they are connected perhaps even more deeply than Stella and the boys. When we hold Adele and look into her sage eyes we always feel as though she knows more than she is letting on. “Little Yoda” we call her sometimes.

Adele is lovely. I’ve heard of babies like her, but never experienced one before. Very calm and easygoing. A good sleeper. Smiley. In so many ways she is the polar opposite of who her sister was, which makes it easier to not compare the two of them so much. When I took Adele for her 2-month appointment, the nurse did her measurements and said, “all great!”. I took that to mean average and texted Aimee to say, “Another textbook baby!” —Because Stella and the boys were always in the 50th percentile for height/weight etc.so we joked our specialty was perfectly average babies. A few minutes later the Doctor came in and revealed that Adele is actually in the 90th percentile for height/weight and the 95th percentile for head circumference. I texted Aimee back..”Actually…this one is much bigger”. Another reminder that she is different. We have always known she would be, but it’s helpful that she’s decided the same thing!

Adele, two months:

It is my hope that with Adele I remember better than with the boys. She is our last baby so I’m trying to take it all in. To enjoy the way she flops against my chest breathing deeply through her nose, her first smiles at me, the delight the boys get from “helping” (i.e. Wanting to carry her around which terrifies me, or feeding her a bottle which they shove in her mouth and gag her with, or designating her the Pink Power Ranger in their game and “pretending” to karate chop her).  I pay close attention to the exact angle her nose is turned up at, how her little hand feels grasped in mine and the feathery softness of her hair brushing against my chin as I burp her.  The tiny moments are being noted.

I’m sitting in the backyard right now typing this. Adele is curled up on a picnic blanket looking up at the leaves in the trees rustling gently in the summer breeze. Sam is riding around on his bike, going as fast as he can then braking as fast as he can to see if he can make the tires squeal. Hugo is focused on checking all the boards on the deck to see if there is a loose one he needs to put another nail in. It’s a quiet, peaceful scene. A welcome break from the insanity that is usually our life.  When I’m done this blog entry I will sit back in my chair, take a sip of lukewarm tea and repeat my new mantra with the knowledge that we are okay.

“Patience in the Present. Faith in the Future. Joy in the Moment”

Sam and Hugo relaxing at the cottage:

Finding worms on a rainy day:

Day with me at the zoo:

Smiley Adele:

Stella at Riverdale Farm, summer 2010. Age 14 months:

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Give Me A Happy Ending

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When I was little my sister and I were obsessed with a 1982 rip-off of the Pirates of Penzance film called “The Pirate Movie”.  It’s a poorly acted, low-budget 80’s film that her and I both have a soft spot for even as adults.  We have both tried to get other people to watch it and love it as we do, but so far everyone thinks it’s terrible.  Still, we know all the songs and sometimes quote entire scenes to each other.  It’s one of those comforting memories from our childhood.

One of the things I love about that movie is that it is so happy.  It even ends with a song called “Give Me A Happy Ending”.  It’s exactly how I want movies to end, with a wedding and everyone being happy and healthy and friends forever.  It’s been a joke for everyone my whole life that “Mishi won’t watch movies or read books unless there’s a happy ending”.  My best friends know to vette movies for me and will say, “You won’t like it.  It doesn’t have a happy ending…”.  I’ve never enjoyed watching the nightly news because I always felt like it was all bad news.  Maybe I lived by the “ignorance is bliss” mantra.

When Stella was diagnosed with DIPG in June of 2011, along with the intense grief and heartache there was an ultimate feeling of injustice.  The “why is this happening?”…”how can this be happening?”… “what do you mean there is no cure?…  For someone like me who is fixated on happy endings and refused to watch “Titanic” or “The Notebook” because they were too sad for me, living my own story of heartbreak was incredibly difficult.  I still remember the feeling of wanting so badly to crawl out of my skin because I couldn’t stand the pain of living the reality of watching my daughter die.  I’ve never wanted to escape from my own life so badly.  It was at some points excruciating to be existing in a world where I knew there would be no happy ending for my daughter and I.  Eventually, Stella taught me to find the joy in the everyday, and I stopped focusing so much on the “ending” and tried to enjoy the journey instead.  Retrospectively, life is a series of beginnings and endings, a quilt of separate blocks all stitched together to create a life.  But not straight, organized blocks.  Ones that all run into each other where the threads cross over and the shapes are different and sometimes clash.  Like a “crazy quilt” I once saw at pioneer village made entirely of leftover fabric pieces.  There are natural starts and stops, but no true endings.  Even after someone dies, the story doesn’t necessarily end.

I am living life without my beautiful, funny, energetic and incredible daughter Stella, but I am not unhappy.  I laugh each and everyday.  I sleep at night.  I make plans for the future.

When I see photos of Stella, or videos of her, it almost feels like an out of body experience.  That life, that world, seems so distant from the one I am ensconced in now.  Sam and Hugo are extremely close as brothers and I have trouble imagining life any other way.  Sometimes I try to picture Stella there being a big sister to Sam, and no Hugo. But I find it nearly impossible to imagine because the two boys in front of me that are singing and laughing and jumping on the couch in their underwear are so real and three-dimensional whereas Stella is a colour photograph sitting on the mantle behind them.  She existed.  She lived and she mattered and she changed everything I thought I knew and wanted.  But she is not here being part of our daily routine of waffles for breakfast and packing backpacks for school.  I don’t even know if Stella ever ate a waffle.  She ate maple & brown sugar porridge.  That was a different block of the quilt.

Like most parents, Aimee and I are exhausted nearly all the time.  Between working full time and making dinners and lunches and cleaning the house and doing laundry, we always seem to be short on time and energy.  But last night Hugo and Sam asked us to be special guests at a show they were putting on.  They moved the kitchen chairs to in front of the couch, took the cushions off the couch to create their “stage” and invited us in.  With whispered plans to one another, they started strumming on their “canjo’s” (like a banjo, but made out of a can) and singing the Barenaked Ladies tune, “If I had a million dollars”.  Aimee and I were in stitches.   They were so funny and watching them interact was beautiful.  Aim turned to me and said, “Sometimes when I watch them like this my heart feels so full, I’m so happy”.

It’s moments like those that we treasure and cherish.  The non-public, non-planned, silly little family moments that take place within the walls of our tiny bungalow in East York.

it’s moments like those that made Aimee and I want to have one more child.  One more chance to create silly, funny memories.

After years of negotiating, talking, saving and planning, we decided to try to have one more.  We doubted ourselves, doubted our ability to manage another child.  We questioned whether the want was part of a never-ending wish to fill the void left by Stella that we know can never be filled, but we live with everyday.  We talked about the financial strain, the exhaustion, how old we now are.  We discussed if the same sperm donor that we used for Stella, Sam and Hugo wasn’t available, was it a deal-breaker for us.  We talked and discussed and disagreed for over two years.  We went back and forth.  It was one of those decisions that makes no sense whatsoever on paper, that is completely illogical and maybe even a bit irresponsible.  But somehow, eventually, during one of those magical moments where the house was clean and the boys were sitting colouring quietly, it just felt like the right thing to do.

We said we would try once.  So we did, and it didn’t work.  When the pregnancy test came back negative, part of us was sad and part of us was relieved.  We thought maybe it was too crazy anyway.

It took 6 months to save up enough money to try again.  We agreed that if it didn’t work we would just be happy with our sons because we didn’t have the money to keep trying and we rationalized that maybe it was the universe— or more precisely Stella— telling us not to be selfish, and just be fulfilled with the incredible life that we already had.

So we tried one more time.  The LAST time, we said.

It worked.  Positive pregnancy test.

And then we waited to see if the pregnancy would be viable.  I was 37, my job was physical, so many things could go wrong.  So we waited.  And everything seemed to be fine.

So, if all goes well, I will be giving birth to our baby #4 in late April.

Our friends and family were surprised.  In fact, when we started sharing the news with people, there was a mixed bag of reactions.  Some people seemed thrilled, some people seemed cautiously excited and some people came right out and said they thought it was a bad idea.  Some of the comments hurt.  It was hard to feel judged and hard to remain strong in our conviction that this was the right thing to do when so many people seemed so judgemental.  It made me angry that people outside of our little private family unit thought they had a say in our decision.  “What gives them the right?” I raged at Aimee.  She, much calmer than me, rationalized that everyone loves us and was worried about us.  They weren’t privy to the two years of discussions we had, the therapy and the whispered conversations at night.  But still, it hurt.  Telling people we were pregnant was totally different from our other experiences.  When I was pregnant with Stella, everyone was absolutely over the moon excited.  Sam was the same.  When I got pregnant with Hugo, I think a lot of people thought we were being rash and crazy, but they didn’t say anything because Stella was dying and the pregnancy with Hugo was keeping me alive.  But with this one… we felt openly judged.  We know people were whispering behind our backs questioning our reasons and our sanity.  So we didn’t tell too many people.  It was an odd feeling to be so excited about something and yet afraid to tell people.

When I was 20 weeks pregnant we were able to have an ultrasound that would tell us if the baby looked healthy, and the sex.  For the most part, I wanted the sex to be a surprise because I really and truly didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl, but Aimee thought it was important that we know— she said if there was any emotional fallout based on sex, we should try to deal with it ahead of time.  So we went together to the ultrasound.  The night before I had a very vivid dream of Stella.  it was surprising to me because I never dream about Stella.  But there she was.  In my dream she was tiny like a little fairy with wings and she was flying around my head.  She said to me, “Mama…the new baby is a boy.  I don’t want you to be sad Mama, but I want to be your only girl”.  In my dream, I assured Stella that I wasn’t sad it was a boy.  I told her that I loved her brothers very much and that I loved how they were close to Xavier and the three boys do all their activities together, and since my sister just had another boy in May, I told her that it would be nice for the younger two boys to have each other too.  Then I reminded her that Gracie was like a little mother to all the boys, and would be happy to have another one to look after.

When I woke up that morning, I told Aimee about my dream and felt completely and totally relaxed going into the ultrasound.  I felt very at peace and very excited at the thought of having another boy.  The technician was very quiet though out the ultrasound and then he invited Aimee in to see the baby at the end.  Aimee asked the technician whether he could tell if it was a boy or a girl.  He nodded that he did and asked if we wanted to know.  Aimee said, “yes, what is it?”  He pulled up a fuzzy black and white ultrasound image, pointed at a blurry part near the middle and said, “it’s a girl”.  “It’s a girl!??” Aimee practically shouted.  I felt numb, immediately going in to complete shock.  My pulse quickened and I felt a bit lightheaded.  “Are you sure?” I stuttered.  He pointed at the picture and said with a straight face…”well, I’m not totally sure but there is definitely no penis, so…”   I got up off the table and went into the change room leaving Aimee excitedly texting her parents in the other room.  As I bent over to put my pants on, I saw tears hitting the worn blue carpet beneath my feet.  I hadn’t realized it, but I was crying.  I kept wiping the tears away as I dressed, but they just kept coming.  The wave of emotions was totally overwhelming.  I felt happy, but also sad.  I was shaking a bit.  I was so sure it would be a boy, I had’t really let myself consider that it was a girl.  “a daughter…girl…a daughter…”  I was almost completely quiet on the car ride back home.  Aimee kept saying to me, “what’s wrong with you?” but I couldn’t find the words to explain it.  I was happy, but I was also truly shocked and I couldn’t understand why I would dream of Stella telling me it was a boy, when it wasn’t.  My friend Omo said to me when I told her the story later, “What do you mean, that’s SO Stella…she was totally messing with you!”.  I laughed ruefully at that.  True.  I could so see Stella thinking that was a really funny joke to play on me.

When we told the boys they were excited, but slightly indifferent as well.  Not too surprising.  At 4 and 5, they are way more focused on lego and sword fights than a new baby.  It’s a bit abstract for them.  As more people were told or heart we were pregnant, we kept getting asked, “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”.    It amazes me how many people when told it’s a girl react in a very relieved and “oh, that’s amazing…you needed a girl”.  It makes me think that if this baby was a boy people would be disappointed or upset by it.  My favourite reaction was an acquaintance who said, “Oh my God, it’s a girl!?  That’s amazing!  if your life was a movie, this would be the happy ending!”  As often happens in my life now, this seemingly innocent and very well-meant comment really bothered me.  She may be right—- if my life was a movie, it would probably end with a close up shot of Aimee and I cradling a new baby girl with a picture of smiling Stella just over our shoulders in the background.  But my life isn’t a movie, and having a baby girl isn’t the “happy ending” of Stella’s story.  Like everything else in life, it’s just another piece of the story that continues to unfold.  It is neither an ending nor a beginning, but simply a continuation of a life that is full of joy, pain, grief, stress, love and hope.

I still don’t like to watch movies or tv shoes that are sad.  I still prefer to believe in, and want to see and experience, happiness in the stories I read and watch.

Sometimes late at night when I’m lying in bed and the baby is moving around, I put my hands on my stomach and sing her the lyrics of the Pirate Movie song, “Give Me a Happy Ending”

No more sad times, mad, or bad times,

No more minor keys

Life’s for living, sharing, giving,

Life’s for you and me

When the going’s rough and you’ve had enough,

Leave your troubles and your woes

Turn the other cheek and forget your grief,

Make a friend out of your foe

Give me a happy ending every time

We’ll kiss and make up, 

That’s a very peaceful sign

Give me a happy ending every time

Don’t be unhappy, everything will work out fine. 

Grief is so complicated, even Aimee and I don’t always expect or understand how we feel.  But I know for absolute certain that I am excited to welcome a new baby to our amazing circle of family and friends.  I know that she will be different from Stella and I never want her to feel like she is living in the shadow of her dead sister.  We have no plans to name this baby after Stella, or put her in any of Stella’s old baby clothes.  This is a different child.  She is not a replacement child, she is a new member of our family.  She isn’t our happy ending, but she is certainly a happy part of our life.  And we can’t wait to meet her!!!

 

See you soon little baby!

Xavier, Sam, Hugo & Gracie visit Santa:

Our Valentines:

Showtime… Hugo, Gracie and Sam:

Winter Fun with Xavier, Sam and Hugo:

The boys play the “Canjo’s” at an impromptu concert:

Happy…

 

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Happy 7th Birthday Angel

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Today, if things were different, Stella would have turned 7 years old.  Probably would have been missing a tooth or two.  With long hair past her shoulders, and a cheeky grin.

Not having her here hurts.

For some reason, this year the memories are sharper and clearer than they have been in years.  Each day leading up to her birthday is haunting.  April 15th was her due date.  I remember going swimming with my friend Deb that day.  I remember how amazing it felt to float in the weightlessness of the water with my 9-month pregnancy belly and how I was almost shaking with anticipation and excitement.  At that time we didn’t know if we were having a boy, or girl so I practiced writing both names we had carefully and lovingly selected on my notepad…

Evan Lawrence Bruner-Methven

Stella Joy Bruner-Methven

Which would it be?  I couldn’t imagine.

I remember on April 16th I was only one day past my due date, but I was despairing that I was never going to have this baby.  I had already been off work for 2 weeks and I was bored and impatient.  In a desperate attempt to entertain myself, I looked up recipes online of things that could be frozen and I decided to walk over to Sobey’s to purchase some ingredients.  I bought green peppers and ground beef and when I was walking home, I could feel liquid dripping down my legs.  I called my midwife and she told me to come in.  2 hours later I called Aimee at work and said the magic words…”my water broke”.  I still wasn’t in labour though, so Aim and I went to her dads for dinner.  We toasted each other with glasses of red wine and thought about what was to come.

April 17th I very slowly started to labour.  At first it was almost comical.  I sat in a big chair and listened to my “Hypnobirthing” CD.  The tiny insignificant first ripples of labour I thought were “it” and was proud of how I was handling the “pain”.  Ha!  First time ignorance.  Aimee and I walked and timed contractions, but it was slow going and everything that felt like it was “true” labour wasn’t really.  When you’ve never been in labour, I guess you don’t really know what it is.  Hours and hours of small tugs weren’t labour.  When full labour finally hit me, it was ugly and I wondered how I could ever have thought when I was sitting in the chair with my eyes closed meditating that I was in labour!!!  Real labour was horrible.  Back pain that brought me to my knees.  Thrashing and screaming and vomiting.  It wasn’t until almost midnight on the 17th that things got bad enough to go to the hospital.  My dad drove, my mom sat in the front seat and Aimee was in the back with me.  It was on that van ride that I realized Stella was gong to be born on my birthday.  I couldn’t think of a better way to ring in my 30th birthday than giving birth to our baby.

It was a long, difficult and extremely painful labour.  Stella was born at 4:10pm on April 18th.  I think Aimee said, “it’s a girl!” and though my heart was full of joy, all I could say was, “I’m going to throw up” and I promptly began vomiting as the midwife stitched me up.  Not exactly a Hallmark moment, but fairly indicative of what parenting is like.  Messy and hard.  Not very glamorous, full of ups and downs.  But, if you pay attention, a myriad of exquisite, unexpected gifts.

That was an amazing day.  I turned 30 years old and became a mother all in one breath.  My daughter burst into the world, with porcelain skin, bawling-face, fists waving and a shock of red hair that made everyone laugh in delight.  There were 10 people in the room as she was born.  Two midwives plus my DeeDee, Poppa, Auntie Heather, Tutu, GrandPa, Auntie Angie, Nanny and Aim’s best friend, Ray.  Sometimes when I picture that happy scene of her birth and her first breath, it overlays a heart-breaking scene 3 1/2 years later when she took her last breath, surrounded by almost exactly the same group of people that stood in a circle and witnessed the miracle of her birth.

Sometimes it feels like all my memories overlap.

A sea of crying faces at her birth.  A circle of sobbing at her death.

Choosing the outfit she would come home from the hospital in.  Choosing the outfit she would be cremated in.

A myriad of candles lighting up the night at our wedding. A path of flickering candles as we carried her body out the door.

Taking photos of her face covered in icing, eating her birthday cake with a “1” flopped over. Taking photos of a tree in the park with a candle that says “7” on it.

Up at night because she cried. Up at night because we cry.

So how do you celebrate the birthday of your first born, when she’s not here?  Funny how we’ve fallen into a routine.  Visit her tree then run away to Great Wolf Lodge.  As always, a mixture of wanting to remember her in her favourite spots, but also needing to try to forget by distracting ourselves with the noise and activity and complete sensory overload.  I have been missing her so much these last weeks.  I always miss her, but I find that as the boys get older and more “boy-like” with burgeoning interests in super heroes and sports, I retreat further into my fantasies of having a daughter.  That’s one of the cruelties of her death, not knowing exactly what she would have been like, what she would have liked or disliked, leaving it all open to speculation and dreams.  And suddenly, I’m seeing little girls everywhere and each one is like a dagger to my heart.  I’m sure there are just as many little boys around, but it’s the girls that have been making my chest hurt.  I suddenly feel like everyone around me has a daughter.  Two nights ago I started to rattle off to Aimee the names of all of our friends and said, “they have a daughter…they have a daughter…they have a daughter…”.  Out of 15 friends I named, only two had no girls.  It suddenly felt momentously unfair to me.  I suddenly felt so jealous that I wanted to scream and rage.  Admitting these feelings is hard.  I don’t like the way they make me feel.  it’s embarrassing.  I confided in one friend a few weeks ago that I wanted my girl back and she said something along the lines of, “But you have two beautiful and healthy boys!”  I immediately felt ashamed of myself for saying anything at all, then angry that I was ashamed.  Having two healthy boys whom I love with all my heart and would do anything for, doesn’t mean that I still can’t mourn the daughter who died, and the fact that I no longer have a little girl to love.  But it’s hard to admit that to people.  Hard to make them understand.  Of course I’m grateful for my sons.  Of course I am happy with them and can’t imagine life without them.  But that doesn’t mean I still don’t miss my girl and feel bitter for everything that was taken away from us.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel sad when I see little dresses with crinoline and pink Dora crocs or that I’m not jealous of the little girls in mini blue jeans and pink sunglasses toddling around at the park.  Grief is complex and I’m constantly trying to understand why I act and react certain ways to things.

A family that I served 8 months ago called me Friday.  The woman had lost her father at age 87.  She called to tell me how much she was struggling.  That she was “still” so sad.  She knows about Stella and said that she didn’t know how I did it.  That I’m so strong.  She kept saying that she wouldn’t be able to live if her daughter died.  And that she was embarrassed to still be in such a funk about her dad because, after all, he was old and led a full life. She asked me what my secret was.  I told her my dad always says, “secret weapon…no choice”,  but I also didn’t want her to think that I’ve just risen above grief and grieving.  So I told her the truth.  I said, “What you’re doing is hard.  There’s no timeline.  There’s no magic cure.  I’m on meds.  I take medication everyday for depression and anxiety”. I wanted her to know that even though I’m happy, I still need help.   I’m not ashamed of it.  When I wake up each and every morning, I make a deliberate choice.   I choose to be happy.  I choose to find JOY because I know that is how I can keep Stella alive.  I truly believe that when we are forced to live without someone we love, we need to take a small piece of them and inhale it so deeply it enters our pores and becomes part of our own breath and body.  So I breathe Stella each and everyday.  I breathe her spunkiness.  I breathe her willingness to find joy in small things.  I breathe her inability to be anything but herself.  I breathe her bravery and her cheekiness and her tinkling giggle.  I use the breath I have to parent her brothers with as much understanding and love as I can.  I use it to help the families I serve.  I open my heart a teeny tiny bit to each and every grieving family that sits in front of me and tells me that they have lost someone they love.  I still hurt, but I choose to live.  I keep a yellowed cut out picture of a card I got once.  It’s a dry, dessert scene with a tiny flower growing through the cracked dirt.  And it says, “There are defining moments in a life, when faced with the choice of giving up, or going on”.

That card is taped on the inside of our kitchen cupboard.  Every morning when I get up and I open the cupboard to get my teacup out, I read it.  And I make the choice.

IMG_1307

Choose life.  Choose joy.

In Niagara Falls tonight, Gracie (8 years old already!) wore her Mommy Juju’s wedding dress to dinner.  She looked so beautiful and grown up in it.  It’s a burgundy and cream sundress.  It made me remember my wedding to Aimee.  I remembered the poem that was read that night, 10 years ago this August.  It was a warm summer night.  We had lit the backyard with dozens of flickering candles.  At the time, it was the poem that best reflected the love Aimee and I felt for each other.  But tonight, I thought about the fact that it is for Stella too.  And I read it out loud and wept.

Happy Birthday my beautiful girl.  Despite everything…I’m so glad you were born.  Stella Joy Bruner Methven, April 18, 2009.

i carry your heart with me

ee cummins

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

                                  i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

And I do.

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Sam lays some flowers at his sister’s tree for her birthday:

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Having a great time at Great Wolf Lodge 

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Every Friday night is pizza night and “Family Movie Night”.  The boys love it! (Xavier, Sam, Hugo)

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The Pain of Wisdom

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October and the change of summer into Fall is always hard for Aimee and I. We struggle with so many conflicting emotions. Happiness at our family and our two amazing sons, and the acute knowledge that something is missing— out little girl—and she is always missing from everything that we do. Every dinner, every Friday Family Movie night we have at home, ever holiday, every moment of everyday something is missing. It is difficult to live with the ghost of the past and all of the “should have been” or “could have been”’s that we think about. Just last night I was at the grocery store. It was all so mundane. The guy checking me out did the usual, “Hi how are you” and I said, “Great. How are you?” and he responded then I watched him bag the groceries. It struck me how surreal it was to be standing at the grocery store now, almost 3 years after Stella’s death. The same grocery store her and I walked to on a daily basis when I was on maternity leave with her. And when she got diagnosed with DIPG, we walked there all the time for Avocados and fresh air. And now there I was standing completely normally, having a meaningless conversation with someone, hiding completely what I’d been though. Suppressing the vivid memories I have of Stella at that same store. It’s such a tricky thing to remember and honour her without getting stuck in the past and without focusing so much on the heartbreak and sorrow that you miss all the gifts and joy of the present.  Some days are easier than others.  Almost 3 years after her death, it is easy to look back and think how far we’ve come.

But oh my God, I miss her.

I miss her laugh. I miss kissing the top of her forehead where the curls started. I miss watching the soft rise and fall of her chest as she slept. I miss all the dreams and hopes I had for her life. Last week I got in the mail a catalogue for a line of dolls called Maplelea. At first I was so excited because I love dolls and clothing and all the amazing accessories. But then I thought about the little girl I always imagined sharing that love with and I burst into tears. Poor Aimee didn’t quite know what to do with a blubbering 36-year old holding a doll catalogue and raging at the injustice of not having my daughter to share it with. So she just held me and let me cry. We don’t even know if Stella would have had any interest at all in dolls (truthfully my sense is no—whenever we gave her one, she would try to rip it’s head off…), but that’s part of the anger of it all. We don’t KNOW what she would have done or liked or disliked. And we will never know. All I have are 3.5 years of memories and a tear-stained doll magazine that is now at the bottom of a pile of bills. There are other little girls in my life that will look at the magazine with me. But I wanted it so badly to be MY little girl. The boys…well, I never really believed that boys are boys and girls are girls, but truthfully my guys show no interest in dolls. They like sword fights, zombies, lego and bike riding. They are constantly leaping off of furniture, running in circles and climbing anything they can find.

It’s very interesting to me the way that Aimee and I have reorganized our lives since Stella died. My new career as a funeral director turned out to be the best decision I could have made. Being around other people and their acute grief is comforting to me somehow. It makes me feel less alone, and stronger, when I see the way that all human beings must deal with and overcome that final separation of death. And there is such a feeling of accomplishment and peace for me when a family thanks me for helping them. Stella comes up often in my work. I share her with anyone and everyone when it is pertinent, or I think it will be helpful. I have also had the incredible opportunity of sharing Stella’s story at various conferences around Canada in the last year, sharing with groups of Funeral and Cemetery professionals the lessons and legacy of Stella Joy. I have needed to find a way to keep saying her name. To keep proving to myself, and to others, that she mattered. That she only lived three years but she made a difference.

She is the reason that I have the opportunity to wake up each morning and help another family trying to navigate the deep and complex waters of grief and trying to plan a ceremony to honour their loved one. She is the reason that my kids have been to Medieval Times twice in two months, to the zoo, the pumpkin patch, bike riding after school. She is why they get trips to the store for ice cream and any Hallowe’en costume they want (Hugo was THIS close to being Tinkerbell this year, but changed to a knight at the last minute swayed by the little plastic sword). He is why Aimee and I never seem to have money to go out for dinner, but always have enough to take them to Great Wolf Lodge. She made our family stronger and closer. She reminds me not to get frustrated at traffic or lineups. To tell people that I love them whenever I get the chance. She taught me to enjoy the little moments of life, the bath times and the evening walks. Because, the little things are really the big things.

We will be spending Stella’s death-anniversary at Great Wolf Lodge again. Since all the dates are so close, we will also celebrate Sam and Xavier’s birthdays there. (Sam turns 4 October 20, Xavier turns 4 October 21 and Stella died October 22). It’s been interesting seeing how happy and excited the boys are to be going to Great Wolf Lodge to celebrate birthdays while the adults know that we are also going to mark an occasion we would rather forget. This cluster of dates is such a reflection of what our life is like now. Balancing joy and heartbreak all in the same breath, learning to find happiness and joy in while still honouring grief as we navigate both happy and sad occasions.

We are in a rhythm now. We know how to mark certain days and how to anticipate what is coming. There is normalcy again. There is hope and light and laughter and true joy. We are guided by our precious Stella star who reminds us each and every day to find something to be grateful for. I would give anything to hold her again and to tell her how amazing she is, but I know I can’t. So instead, I will continue to look to her for strength and find her inside of me whenever I am lonely.

“Pain can change you. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad change, if you take that pain and turn it into wisdom”.

Love you always baby girl.

A little ice cream at the zoo for Stella:

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Change of Season…fall for Sam & Hugo:

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Letter to Stella from cousin Gracie:

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At the Pumpkin Patch:

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Remembering that smile always and forever.  Stella, age 2:

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First Day of School

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Aimee, the boys and I just returned from spending a glorious Labour Day weekend at the cottage.  We laughed and splashed and played from sunup to sundown.  We made wonderful memories and enjoyed each precious moment of the long weekend.  Then, this afternoon we packed up and headed home with hoards of other people clogging the highways on the pilgrimage back to the city.  Normally we would take tomorrow off to avoid the traffic but, this year, for the first time in our lives, we had to get home on Labour Day because we have a child starting school.  Almost three years ago our little girl died in our arms.  And with her last breath also came the death of so many of the dreams and hopes we had for her and our lives.  But tomorrow, our oldest boy Samson  will be the first in our family to head to Junior Kindergarten.  And Stella will not be there to show him the ropes.  She won’t be there to hold his hand and march him into the school and boss him around.  But we are lucky because he will be going to the same school as his older cousin Gracie, and will even have the same teacher that she did when she was in kindergarten.  Gracie will step in where Stella is not able to.  She has already shown him where the library is and explained to him how lunch and recess works.  Even without his big sister to boss him around, he is ready.  Sam has a Ninja Turtle backpack with a Stella Star attached to the zipper and a Spiderman lunchbox that he intently filled this evening with yogurt, pita and a cheesestring.

Sam, ready for school:

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Big-girl Gracie will look after our boys for Stella:

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Heather and Aimee and I threw a little “first day of school” party for the boys.  We ordered pizza and Poppa and neighbour Ken came over too.  We had an ice cream cake with candles and Xavier, Sam and Hugo sang “Happy School Days” to the tune of Happy Birthday.  Xavier is starting JK tomorrow too.

Xavier and Sam are excited to start JK!  Hugo is just excited to eat a lollipop (o;

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Both boys know that it is a big deal that school starts tomorrow, but they don’t fully understand what it means for Aimee and I.  Sam hears us talk about Stella all the time and he knows that’s she is his sister, but he has no way of knowing how her death shook us to the core and yanked the foundation right from under us.  He will not understand why beneath our smiles and words of encouragement for him there are tears and heartache as well.  This moment means more to us than most people will ever understand.  We are standing on the brink of what could have been, what SHOULD have been, and what is now.  Sam is older than Stella ever lived to be.  He is going to be four in October.  Stella will have been dead three years this October and by her birthday in April, she will have been dead longer than she was alive.  Hugo is three now as well.  We are beginning to live the promises Stella’s death so cruelly took away from us.  Soccer lessons and swimming lessons and learning to ride a bike.  We have been thrust back into “the real world”.  After spending 16 months sheltered with Stella in the nest we created that was full of Timbits and family/friend visits and books and puppet shows and walks and ice cream it’s sometimes hard to re-enter the outside world.  I was commenting to Aimee last week about how “normal” everything is now.  We go grocery shopping, talk about work, bicker about how many vegetables the kids need to consume before dessert, read bedtime stories, order pizza, get stuck in traffic, have mundane conversations at work, fold laundry in front of the TV and have intense discussions about what brand of dish detergent to buy.  On the surface it looks as though we are just like all the other people walking to the park with our kids, but we still carry the scars of Stella’s short life and death.  We are forever changed by it all.  It is subtle sometimes though, manifesting itself in the way we let the boys splash in puddles and get muddy without trying to stop them.  The way Aimee and I leave dishes piled up in the sink so we can sit in bed together and read the paper before we go to sleep.  Our refusal to let lack of money stop us from having a cottage, going to Great Wolf Lodge and buying ice cream.  Our fierce loyalty to those who stood by us when Stella got sick.  My lack of frustration when I order a tea and get a coffee, or wait in line for 10 minutes because there is a cashier in training who can’t figure out the buttons.  Things other people might not notice or comment on, but that have become an important part of who we are.

The biggest change for me, of course, is the fact that I am now a Licensed Funeral Director in the Province of Ontario.  When I got the news over the phone in July that my official license had been issued, I broke down in sobs.  Aimee and I happened to be off that day and we had just finished a delicious lunch on the patio of a local restaurant.  It was eerily similar to a lunch we had shared the week before Stella was diagnosed…where we toasted each other and said aloud how life couldn’t get any better than what it was.  4 days later our world fell apart.  This time we finished our lunch and talked about how far we’ve come.  Then I got the call about my license and Aimee and I stood at the side of the road together and cried.  My Funeral Director’s license is so much more than a piece of paper for me.  When I look at it I remember two years of sacrifice for myself and my family.  I remember setting my alarm clock for 4am so I could study for my exam before the kids woke up. I remember missing Christmas with my kids to work.  I remember them crying at the screen door as I left for work, yet again, them begging me to stay home and take them to the park.  I remember the fear and frustration of my internship.  I remember how I almost quit several times because it was too hard.  I remember the doubts I had and the struggles Aimee went through trying to single parent while I worked and studied at all hours.  And I also remember the feelings of pride I had when I felt like I really made a difference in someone’s life.  Most of all, becoming a licensed funeral director is something that means I am living my life in honour of Stella.  Every single time I get up now and go to work, every time I work on a funeral or meet with a family I am doing it for Stella and with her in mind.  And when someone asks me how or why I do what I do, I look them in the eye and I tell them about my little girl.  I work at a funeral home in Scarborough now.  For the first time in my life I wake up each day and I’m happy and excited to go to work.  I am fully licensed, fully employed and, most importantly, fulfilled.

I did it! Class 1 Licensed Funeral Director in the Province of Ontario!!!

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A co-worker of mine came up to the cottage for a few hours on Sunday.  It was a beautiful late summer day.  The sun shone down and the kids had an amazing time.  Sam and Hugo jumped off the dock and swam around.  They played in the sand.  They paddled around in their kayak’s.  In between jumping into the water with the kids, we sat on the beach and took it all in.  As my co-worker was getting ready to leave he and I stood on the deck of the cottage and looked down at the dock where Sam and Hugo sat next to each other, heads close together, talking about a fish they saw.  Aimee was busily getting dinner started in the kitchen and he turned to me and said simply, “You have a great life”.  Without hesitation, I responded, “You’re right.  I do”.  I felt no anger or bitterness or guilt when I said it.  Even though my little girl isn’t here, I do have a great life.  It’s not perfect.  I wash darks and whites together, bite my nails, give my kids too much candy, watch The Bachelor on TV, drink Pepsi for breakfast and wear mismatched socks.  I’m not a perfect parent, not a perfect Funeral Director, not a perfect daughter or sister or wife or neighbour.  But I wake up each morning and find JOY in the day I have been given.  Stella taught me that life doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be lived.

Living life with our boys each and everyday!

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Our inspiration each and everyday…

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