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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Ready, Set, Go

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I don’t have much time to write anymore.  I don’t have much time to do anything anymore.  Working close to 50 hours a week as an intern funeral director and balancing that with the needs of an almost-2 and almost-3 year old in addition to all the regular crap like laundry and dishes and bill paying and there just isn’t much left.  In some ways I feel the same way I did when each of the kids was a newborn…overwhelmed, anxious, excited, happy, sad and, of course, your biggest craving is for sleep, and you never seem to be able to get enough.

So here I am, 2 months into my one-year internship in Funeral Services and I want so badly to love it— I’m trying hard to love it all the time, but the thing about being an intern is that you have to learn how to do everything, and that includes (to a large degree), the less glamorous parts of funeral services.  Such as vacuuming an entire funeral home (including Chapel), scrubbing urinals, picking up garbage, cleaning out rain gutters and hauling oversized funeral flower arrangements from the funeral home to the church and then cemetery.  It’s all part of the job, and it’s all important work, but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t backbreaking, monotonous and stressful at times.  I find I spend much of my day being anxious about whether or not I am doing something correctly and/or safely. Luckily the people I work with have been exceptionally patient and generous with their knowledge and there are moments that it all seems to mesh, and I feel really good.  But there are also moments I want to burst into tears and run away.  A lot of my anxiety has to do with how new everything is.  There is a massive learning curve for me happening, but at the same time Funeral Services is not the type of industry that you can make very many mistakes in.  The result of these two things is that I am living at a high level of stress most of the time.

Stella is what gets me through the hard days.  The ones where I get home after 11pm at night, knowing I need to leave for work again by 6:45 the next morning, without seeing my kids or wife at all.  The days there is a baby or young person lying on the embalming room table.  The days when I make a mistake and 15 different people at the funeral home make jokes about it.  The days I feel lost and overwhelmed; incompetent and useless.  When I feel like giving up, admitting defeat and applying for another desk job, I reach inside and find my inner Stella Joy.  The stubborn, fearless, unrelenting parts of her that I promised I would adopt to my own personality after she died.  And then, somehow, just like she did, I keep on going.  I can see huge changes in myself already and there are many things I’ve accomplished during this internship that I’m proud of, so I think that no matter what happens long-term I will be grateful for the growth and lessons I experience each and everyday.  It’s sure as heck never boring!!!

I keep a Stella Star in my locker at work and when I’m rifling through in the morning looking for the appropriate outfit (we have funeral suits, evening suits, grubby clothes and embalming uniforms), it swings and clangs against the metal sides.  Her photo always catches my eye as it’s crookedly taped to the wall next to my schedule.  “Good morning, baby” I always think to myself.

Stella has been dead for almost 2 years now.  I can hardly believe it.  I can hardly believe it’s been that long since I felt the soft, warm weight of her body nestled into mine.  It’s funny because during the first year I feel like I really needed concrete reminders of her.  My “F**k you cancer- Stella bracelet, my Stella necklace, one of her little t-shirts, photos, etc.  But now I feel as though she is steeped right into my pores and when I breathe and think and speak, she is part of all of it but without me thinking consciously about it.  Just as she once physically lived in me, now she mentally lives in me.  I am different because of her.  I am better because of her.  And I see her in her brothers as well.  The boys are active.  They are running, talking, leaping little people.  It takes a team of us sometimes to spell each other off on all the energy the boys need to shake before they can collapse into bed.  Even as Aimee and I are sitting in their room reading books to them, they are running around us, jumping from the bed and chasing each other in circles.  Their energy is beautiful and their smiles as they sit side-by-side eating crackers from a bowl in their pyjamas and giggling as they wiggle their toes makes me want to freeze time and never leave that moment.

I can’t believe how much they are changing and growing.  Much of Stella’s physical growth stopped at 26 months of age, so it’s been amazing to see the growth and changes in Sam, who is 33 months now (if you even count in months at that age).  He hasn’t met anything he can’t climb, cocks his head to the side and says things like, “You fell Xavier?  That’s why we don’t run here, we only walk”, tells me I’m beautiful and starts most sentences with “hey guys…”  Hugo runs along behind him, a little ball of excitement and single-mindedness.  I feel like I have finally arrived at the place that DIPG robbed Aimee and I of that warm June day in 2011.  I have arrived at the moment and age where our kids are old enough to be signed up for soccer and gymnastics, to go on playdates without a parent, to talk and grow into their personalities.  Time continues to march forward, and it seems impossible to think, or to say out loud, but Aimee and I and our family…we are okay.  We are happy.

And being around death all the time certainly has a way of helping to keep me focused on what’s really important.  Death really and truly is a random thing.  The youngest body I’ve had on the table in the embalming room was a 15-week old baby.  The oldest was a 103 year old man.  But I’ve seen everything in between too.  Young, old, frail, strong, sudden death, long illness, suicide, murder.  It doesn’t matter how or what or when, it’s truly the one common denominator of all living things.  And I’ve sat through dozens and dozens of funeral services now.  I can tell you I’ve never once had anyone say in a service or eulogy that someone would be missed because their house was always cleaned and organized, or their clothing was ironed nicely.  No one ever says they will miss the fancy car that person drove, or the expensive house they lived in, or the Rolex watch they wore.  All these “things” we spend our lives collecting turn out to be totally meaningless after all.  When someone dies, the stories that are told are about kind gestures, generosity, making other people feel good, loving and being loved.  I try to remind myself of this on a daily basis when I start to feel overwhelmed by staying on top of work and life.  Life isn’t laundry, life is laughter.

So, for any loyal blog readers left out there who have been checking in and seeing no updates for awhile, my apologies.  We love that you still check in on us, and love that you still care.  If I’m not writing, it’s probably because the boys and I are spending the evening looking at a rainbow and wishing on a star and by the time we finish…we’ve fallen asleep (o:

“Perhaps our eyes need to be washed with tears once in awhile, to help us see clearly again”  – Alex Tan

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Set…

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GO!!!!!!!!

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Poppa reads the boys a story: 

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Big-girl Gracie reads to her cousins:

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Hugo’s silly face:

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Ice Cream for Stella:

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Stella and Mama, September 2011:

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Happy Father’s Day, Daddy

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Dear Dad,

Working in Funeral Services over the past month, I have had the privilege of watching many, many funerals.  Several of them have been the death of a man and, at the funeral, his children give short eulogies honouring their father’s life.  It’s been interesting to hear all the things, over a lifetime, that children choose to talk about once their father passes away.  I reflected on what a shame it is that only after someone dies, do we take the time to tell them how wonderful they are.  I began to think about what I would say if someone charged me with the task of summing up in just a few minutes, what my dad has meant to me and my life.

So, for Father’s Day this year, (because I was too broke and disorganized to come up with a better present), I have decided to write a Eulogy for you.  This way, you know how important and wonderful you are, and can be alive to bask in it (o:

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Eulogy for my dad- Noel Methven*

      * not dead yet, and I’m so glad you’re alive and well!!!!

Noel Methven was many things to many people over his lifetime.  He was a son, brother, uncle, friend, husband, boyfriend, grand-pa, musician and business owner.  But of all the titles he has held, there are only two people in the entire world who had the privilege and pride of calling him “dad” and that’s my sister Heather and I.

 

Noel Methven was a great father.  The best dad anyone could ever ask for.  He would have given Heather and I the moon if he could have.  No matter what was going on his life, or how old Heather and I got, he was always right there.  I don’t remember him ever saying “no” to us.  He said “yes” to a $600 dog I wanted, “yes” to paying for accordion lessons, “yes” to driving Heather to Buffalo to check out a University, “yes” to co-signing a loan for me, “yes” to buying me 6 budgies and a turtle, “yes” to playing trumpet at my wedding, “yes” to driving our kids to Scarborough (1.5 hours roundtrip) every single weekday morning for daycare and “yes” “yes” “yes” to any and every request we ever made to him.  One of my earliest memories is my dad and I at the old Harborfront Antique Market.  I desperately wanted a collectible teddy bear from a vendor, but it was expensive.  I put out my bottom lip and pouted the way only a 6-year old can, and my dad, with no hesitation, went and bought me the stuffed animal I would love and cherish my whole life,  “Jacques”  (also known as “Jacky-poo-poo”).  When he handed it to me, I remember running my finger over Jacques’ threaded mouth and musing out loud, “he looks a bit sad”.  “Oh, ok” replied my dad wryly, “if he’s not happy with us, then let’s return him because he cost me $65”.  Then he patted my head and laughed at my horrified face.  I loved to watch my dad laugh.  He would throw his head back, and if it was something really funny, no sound would come out.  When he laughed his mouth opened, the corners of his eyes crinkled and he laughed right from the heart in a way that was catching.

 

Because he worked from home, my dad looked after Heather and I when we were home sick.  He went on class field trips, brushed tangles out of our hair, made bologna, ketchup and butter sandwiches for our lunches, and sometimes— with mixed results— tried to buy us clothes.  I remember one year he proudly presented Heather and I with matching sweat suits.  Heather’s was pea green, mine was corn yellow, and there were silk ribbons sewn up the sides of the pants and sleeves.  He was proud of those sweat suits.  Heather and I were horrified.  We wore them once at my Nana’s cottage, and then hid them until we outgrew them.  But, of course, there were photos taken that one day that we wore them, and so the sweatsuits live on forever in family photo albums.  I have memories of him reading me the Bernstein Bears at bedtime, playing hide-and-go-seek and his lame attempts at cooking Heather and I dinner. “Chicken in a bag” was a perennial Noel Methven favourite and if you don’t know what that is, count yourself lucky.  His own parents, who lived a block away, got used to seeing him every single day of their lives.  When they were alive, he would pop in a few times a day to make sure they didn’t need anything.  When I grew up and bought my own house, right across the street from him of course, he took to popping into my place, often bringing milk for the kids, or little twinkies from the variety store he would sneak to me when no one else was looking.

 

My dad loved a good deal.  The $1.49 breakfast at Ikea was always a big hit and “It was on sale, so I bought 7 of them” was a common quote.  We made fun of him and his tendency to never give up a deal if he thought he found one, as well as his habit of picking up a perfectly good “whatever” from the side of the road, or keeping for decades something he figured someone would need someday.  I used to tell him that most people, when their garage gets too full, clear out some stuff.  Not my dad.  He would just build another garage.  At one point he had two garages chock full of stuff as well as a temporary garage tent thing set up behind his house.  No backyard, just rows of garages.  Later on in his life, he “borrowed” space from other people on the street and had things in multiple garages around the neighbourhood.  The way some people collect stamps, he collected garages.  But, even though we made fun of him, if we needed anything we would just make a call or take a walk over to “Methven’s Hardware” store as we called his sheds, and it would be there.  Vacuum cleaner?  He bought 3 on sale five years ago, take one.  Window?  He has 6 leaded glass ones he got from a house they were knocking down in 1995.  Church pew?  Yep, we have two of those -one from Riverdale United and one from Simpson Avenue.  Screws, nails, marble countertop he’s had since 1976, doors, hinges, bookshelves, scrap wood, antique washing machine, mini fridge, carpet scraps, birdcage.  And that’s not counting what he stored in his attic.  Sometimes, just for kicks, I would call him from the car and say, “Dad…the people at #221 are throwing out a perfectly good wooden chair…”  By the next morning, it would join the pile in one of the garages and my dad would spend a few days fawning over his new find before it got banished to the back corner of the shed, sure to be used by someone at sometime, “someday”.

 

Speaking of neighbourhoods, my dad never really left his.  He lived his entire life within the same 5 block radius of East York.  When I was a teenager/young adult going through the horrific, “I know it all stage”, I thought my dad was dreadfully un-cultured.  He spoke no other languages, had never gone to college or university, had no interest in art or theatre, didn’t have any desire to travel.  He had the opportunity to travel a few times in his life, but he was never that interested in seeing the world.  I asked him once if he could go anywhere, where he would want to go.  He was silent for awhile, and I thought he was thinking about all the incredible and exotic places there are to go.  But, when he responded, he just shrugged and said he was happiest just spending time at home and didn’t feel the need to travel.   As an adult, I realized that my dad might not have seen the world, but he had instead invested his time in something a lot more precious— cultivating friendships.  He knew the names and stories of every single person who lived on our block.  I have lived there almost as long as him, and don’t recognize people who live three doors down.  My dad not only knows them, but has probably mowed their lawn and met their brothers and sisters at a family BBQ.  Looking back, I realize that this makes him a much more learned and cultured man than anyone else I know.  I may have seen the Tower of Pisa, but he helped an elderly lady shovel snow and at the end of the day, that is much, much more important.

 

As I grew up, I realized my dad had life figured out better than a lot of other people who might think themselves more worldly, more educated, richer, smarter, better.  Anyone who believes that doesn’t get it.  My dad was happy with what he had. He knew what was important.  Family.  Friends.  Health.  That was it.  He found true joy and pleasure in the simple things of life.  A really good chocolate soft serve ice cream cone.  Hearing the life story of someone else.  A cold glass of Pepsi.  A sunny day spent with friends and family outside.  He understood what really matters better than anyone else I know.

My dad had tea and toast for breakfast almost every single morning of his life.  The toast would either have raspberry jam or corn syrup dumped on it.  He liked meat, potatoes, white wonder bread and doughnuts.  He never pretended to be someone he wasn’t, which gave my sister and I the ability to be our own people without worrying what other people thought.  What an amazing role-model.  He didn’t need to continue to experience and search for things, because he was perfectly happy with what he had.

 

A few years ago, my dad was sick in the hospital for four days with a ruptured gallbladder.  It was the first time in his life he ever had to be in hospital for anything.  When he got out, he told me that he was so grateful to be able to walk around and be healthy again that he wanted to mow lawns.  That was 6 years ago and he mowed lawns regularly ever since.  He mowed at least 5 lawns a week in the neighbourhood, including mine.  The funny thing is, my dad didn’t even have a lawn.  He had a paved front yard, but he bought a lawnmower just so he could mow everyone else’s lawn.  That’s the kind of guy he was.

 

Later on in his life, I used to tease my dad and say he was like a goldfish because he didn’t remember things, so like a goldfish swimming around and around in its bowl, rediscovering the same piece of plastic seaweed, he was constantly experiencing “new” things— even if he’d experienced them before.  One of our cousins makes a Boar Stew and passes it on to us every couple of months.  Without fail, my dad used to open up the fridge, see the container and say, “Boar stew?  I’ve never had that before, I’d like to try it”.  Then he would eat a little and say, “That’s very good.  Different…tasty”.  A few months later when it reappeared in the fridge, he would go over the same exercise again, telling me he’d never had it before.  I didn’t mind.  The same forgetfulness served Heather and I well with gifts and borrowing money.  He could never remember what we had given him for Christmas or his birthday, or if he had leant us money, so we stopped giving him presents and stopped paying him back. It worked great for us.  Of course, sometimes it worked against us.  For example, one year he was snowblowing our driveway, which I know we should be grateful for, and he ran the snowblower up the side of our car, scratching it from bumper to bumper.  But whenever I brought up that story, he always said he didn’t remember doing that.

 

My dad didn’t always talk a lot, but he didn’t need to.  He lived his life by setting an example for my sister and I.  He was always there when we needed him, would drop anything to come to us if we called.  When my daughter Stella got diagnosed with a DIPG brain tumor in June of 2011, the second night in the hospital when I woke up in the hospital bed clutching my precious baby, wracked with the immense pain of pure grief, I saw my dad sitting at the bottom of the bed just looking, waiting for me to wake up.  he had arrived sometime in the middle of the night, unable to stay away when he knew how much I needed him.  He said nothing, just squeezed my feet under the sheets and stared at me, his own eyes and face just as drawn and devastated as mine.  Stella was my little girl, but I was his little girl, and his heart was breaking for me.    Throughout Stella’s illness, my dad came over every single morning, 7 days a week and made breakfast for us.  He got Stella anything and everything she wanted day or night.  Doughnuts, cupcakes, presents.  When Sam, Xavier and Hugo were born, they soon learned that “Poppa” was the person to go to for treats.   All three of his grandsons adored him and clamoured, “Poppa, poppa!” whenever he walked through the door.

 

My dad had a lot of things he could be proud of.  He ran a successful rubber stamp business from home for over 25 years.  He was one of the premiere trumpet players in Toronto.  He could build a fence, or a garage, do wiring, painting, plumbing.  But he used to give Heather and I big hugs all the time and tell us that he was most proud of us.  And I believe that.

 

My dad has taught me so much in my life, and though he is gone, his legacy will be all of the ways he shaped my sister and I in our lives, and all of the lessons, both big and small, he imparted on us.

 

My dad taught me that after you eat the savoury part of the pizza, the crust is really just like a piece of freshly baked bread and if you add jam to it, you have dessert!

 

My dad taught me that Pepsi is a breakfast drink.

 

My dad taught me not to sweat the small stuff.  In fact, he never sweated anything— big, small or monumental.

 

My dad taught me to always carry Werthers butterscotch candy in my pockets.

 

My dad never told me how to live.  He just lived, and let me learn from his actions.

 

Daddy, in my thoughts

in my heart

in every part of my life.

You are always with me, dad.

And always will be because you live on in me, Heather and our children.

 

I love you and I’m so glad this is a FAKE eulogy and I will have (hopefully many!) more years to love and learn from you.

 

 Aimee and I are so blessed to have such incredible father’s!

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Stella and her beloved Poppa (May, 2011)

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Daddy, Me, Heather and Stella (July, 2011):

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Poppa and Hugo, April 2013:

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Poppa and Sam, July 2013: 

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“Supermom”

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On the morning of Stella (and my) birthday, I took Sam and Hugo to McDonald’s for breakfast. I have a weak spot for Bacon’n’Egg McMuffins and since it was my birthday, I thought I’d treat myself. Sam and Hugo had been particularly active that morning, perhaps channeling the energy of their sister, and by 8:30am when I finally decided to go to McDonald’s, I already felt like I had been running a marathon. Both the boys like to climb things and that morning I had been dashing between the living room where Sam was climbing and leaping off the back of the couch, and the dining room where Hugo kept attempting to use the chairs to boost himself onto the top of the table. There was crushed Cheerios crumbs spread from one side of the house to the other that kept getting more and more pulverized by little feet, and both boys were stark naked as they streaked by in a flash of shouts and laughter. Hugo had a fresh-looking cut over his eye from a fall into the coffee table a few days earlier and Sam had matching bruises on both his knees from a leap off the beanbag chair that had gone wrong the day before. I felt like they were wild monkeys. Laughing, leaping, untamed little urchins. I had on sweatpants and my winter jacket, my hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. I chased them until I could pin them down long enough to dress them, then bribed them into their stroller with promises of breakfast at “the restaurant”.  I love the stroller. It’s like a legal prison for children. I can sit them down, strap them around their waists and shoulders and take them wherever I want. But, by the time I got them both dressed and in the stroller, I was sweating. Panting a little. I was frazzled, but intent on going to McDonald’s to get my birthday breakfast.

Once outside, with the boys securely strapped into the stroller, happily playing with toy cars they had brought with them for the walk, I began to relax a bit. I thought back about the day 5 years ago that Stella was born and let the tears trickle down my cheeks as we walked. I looked down at the two little blonde heads in front of me and felt amazed at how much Aimee and I have been through since that day 5 years ago when Stella burst into the world, changing us all forever. I remembered the anticipation and excitement of waiting for her birth, and then the awe and raw fear I felt when she finally arrived— a red-faced, red-haired crying bundle of pure perfection.  Remembering her birth was emotional for me, and though I was enjoying being out in the quiet morning sunshine with Sam and Hugo, I was pretty raw by the time we got to McDonald’s. Luckily it’s busy and chaotic there, so no one paid much notice. I moved the boys from their stroller into chairs (nothing to strap them down in, damn!) and began throwing all kinds of food at them in the hopes they would sit still long enough for me to enjoy my McMuffin and tea. Alas, within a few minutes they were leaping off the chairs and attempting to make a break for the doors…into the parking lot, of course. There was remnants of food everywhere and Sam had managed to dump an entire bottle of chocolate milk on his pants, so was whining about wanting to take his pants off as well. By the time I had cleaned up the table and rounded up the boys, I was sweating again. And I was hurting because I was missing my girl. I felt like crap. Tired, sad, worn-out.  Just as I opened the door to leave, a woman called my name. I turned around and a stranger thrust a McDonald’s gift certificate into my hands. She breathlessly explained to me that she was a blog reader, and was amazed to see me at the McDonald’s that morning. I was stunned. And then, she said that before she recognized me, she had thought to herself what a “supermom” that woman was at the McDonald’s early on a Friday morning with two toddlers in tow. As I thanked her and walked away, her words seemed more and more amusing to me. Here I was feeling almost hysterically out of control and ragged, and this woman had dubbed me a “supermom”. She had no idea how much I needed to hear that on my birthday morning.  I realized that I often label other parents I see as being more put-together, more able, and better than me. But to a stranger at a McDonald’s on Stella’s birthday, I was the “supermom”. Back at home, I unloaded by wet, dirty, bedraggled boys out of the stroller and focused on making the day as fun as possible in honour of Stella. I could get through the day. I was “supermom”.

A group of us headed to Riverdale Farm and visited Stella’s tree and bench. The boys oinked at her pigs, mooed at her cows and then we tied balloons to the tree and shed a few tears as Aimee carefully placed a candle with the number “5” at the trunk. Back at home, we ordered food for everyone and sang a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday dear Stella”, after which Sam, Hugo and Gracie blew out the candles. Then everyone went home, Hugo went down for a nap and all was quiet. Juju and I walked Gracie and Sam to the dollar store where they picked out a gift for themselves (matching pink Easter baskets), and one in honour of Stella (a plastic chicken in a nest), and then dinner. 4:03pm, the exact time that Stella was born 5 years earlier, passed unnoticed. There was food to pack up, dishes to do, laundry to fold, exams to study for.

The next day, life continued on with Easter celebrations and family visits. Monday I started to write final exams for school and now, almost two weeks later, Stella’s birthday feels like a distant memory already. That is the way life is now. We carve out moments, specific times and days to remember and celebrate, but as soon as you turn around, life sweeps you back up again. We got some lovely messages and texts from people that day letting us know they were honouring and celebrating Stella, but then it was all over. We blinked and that moment of remembering Stella was over. I mean, we remember and think of her everyday, but the special compartmentalized day to celebrate her lasted only a few hours. The next morning, Aimee and I woke up and nothing much in the world had changed. That’s how it is when your child dies, the world spins around you, and you are just standing alone wondering what the hell happened.

Recently, I’ve become aware of the stories of two other children who died in the past few months. I read the words of their parents on blogs, and met with one set of parents last week. I saw the haunting horror of losing a child in their eyes, and it made my heart hurt. They wanted help, advice, confirmation that the horrific pain will someday cease. The words others told me when the diagnosis and death was fresh, ring hollow. “It will get better”. “Just give it time”. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them those lies.  I told them all the things that were hard.  How Stella’s friends keep getting older, and moving further and further away.  How we wept on the first day of kindergarten.  How we feel that we are now “behind” where we are supposed to be in our parenting.  How the sense of injustice and sadness never leaves you.  But I wasn’t sure if it was what they wanted or needed to hear.  How do you tell them? How do you make them understand that it doesn’t really get better, and time is as much an enemy as a friend, but you get used to the pain and if you continue to look for tiny moments of pleasure each and everyday, you will be okay. I can viscerally feel their desperation and pain. I want to help, but the truth is, everyone has to walk their own path of losing a child and it is different for everyone. But I am glad that I am no longer “there”, in that place of darkness and anguish when the grief is so fresh and raw that it hurts to breathe. As unbelievable as it is that I had to celebrate the birthday of my eldest child at a tree and bench, instead of holding her tightly in my arms, I am glad that I am on the other side of those early moments.

Sometimes, I find myself daydreaming about her. I wonder what she would look like and sound like at age 5. I ponder if Sam would be a bit “tougher” if Stella were here to boss him around. I try to imagine her and Gracie going to the movies together to see “Frozen”, and how good she would have been at sports. But I never daydream for long, because my life is good now and I don’t want to miss out on the here and now thinking about the could have beens.

The truth is, as much as my heart aches for Stella, I can’t imagine life without our two boys anymore.

Life looks differently then I ever imagined it would be five years ago.  Life for us now is not about kindergarten or playdates at the zoo or dresses or hair ribbons.  Life is naked boys leaping from furniture and food on the floor and trucks in the toy box.
Life is writing exams and talking about paint colours for the cottage. Life is getting a driver’s license and cutting coupons for orange juice. It’s messy and frantic and so very deliberate. Stella and I have both turned a year older, and as the old adage says, you should count your years in smiles, not tears. I’ve had a lot of tears the last few years, but I’ve also had more than my share of smiles and laughter. And the best way I can think of to honour Stella is to keep her love in my smile. So my dear Stella, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. Today no one else is more youer than you” – Dr. Seuss

I think I’ll take the boys to McDonald’s with my gift card tonight. I’m feeling a “Supermom” moment coming on.

The boys at McDonald’s, morning of April 18th, 2014 (Stella’s birthday)

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Easter fun! (Xavier, Sam, Hugo):

IMG_1150Bubbles at the park (Gracie, Auntie Angie, Hugo, Sam):

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Happy Birthday, baby girl:

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Music To My Ears

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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:

IMG_0886Hugo Beckham plays soccer:

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Gracie and Sam playing some odd game they invented that required face masks:

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Hugging brothers:

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Colouring Brothers:

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Winter trip to Jungle Cat World (photos by Kenneth Tinnish):

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