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):