Give Me A Happy Ending

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When I was little my sister and I were obsessed with a 1982 rip-off of the Pirates of Penzance film called “The Pirate Movie”.  It’s a poorly acted, low-budget 80’s film that her and I both have a soft spot for even as adults.  We have both tried to get other people to watch it and love it as we do, but so far everyone thinks it’s terrible.  Still, we know all the songs and sometimes quote entire scenes to each other.  It’s one of those comforting memories from our childhood.

One of the things I love about that movie is that it is so happy.  It even ends with a song called “Give Me A Happy Ending”.  It’s exactly how I want movies to end, with a wedding and everyone being happy and healthy and friends forever.  It’s been a joke for everyone my whole life that “Mishi won’t watch movies or read books unless there’s a happy ending”.  My best friends know to vette movies for me and will say, “You won’t like it.  It doesn’t have a happy ending…”.  I’ve never enjoyed watching the nightly news because I always felt like it was all bad news.  Maybe I lived by the “ignorance is bliss” mantra.

When Stella was diagnosed with DIPG in June of 2011, along with the intense grief and heartache there was an ultimate feeling of injustice.  The “why is this happening?”…”how can this be happening?”… “what do you mean there is no cure?…  For someone like me who is fixated on happy endings and refused to watch “Titanic” or “The Notebook” because they were too sad for me, living my own story of heartbreak was incredibly difficult.  I still remember the feeling of wanting so badly to crawl out of my skin because I couldn’t stand the pain of living the reality of watching my daughter die.  I’ve never wanted to escape from my own life so badly.  It was at some points excruciating to be existing in a world where I knew there would be no happy ending for my daughter and I.  Eventually, Stella taught me to find the joy in the everyday, and I stopped focusing so much on the “ending” and tried to enjoy the journey instead.  Retrospectively, life is a series of beginnings and endings, a quilt of separate blocks all stitched together to create a life.  But not straight, organized blocks.  Ones that all run into each other where the threads cross over and the shapes are different and sometimes clash.  Like a “crazy quilt” I once saw at pioneer village made entirely of leftover fabric pieces.  There are natural starts and stops, but no true endings.  Even after someone dies, the story doesn’t necessarily end.

I am living life without my beautiful, funny, energetic and incredible daughter Stella, but I am not unhappy.  I laugh each and everyday.  I sleep at night.  I make plans for the future.

When I see photos of Stella, or videos of her, it almost feels like an out of body experience.  That life, that world, seems so distant from the one I am ensconced in now.  Sam and Hugo are extremely close as brothers and I have trouble imagining life any other way.  Sometimes I try to picture Stella there being a big sister to Sam, and no Hugo. But I find it nearly impossible to imagine because the two boys in front of me that are singing and laughing and jumping on the couch in their underwear are so real and three-dimensional whereas Stella is a colour photograph sitting on the mantle behind them.  She existed.  She lived and she mattered and she changed everything I thought I knew and wanted.  But she is not here being part of our daily routine of waffles for breakfast and packing backpacks for school.  I don’t even know if Stella ever ate a waffle.  She ate maple & brown sugar porridge.  That was a different block of the quilt.

Like most parents, Aimee and I are exhausted nearly all the time.  Between working full time and making dinners and lunches and cleaning the house and doing laundry, we always seem to be short on time and energy.  But last night Hugo and Sam asked us to be special guests at a show they were putting on.  They moved the kitchen chairs to in front of the couch, took the cushions off the couch to create their “stage” and invited us in.  With whispered plans to one another, they started strumming on their “canjo’s” (like a banjo, but made out of a can) and singing the Barenaked Ladies tune, “If I had a million dollars”.  Aimee and I were in stitches.   They were so funny and watching them interact was beautiful.  Aim turned to me and said, “Sometimes when I watch them like this my heart feels so full, I’m so happy”.

It’s moments like those that we treasure and cherish.  The non-public, non-planned, silly little family moments that take place within the walls of our tiny bungalow in East York.

it’s moments like those that made Aimee and I want to have one more child.  One more chance to create silly, funny memories.

After years of negotiating, talking, saving and planning, we decided to try to have one more.  We doubted ourselves, doubted our ability to manage another child.  We questioned whether the want was part of a never-ending wish to fill the void left by Stella that we know can never be filled, but we live with everyday.  We talked about the financial strain, the exhaustion, how old we now are.  We discussed if the same sperm donor that we used for Stella, Sam and Hugo wasn’t available, was it a deal-breaker for us.  We talked and discussed and disagreed for over two years.  We went back and forth.  It was one of those decisions that makes no sense whatsoever on paper, that is completely illogical and maybe even a bit irresponsible.  But somehow, eventually, during one of those magical moments where the house was clean and the boys were sitting colouring quietly, it just felt like the right thing to do.

We said we would try once.  So we did, and it didn’t work.  When the pregnancy test came back negative, part of us was sad and part of us was relieved.  We thought maybe it was too crazy anyway.

It took 6 months to save up enough money to try again.  We agreed that if it didn’t work we would just be happy with our sons because we didn’t have the money to keep trying and we rationalized that maybe it was the universe— or more precisely Stella— telling us not to be selfish, and just be fulfilled with the incredible life that we already had.

So we tried one more time.  The LAST time, we said.

It worked.  Positive pregnancy test.

And then we waited to see if the pregnancy would be viable.  I was 37, my job was physical, so many things could go wrong.  So we waited.  And everything seemed to be fine.

So, if all goes well, I will be giving birth to our baby #4 in late April.

Our friends and family were surprised.  In fact, when we started sharing the news with people, there was a mixed bag of reactions.  Some people seemed thrilled, some people seemed cautiously excited and some people came right out and said they thought it was a bad idea.  Some of the comments hurt.  It was hard to feel judged and hard to remain strong in our conviction that this was the right thing to do when so many people seemed so judgemental.  It made me angry that people outside of our little private family unit thought they had a say in our decision.  “What gives them the right?” I raged at Aimee.  She, much calmer than me, rationalized that everyone loves us and was worried about us.  They weren’t privy to the two years of discussions we had, the therapy and the whispered conversations at night.  But still, it hurt.  Telling people we were pregnant was totally different from our other experiences.  When I was pregnant with Stella, everyone was absolutely over the moon excited.  Sam was the same.  When I got pregnant with Hugo, I think a lot of people thought we were being rash and crazy, but they didn’t say anything because Stella was dying and the pregnancy with Hugo was keeping me alive.  But with this one… we felt openly judged.  We know people were whispering behind our backs questioning our reasons and our sanity.  So we didn’t tell too many people.  It was an odd feeling to be so excited about something and yet afraid to tell people.

When I was 20 weeks pregnant we were able to have an ultrasound that would tell us if the baby looked healthy, and the sex.  For the most part, I wanted the sex to be a surprise because I really and truly didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl, but Aimee thought it was important that we know— she said if there was any emotional fallout based on sex, we should try to deal with it ahead of time.  So we went together to the ultrasound.  The night before I had a very vivid dream of Stella.  it was surprising to me because I never dream about Stella.  But there she was.  In my dream she was tiny like a little fairy with wings and she was flying around my head.  She said to me, “Mama…the new baby is a boy.  I don’t want you to be sad Mama, but I want to be your only girl”.  In my dream, I assured Stella that I wasn’t sad it was a boy.  I told her that I loved her brothers very much and that I loved how they were close to Xavier and the three boys do all their activities together, and since my sister just had another boy in May, I told her that it would be nice for the younger two boys to have each other too.  Then I reminded her that Gracie was like a little mother to all the boys, and would be happy to have another one to look after.

When I woke up that morning, I told Aimee about my dream and felt completely and totally relaxed going into the ultrasound.  I felt very at peace and very excited at the thought of having another boy.  The technician was very quiet though out the ultrasound and then he invited Aimee in to see the baby at the end.  Aimee asked the technician whether he could tell if it was a boy or a girl.  He nodded that he did and asked if we wanted to know.  Aimee said, “yes, what is it?”  He pulled up a fuzzy black and white ultrasound image, pointed at a blurry part near the middle and said, “it’s a girl”.  “It’s a girl!??” Aimee practically shouted.  I felt numb, immediately going in to complete shock.  My pulse quickened and I felt a bit lightheaded.  “Are you sure?” I stuttered.  He pointed at the picture and said with a straight face…”well, I’m not totally sure but there is definitely no penis, so…”   I got up off the table and went into the change room leaving Aimee excitedly texting her parents in the other room.  As I bent over to put my pants on, I saw tears hitting the worn blue carpet beneath my feet.  I hadn’t realized it, but I was crying.  I kept wiping the tears away as I dressed, but they just kept coming.  The wave of emotions was totally overwhelming.  I felt happy, but also sad.  I was shaking a bit.  I was so sure it would be a boy, I had’t really let myself consider that it was a girl.  “a daughter…girl…a daughter…”  I was almost completely quiet on the car ride back home.  Aimee kept saying to me, “what’s wrong with you?” but I couldn’t find the words to explain it.  I was happy, but I was also truly shocked and I couldn’t understand why I would dream of Stella telling me it was a boy, when it wasn’t.  My friend Omo said to me when I told her the story later, “What do you mean, that’s SO Stella…she was totally messing with you!”.  I laughed ruefully at that.  True.  I could so see Stella thinking that was a really funny joke to play on me.

When we told the boys they were excited, but slightly indifferent as well.  Not too surprising.  At 4 and 5, they are way more focused on lego and sword fights than a new baby.  It’s a bit abstract for them.  As more people were told or heart we were pregnant, we kept getting asked, “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”.    It amazes me how many people when told it’s a girl react in a very relieved and “oh, that’s amazing…you needed a girl”.  It makes me think that if this baby was a boy people would be disappointed or upset by it.  My favourite reaction was an acquaintance who said, “Oh my God, it’s a girl!?  That’s amazing!  if your life was a movie, this would be the happy ending!”  As often happens in my life now, this seemingly innocent and very well-meant comment really bothered me.  She may be right—- if my life was a movie, it would probably end with a close up shot of Aimee and I cradling a new baby girl with a picture of smiling Stella just over our shoulders in the background.  But my life isn’t a movie, and having a baby girl isn’t the “happy ending” of Stella’s story.  Like everything else in life, it’s just another piece of the story that continues to unfold.  It is neither an ending nor a beginning, but simply a continuation of a life that is full of joy, pain, grief, stress, love and hope.

I still don’t like to watch movies or tv shoes that are sad.  I still prefer to believe in, and want to see and experience, happiness in the stories I read and watch.

Sometimes late at night when I’m lying in bed and the baby is moving around, I put my hands on my stomach and sing her the lyrics of the Pirate Movie song, “Give Me a Happy Ending”

No more sad times, mad, or bad times,

No more minor keys

Life’s for living, sharing, giving,

Life’s for you and me

When the going’s rough and you’ve had enough,

Leave your troubles and your woes

Turn the other cheek and forget your grief,

Make a friend out of your foe

Give me a happy ending every time

We’ll kiss and make up, 

That’s a very peaceful sign

Give me a happy ending every time

Don’t be unhappy, everything will work out fine. 

Grief is so complicated, even Aimee and I don’t always expect or understand how we feel.  But I know for absolute certain that I am excited to welcome a new baby to our amazing circle of family and friends.  I know that she will be different from Stella and I never want her to feel like she is living in the shadow of her dead sister.  We have no plans to name this baby after Stella, or put her in any of Stella’s old baby clothes.  This is a different child.  She is not a replacement child, she is a new member of our family.  She isn’t our happy ending, but she is certainly a happy part of our life.  And we can’t wait to meet her!!!

 

See you soon little baby!

Xavier, Sam, Hugo & Gracie visit Santa:

Our Valentines:

Showtime… Hugo, Gracie and Sam:

Winter Fun with Xavier, Sam and Hugo:

The boys play the “Canjo’s” at an impromptu concert:

Happy…

 

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Team Stella Stars!

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Team Stella’s Stars is All Geared Up and Ready to Ride for YOU Stella!

We’re ready Stella.  Your Auntie Juju just bought a bike.  That’s right.  She bought a black bike and she’s clipped in – just for you.  Fred has been sitting on our mantle all year, right beside your Dora doll and the Stella doll that looks just like you.  In less than two weeks, I will take Fred off of her perch and carefully pack her in my bag along side of the chicken that you used to torment me with.  I have the velcro that we’ll need to adorn our bikes with photos of your beautiful face and ties to secure Fred and chicken to our handle bars.

We’re ready.

We’re ready to push ourselves far enough out of our comfort zones that we wonder if we’ll ever come back and we’re ready to tax our bodies beyond imagination.

We’re ready to ride for YOU.

There’s something about this ride that makes me feel so close to you – like you’re here with me.  Second only to the feeling I get when I stand in the door way of your room, which is now your little brother Hugo’s room.  The first time I did this ride it had only been 10 months since you died in my arms.  It was the first time in two years that I felt strong – physically and emotionally.  I was so proud to wear your face on my back.  Proud, comforted and sickened all at the same time.  Never, in my worst nightmares, did I ever imagine that it would be me who was wearing a shirt with my dead daughters face on it.  That was always someone else – the parent in that tragic story I read about on the front page of the paper – and now that person was me.

My Stella’s Stars jersey’s are folded, clean and ready.  Your Auntie Juju and I can’t wait to throw them on and join hundreds of other riders in pedalling our hearts out to do something that’s truly extraordinary – send kids to camp.  The funds raised from this incredible ride go towards making kids lives better.  Kids just like you, Stella, will get the chance to experience the magic of camp.  They’ll get the chance to realize that they’re not alone.  They’ll have the chance to make friends and to have fun.  You would have loved camp – I just know it.  From the day you were born, I had it all planned out.  You would go to Camp Tanamakoon when you were 7.  That day never came and there is a special place in my heart for the loss of what could have been.  I never had that chance to send you to camp but this bike ride gives me the chance to help send kids just like you to camp.

So this week, I will clean my bike, pack my gear and wait patiently for August 14th to arrive.

I know you’ll be sitting over your shoulders cackling your head off all the way as we huff, puff, spit and sputter our way up the endless hills just hoping that one of us will fall – something that I know you would find more humour in than anything on earth.  When my legs ache and my throat burns and I don’t think I can make it up one more hill – I will think of you.  I will remember the look in your eyes as you used your whole body to try and muster up the strength to stick your tongue out to communicate the word “yes”.  I will remember the day that you taught yourself to hold a paint brush between your teeth when cancer stole your ability to use your hands.  I will remember the sound of your laugh and I will remember what it felt like to hold you in my arms.

On August 14, 2015- I will ride for you big girl.

Please help give kids like my Stella the chance to go to camp by sponsoring our ride!

To donate click on the following link:

https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/FundraisingPage.aspx?registrationID=2697865&langPref=en-CA&Referrer=%26Referrer%3dhttp%253a%252f%252fwww.tourforkids.com%252fontario%252fdonate%252f#&panel1-1

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The future is in the past

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A few weeks ago on one of my (extremely rare) Saturday’s off, I wanted to take the boys to Kimbourne drop-in centre.  This is a place that Stella spent a lot of time at when she was young, and a place that both Hugo and Sam went to with cousin Xavier almost every single Saturday for almost two years.  My sister Heather and I had a routine.  She would come over on Saturday mornings at around 9 with Xavier and the boys would play while one of us went to Tim Horton’s for tea.  We would leave just after 10am and play at Kimbourne until about 12.  Then we would come home, give the kids lunch and it would be nap time.  We did this every weekend almost without fail.  Then we got a cottage and I got an internship that has me working 4 out of every 6 weekends, and suddenly we hadn’t been there in over 7 months.  When I called Heather to tell her we were going to Kimbourne she paused for a moment on the phone then said, “Actually, Daniel [Xavier’s dad] takes Xavier on Saturday’s now.  They go to Scarborough Town Centre Mall then to his dad’s and then his mom’s so I can clean the house and do my homework”.  Daniel used to work every weekend, but several months ago he got a Mon-Fri job, and I hadn’t realized since I was working/cottaging so much that they had slipped into a new routine.  “Oh,” I said, “Okay, no problem”.  When I hung up the phone, I felt like bursting into tears.  Change has never been harder for me than since Stella died.  Although I continue to move and grow, I somehow forget that the rest of the world is doing the same thing. Changing. Moving.

Luckily, Aimee agreed to come to Kimbourne with me, so I still got to go.  As I walked through the doors and smelt the familiar smells, I heard the unmistakeable shriek of laughter that always hits me when I first walk in.  I smiled at the familiarity of it all.  But once I got the kids out of their jackets and watched them take off towards the toys, I realized something was different.

I didn’t recognize anyone.

For so long I had been going there on a regular basis and knew all the parents, all the children and all the teachers.  But now there was nothing but new faces filling the nooks and crannies.  And suddenly, my kids were “big”.  Kimbourne is popular with the baby/toddler set and my 2 and 3 year olds were now amongst the biggest, fastest, strongest there.  It felt strange.  I also found out that one of the teachers that had worked there for close to 2 decades had died recently.  “Stella’s Snuggling Corner” that opened at Kimbourne back in 2012 is still there, but her photo is gone as is the little plaque explaining who she was. These people didn’t kmow Stella. They didn’t know me. I felt awkward.  The kids had a great time, but I kept looking around trying to figure out who all these people were.  I finally did see a mom I knew and she was balancing a new baby on her hip.  I didn’t even know she was pregnant last time I was there.

I left feeling a bit sad.  Although I knew that stepping into a new career of Funeral Directing would be challenging for my family and I, I underestimated how difficult it would be to lose so much of the life I was familiar with.  I rarely get to see the group of moms and kids that were so close to me when Stella was alive.  I work evenings, I work weekends. I work when they are all socializing and hosting birthday parties and taking the kids to swimming lessons.  Stella’s friends have formed new friendships, the parents have paired off into different cliques and groups.  I find that it feels like I’m swimming against the current.  Needing to move forward, but wanting to allow myself to be pulled back as well because it’s just so damn exhausting to just leave it all behind and forge forward.

I plugged in an old external drive that housed photos and videos from Stella’s days pre-DIPG diagnosis.  I got sucked in to watching video after video of her and it truly felt like I was watching somebody else’s life, somebody else’s child.  There was Stella carving a pumpkin with a younger looking, thinner version of myself.  My brother was there in the video too, shorter with a slightly higher voice.  I heard her voice and saw her facial expressions and felt somehow disconnected from it all.

I don’t remember that life, that world.

Maybe that’s part of grief, to block it out because it hurts to much to realize all that has been lost.  Here I am forging forward with life and getting caught up in my new career, my sons, cooking, cleaning, laundry.  I don’t remember that life and that world on a daily basis.  I watched video after video and tried to understand what happened to that world I was watching.  What happened to the bright-eyed, chatty, beautiful little girl that in one of the videos walks up to her Uncle Tristan and out of nowhere nails him on the head with a huge metal spoon, then smiles and walks away nonchalantly.

The truth is, I was always so afraid that I would forget Stella, but that hasn’t happened.  I have, however, started to forget the person I was when she was alive.  I have forgotten the way the house looked when it wasn’t covered in the boys dinosaurs and train sets.  When I zipped up dresses instead of fly’s. When mornings started at 5am and I struggled to explain to my daughter why Tutus weren’t considered winter outer wear.

On November 13th, I went to a very special event at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.  it was the opening of “Stella’s Playroom”.  This room is a free, supervised playroom for children to be in while their families are in healthcare appointments at the hospital.  Aimee and I know firsthand from having to drag Sam and/or Hugo to psychiatrist appointments there when they were babies how disruptive and difficult it can be to balance caring for your child while you are trying to deal with your own health concerns.  You can read more about it at:

http://www.womenscollegehospital.ca/programs-and-services/mental-health/Stellas-Playroom

Anyhow, there was a big ribbon-cutting event at the hospital.  Aimee had taken care of inviting all the people there as I was drowning in work and life.  As the people started to arrive and fill the room, I got a crazy sense of being catapulted back in time.  There, standing in one room, were the people who had been there through Stella’s illness and death.  Her friends, their parents, Cath Porter the Toronto Star reporter who followed us for a year to write newspaper articles about Stella, the psychiatrist that we saw every single week for over three years, our family, friends, neighbours.

Aimee and I stood in front of these people and cried and spoke about our little girl.  They were there.  And so was I.

Afterwards, Sam said to me from the backseat of the car, “I didn’t see Stella at the party”.  I felt my heart smash into a thousand pieces as I realized that he was probably excited to go to “the party for Stella” (as we kept calling it), because he assumed she would be there.  That girl from the photos whose toys he plays with, whose mommies he shares, who he looks for but can never quite see. “Stella wasn’t there because she died,” explained Aimee without missing a beat, “Remember?  Her body didn’t work anymore”.  Sam nodded, content with that explanation, but I still felt sad.  How badly I wished that Stella was able to  be at that party.  But maybe she was, in a way.

It’s different now.  I don’t get to see those people very often anymore, or experience things the same way.  But that old world, it’s still there.  It’s in the personal memories of all the people whose lives Stella touched, no matter how fleeting or small.  It’s in the ways she changed Aimee and I from the inside out.  It’s in those videos, those spaces she once skipped through.

It’s on the carpet of Great Wolf Lodge that she threw up on when she was 11-months old in the front lobby.  When we were there with the boys last month, I purposely sat right on the spot I remembered she had been sick.

It’s in the silly singing snowman she used to crawl towards and laugh at when she was 8-months old for her first Christmas that I just unpacked for the boys from the attic and introduced them to last night.

It’s in her Olivia blanket that Sam had claimed for his own, and her purple teddy bear that Hugo cuddles up to at night.

It’s in me.  She grew in me, she died in my arms, she has seeped into my pores and affected every inch of me.

I think whenever I really want to find Stella, all I have to do is look in the mirror.

 

P.S.  Catherine Porter did a follow-up article on Stella’s Family for the Toronto Star in honour of Stella’s death-anniversary last month.  If you didn’t get a chance to read it, check it out!!!

http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2014/10/26/three_years_after_her_death_child_stricken_with_brain_cancer_still_inspires.html

 Gracie and Sam at Great Wolf Lodge, October 2014:

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Hugo and Sam helping to close the cottage, October 2014:

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Ready for daycare! (Nov. 2014):

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Stella in Auntie Heather’s arms, June 2012:

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Life, Death, Ice Cream

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I’ve written before about how one of the frustrating things to me when Stella was alive was reading other people’s DIPG blogs and then having them suddenly end just days or weeks after their child died.  As a parent standing on the edge of an abyss of darkness, I wanted to…NEEDED to…read about others journey’s.  I needed the reassurance that someday it would all be okay.  So even though I don’t feel like I have much to write nowadays, and even though there are few people who still follow this blog, I continue to write when I can because I keep thinking of all the “new” DIPG parents out there who may be trolling the Internet in the middle of the night, looking for assurances that they will survive their personal nightmare.

So… in case you were wondering, we are still standing.

Stella’s youngest brother, Hugo, turned two on August 2nd.  He is such a little character.  Built just like Stella, same mischievous grin and same bright blue eyes.  But he is so very different as well.  As we sang happy birthday to him, both Aimee and I blinked back tears remembering Stella’s 2nd birthday.  It was our last few weeks of innocence, but we had no idea back then what was about to happen to our lives.  In may ways, Hugo saved me.  I was in such a dark place and when I got pregnant with him I had to care again.  Having this little life inside me forced me to start looking after myself.  I felt so betrayed by the world when I realized my daughter was going to be taken from me— not just taken, but slowly eradicated— and I lost all the confidence I had that there was any point in trying to protect your children.  When Sam was born I was terrified for the first little while, and I got pregnant with Hugo when Sam was still a newborn himself.  What a crazy time.  But having a baby growing inside me meant I had to eat and sleep and look after myself.  Hugo has helped lessen the sting from the loss of Stella.  Though nothing can ever make up for the death of our curly-haired, energetic daughter, Sam and Hugo together have given us so much joy.  They gave Aimee and I back our lives—both literally and figuratively.

There are some days now that I don’t feel sad at all, and others when the tears won’t stop flowing.  And I find that sometimes, it’s at funny and unexpected times that grief will hit.  I was looking at photos of the kids that we put up at the cottage last year and thinking about how we need to update them since the Sam, Hugo, Gracie and Xavier are so much bigger now.  Then I realized that the ones of Stella on that same wall will never be updated.  There are no more new photos of her.  She is forever 3 1/2.  When I thought about that, my heart hurt so much I thought it would burst out of my chest in a cascade of salty tears.  Sadness weighed me down in that moment.  I tried to imagine what she would look like had she lived.  We probably never would have cut her curls so they would likely have been cascading down her back by now.  She may have been longer and leaner too.  I pictured her with green nail polish and a brightly coloured bathing suit.  I wondered if she would have chosen the bathing suit with Dora on it, or the one with flowers or hearts.  Pink or purple crocs?  Maybe neither.  The first pair of crocs she insisted on when she was 15 months old were plain shit brown and there was nothing we could do to convince her the other colours were nicer. Now Sam wears pink Dora crocs and Hugo likes his blue Thomas the Train.  I wondered if Stella and Gracie would have ganged up on Sam.  He would have had no Hugo to chum around with, so I wonder what that dynamic would have been like.  Probably freckles would have started appearing on her chubby cheeks.  Perfect white chicklet teeth, bright blue eyes, bubbling giggle.  My head can picture it so clearly if I try, but it hurts to think too hard about it, so I didn’t let myself sit and wonder for too long.  It’s healthier for me to stay in the here and now.  So I stopped that train of thinking and allows the “now” moment to seep into me.  Using all my senses, I watches the boys play with Gracie, felt the sun on my arms, listened to the rustle of the trees as a light summer breeze passed by, smelt the mixture of sunscreen/sweat that heralds summer fun and tasted the grape freezee, a familiar manufactured flavour that is unchanged from my own childhood, 30 years ago.

Staying in the here and now is also how I’m getting through this extremely challenging Funeral Director internship year.  The hours are long, working weekends and holiday’s is hard on my family.  I’m struggling.  A lot of it is the driving.  I only got my license (for the first time in my life!) this past May, so I’ve been driving for less than 3 months.  Driving in Toronto traffic is extremely stressful for me.  For anyone else who works at the funeral home, if they are given a simple task such as, “go to Toronto General Hospital and pick up a body from the morgue”, they grab the keys and whistle Dixie right out the door.  Not me.  As soon as I’m told to drive somewhere, the knot in my stomach starts to tighten and the blood rushes to my head.  Immediately, my brain goes into overdrive about how many times I’m going to have to change lanes, what time it is so I can gage traffic, how many left turns there might be, if I may need to back up somewhere, etc. etc.  My hands shake as I grab the keys and feel like I’m going to vomit the entire drive there and back.  There is ALOT of driving when you are a Funeral Director intern.  Drop off flowers, pick up Clergy, drop off body at the crematorium, pick up cleaning supplies, drop off body at the airport, pick up body at the morgue, etc. etc. etc. I can’t back the Coach (aka hearse) up into the garage and I can’t park the lead car completely straight under the carport.  I feel embarrassed.  I know I have so much to offer, but the driving is not showing anyone what I’ve got, but rather just points out my weaknesses.  Aimee holds me at night when I come home crying and says, “You can DO this!  You’ve done harder things”.  But that’s the point, I tell her, I don’t want to do hard things anymore.  I’m tired of doing hard things, I want something to be easy and fun and enjoyable.  I want so desperately to do this, and to be good at my new career, but each time a situation occurs that necessitates me driving, or doing something unfamiliar and stressful, my stomach knots up and that voice inside my head gets louder and louder, “You can’t do this.  It’s too hard.  Quit”.  Some days I don’t know how I’ll make it.  Other days, something almost magical happens and I get a moment of pride and accomplishment that spurs me on to the next day.  At one point last week I had a particularly trying day where another Funeral Director reamed me out for multiple things, and I was a mess of nerves, my spirit broken. 15 minutes before the end of my shift, a young couple came in to pick up the cremated remains of their stillborn baby.  As they sat on the couch waiting for the impersonal cardboard box that contained their broken dreams and hopes in it, I recognized their name and remembered that it was I who had looked after their baby.  After talking myself out of it half a dozen times, I went up to them and introduced myself.  “Hello,” I said, “my name is Mishi.  I see you’re here to pick up Baby C. I just wanted to let you know that I was one of the people who looked after her.  I wrapped her in a hand-knit yellow blanket with a matching little hat that had a pink ribbon on it.  I held her and took good care of her for you”.  When I saw the look of relief come over their faces and the tears roll down their cheeks, I felt like it was the right thing to do.  I wanted to know that Stella was looked after once I handed her over to the Funeral Home, and I think that these parents needed to hear that as well.  I felt good about it.  Even though the situations are totally different, sometimes plodding through this new career stuff feels much like navigating Stella’s illness.  It’s all a big unknown, a leap of faith. A long, exhausting journey that has lessons around each corner…some welcome, some not so much.  It’s a reminder about the extraordinary things human beings can do, but also about the fact that we all have our limits.

My life is, ultimately, a love letter to my daughter.  A promise to live life the way she did—- honestly, fully, defiantly.  So, whether I am mulling over Hugo’s birthday, Gracie’s latest growth spurt, traffic jams or what ice cream flavour to choose, I am taking it all in.

I am loving what I have.  And on the hardest days, I have a great big bowl of ice cream for breakfast.

These boys mean everything to us.  Sam wishes Hugo a happy 2nd birthday!

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Family pic at the cottage:

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Gracie and her cousins go shopping:

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Stella, 8 weeks before she died, giving Hugo cuddles:

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Ready, Set, Go

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I don’t have much time to write anymore.  I don’t have much time to do anything anymore.  Working close to 50 hours a week as an intern funeral director and balancing that with the needs of an almost-2 and almost-3 year old in addition to all the regular crap like laundry and dishes and bill paying and there just isn’t much left.  In some ways I feel the same way I did when each of the kids was a newborn…overwhelmed, anxious, excited, happy, sad and, of course, your biggest craving is for sleep, and you never seem to be able to get enough.

So here I am, 2 months into my one-year internship in Funeral Services and I want so badly to love it— I’m trying hard to love it all the time, but the thing about being an intern is that you have to learn how to do everything, and that includes (to a large degree), the less glamorous parts of funeral services.  Such as vacuuming an entire funeral home (including Chapel), scrubbing urinals, picking up garbage, cleaning out rain gutters and hauling oversized funeral flower arrangements from the funeral home to the church and then cemetery.  It’s all part of the job, and it’s all important work, but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t backbreaking, monotonous and stressful at times.  I find I spend much of my day being anxious about whether or not I am doing something correctly and/or safely. Luckily the people I work with have been exceptionally patient and generous with their knowledge and there are moments that it all seems to mesh, and I feel really good.  But there are also moments I want to burst into tears and run away.  A lot of my anxiety has to do with how new everything is.  There is a massive learning curve for me happening, but at the same time Funeral Services is not the type of industry that you can make very many mistakes in.  The result of these two things is that I am living at a high level of stress most of the time.

Stella is what gets me through the hard days.  The ones where I get home after 11pm at night, knowing I need to leave for work again by 6:45 the next morning, without seeing my kids or wife at all.  The days there is a baby or young person lying on the embalming room table.  The days when I make a mistake and 15 different people at the funeral home make jokes about it.  The days I feel lost and overwhelmed; incompetent and useless.  When I feel like giving up, admitting defeat and applying for another desk job, I reach inside and find my inner Stella Joy.  The stubborn, fearless, unrelenting parts of her that I promised I would adopt to my own personality after she died.  And then, somehow, just like she did, I keep on going.  I can see huge changes in myself already and there are many things I’ve accomplished during this internship that I’m proud of, so I think that no matter what happens long-term I will be grateful for the growth and lessons I experience each and everyday.  It’s sure as heck never boring!!!

I keep a Stella Star in my locker at work and when I’m rifling through in the morning looking for the appropriate outfit (we have funeral suits, evening suits, grubby clothes and embalming uniforms), it swings and clangs against the metal sides.  Her photo always catches my eye as it’s crookedly taped to the wall next to my schedule.  “Good morning, baby” I always think to myself.

Stella has been dead for almost 2 years now.  I can hardly believe it.  I can hardly believe it’s been that long since I felt the soft, warm weight of her body nestled into mine.  It’s funny because during the first year I feel like I really needed concrete reminders of her.  My “F**k you cancer- Stella bracelet, my Stella necklace, one of her little t-shirts, photos, etc.  But now I feel as though she is steeped right into my pores and when I breathe and think and speak, she is part of all of it but without me thinking consciously about it.  Just as she once physically lived in me, now she mentally lives in me.  I am different because of her.  I am better because of her.  And I see her in her brothers as well.  The boys are active.  They are running, talking, leaping little people.  It takes a team of us sometimes to spell each other off on all the energy the boys need to shake before they can collapse into bed.  Even as Aimee and I are sitting in their room reading books to them, they are running around us, jumping from the bed and chasing each other in circles.  Their energy is beautiful and their smiles as they sit side-by-side eating crackers from a bowl in their pyjamas and giggling as they wiggle their toes makes me want to freeze time and never leave that moment.

I can’t believe how much they are changing and growing.  Much of Stella’s physical growth stopped at 26 months of age, so it’s been amazing to see the growth and changes in Sam, who is 33 months now (if you even count in months at that age).  He hasn’t met anything he can’t climb, cocks his head to the side and says things like, “You fell Xavier?  That’s why we don’t run here, we only walk”, tells me I’m beautiful and starts most sentences with “hey guys…”  Hugo runs along behind him, a little ball of excitement and single-mindedness.  I feel like I have finally arrived at the place that DIPG robbed Aimee and I of that warm June day in 2011.  I have arrived at the moment and age where our kids are old enough to be signed up for soccer and gymnastics, to go on playdates without a parent, to talk and grow into their personalities.  Time continues to march forward, and it seems impossible to think, or to say out loud, but Aimee and I and our family…we are okay.  We are happy.

And being around death all the time certainly has a way of helping to keep me focused on what’s really important.  Death really and truly is a random thing.  The youngest body I’ve had on the table in the embalming room was a 15-week old baby.  The oldest was a 103 year old man.  But I’ve seen everything in between too.  Young, old, frail, strong, sudden death, long illness, suicide, murder.  It doesn’t matter how or what or when, it’s truly the one common denominator of all living things.  And I’ve sat through dozens and dozens of funeral services now.  I can tell you I’ve never once had anyone say in a service or eulogy that someone would be missed because their house was always cleaned and organized, or their clothing was ironed nicely.  No one ever says they will miss the fancy car that person drove, or the expensive house they lived in, or the Rolex watch they wore.  All these “things” we spend our lives collecting turn out to be totally meaningless after all.  When someone dies, the stories that are told are about kind gestures, generosity, making other people feel good, loving and being loved.  I try to remind myself of this on a daily basis when I start to feel overwhelmed by staying on top of work and life.  Life isn’t laundry, life is laughter.

So, for any loyal blog readers left out there who have been checking in and seeing no updates for awhile, my apologies.  We love that you still check in on us, and love that you still care.  If I’m not writing, it’s probably because the boys and I are spending the evening looking at a rainbow and wishing on a star and by the time we finish…we’ve fallen asleep (o:

“Perhaps our eyes need to be washed with tears once in awhile, to help us see clearly again”  – Alex Tan

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Set…

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GO!!!!!!!!

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Poppa reads the boys a story: 

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Big-girl Gracie reads to her cousins:

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Hugo’s silly face:

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Ice Cream for Stella:

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Stella and Mama, September 2011:

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