Happy Birthday Dear Stella
This time two years ago, Mish and I were running around, trapped in the madness of planning our child’s first birthday party. A party that, let’s face it, really was for us given that a one year old has no idea what’s going on at their first birthday party, nor do they ever remember it. It was a day that we had hoped for and dreamed of long before Stella was born. Mish and I would often find ourselves sitting and wondering together. Wondering whether we’d have a son or a daughter, what he/she would look like, sound like, be like and wondering what flavour icing would be all over their face when they turned one. We all remember those embarrassing photos of ourselves at our first birthday party – cake all over the face, smock dress that was only cute in 1978, wall paper in the back ground with some variation of orange and brown stripes. These are the photos that our parents covet. These are the photos that Mish and I set out to get of Stella. And we did. 65 people attended that party – a number that greatly outweighs any guest list of my birthday parties over the last 35 years. The party was a hit. It was fully programmed from start to finish with activities, games, arts and crafts and a song circle. The food was catered and the icing that ended up on Stella’s face was butter cream. It took Mish and I a few days to recover from the pure exhaustion of it all.
Today is Stella’s third birthday – a day that much to our pain, horror and disbelief, we never thought she’d live to see. On Sunday, our family and friends came together to give Stella a birthday party fit for a Queen. Mish and I woke up that morning with heavy hearts and tired eyes. Both of us wondering how exactly we were going to get through the next 12 hours. This day that once seemed so exciting and joyous to us was now held tightly in a vice grip of polarizing and confusing emotions. Mishi and Stella share a birthday. Stella wrestled her way onto the planet on Mishi’s 30th birthday and she’s joked about how her daughter had stolen her birthday ever since. On the days leading up to the party, Stella was having what we call a “tired” days. She was drifting in and out of sleep all day and most of her speech was incoherent. Swallowing was tough which caused frequent spit ups. They were so frequent that we had to resort to putting a bib on our three year old daughter to protect her perfect skin from getting a rash from her soaked shirt. The day of the party looked equally as bleak. She was lethargic all morning and when the time came for her to leave for the party she started to cry. There’s something about her cry now that breaks our hearts in two with every whimper. It’s a tearless cry, and the noises that come out of her throat are almost seal-like.
I arrived at Variety Village, which is where we had the party, to help our family and friends set up early. Variety Village is an incredible and accessible community centre that Stella has frequented her whole life. Auntie Heather has been taking her clients and students there for years, and it was thanks to her connections that we were able to pull the party together there on such short notice. As I feverishly ran around getting the party room decorated, Mish, Stella and her dad stayed at home to get ready.
It wasn’t easy for her, but my incredible wife mustered up all the strength she could find within her to take a deep breath and get Stella dressed for the party. Strapping her contorted body into the car seat in Poppa’s van, Mish pulled herself together and climbed in to sit beside her girl. Stella cried on and off throughout the 15 minute drive. I was at the other end waiting for her. I was nervous – wanting, hoping, needing everything to go well for Stella, Mishi – for everyone. When the blue van pulled up I could see Stella’s little white teeth through the tinted glass window. I swung the door open yelling “Stella, it’s your party!” And there she was. She was perfect. Sitting there dressed in pink from head to toe, wearing her favourite hair band that she used to says was for “big girls”, and a shirt with an ice cream cone and her name on it that was a gift from two moms in Texas. She had a big pink ribbon over her heart that said “Birthday Girl”. She looked at me grinning from ear to ear and my heart fluttered. With her eyes like saucers she let out a big “YAY!” I carried her in and asked her if she was excited to go to her party. She said “ya ya ya” and wiggled her little body as we walked down the hall. As she entered into a room filled with balloons, family, friends and the world’s most spectacular birthday cake – she laughed out loud and at that moment, the world stood still. Her friends arrived one by one and each time a new person entered the room, Stella pushed her chest out and tried to sit forward as if to say “look at me, it’s my party!”
We all piled into the change room to get our bathing suits on. A change room that I used to dread going into before Stella was diagnosed as it was always a real challenge to get her ready for swimming. Last year, my biggest problem was trying to get dressed while Stella took her bathing suit off, looked me in the eye and peed all over the bench and the floor, and now it was trying to find a change stall with a bed in it so that I could lie my precious girl down in order to get her dressed. Oh how times have changed. She giggled at us as we got her into her bathing suit and smiled all the way to the pool. When we entered the pool area, Stella smiled as if she was the Queen of the pool. The staff at Variety Village had pulled out all the stops for Stella. The pool was a sea of hundreds of brightly coloured plastic balls that danced around with the swirls from the bubble jets. All of her friends were there and she was happy. My heart was full – broken, but full. We got into the pool and her face was beaming as Mish floated her on her back. She cackled as she tried to blink the water droplets off her eyelashes. We took turns swimming with Stella and holding her as her little body, that is usually jammed, bent and stuck in positions that she has no control over, was for a moment, weightless and free. The next hour was filled with laughter, splashing and playing in a big orange kayak that somehow found it’s way into the pool. Stella took turns with her friends going down the slide into the pool.
After drying off everyone poured into the party room. Stella sat in her mamma’s arms as the party unfolded. Balloon’s were getting dragged all over the room, kids were running around and Stella was smiling. Much to her surprise and total excitement, Stella’s “Uncle” Brad serenaded her with a stomping rendition of “oh Susanna” which he changed to “oh Stella” of course. Seeing the kind of pure and utter joy that ignites in Stella when Brad sings to her stops my heart every time as my eyes quickly overflow with tears. Brad’s concert was a hit with everyone and Stella bounced her way through each song. Then it was time for the cake. The moment that seemed impossible to me. It was time for me to light candles on my child’s cake for the last time. I recruited Stella’s beloved Uncle Tristan to help me carry the cake. I needed someone to share the burden with me (even if they didn’t know I needed them to). Biting down on the insides of my cheek was my poor attempt to stop my trembling chin from wobbling off my face while Tristan and I carried the cake, trying desperately not to drop it – as it was a total work of art. It was a cake in the shape of a cup cake – Stella’s favourite and it was phenomenal just like Stella. Stella and her big cousin blew out the candles and it was time to cut the cake. “I did it” I thought to myself as I looked up only to find a sea of swollen eyes. Poppa Noel bravely played “happy birthday” on his trumpet – a family tradition.
We did it. We all did it. Our family and friends came together to help Mish and I give Stella a birthday party fit only for her and I’m proud of us. When the day was almost over and Stella was getting ready for bed she said “happy birthday” in a faint whisper as she grinned from ear to ear.
Happy birthday, dear Stella. We are glad you were born.
Stella First Birthday:
Stella’s Second Birthday (playing with some of her new toys):
Stella’s Third Birthday. A pool full of friends:
Brad serenades our girl:
Stella’s Birthday Cake (thanks Christine! www.mollycake.ca)
Happy Third Birthday to our most precious girl!