Tiaras and Tears

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Tiaras and Tears


It may not be politically correct, or feminist of me, but I like many of the socially constructed “girly” things that most of my contemporaries fight against and feverently hope their daughters will never buy into.


But as unpopular as my opinion might be in our social group, I like Disney movies, especially the “Princess” ones.  I know all of them by name and can sing all the songs and describe all the dresses in detail. I like sparkly nail polish, big dresses with crinoline under them and makeovers.  The colour pink does not offend me, and I don’t care if little girls want to play wedding, princess or popstar.  I will happily play Barbie dress-up or My Little Pony with anyone, and in my spare time willingly watch copious amounts of Say Yes to The Dress  and Four Weddings on TLC because I like weddings.  Big, fluffy, white weddings with a cutting the cake, corny DJ music and bridesmaids. Oh yeah, and sorry feminist friends, I love you dearly, but I gotta shave.


I used to actively search out activities that I could take Stella to when she was older.  I would look at an ad in the paper for the musical Pink-A-Licious and think, “Oooo, maybe when she’s 4 we can go to that”, and I had done research on kids spas in Toronto where you can have mother/daughter days.  When Stella was sick last summer, I took Gracie to an event called “The Princess Party” at StageWest Hotel and Theatre in Mississauga.  The event list would have sent chills of horror through most of my mommy-friends bodies.  There was a Princess movie, princess dress-up, Princess live show, dancing (which included learning how to dance with a broom like Cinderella), a meet-and-greet with the princesses, and a chance for makeup and nail polish application.  There were about 80 little girls all dressed in pink and purple dresses, wearing hotel-supplied tiaras just eating it up.  And I loved it.  I happily engaged in a serious conversation with Gracie regarding whether Sleeping Beauty’s ball gown looked better in blue or pink, and gamely referred to all the little girls by their “Princess” names (i.e. if they were dressed like Snow White, that’s what I called them).


This year, I begged Gracie’s politically-correct and socially-conscious parents to let me take her again, and even asked Stella’s friend Flora’s parents (who are equally politically and socially correct…even to the extent they are (gasp!) vegetarians!), for permission to take the girls to the Princess weekend.  After setting aside their personal views in the name of their little girls happiness, both sets of parents agreed, and the planning commenced.  I was so excited.


Then, due to some scheduling conflicts, suddenly it seemed that the girls weren’t able to do the weekend with me anymore.  I was disappointed and sad, but it was more than that.  I was absolutely devastated.  Like, curl up in a ball and sob as though you were just told Santa doesn’t exist kind of sad.  Now, after two years of really, really good therapy, I know enough that when I get an over-the-top reaction to something so small, it means something more.  So I had to think about what it might be, and with Aimee’s help I realized something.  Not only am I mourning Stella as my child, I am mourning Stella specifically as my daughter, as a girl that I no longer have.


From the moment that she was placed on my chest in the delivery room and I heard Aimee cry out, “It’s a girl!” I created fantasies about having a daughter.  They weren’t necessarily around ballet recitals or anything, but I more dreamed about sharing my interests with my daughter.  Who knows if Stella ever would have given me the time of day, but that’s not the point.  The point is in my mind and imagination; I was going to have a daughter.  This meant that we could have a Cinderella-themed birthday party, when she was older we would get dressed up and go to High Tea, we would spend hours with DeeDee at the American Doll Company in New York City looking at dolls and clothes, we would go prom dress shopping and Tutu would take her to Paris for her 16th birthday for the fashion shows.  I would pass along my (mild) obsession with all things pioneer, and introduce her to the Little House on the Prairie book collection.  We would play paper dolls and she would giggle and paint my toenails with glow in the dark nailpolish.  Maybe she would follow in my footsteps and be a Girl Guide, or take tap dancing lessons and baton.


But now, along with my daughter being gone, so are all those fantasies.  And for anyone out there who’s thinking it, I KNOW that boys can be into that kind of thing to, and I know that there is no logical reason I can’t take Sam and Hugo to High Tea or Pioneer Village, and they might be excellent baton throwers, except that due to social and genetic reasons beyond my control, chances are…they aren’t going to give a shit about Cinderella or My Little Pony.  Already Sam is completely obsessed with trucks and planes and cars.  If we’re walking along in the stroller and he sees something, he will wave at me excitedly, his jaw open and say, “Mama, Digger!”…”Mama, truck!”…”Mama, plane!”…”Mama, excavator!”.  I have an entire children’s book at home that Sam likes me to read on a daily basis simply called “trucks” that goes into great (and boring, in my opinion) detail about the difference between an excavator, digger and bulldozer.  My eyes glaze over around the part that says, “An excavator is a construction vehicle used to dig or move large objects. It is made up of two parts: a driving base and a powerful boom arm with an attachment designed for digging…”, while Sam leans forward, his eyes gleaming with excitement at the big yellow machine.


The reason I was so devastated at the thought of losing my Princess Weekend was because it is a stark, and very sad, reminder that I don’t have my own daughter to bring to things like this anymore.  I’m pretty confident Stella would NOT have been into a Princess Weekend, so it’s likely I would have been bringing Flora and Gracie regardless, but it just stresses that it’s not really even an option for me because I don’t have my own little girl anymore.


I love my boys, and after losing a child, I don’t need to explain to anyone how much they mean to me.  But I don’t know if I have as much to offer as a parent to boys as I would have to a girl.  I don’t know anything about sports (the only team I was ever on in High School was archery), I don’t care about cars or buses or construction vehicles.  I hate bugs, rodents and action hero movies.  I don’t know the difference between Batman, Spiderman and Captain America.  I can’t tell the difference between Yu-Gi-Oh and BeyBlades.  Which of my passions will I be able to share with my sons and pass along to them?  What will we have in common?  And who will I share my love of Princesses with?  I know I have a lifetime to grow and fall in love with my boys, and I know that more than likely we will surprise each other with just how much we have in common, but I also think I will always yearn for the little girl that might have put on her pioneer bonnet and run through a field of wheat with me while we pretended to scrub our clothes in the creek and learn counting on our slates.


Luckily, I will still get to attend the Princess weekend this year as one of the girls who was still able to make it, so I’ll get my fill for now.  But what about next year and the year after?  It makes me sad to contemplate.  What if I’m no good at raising boys?  What if they get mad at me because I don’t know the difference between hockey and ringette, and worse, I don’t care? Right now they are still little, but already I see the “boy” in them coming through.  But, one of the promises I made to myself after Stella died was to try not to worry too much about the future and live one day at a time, so I’m trying not to picture too much at once.  I know that no matter what though, when I don my tiara at the Princess Party in a few weeks, I will  be thinking of Stella and wondering which of the cute little Princesses she would have smacked in the face first.  My guess is Snow White, she’s a bit weird.

Boys on the Beach:

Roasting Hot Dogs with our friends the HayDraude’s:

Digging in the Dirt:

Ice Cream Break!

Sam eats ice cream in Picton with Tasha:

In July 2011, Stella ate ice cream with Tasha on the same bench:



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Gracie’s Grace

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Gracie’s Grace:

Gracie was the first baby to be born into our family.  She arrived in the spring of 2008 and dozens and dozens of family members and friends celebrated her birth.  The first niece.  The first grandchild.  The first daughter.  The first child to carry the hopes and dreams of the next generation in her dimpled little fingers.

When I got pregnant with Stella, Gracie was 4 months old.  Aimee and I were thrilled that our child would be so close in age to Gracie.  We didn’t find out the sex of our baby, but both whispered excitedly at night as we dreamed of our future, that it would be amazing if it were a girl so that our daughter and Gracie could be “besties” forever.  Retrospectively, I’m not sure why we felt so sure that only another girl would be best friends with Gracie.  I think it’s likely because Aimee and I are both best friends with our sisters, so it seemed natural that another girl would be the right fit.  When Stella burst into the world, just before Gracie turned 13-months old, one of the first things Aimee and I said to each other was that our little girl was destined to be best friends forever with Gracie. With her doe-like green eyes, dark brown a-symmetrical haircuts, lean frame and olive skin, Gracie was the polar opposite (in looks) to our chubby, porcelain, mop-top daughter.  But somehow, right from the beginning, they just fit together and complemented each other perfectly.

Everything we did was for or with “the girls”.  We bought them matching pyjamas to wear at Christmas.  We took them everywhere together…to watch Tutu skate, to Great Wolf Lodge, to Mexico, to the park, to concerts, to drop-in centres, swimming, cottaging, Maple Syrup-ing, etc. etc.  The girls were inseparable.  Stella became Gracie’s “Stellie” and Stella called Gracie, “Gwacie”.  Gracie was the perfect older cousin.  She was always very gentle with Stella, very caring and protective.  When Stella could only crawl, Gracie would crawl too, even though she was capable of running circles around her.  Stella was always more outgoing and daring than Gracie.  I remember taking them to a petting zoo when Stella was 11 months old and Gracie was days away from turning two.  Gracie shied away from the bleating sheep, while we had to restrain Stella from pushing both her chubby hands through the split-rail fence and into the sheep’s eyes.  Gracie was sweet.  Stella was cheeky.  Gracie was timid.  Stella was bold.  Gracie was athletic.  Stella was clumsy.  Gracie was tender.  Stella was rough. Gracie liked sitting for movies and shows and books.  Stella liked running and throwing and sliding.  They both loved to dance.  They both loved Great Wolf Lodge. They both loved animals and they both thought the other was the funniest person they’d ever met.

The hours after we received Stella’s fatal diagnosis are mostly a blur to me.  I’ve tried hard not to think too much about them because it is too traumatic to relive.  But, one memory which always stands out clearly from the rest, is a vivid picture of Andrea–_Stella’s beloved Auntie Andgie—crouched over on a wooden bench on the 5th floor of Sick Kids Hospital, tears streaming down her face.  I remember her looking up and saying, to no one in particular, “What are we going to do about Gracie?”  Our hearts sunk even lower than they already had.  The despair and sadness swallowed me up whole in that moment.  Not only would Aimee and I have to learn to let our daughter go, but Gracie was going to have to grow up without her “bestie”.  It was nauseating.

With the help of our friend and resident Children’s Grief expert Andrea Warnick, we were all able to speak to Gracie about Stella’s tumor and for the most part we think she understood.  As Stella’s body changed, Gracie changed her playing to accommodate her.  Chasing each other around in circles became playing tea party together when Stella couldn’t walk anymore.  Watching puppet shows became reading books and eventually, when her eyesight and motor skills were fading, watching TV, became just cuddling.

Gracie was present every step of the way as Stella lost her faculties.  She never seemed jealous of the attention Stella got, never got mad about the weekly birthday parties we threw for her, never fought for attention from doting grandparents who admonished her to “be gentle” with Stella.  Gracie sometimes asked questions about Stella’s tumor, and once in awhile expressed her wish that Stella would be able to run again and talk again and “not die”.  But for the most part she just bounded into the house day after day and stretched her imagination to its limit as she found ways to engage with Stella in a much more natural and healthy way than any of the adults ever could.  She was always the caregiver in their relationship, but she also took on some of Stella’s bravery and boundless energy when Stella’s started to wane.  Gracie was at the house just moments after Stella took her last breath.  She spent time with her body after she died, and wailed in raw agony as the black car carrying Stella’s body drove out of our driveway.  But for the most part, Gracie seems to be dealing with Stella’s death in the same way she accepted her physical changes—quietly and openly.

Gracie talks often about Stella.  Saturday she peeked out the window in Stella’s room and said to us, “I’m just checking to see if Stella’s spirit is still playing outside.  She said the backyard is her favourite place”.  Gracie constantly draws pictures of herself with Stella.  In these drawings, Gracie is always twice as big (because she’s the “big” cousin, after all!) and she always puts mounds of curls on top of Stella’s head.

Gracie still comes to the house.  She often goes into Stella’s room and pulls out a piece of her clothing to wear.  The clothes are all too small, but she puts them on regardless and breathes life back into Stella’s toys and spaces, which is like a balm for our bruised souls.

Now it is Sam whom Gracie runs to when she walks into our house.  It is Sam who follows her reverently around, basking in her energy and attention.  It is Sam who she chases and grabs in big hugs.  Now it is Hugo who she looks after.  It is Hugo she protects.  It is Hugo she feeds bottles to, and holds.  Gracie has a different relationship with our boys than with Stella.  But she loves them just as fiercely, and I am confident that despite a 4-year age gap and difference in sex, their relationship will continue to grow and will become vitally important to all of them.   And Xavier is in the mix of cousins too.  When Sam and Xavier were born just hours apart in October of 2011, I said that they were destined to be best friends.  Then Aimee and I began to cry because we remembered another set of cousins who were supposed to grow up as close as siblings as well.  Xavier is a sweet-faced boy who is twice the size of Sam, but a gentle giant who has already shown a love for music and cuddles.  Together, this motley group of children bring laughter into an otherwise weeping house and hope where hopelessness grows much too easily.

I am curious to see the kind of person Gracie will be as the years pass.  It will always be bittersweet to watch her navigate life without Stella.  I know I will always wonder, “what if…” and I know I will always cry when Gracie experiences or accomplishes something that Stella should have been there for. But, in the absence of my own daughter, Gracie is there to wear dresses and listen to my crazy theories on how Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were sisters.  Gracie is there to alternatively play with, and tease, Sam and Hugo.  Gracie is there to dance in the living room and colour pictures for the fridge.

Just like Stella Joy, Gracie is aptly named.  Her name means “Thanks”, and I am very grateful for her indeed.

This is a video made by our friend Chris Yap.  It was shown at Stella’s Funeral (aka Stellabration of Life aka Stella’s Celebration of Love).  I have never gotten through this video without bawling, because I think it really highlights how much love Stella had in her life.  And it shows clearly the adoration of Gracie, and her best friend/cousin:

Some of the drawings Gracie has done recently of her and “Stellie”:

The boys:


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About (By Auntie Angie)

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> Stella has the softest little head with those perpetually messy red curls and the way she moves her head around now that the tumour is changing her. She bobbles a bit and nestles under your chin or against your cheek or your shoulder and she has the softest little head. I slept beside her, both of us totally out, for hours the other day, our heads together and holding hands. I want to remember what she feels like in these small intimacies, my physical memory vying for engagement in this slow process of preparing to give her up. She must feel that too because she has started to choose me to reach for more often, and her physical closeness is such a comfort.
> Yesterday she came out to show me her boo boo, and explain that she had a band-aid on her shin because tutu gave her a raspberry. Yesterday she called me into the bedroom to proudly show off her naked bum while aim changed her diaper, then let me finish dressing her and I almost had her off in play when she noticed aim trying to take a lunch break at the table with a plate of sandi’s chicken and promptly put a stop to it. The other day I was playing with her at marilyn’s and mish said to me its so great to have this break and stella looked up at the word “break”, held out her arms and returned herself to mishi. Stella is smart, and tricky, and is perhaps becoming more of both as it gets harder for her to squeeze the words she wants to say out into the air where we can hear them. I have taken to asking her questions now quietly in her ear and appreciating the now characteristic pauses and hair twirls while my question goes in, tumbles around in her mind, and sometimes provokes an entire paragraph or sometimes just a sentence or an almost imperceptible shake of her head in horizontal or vertical motion. I am tuning into the very subtle stella signals, the signs of anger before she gets angry and the barely there smirk that will turn into an explosion of a smile in a minute or two.
> We took her and gracie to zephyr last friday to get out of the city for the day. She was in my arms for such a long time, directing the precise collection of toys around us, whose voice to do, who should set the store up and put the baby bear to bed and get the bubba and lie on the couch and drive the tractor. She grabbed my face and turned it so our noses were touching and said, hi, Jula and grinned in a lovely genuine expression of greeting to me in my essential self, past my face and all of my hang-ups, straight to the core part of me that experiences real connection so very rarely. She wanted me to hold her hand all the way up and back in the car and I had all that time to figure out which way it is easiest for her to get a comfortable grip on my thumb which even in her deep sleep she can maintain.
> She likes to play food-based games, which is great since so much of my head revolves around food anyway. We plan menus, go shopping, all in our heads and with the help of whatever happens to be around us, sticks and stones and wet sand, or stale goldfish crackers, or the imaginary bottomless pits of our pockets. We cook things, taste them and add another stuffie or sprinkle of diaper rash ointment. We serve them to all of our imaginary friends, 3 and 4 course meals lucky them, and then pack up and drive off to our next everyday adventure (once we’ve got all the people out of the trunk and into the cab of the car, and dealt with any tummy aches in the crowd).
> Whenever stella asks me for something I ask her if she wants to come with me to get it and I often turn a simple water request into a traveling mission, probably because I want her to feel in control of her time with me and I like moving with her just like I like moving with gracie. That might be the underlying restlessness that pema chodron talks about, the generalized fear that keeps me from spending too much time in front of the tv or in bed or in a crowd without chasing a kid, carrying a kid, doing the dishes or tripping to the store.
> A few weeks ago someone crashed into me on my bike and I ended up with a pretty deep cut on my leg. Stella has asked about that cut, kissed it band-aid on and off, patted it under my jeans (ouch, stella pats are not gentle!) so many times its really funny. Her capacity for concern is surprising as she is 2 and living by default in a self-centered universe. Gracie too is so able to sympathize and she was also obsessed with that cut (also with some very un-gentle pats!). It is interesting that all this talk of booboos and band-aids, check-ups and doctor visits have entered our play but only in the most superficial way, in sharp contrast to her real medical reality. I am surprised maybe that she and I can still find joy in this specific theme of play.
> I am grateful for this time off work, grateful for my health and all the rest that allows me the opportunity to feel grateful for every ounce of this time with stella. Stella has the softest little head and it is a relief to my own much larger and less soft one, to rest against hers, to hold her and only do one thing; be with stella.


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