Freckles (By: Aimee)
One of the things I love most about Mishi is her freckles. Every summer, the sun lures them out and they form frames around her eyes. I LOVE them. When we found out that Mishi was pregnant I knew, that whether we had a boy or a girl, either way – he or she would have freckles. When Stella burst her way into the world, curls and all, one of the first things I checked for as my eyes darted from head to toe was any trace of freckles. I didn’t realize that freckles actually don’t show up on kids until they’re toddlers. It took me months after Stella was diagnosed to realize the sick reality of many things, one of which was that we would likely never get to see freckles on Stella’s face because she would die before they had a chance to appear.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve ventured out into the land of the living as a family, making a few trips up to a cottage that my mom rented on the beach where my sister and I spent all of our summers growing up. For me, visiting Thunder Beach is like going home. It’s a sacred place where a group of old friends and I spent every waking hour together for a precious window of time each summer, year after year. This was Stella’s fourth summer up at the cottage. The first two summers were both as tiring and amazing as one could imagine it would be when introducing a baby/toddler to sand and water for the first time. Last summer, our trip to the cottage was comforting and gut wrenching at the same time. Back then, we were still in the throws of the shock that Stella was going to die, and the adrenaline that keeps you afloat just long enough to survive such a reality was starting to fade in our systems. This year, when my mom said she was going to rent the cottage again, I though she was crazy. There was no way we were going to make it up there with Mishi – a few weeks from giving birth and Stella sinking slowly but surely into the end of her life. She did it for Gracie. Going to the cottage is Gracie’s favourite thing to do and right now, all of us would do anything to make her happy. My thoughts about the cottage rental quickly changed however, one day when Mishi asked Stella if she wanted to go to Tutu’s cottage. Immediately she pushed out her own muffled version of “yeaaahhhh” followed by sticking out her tongue (which means “yes”) to seal the deal. Within hours, we had our travel bags down from the attic and Mishi was already making a packing list.
A few days later it was go time. We packed the van, strategically tucked Stella into her car seat so that she was comfortable and that her head didn’t flop all the way down onto her chest, and away we went. Stella and Sam both slept almost all the way on the 1hr 45 minute trip. My stomach was fluttering with worry on the drive up over whether or not Stella would have fun at the cottage. She used to love it so much but sometimes it’s hard these days to predict what she’ll want or have enough energy to do. When we arrived, Stella’s eyes got really wide very fast. The door on the van swung open, Stella smiled and my heart was full. As we went through the gate and she saw the cottage her entire face lit up and out came that “yeaaahhhhh” again. Stella was glad to be at the cottage. Within minutes, Gracie, Tutu, Auntie Andgie, Auntie Juju and Buddy the dog, emerged from the beach and the cottage was brimming with screeches, hugs and smiles. When we ventured down to the beach, Stella’s face lit up again as she listened to Gracie explain the order in which we would play and do activities for the afternoon. Stella’s energy that day was amazing. Her eyes were open and her face was bright. She was alert. She was up for anything we asked her to do. In less than a three hour span, she built sand castles on the beach with Tutu, went swimming in the lake with her Auntie Juju and Auntie Andgie, splashed Sam and covered him with sand, went in the kayak with Gracie, napped in her mama’s arms and fed Buddy treats in the shade. For the first time in a long time, I felt happy. I was happy that Stella was happy. Waves of sadness followed like they always do. Sadness for what could have been as I watched other parents chase their kids around the beach but thankfully, these feelings didn’t last long. There was no time for that. Stella had too much to do at the beach.
After sitting on the couch, watching an episode of Stella and Sam while holding hands with Gracie, Stella made her long awaited trip to the store for ice cream. As we set out for the short walk to the store, Gracie pulled the large, red wagon that Stella was laying in. When the store was in sight, Gracie all of a sudden took off, pulling the wagon at what seemed to us like an uncontrollable speed. We all gasped and chased after her to make sure that Stella was safe. When I got far enough in front of them so that I could look back and brace myself to grab the wagon and pull it to the side of the road, there was Stella – her head bouncing back and forth off of the various pillows we stuffed around her, legs crossed in what looked to be the most uncomfortable position possible, and a HUGE smile on her face. In fact, she was letting out a belly laugh that I haven’t heard in months. We all looked at each other with a shared feeling of weightlessness. Stella was elated to be at Toula’s store. Toula, the lovely woman who (along with her family) owns and runs the corner store, is loved by all who know her – including Stella. Last year Stella spent half her time at the cottage having stand – off’s with us as she would yell “I want to go see Toula NOW!” As we wheeled her into the store, her face lit up and there was Toula waiting to give her ice cream. Stella had so much fun that day that we decided to stay the night.
Mishi and I continue to be amazed at the love, kindness, generosity and support of others throughout this journey. It’s the foundation that holds us up and we would not be able to start each day without it. When we arrived at Thunder Beach, an old friend had already dropped off a tray full of sandwiches for us. In the morning, another friend appeared on the beach with Timbits for Stella – a morning ritual that she shares with her Poppa. Thanks to a few childhood friends and an army of incredible people that make up the Thunder Beach community, Stella now has a beautiful playhouse that was built in honour of her. Our friends decided that they wanted to honour Stella in the best way they knew how – building her own playhouse. Stella’s absolute favourite part of the cottage is a small, plastic playhouse that sits in the local park. Last year, she spent all her time there, operating a Tim Horton’s drive through out of the window. She would sell us Double Doubles for $400 and bagels for $5. She called it “my playhouse”. The playhouse has just been completed and has a sign over the door that reads “Stella’s Place.” Thunder Beach has always had a piece of my heart and now it holds part of my soul sitting just inside the white fence at the Club House.
After that trip, we went back up to Thunder Beach again and then one more time after that. This time, we took Auntie Heather and Xavier and once again, Stella had a blast (especially when Auntie Heather squished herself into Stella’s plastic playhouse). We ended our jam-packed week of cottaging, camping and sunshine almost happy, rejuvenated and exhausted all at the same time. Shortly after our adventurous week started to wind down, Mishi made a discovery that filled my soul from the inside out – just under Stella’s right eye is the first dusting of freckles.
Somehow, amidst the cruel reality of the tragedy and profound loss already caused by Stella’s tumour – both Mishi and I find true comfort in her freckles.
Pictures from Thunder Beach, Summer 2012: