Searching for Stella

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Well, here I am sitting on the itchy, crumb-covered carpet at Great Wolf Lodge while the kids colour Power Rangers pictures next to me and Aimee watches CNN—hanging on to every detail of the upcoming US election (sigh).  It’s a slightly different scene every year, but the cast of characters never changes.  Me, Aimee, Gracie, Sam, Hugo, Auntie Angie (and, until this year, Juju— but she had to work) show up at the doors of Great Wolf Lodge to both celebrate and grieve the death of our beloved Stella.  As soon as the big glass doors swing open and we are greeted by the animatronic howls of wolves, we all feel a sense of deep sadness, as well as comfort.  Even though the outside world continues to change and move, Great Wolf Lodge stays the same.  We have been coming here for 7 years now and they serve the same bread pudding in the restaurant, tell the same jokes at the end of kids story time, sell the same t-shirts in the giftshop and have the same wallpaper on all the bathrooms in the entire lodge.  It’s incredibly comforting.  When you come here it doesn’t matter what time it is, what day, or what season, because inside it always smells, looks and feels the same.  Because Sam’s birthday is two days before Stella’s death anniversary, we are always here for his birthday.  He thinks that’s why we come.  We definitely celebrate his birthday while we are here, but it is also our escape from the sadness of “that” day— October 22, 2012.  We immerse ourselves in the chaos of noise, sugar and temper tantrums and wait for the day to pass.  All the while spending insane amounts of money on sparkly temporary tattoos, oversized cookies and cheap souvenirs.

As soon as Aimee and I start to feel the first hint of autumn in the air, we steel ourselves for that feeling of intense sadness that comes as Stella’s death anniversary approaches. It’s almost a relief when it’s over because the build up is so painful.  As each date passes, we are forced to relive those horrible last days which, although they were peaceful and full of love, were excruciating to endure.  October 1 was the last day we took Stella out for ice cream.  October 9th was the last day Stella opened her eyes and really responded to us.  October 11 was the day we thought she was going to die as she gasped for air and shuddered in our arms.  October 20th was Sam’s first birthday, and October 21st was Xavier’s.  Stella lay dying in our bed, her bony chest slowly rising and falling and we sang “Happy Birthday” to the little kids and held lit cupcakes in front of her motionless body.  The tears, which don’t come as often anymore, come easily around these dates.  I remember we went to the Funeral Home on Hallowe’en Eve to prepare for her funeral, and then the actually funeral was on November 1.  The following week we had her Stellabration at Riverdale Park.  The details of all those days play in my brain like an old movie.  No matter how I try to distract myself, the memories flood to the surface.  I have her little face flash in my mind when I’m unloading the dishwasher.  The last outfit Aimee and I dressed her in floats in front of my face as I wait at a traffic light on the way to work.  The feel of her soft skin on my chest as she slept next to me wakes me up at night, and it sometimes takes me a second to realize it’s Sam or Hugo that’s crawled into my bed, and not her. Sometimes when I make toast in the morning, I make two pieces of white bread and put honey on one, and jam on the other then cut them into 4’s because that’s how my dad served me breakfast every morning for a year while Stella sat on my lap.  When I wake up at night after uneasy dreams, I can’t remember if Stella’s DIPG was a nightmare, or really happened.  Then my eyes adjust to the dark and I see the paintings at the end of our bed with her footprints on it, and I remember that she really is gone.

It hurts every single time.

Now she’s been gone 4 years, which means she’s been dead longer than she was alive.  Yet the three and a half years she lived I can recall with great detail, whereas the 4 years that have passed since come to me in small chunks.  I can remember lots of things, but there are huge chunks of the last four years that are missing.  For example, I barely remember Hugo’s first year of life.  i don’t know what I did with him all day, I don’t remember when he first spoke, or walked, or got his first tooth.  I just know that he was 10 weeks old when Stella died, then suddenly he was 2 and I started remembering again.  I know I learned to drive and got my license, but I don’t remember any of my driving lessons.  I have forgotten how to cook my Nana’s scalloped potatoes.  But I can tell you exactly what I was wearing the day Stella got diagnosed.

I usually reflect as her death anniversary approaches what has changed in the way we live.  And as the years pass, the changes become more permanent and pronounced.

I recently realized that one difference in the time that has passed since her death is how I find her. When Stella first died, Aimee and I felt as though we really needed to hang on to her things. Each toy, every piece of clothing, each physical space that she had been in was a memory.  We couldn’t stand the thought of getting rid of anything that Stella had touched.

Recently, I’ve been trying to convince Aimee that we should move out of our home. I want to save money and get out of the city. I feel happiest up at the cottage surrounded by trees and water and where the boys can run and not have to worry about cars. I like the pace of life out of there. There is always time to stop an look closely at a turtle crossing the dirt road. The people who live there ask at the grocery store checkout how so and so’s mother is feeling and we spend time as a family reading books and doing crafts instead of being stuck in traffic. But when I talk to Aimee about moving, she always says, “I am never leaving this house. This is Stella’s house…how could you ever want to leave here?”. I have come to realize that Aimee still finds Stella in the walls of that physical space.  She can’t stand the thought of leaving the space that Stella was born into, lived in and died in.  And when she comes to Great Wolf Lodge, Aimee looks for Stella in the Cub Club and the Warm Pool, and she remembers her little yellow bathing suit and finds her in the shadows under the fake trees in the lobby.  But I don’t see Stella on the living room couch, or the splash pad at Great Wolf Lodge.  I don’t find Stella in her bedroom at home, or in her little pink teapot that still hang around the house getting played with once in a blue moon by the boys.  Aimee loves wearing the t-shirts or sweatshirts we’ve had made over the years that have Stella’s name and picture on them.  But I have to be reminded to wear them because although I like them, I don’t find Stella there either.

So I started to ask myself…where do I find Stella?  If not in her room, or her toys, or her clothes, or the house…where is she?

I came to the conclusion that because so much of me…my identity, my way of looking at life, my hopes and dreams…have changed since Stella’s diagnosis and death, I find Stella in the way I live my life.  I find her when I don’t get frustrated waiting in line at the grocery store because my cashier is “in training”.  I find her when I don’t have enough money to pay my phone bill, but I take the kids to Toys’R’Us and spend $40.00 on Lego.  I find her at work when a family I’ve helped hugs me after their Funeral and thanks me for making a difference for them.  I find her when I give the kids a second cookie after dinner, or let Sam wear pyjama pants to school.  I find her when I go for walks and take time to feel the sun on my face and watch an ant crossing in front of me.  I find her within me.  I have tried to take all the best parts of her and make them a part of me.  I don’t need to look for her in a physical sense anymore, because she is in every breath I take.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a very difficult situation at work.  After being told I was to be transferred to a new location, I had a concern regarding my new schedule and how it would affect my life at home.  “We don’t make business decisions based on personal lives,” I was told.  Any questions I asked were either ignored or answered with “that will be decided once you are at the new location”. I was frustrated beyond belief, and that’s when I found Stella.  Because as I was sitting in that room, listening to someone tell me that my family took second place to my duty as an employee, I got a moment of intense clarity.  There is nothing more important to me than time with my family.  I’d rather sell the house and live in an apartment than work a job that keeps me away from birthday parties, thanksgiving dinner, the Christmas Eve church pageant and my kids weekend soccer games.  Becoming a Funeral Director has made it abundantly clear to me that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone.  If we are lucky, we get to live to a ripe old age, but even then it is someone’s parent, sister, friend, aunt who dies.  And out of all the eulogies I’ve listened to, they all boil down to the same theme— the good times the deceased spent with the important people in their life.  What is the purpose of living a life where we forget the things that truly matter?  So even though it would make more sense for me to find Stella at the playground she used to love, the Dairy Queen I walked her to, or the yellow monkey shirt of hers Sam sometimes wears, I actually found her in a sterile funeral home office during an intense and difficult conversation.  It reminded me of a saying I read a long time ago on a card that said, “She will never be there when you want her, but she will always be there when you need her”.

Sometimes Aimee and I talk about how even though the time after Stella’s diagnosis was the worst time of our lives, it was also the best.  Because we had no purpose in life other than to be surrounded by the friends and family who meant the most to us.  And even though it is not possible to live a life like that every single day— obviously we need to work and clean and cook— I never want to forget that the most important thing in the world is spending time with the people you love.

So even though I could say that I find Stella on this itchy green carpet at Great Wolf Lodge, I think I really find her in my conviction that the one thing you can never get back, is time.  Whenever I want to find her, I just look for the part of myself that is braver now, surer now, and is letting her kids stay up past their bedtime right now because, hey, we’re at Great Wolf Lodge and Stella would have wanted it that way.  And yes, Stella, we will be having ice cream for breakfast tomorrow.

xoxoxox

We stopped at Stella’s tree on our way to Great Wolf Lodge to bring some flowers and Timbits (Hugo, Mishi, Gracie, Andge & Sam):

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Violet brought Sam his birthday cake at Great Wolf Lodge:

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The first day of school…Issac, Mishi, Sam, Hugo & Xavier:

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Stella’s little brothers… 4 and 5 already!

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We wish we could see Stella in person, instead of visiting her grave at Necropolis Cemetery, but Sam always finds her plaque and gives it a little kiss:

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Missing you sweet girl

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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.

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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

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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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STELLA – REMEMBERING YOU FROM GREAT WOLF LODGE! (By: Aimee Bruner)

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On this day, Stella, we’ve taken our heavy hearts, flip flops, damp bathing suits and all the junk food and caffeine we could ever wish for and we’ve headed to the water slides at Great Wolf Lodge.  We are here – remembering your smile from your favourite place on earth.  We are together, surrounded by love, screaming children and the smell of chlorine.  Today, we will go to the “club club”, swim in the hot pool and rip down the water slides, thinking of you with every step we take.  Being in this place that you loved so much is so familiar and comforting to me.  When I think of the last time that we were here with you, my heart breaks at the thought of you not being able to move.  We carried you everywhere and spent almost the entire time we were here in the hot pool.  You loved it.  In fact, if I allow myself to stay present in that memory – I can almost feel the grin on your face.  You smiled the whole time.  Whenever we asked you if you wanted to go here or go there, you made sure to stick that tongue out to let us know you approved.  I would give anything to be able to hold you in that hot pool again.  Right now, your brothers and cousin Gracie have taken off to your beloved “club club” with your mama and Auntie Andgie.  I couldn’t bring myself to leave the hotel room without writing you this note.

Xavier, Auntie Heather and Poppa will be here tonight to cerebrate Sam and Xavier’s 4th birthday and even though my heart aches without you here – part of me is so happy to be in this place, remembering you.  The sight and smell of the lobby, which is to most adults – completely offensive to the senses, gives me butterflies when I enter it.  The talking bear and moose, the over indulgent gift shop, and the howling wolf always manage to ignite a slow grin on my face.  I will never forget pacing the hallways, staring at the patterned carpet at 5am just to keep you occupied, when we brought you here for the first time.  You were so little.  I want to go back to that time.  I know we can’t though, so instead, I will put on my cold, damp bathing suit and head off to the water park – that place that made you smile more than anything else could.

I can’t believe it’s been three years today since you died in our arms.  We miss you everyday.

I love you big girl.

Mommy xoxo

A MESSAGE TO THE WORLD: DON’T FORGET TO CHOOSE JOY, EAT CHOCOLATE TIM BITS AND HAVE ICE CREAM FOR BREAKFAST TODAY!   STELLA SAYS – YOU’RE WORTH IT;)

Stella at Great Wolf Lodge, June 2012:

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Sam, Hugo and Gracie at Great Wolf Lodge:

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We visited Stella’s tree and left her some Hallowe’en treats:

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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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“You never write on the blog anymore,” is a common refrain amongst my family and friends.  People demand to know why, as though I owe them an answer.  Well, I don’t have one.  I write when I want to, I write when I have something to say.  I don’t write for anyone but myself.  And Stella.  This blog was to tell Stella’s story, to make a record of her extraordinary life for her brother’s and Aimee and I to look back on and remember.  So that we would never forget all the things she taught us and all the ups and downs we weathered.  We were writing her story.  Now that she’s gone, we are still writing her story but it is a little bit slower.  More spaced out.

So I didn’t write before Christmas, or during Christmas.  Or on the New Year.  But I can write about it now.  Now that we’ve gotten through it and I’ve had time to digest it all.  To remember and reflect.

“How was your Christmas?”

It was heavy.  And not heavy as in I gained 20 pounds from eating chocolate and and gravy-covered meat dishes (although that part is true too).  It was emotionally heavy.

That is the only word I have to describe it.  I went through all the “special” days feeling as though there was a huge weight on my chest.  The Holidays’ this year were fast and furious, and I missed a lot of it because I was working.  I straddled my life and the life of a funeral director and sometimes the two parts crossed over into one another.

Christmas Eve I wrapped presents and visited St. Lawrence Market with Aim and our friends Kate and Christie, then rushed off to work where I embalmed and dressed people and answered calls from people whose loved ones had just died.  When I got off work, I arrived at my mom’s just as everyone was sitting down to the table for Christmas dinner.  I scarfed down some food then rushed home to fill stockings and prepare for the next day.  Christmas morning, the kids started opening presents, and I quickly shoved breakfast down my throat then ran out the door to work as they were opening gifts.   Work was another whirlwind of answering calls from people, preparing bodies and rooms for visitations, paperwork and picking up bodies.  At the end of the day, I rushed to Aimee’s moms and arrived just as dinner was being  cleared from the table and the kids had finished opening their gifts.  Boxing day I woke up and headed off to work again, leaving the kids and Aimee playing with all the new toys.  Back and forth I ran, a series of spending time with the living and then leaving to go care for the dead.

The last couple of months the management has let me do more than just parking lot duty and flower runs.  I have gotten to help run some funerals, I have been on the front line with families.  And the truth is, I have seen a lot of death in the last 7 months.  Witnessed a lot of heartbreak, tears, shock, fear, raw pain. And as the holiday season approached, I found myself feeling weighted down, not only by my own struggle to continue to survive in a world without my vibrant daughter, but by the pain of all the families I had helped over the last half year.

Just days before Christmas I ran my first solo service.  It was at a crematorium and I was the only one from the Funeral Home who was there.  I brought with me, buckled in the front seat of a black sedan, a tiny white 18” casket containing the hopes and dreams of a young couple.  A beautiful, full-term little girl who was born dead and no one knew quite why.  I had gently dressed her in a pink knit bonnet and frock, covered her in a white crocheted blanket and then placed her in a casket.  At the crematorium chapel, friends and family gathered to pay their last respects.  I guided everyone through the impromptu, informal service where we covered the baby in rose petals, spoke about how she had been taken too soon did some prayers, and then I pressed a button that opened a metal gate.  Behind the gate was a concrete room, cold and grey.  My footsteps echoed loudly on the cement floor as I placed the tiny casket on a rolling table and helped load it in to the retort (aka the kiln), then stood by while a solemn faced crematorium operator pressed the button which ignited the fire inside.  Flames rose up and quickly swallowed up the physical body of that baby and casket, filling the room with dry heat and an orange glow.  The parents stood together, sobbing loudly and clutching their hearts in pure agony as we all waited for the right moment to retreat from that room, close the heavy metal gate and return to the chapel full of its flowers and stained glass windows.

I didn’t go to the crematorium to watch Stella’s little body get swallowed up.  I didn’t want to be haunted by the nightmare of it all.  Aimee and her sister and mother went and though I have never asked Aimee about it, and don’t want to know any details, I know she is deeply scarred by it.  Her eyes go empty when she remembers that day.  I don’t know what happened with Stella when she went into the retort, but I know the process.  I know the sights and sounds and smells of it all.  I know the horror and the emptiness.

So when I entered into the Christmas season this year, I took with me the memory of that couple at the crematorium who had likely already bought a “Baby’s First Christmas” outfit for their dead daughter.  I took with me the memory of the three teenage girls who had buried their cancer-ravaged mother just the month before.  I took with me the memory of the grey-haired widower who had just buried his wife of 52 years.  I remember his heavy footsteps as he trudged out into the winter weather, and I wondered how it would feel for him to wake up Christmas morning alone for the first time in more than half a century.

As I drove around Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, picking up dead bodies all over Toronto, I thought a lot about Stella.  I thought about how hard holiday’s are without her and how difficult they would be for each of the families that I was going to meet in the next few days.  Each death call we received over the holiday’s was magnified by the fact it was “Christmas”.  There were the daughters who went to their dad’s house Christmas morning with all the grand-kids and found him dead in his bed.  The husband whose wife put the turkey in the oven then said she didn’t feel well and went to lie down, dying a few hours later.  The two stillbirths— Christmas babies who didn’t make it.  Whether the death was expected or unexpected, someone old or young, each story left its weight in my heart.  So though my heart swelled with happiness Christmas morning when Sam and Hugo joined Aimee and I in bed to rip open their stockings, and though I loved seeing their rapt faced when Santa Claus showed up at my mom’s house Christmas Eve (thanks Uncle Daniel!!!), all my joy came with a certain amount of sadness.  Maybe it’s not sadness so much as perspective.  Knowing that there is more going on in the world than what was happening in my little living room with the wrapping paper and brightly coloured toys.

On Boxing Day the front of the Toronto Star newspaper featured stories of “the best gift ever”, highlighting babies born on Christmas Day. I wanted to rip it into tiny pieces.  All I could think about were the parents whose babies were born and died on Christmas Day.  As if they weren’t hurting enough, now they were going to be tortured by reading about other people’s Christmas babies— the amazing, beautiful story that should have been theirs too.

Heavy.

I still feel the weight of all these stories now, two weeks after Christmas.  I feel the weight of the knowledge that there are countless families like Aimee’s and mine which are not quite ever complete at the Holiday’s.  Or any day.  Aimee and I only got three Christmases with Stella, and only two “pre-diagnosis” when we still believed in the magic of Christmas.  Christmas had never really been the same to me.

But even though I missed most of the “traditional” aspects of Christmas this year… the dinners and the present opening and the frantic pre/post holiday shopping, I found my own Holiday spirit.  In the quiet, in-between moments where there was sun shining down and Christmas carols playing on the car radio.  When the boys first laid eyes on their bulging stockings.  When I bit into my favourite Christmas morning breakfast of bagels, lox and cream cheese.  When I got warm hugs and hot chocolate.  The heaviness was still there.  The grief of Stella’s absence went with me everywhere.  But every time I saw a star light up on someone’s house, or the street, or a tree, I could hear a high-pitched cackle-y laugh and knew that Stella was with me.

Reminding me that the heavier the weight, the stronger I will become.

Hugo admires Stella’s tree at Riverdale Farm that we decorated for Christmas:IMG_9410

 

Gracie and Sam play at Great Wolf Lodge, our Christmas gift to them:IMG_9375

Sam and Hugo help decorate Stella’s tree:IMG_9306

Sam and Hugo play at the park on Boxing Day:

 

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Hugo, Gracie and Sam have a movie-night sleepover:

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One of the very few photos Aimee and I have of all three of our children.  Stella died 3 weeks after this photo was taken:

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