A New Coat of Paint
One of the things I wasn’t prepared for with Stella’s death was how difficult it would be to continue to live in the physical space where she once was. Aimee and I had been warned by our psychiatrist that generally people fall into two camps: those who are comforted by being in the place their child lived and died, and those that can’t tolerate it and need to get as far away as possible. I have been in contact with many bereaved parents since Stella was diagnosed and there are some that have moved from their old homes, old neighbourhoods. There is even one person who left the country and I’ve heard of another who even moved to a new continent.
The house that Aimee and I live in is special to us. It is the first and only one we’ve ever owned. It is located about 12 feet from the home I grew up in. My dad owns the house right across the street from us and my mom’s backyard runs into ours. Aimee’s dad is a 10 minute drive, her mom is a 15 minute drive and Andge and Julia are about 20 minutes away. My brother lives with my mom and my sister lives with my dad, so we are literally surrounded by family. Almost all of our friends live within a 5 minute drive or less from us. There are good schools nearby, lots of parks, libraries, restaurants, grocery stores. It’s a lovely neighbourhood. We bought this house 9 years ago and it was a total dump, but we saw only the beauty and potential of it when we moved in. We’ve spent the last almost decade turning it into our home. Saving up money and fixing it up one room at a time.
The sink in the kitchen is where I first told Aimee we were pregnant with Stella. I have it on video and she is crying and squealing with excitement as the tap runs, momentarily forgotten, in the background. The same sink that was surrounded by dripping white candles the night that Stella died and Aimee carried her body, wrapped in a soft white blanket, out to the waiting car where she disappeared from us forever.
The dining room table is where we laid out all the baby things we got for Christmas 2009. We stood at the table staring at everything for a long time, in disbelief that four months later we would be using all those things for our baby. We didn’t know the difference between the teether and the soother on the table, but we were determined to give our child the best of everything.
The washroom got renovated just two weeks before Stella was due. For three days we lived with no toilet. In the middle of the night, hugely pregnant, I would have to choose either going down to the basement and using our tenants bathroom (awkward to say the least!), or stepping outside into the backyard and peeing on the grass like a dog. Neither was ideal, but both memorable.
Our bedroom is where I labored with Stella, writhing and screaming thinking I was being ripped in half. Aimee and I now laugh at how I insisted the midwife come and check me because I was sure it must be time to push…and I was only 1cm dialated when she showed up! The bedroom is also where Stella died. Right in the middle of the bed where Aimee and I sleep every night. Wearing her purple t-shirt and bike shorts, my beautiful 3-year old daughter died in our arms in the same room I once labored her into life. The walls have been decorated with screams of pain and anguish twice now.
Stella’s room. Where Aimee and I lovingly painted the walls with special (read: expensive) all-natural eco-paint. Where we put together all the furniture ourselves, carefully folded all the newborn clothes and put them into the dresser. Where we sang our baby to sleep, read books, laughed and dreamed. Where Stella would wake up in the morning and hold her arms up to us, ready to be lifted out and begin her day. The place I fought most with her. Attempting to put her to bed. To get her dressed. To convince her to sit on my lap for just thirty seconds so I could tie her shoes. To force her to pick up the books she yanked off the shelf with glee. Many tears of frustration and anger were shed in that room— for both of us. But there were also times when the moon and stars would peek through the windows and she would giggle and try to grab my nose as I sang Carly Simon songs softly to her, both of us, momentarily, enjoying the safety and warmth of just being together.
The dining room floor where Stella took her first steps. It was like a crooked little straight legged run straight into Uncle Tristan’s arms. Where Gracie and Stella played for hours, chasing each other in circles and collapsing into a pile of giggling arms and legs.
And the couch. So many memories on that couch. We lived on our couch for 16 months, day in and day out (in case you’ve forgotten, here is a blog entry from October 2011, all about the damn couch):
That couch was our bed, playroom, kitchen, office and more during the months Stella was living with DIPG.
This house is bursting with memories for us. Each creak in the wooden floor is like a fresh cut on my open wounds. I can see Stella so clearly in every corner of every room. Dancing, laughing, spinning, living. It’s excrutiating even when it’s comforting. But we live here. Aimee and I decided a few months ago that we weren’t willing or able to sell this house. It hasn’t been easy to stay here. It’s not just the house, it’s the whole neighbourhood. The playgrounds we took Stella to, the school she should have gone to, the library we walked to, the shops we frequented. Each sphere that we move into without her is a stark reminder of everything we’ve lost. It’s not always easy, but we are dedicated to our lives here and we want to stay. So, we decided that instead of moving, we would give our house a makeover. Nothing structural, no “home improvements”, just paint and furniture placement.
For the last few weeks, we have had the entire house repainted. We moved around the furniture. We couldn’t bring ourselves to get rid of Stella’s couch, so we kept it but got it recovered in a grey fabric. We changed around all the art and bought a couple additional pieces on Etsy. We printed out dozens of family photos and created a Family Photo wall. We finally made Stella’s room into Sam’s room and Sam’s room into Hugo’s room (It’s only a 3-bedroom bungalow).
Now it’s done. Everything looks fresh and different. It’s a new coat of paint for our new lives. The life where Stella is dead and we are living as the parents of Hugo and Sam. It’s beautiful. I love every room. But if I thought it would heal something deeper inside me, it hasn’t.
Stella is missing. Since the day Stella died, our house has felt different. Even our friend Christie said it when she popped by yesterday. When Stella was here, both pre and post DIPG, the house just reverberated with life. It was loud and chaotic and busy. Especially after Stella was diagnosed, it was always bursting with people and food and conversation. We all lived loudly for Stella because she reacted to pantomime-style humour. We marched all over the house singing “blam blam” when it was time for meds. We had tea parties with our puppets Fred and Carrot on the couch. We painted our nails. We chortled about bodily functions and let Stella pretend to hit us all because it made her laugh. The TV constantly blared episodes of Dora, Barney, Olivia, Sesame Street. Family and friends came to visit everyday, at all times of the day. We ate constantly. The kettle was always cheerfully whistling as we drank gallons of tea. It was energetic, social, loud. As Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.
And now, sitting in our beautiful home, it all feels so empty. Sam and Hugo are wonderful boys. We have a blast with them and I am hopeful that in time we will create hundreds of new, happy family memories together, accepting that our lives will forever be marked by Stella and all she brought to us. No matter how many times we paint over the walls or move the furniture around, her laughter will always echo off these walls and the memories we have here will always seep out with the turn of a tap or the lighting of a candle.
Same walls, even though they’ve changed colour several times. Same floors, even though we put new hardwood over the old hardwood a few years ago. Same windows, even though they were upgraded to be more “energy efficient” at some point. Same layout. Same creaky spots. Same front door. The same but different. Kind of like Stella when cancer started to change her. Lots was different on the outside, but she remained the same on the inside…right to the very end when all she could do independently was stick her tongue out, she still managed to convey joy and humour in all she did.
And even though change is hard, I have been staring at a gorgeous encaustic rendering of Stella that was a gift from friends, the one where a butterfly had landed on her cheek, and I remember that, “if nothing changed, there’d be no butterflies”. And we all know that butterflies symbolize transition, time, celebration and soul.
The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough. ~Rabindranath Tagore
Xavier and Sam:
Gracie and Sam attending a concert on Family Day:
Stella’s room before:
Stella/Sam’s room after:
Stella, March 2011: