Joy and Sorrow

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Khalil Gibran says of Joy and Sorrow:

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.

Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.”

 

Aimee and I are missing Stella a lot these days.  Maybe it’s the weather.  Maybe it’s the impending October 22nd date.  But I think it’s just that she’s been gone for what feels like a long time now, and since our lives have settled into a “new normal”, we feel her absence deeply.

 

I recently admitted to Aimee that I’ve been staring at the big blow up photos we have of Stella.  They are the posters that our friends Ray and Brad made for Stella’s funeral and if you look closely, you can see the pores of her skin.  You can even see little droplets of milk in her downy blonde moustache.  And her perfect little teeth, all lined up in a row with a little space between the two front ones.  I find myself spending copious amounts of time staring at each laugh line and eyebrow hair, willing myself to remember exactly what she looked like.  I stare at her curls and marvel at home some of the photos were good enough to capture the colour of each individual strand.  Some are blonde, some are red, some are so light they look white.  After I admitted this to Aimee, she confided that she, too, had been looking at pictures of Stella.  She said she looks at ones on the laptop computer and zooms in as close as she possibly can to her eyes and the curve of her cupid-bow lips.  In our own ways, we are both desperate to hang on to the details we remember about her body.

 

When I look at her photo and run my fingers over the flat cardboard, wishing with all my heart to feel some warmth underneath, the physical pain I once felt all the time returns instantly.  It’s a weight in my chest that has sharp edges to it.  It makes me feel as though I am carrying 100 extra pounds just beneath my ribcage, and it hurts to breathe sometimes.
As we integrate ourselves back into the “outside” world, I struggle to remember that Stella’s life was not just a flash in the pan, but a real and meaningful journey.  I have transitioned back into a world where people push each other away from subway doors, click their tongues loudly when they feel the Tim Horton’s cashier isn’t moving fast enough, and become one of the masses.  A nameless, faceless figure moving through the hallways of school, fading quietly into the background as I assimilate with the other students.  It is hard in this environment to remember the beauty and safety that was my life for 16 months.  16 months where, though we were doing something impossibly sad and difficult, we had people holding our hands the whole way.  Now we have been released into the big, bad, world and though I’m much more sure of myself then I once was, Stella’s cancer has made me cautious.  I guard my heart and keep my cards a bit closer to my chest.  I have known pain and sorrow and gone to dark, dark places and am in no hurry to go back.

 

I was giving the boys a bath last night, and for some reason I flashed back to the morning after Sam was born.  I had the worst anxiety attack of my life just after he exploded into the world.  I sobbed in my father’s arms in the hospital feeling as though I were being sucked into a big black hole and that if I let go of his fuzzy orange shirt for just one second, I would never be able to climb back up again.  I remember going home feeling completely drained, exhausted, sleep deprived, and  stressed beyond belief.  I went into the bathroom and just collapsed on the ground.  I was so, so sad.  Devastated that the little boy who was just born wouldn’t get to know his big sister.  Plagued with memories of the happy day Stella was born, and the knowledge that she would soon die.  Distraught that I wasn’t at the hospital with Aimee and Sam where I wanted to be because I hadn’t been strong enough.  I didn’t know how I was going to muster the strength to get up off that floor, let alone see Stella through her cancer and eventual death.  I remember feeling the cool tiles on my cheek and the painful waves of sadness that ricocheted through my body, ripping through everything like a grenade.  It was darkness and pain.  I shook myself out of the memory and stared at Hugo and Sam who were playing their own version of “peek-a-boo” together and belly laughing.  The pure joy and delight they were experiencing was such a contrast to the dark place I had been that day.  I remember the thing that got me up off the floor was the knowledge that Stella was sitting, waiting for me to join her on the couch and watch Dora The Explorer with her.  I reflected on how first it was Stella herself, then later Sam and Hugo who were the reasons I got out of bed for many, many, months.  And though I am working on building our life back up by going to school and starting new routines and new memories, I don’t think I can yet say that I get out of bed for myself yet.  It is still my children that keep me going.  I think I’ll get there.  Get to the point that it’s my whole life that makes me happy, but right now I still have lots of times that I want to pull the covers over my head and disappear.

 

I miss Stella’s cackle.  Miss her grin when she knew she was about to get in trouble.  Miss the soft clicking noise she made when she slept.  I miss buying little girls clothing and dressing her up for the Holidays.  I miss listening to her sing the Golden Girls theme song, and dance her heart out.  I miss looking down at the crook of my arm and seeing her face resting there, long lashes resting softly on her porcelain skin.  I miss the “blam blam” ice cream march that we did every day, twice a day to get her to take her medications.  I miss stretching my imagination to find things to do with her on the couch; tea parties, pedicures, puppet shows, reading, singing.  I miss having a singular focus and goal, which was to keep her happy.

 

I used to always make wishes, but now I don’t know what I wish anymore.

 

For a long time, I wished (of course) that she had never gotten DIPG.  Now I’m not so sure I can wish that anymore because if she hadn’t gotten sick we would never have had the incredible perspective we have now.  We wouldn’t have Hugo.  We wouldn’t have the knowledge of how to parent in the present. We wouldn’t have many of the amazing friends that fill our lives with joy whom we met through Stella’s illness.  We wouldn’t have the same level of simplicity and honesty and fearlessness in our lives.  Yet it seems crazy to say you wouldn’t wish that your child was here and healthy.  It’s like being locked in between shadow and light.  There are so many things I don’t understand, so many things that make no sense to me now.

 

But I know that when I see the leaves turning I miss my daughter.  And though I can’t say that I am unhappy in my life, I am sad at moments when I allow myself to fantasize about how she would look and what she would be saying to me right now.  Aimee and I fluctuate between moments of tearful disbelief, powerful sadness, huge gratitude, intense pride, and pure joy.

 

I think it is as I’ve always suspected; that happiness and sadness exist together in my world and in my heart and there is a place for both of them.  Someone once said that if you think of life as a piano, the white keys are the happy times, the black keys are the sad times, and only when you play them together do you get the purest, most beautiful music.

 Sam and Hugo play their own version of “Peek-A-Boo”IMG_4428

Sam enjoys his yogurt:IMG_4286

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photo-31 Our friends Holden (3) and Nate (4) ran in honour of our girlIMG_4396

 

IMG_0727 Missing You Stella.  October 2011

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Tour For Kids

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last couple of years, it’s that grieving is a very personal, very unique experience.  As a married couple, and parents to Stella, Aimee and I have grieved very intensely the last almost two years.  It was clear from the onset that we had very different styles of dealing with our sadness and pain.  Aimee preferred to surround herself with friends and family, finding comfort in large groups of people surrounding her like a shield or blanket.  I liked being around people, but craved being by myself a lot.  I found the most peace going for walks, or in silence.  Gradually as the months have passed since Stella’s death, we’ve settled comfortably into our different styles.  I have become more withdrawn, preferring after a busy day to read in bed, write emails on the computer or sit silently and watch TV.  Aimee loves talking to her friends on the phone, making fancy dinners and chatting to me.  We’ve managed to find a balance in meeting each other’s needs, and have had to learn to give each other the space we need to grieve Stella in our own ways.

 

One of the things that Aimee discovered shortly after Stella’s death was biking.  She’s always been athletic—was on every High School sports team you can imagine, has run the Camp Oochigeas 10K for several years and genuinely loves to exercise and eat healthy foods.  When Sam was born and she suffered from Diastasis Symphysis Pubis, which is basically a fancy way of saying that her pelvis separated during his birth.  As a result, she was unable to continue running and found it difficult to exercise due to the strain put on her pelvic region.  Enter biking, a sport she discovered that her body responded very well to and that didn’t hurt her at all.  Before I even knew what was happening, Aimee had become a voracious biker.  She bought herself all the gear she needed and soon began going for long, solitary bike rides.  She would return from these rides red-faced and sweaty with her legs aching, but she would be smiling and glowing.  “I love it”, she would tell me simply.  Later, she explained to me how cathartic she found biking.  She said she felt as though she could really mourn Stella in this way, riding as fast as she could, becoming lost in the rhythm.  She said it was like meditation, and every time she got to a hill she thought she couldn’t get up, she would simply think of Stella and all she had been through with her cancer, and push herself to keep going.  She even hung a Stella Star in the trees at the top of Pottery Road by our house and told me that each time she tackled that massive hill she would focus on the Star waiting and grunt and sweat and swear her way to the top.  She pointed out the star to me from the car at least a dozen times, and each time I was sure she was going to get into a car accident as her eyes left the road and she pointed excitedly at where it hangs.

 

Though I fully support Aimee’s bike riding, I would be lying if I said I understood her passion for it.  I’d much rather read a book about biking than do it myself, and don’t find the pain that comes from exercise inspiring or liberating at all.  So, while Aimee rode her bike I would take the kids to a drop-in centre or the farm with Heather and Xavier and we would meet back a few hours later, each content with our day.

 

Several months ago, Aimee declared to me that she was going to complete the Tour For Kids.  I was vaguely familiar with it as I’d known a couple of “real cyclists” that had done it, and was aware that it raised money for Aimee’s workplace, Camp Oochigeas.  I smiled my encouragement, said all the things a good partner is supposed to say about, “Sure you can do that”, and continued on with the kids.  But I had grossly underestimated this ride and what it meant to Aimee.  Before I knew what was happening, she was taking herself on grueling training runs for hours at a time, biking up huge hills and even riding to Markham (for those of you who are not from Toronto, Markham is about 25km or 16 miles away, so she was doing 50km to go there and back).  I soon learned The Tour for Kids is a grueling 4-day bike ride, riding 121km a day, that raises money for the three cancer camps in Ontario (Camp Oochigeas, Camp Trillium and Camp Quality).  She began to actively recruit people to join her bike riding team, calling it Stella’s Stars.  Unfortunately, of the people she got to agree to do it with her, two ended up becoming new parents and two had to attend weddings on the weekend it was happening, so by the start date Stella Stars was a team two strong:  Aimee and Auntie Juju.

 

As race date approached, Aimee’s focus was something I’ve never seen from her before in our over 9-year relationship.  As we drove back and forth places, her eyes would dart from the car to the roadways as she made notes of where there were good bike routes for her to try.  If we were going somewhere for the weekend, she would try valiantly to fit her bicycle in between our bags and the two carseats.  At one point I joked that perhaps we should leave one of the kids behind to make more room for her bike.  She didn’t think that was nearly as funny as I did!  But as much as I don’t understand her passion for riding, or her drive to complete this bike race, I DO understand that it is part of her grieving and healing from Stella’s illness and death.

 

On Thursday morning, Aimee left the house at 5am and headed out to the start line with Juju.  They were lucky enough to get incredible custom racing Jersey’s donated by a company called Genumark (http://www.genumark.com), and decorated their bikes with pictures of Stella.  Juju is completing the race with Stella’s favourite puppet “Fred” attached to her bike, and Aimee brought Stella’s beloved “Pink Kitty” doll.  For the last three days, they have been riding hard throughout Southern Ontario, laughing, crying and sending me tons of photos along the way.  Aimee has told me that this has been a magical time for her and Juju.  They flop into bed each night, their bodies burning and aching, but their hearts full.

 

Our friends and family are so proud of these girls for doing this race.  I am inspired by their drive and cry each time I get a new photo with the caption, “Take That Cancer!”.  Stella’s face is on one of the Sandwich Boards that lines the race, designed to remind racers why they are doing this, and tonight (Saturday), Aimee will be one of the Speakers at the racers dinner.  Aimee and Juju have described this ride as “Incredible”.

 

Tomorrow, Aimee and Juju will cross the finish line, and as many of us who can will be waiting for them, celebrating their awesome accomplishment and remembering the special little girl that was their inspiration.  If you’re going to be in the Oakville area on Sunday August 18th, why not come join us!  The finish line is at Bronte Creek  Provincial Point and the Stella Star’s team plans to cross sometime between 1-3pm.

 

This bike ride is more than just a ride for Aimee and Juju, it is a labour of love and fervor in Stella’s name.  It’s a chance to do something active to remember her and continue to spread her story and message.  It’s a statement about how Stella has inspired all of us to do things we never thought possible.

 

As the race ends tomorrow, Stella’s presence will be all around us and Aimee and Juju will have taken another step forward in this long journey towards healing and meaning-making.  Correction, not a step…an epic cycle.

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Stella’s Sandwich Board

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Juju and Aimee, ready to start the ride!

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Auntie Juju gives Stella’s puppet “Fred” a hug

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Stella’s Star on the route!

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Day two Complete!

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Stella would be so proud

 

 

 

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We’re Back!

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Hi everyone!

As you can see—the website is back.  A different look, but still all about Stella.  Thanks so much for your patience as our crack IT team struggled to deal with server issues beyond our control.

In order to get the site up and running again, we’ve had to start fresh with the most recent posts, beginning July 2013.  Eventually, all the old postings will be moved over as well but for now…let’s focus on the present!

All the best!

Mishi, Aimee, Sam, Hugo and, forever, *Stella*

 
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Permission to be Happy

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Permission to be Happy

 

Today is a perfect summer’s day in Toronto.  It’s 24 degrees, sunny, quiet.  There are birds fluttering around the tree outside and children everywhere, finishing their last week at school.  All seems well, except for the fact that Stella isn’t here.

 

Today reminds me so much of the Monday before Stella got diagnosed.  Aimee and I had taken the day off  and we went shopping then out for lunch.  Sitting on a patio at Yonge and Eglinton, our shoulders warmed by the sun, a lifetime of happiness stretched out in front of us. We ordered beers and toasted our lives together.  We marveled about how perfect everything was, how fortunate we were to have our daughter, with another child on the way.  We acknowledged how amazing it was that we had such a solid group of friends and supportive family.  We talked about how life was  beautiful, and agreed that we were the luckiest people we knew.

 

5 days later our world fell apart.

 

I’ve often thought about that day on the patio.  Thought about the fact that no matter how many wonderful, happy and incredible things happen in our lives, we will never again be as blissfully ignorant to the cruelty of the world as we were on that day. 

 

Monday marks the two year anniversary of when Stella was diagnosed with DIPG.  I think that this day, more than any other, brings back feelings of heartache and helplessness.  Last year on that day, though we were sad, there was still a feeling of triumph, because Stella was here with us, defying daily her prognosis.  But this year, it is yet another day without Stella. 

The nightmare and horror of diagnosis day sometimes bubbles to the surface of my brain, but I resolutely push it away.  I will not remember.  I cannot remember that day.  Bits and pieces of it flash like jolts of poison.  I remember the way my stomach twisted and turned as words tumbled out of some nameless, faceless Doctor.  I remember the mass confusion and the bloodcurling screams that rose up from a place so deep inside me, I didn’t even know it existed until that day.  I remember sitting by myself at 2am in the hospital hallway on a bench, sobs wracking my body as I wrapped myself in the skirt I had been wearing for two days, trying to convince myself not to jump from the balcony onto the shiny tiles below.  I remember waves of people coming with hugs and shocked looks on their faces.  I remember our friend Jeremy, sitting on a bench in the hospital hallway, looking at me with tears in his eyes. I remember Stella, the centre of everyone’s attention, blissfully unaware and playing happily day in and day out, delighted that all her favourite people in the world were there to see her.  Then I can’t remember anymore without falling into a deep, black hole, so I force myself to skip over that day in my personal history.   I choose to remember the days of sheer joy I felt parenting Stella when I gave myself persmission to love her for who she was, not who I wanted her to be.  I choose to rewrite history, so that I can survive it.

 

After Stella was diagnosed, whenever I pictured living life without her, my heart would constrict and the breath would come out of me in a huge rush of pure agony.  I had no idea how we were going to survive her death.  Now we’ve been living without her for 8 months and the pain isn’t as intense as I thought it would be.  It comes in waves or “landmines” as the DIPG boards refer to it as.  You just walk along living your life, until seemingly out of nowhere something hits you that hurts so badly it brings you to your knees.  But, surprisingly, more often than not, I am not overwhelmed with the pain and sorrow of losing Stella.  There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss her, but she is almost like a beautiful dream to me now.  I look at photos of us together and if feels like a lifetime ago.  It has only been months since she was on this Earth, only two years since she ran, giggling through the park while I chased her.  But when someone gets DIPG and then dies,  time loses all meaning and so it might as well have been in a different life that I experienced her.  Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at someone else’s past when I see the pictures.  Did we really do all that?  Did we really survive the slow death of our first born, our daughter with the infectious smile and bouncy curls?  It’s often too much to comprehend and more often than not, I can’t spend too long looking at photos and videos, so I just close the laptop and focus on what’s happening in front of me, instead of what’s contained in that little silver machine with the apple on its lid.  And I’ve had to learn to give myself permission to feel happiness, without the inevitable guilt that tries to sneak in whenever my heart bubbles with laughter.

I find that, just as when she was alive, the only way to get through the days now that Stella is dead is by staying present in the moment.  Like everything else that’s new, it takes practice.  Sometimes I forget and I’m so busy checking my phone for emails or texts, that I miss little moments with my kids.  Sometimes I get lost in m own thoughts and memories and forget what I’m supposed to be doing or watching.  Sometimes the words I want to speak get lost in my chest, so I just stay silent then regret it later.  It’s not natural to live in the here and now.  Every message we receive from society is all about planning for the future, remembering the past and hurrying to get to the next marker in life.  But I’m still too bruised to live life that way, so I just take tiny steps.  I am not able to convince myself anymore that the future with my family is guaranteed, the way I was so certain it was on that sunny June day two years ago before Stella was diagnosed.  So I just take it a day at a time. 

When I’m home with Hugo all day, I often just sit on the floor with him and play.  I don’t think I ever did that when Stella was a baby, or even Sam.  It’s amazing just to sit with him and see what he sees, notice the way that the wheels of the truck spin, laugh at the sounds that come out of the Wiggles microphone, or discover hitting the book in the middle makes it squeak.  His looks of fascination and delight are like sugar to me, giving me a buzz of pure delight.  When I pick Sam up from daycare, we go to the backyard and I watch him play with the hose.  He is completely fascinated by the water that drips out of it.  Seeing my sons delight in the tiny miracles that surround us is what makes life livable right now.  I know that our decision to have Hugo so soon after Sam’s birth, in the midst of Stella’s cancer, was a controversial decision (in our own lives, not just online!), but I just can’t imagine life without the two boys that fill my heart and days with their curiosity, smiles, and energy.  They are the source of my strength, the reason I have given myself permission to be happy.  When I am at my best, it’s usually because  Sam and Hugo are around.

 

I miss Stella.  I miss her everyday, with every breath I take.  But I’m not sad.  I can say that with complete certainty.  The gifts that she gave me while she was alive, the perspective I gained from parenting such a special child, have made me a better person.  I don’t wish what happened to us on anyone.  In fact, I have trouble going on the DIPG websites and reading about newly diagnosed children because I have an idea of the living Hell these families are embarking on.  I feel so badly for them, and I feel so acutely heartbroken on their behalf.  But,  I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore.  How can I be sorry about a journey that has brought so much peace and perspective and love to my life?  So many new friends and a firsthand view of the generosity of other people and the boundless kindness that goes unnoticed if you don’t pay close enough attention.  I hate that Stella died.  Hate it and grieve for all that was lost.  But to be sad everyday would be to disregard all the lessons she taught me about finding happiness in the smallest spaces of your heart.  Kind of like dancing between the raindrops. 

 

Monday June 24th is going to be a very difficult day for all of us, but I am hoping to be able to take back some of the pure joy that Stella blessed us with during her life.  I never know until a day arrives how it will play out, but Aimee and I will spend the day together both mourning the child we lost, celebrating the children we have and honouring the range of emotions that come with each day.  Just like everyday, we will allow ourselves to feel both happy and sad, each feeling getting its own space in our hearts and lives.

 

Even after everything we went through, I still think Aimee and I are some of the luckiest people I know.  Just like two years ago, we will toast our lives on Monday, and remember the little girl who taught us more about life and love than anyone or anything else in the entire world.

 

“Cheers!”

 

“L’Chaim!”

 

and,

 

“Thank you for being a friend!”

 

Here is the video of an impromptu sing-along we had with Stella (Auntie Heather, Mommy Aimee, Mama Mishi and Uncle Tristan), a few months before she died of DIPG.  Finding Joy in the unlikeliest of places:

 

Life’s too short to not eat Chocolate Timbits, right Hugo!?

The endless fascination of a sprinkler:


Sam at Stella’s beloved Kimbourne, testing out the green paint:

GrandPa plays with Sam, Hugo and Gracie in his backyard:


Stella, 4 months old:


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First Day of Spring

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First Day Of Spring

Today is the first day of Spring according to the well-worn Real Estate calendar that hangs crookedly from the fridge.  There’s still plenty of snow on the ground and a cold, biting wind froze snowflakes to my eyebrows this morning.  But never mind that, it’s officially Spring.

Spring is the season of all the RE’s: REnewal, REbirth, REvitalization, REjuvenation, REplenishment, REstoration, REgeneration .  All such promising and active words, but I don’t know if I’m ready yet. It’s easy to hide and hibernate in the winter.  You tell yourself and others that it’s cold outside, the weather is bad, your stroller doesn’t work well in the snow, your winter boots have a leak.  You curl up inside and eat heavy stews and cheesecake and shut out the sun.  But in the spring, as the weather gets warmer and neighbours cautiously peek their heads out of the front door like gophers, it will be harder for me to stay inside where it’s safe and warm.  Soon the weekly Farmer’s Markets will start up again, the invitations to cottages, the long warm days, the chance for weekend picnics and trips to the Beach. Birds will start chirping at the windows beginning at 4am, and Stella’s birthday will come and go.

I have already gotten the first birthday party invitations for three of her friends who are turning four, and one friend who is turning three.  I read these invitations with a combination of gratitude, sadness, jealousy and joy.  I want to be able to go and celebrate with my friends, with Stella’s friends.  I want to watch Sam and Hugo run around these parties and just enjoy my sons, be in the moment and grateful to be part of a beautiful community that has not run away from me, but rather held me closer and encouraged me to do what I can, when I can.  But I am always struck with the randomness of it all.  Most of my friends and I started our families together at around the same time.  We all navigated sleep training, introduction of solids, first words and first steps together.  But now their children are getting ready to start kindergarten and taking skating lessons on weekends and my child’s ashes are sitting in a stone box somewhere in a drawer on Palmerston Ave. waiting to be scattered when the ground thaws and the first buds appear on the trees.  It’s hard to fathom sometimes.  Yet I read something that actress Valerie Harper said in a recent interview.  Harper was recently diagnosed with a (different) type of fatal brain cancer, and given three months to live.  She said when people ask, “why you” she responds, “why not me?  Why would I be exempt to something as destructive and random as cancer?”  And I like that answer.

But the truth is, no matter how much I love my friends and their children, it always hurts just a little bit to be around them.  But I chose long ago to endure the pain because the friendships that comes along with it are more than worth it to me.  Still, birthday’s will continue to be challenging for me.  Stella’s birthday is April 18th, so if she were alive we would likely have had a party for her somewhere around the weekend of the 13-14th.  Instead, we received a cordial invitation in the mail yesterday that says:

The Staff of the Haematology/Oncology Program,

The Hospital for Sick Children,

Respectfully invite your family and friends to our 13th Annual Memorial Service honoring the life and memory of your child.

April 14th 3-5pm

It just makes me want to scream until my throat is hoarse.  Instead of planning a birthday party, we will be lighting a candle with other bereaved parents and looking at “a picture or a sample of your child’s art” that they recommend you bring to the ceremony.  Blech.

Some bereaved parents in their blogs and writings talk about their children celebrating birthday’s in Heaven.  They write things like, “Happy Birthday James, celebrating 8 years since he was born and his 4th birthday in Heaven”.  How I long to be able to believe the way they do.  I am still searching for exactly what I think happens after death, I think Stella is somewhere but I don’t know exactly where.  I sometimes try to picture Stella sitting somewhere in the clouds surrounded by friends, wearing a pink tutu, matching sunglasses and her curls blowing in the breeze as she, giggling, blows out candles on a big chocolate timbit cake.  But I don’t really see that as being a realistic vision of where she really is, so as a result I get little comfort from these images.

But the first birthday to celebrate without Stella, is Gracie’s.  Gracie had her fifth birthday party last weekend and when it came time to sing “Happy Birthday”, as Gracie’s eyes glowed under the light of her birthday candles, I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks as I swallowed to keep the pieces of my heart from ricocheting up my throat.  Gracie, sweet as ever, made mention of her cousin Stella in her “Frances” as she calls the thanksgiving prayers we sometimes give at special occasions, and a candle was lit in her honour.  Still, something was missing.  She was missing.  I thought back to all the other birthday’s that Stella had been there for.  She was always placed right next to Gracie, to help blow out the candles and celebrate next to her best friend.

Strangely enough, the place that Gracie had her party was at her Nona and GrandPa’s house.  These are Aunt Juju’s parents, and they lost a daughter once too.  Julia’s older sister was hit by a car and died when she was a child.  As we stood there singing to Gracie, I looked at them and wondered if they still think of their daughter, 30 years later, every time someone blows out the candles on a birthday cake.  I see their dead daughter’s picture around the house.  I counted two with her in them, 1980’s pictures that have a bit of a yellow tinge to them and look almost antique.  I thought about how many parties, celebrations, holidays, etc. they have endured without their eldest child and wondered what it would feel like for Aimee and I, thirty years in the future, to maybe be looking at one of our grandchildren turning five while a faded picture of Stella smiled at us from the curio.  But it hurts my heart to think to far into a future without Stella, so I quickly tried to dismiss these thoughts and wiped the tears from my eyes.  Yet I continued to wonder, what will it feel like when Stella has been dead so long she isn’t mentioned at the birthday parties?  She isn’t talked about during “Frances”, and other people in our lives never met her, but just heard a bit about her form us and looked at a couple of outdated snapshots sitting around the house.

In that moment, I decided that Aimee and I were going to celebrate Stella’s birthday this year.  Not as a “Birthday in Heaven”, but as a true celebration of the day she was born.  We will be happy that day, and be grateful for the time we had with our girl and the incredible gifts she gave us.  We will laugh and remember and do all her favourite things, and eat cake and buy balloons.  Stella’s birthday will be celebrated here, on Earth with us.

The 4 o’clock sun is beaming into my windows now, causing a glare on the computer screen and making little prickles of sweat pop up on my temples.  A sure sign that Spring really is coming.  And hopefully once the snow melts and the sun begins to peek through the grey clouds, I will be able to welcome Spring and partake in some of those “RE’s”.

Especially REflect and REmember.

Happy Birthday Gracie!

Poppa and Hugo (photo by Natalie Hemmerich):

Sam at Jungle Cat World (photo courtesy Natalie Hemmerich):

Nanny and Hugo:

A bittersweet day. Sam, riding Stella’s bike (March, 2013):


Stella on her bike (October 2010 same age as Sam in pic above):

 

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