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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Aimee, Mishi, Stella, Sam AND…

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Aimee, Mishi, Stella and Sam are proud to announce the birth of…
Hugo Charles Bruner-Methven
 

Hugo was born at Toronto East General Hospital on August 2, 2012 at 9:45pm.  He weighed 8lbs 4oz, 21.5 inches long.
The birth was amazing and meaningful and quiet (ok…well, except a little screaming on my part :o)    ), and expertly handled with beauty and dignity by our incredible midwife Christie K. who has been superb all throughout this jouney and her fantastoc backup, Sarilyn Z.
We got home in the wee hours of August 3rd and Stella and Sam were introduced to their new brother this morning.  Sam was frankly very uninterested, and Stella looked a bit horrified when we first brought him to her, but she warmed up later in the day after some good one on one attention from Juju and Auntie Heather and now smiles and laughs whenever he comes close.
Everyone is recovering well from the excitement.  We have had lots of help from our families and we are all doing great!
About the name:  In brief, “Hugo” was the name Aimee and I had selected for Sam before Stella decided to change it in Aimee’s seventh month of pregnancy.  Up until then, Stella had called the baby “Hugo”, so she was familiar with the name.  When we found out we were having another boy, Aimee and I (with the help of some forum readers) put together a list of potential names and asked Stella to help us out by sticking her tongue out when we got to a name she liked.  Well…she wasn’t being very cooperative with our requests, and finally one day a couple of months ago as we were going through names, we saw her trying to mouth something to us.  After a long and frustrating guessing game, we realized she was saying “Hugo”.  She had remembered the name and then…it was a done deal!
The name means “mind, body, spirit” which we think is lovely and one baby name book even had the meaning listed as “spirited”, which is the word we have always used to describe Stella.
The middle name “Charles” was selected by Mishi’s brother Tristan (he is 16).  Tristan is an incredible young man, who at the age of 16 shows a love for Stella and his nephews that is way beyond his years.  Tristan has struggled with Stella’s diagnosis the same way we all have, but has found inner strength and the ability to find joy in our difficult circumstances and continue his strong bond with Stella, something we are endlessly proud of.  We asked him to select Hugo’s middle name as a testament to how important he is to us.  “Charles” was the middle name of his and Mishi and Auntie Heather’s maternal Grand-Father.
So, in the next little while we will try to find our footing with the addition of our newest family member and keep you updated on how everyone is doing when we can!
Much love from Stella and the newest Bruner-Methven!!!
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Due For A Change

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Due for a Change

 

So, here we are.  A week away from the due date of our third child.  I am currently enormously pregnant complete with sore hips, constant tiredness, the inability to rise from the couch without help, and water retention that is making my feet look like Fred Flintstone’s.  I am at the point in pregnancy where every time I call someone they answer the phone breathlessly and ask, “did you have the baby?? Are you in labour?!!!”.  I see on the calendar that we are creeping closer and closer to when the baby will arrive, but emotionally I know my body is still hanging on to this baby. Our midwife joked that she feels like he may never come out if I don’t relax a bit.  Aimee and I had a 38-week ultrasound last week and saw the new baby’s face.  It looked like Stella’s newborn face.  Same chubby cheeks, same turned up nose, same hair (although we don’t know the colour and doubt it’s red, the little bits of hair sticking straight up were the same as Stella’s).  Seeing the ultrasound made me want to cry.  Tears of happiness, sadness, fear.  I am overwhelmed with emotions, feeling excited and happy and nervous and terrified all at the same time.  Feeling like I can’t believe we are here.  Wherever “here” is.

 

When Aimee and I decided back in early November to try to get pregnant again, Stella was 5 months into her DIPG diagnosis and losing her physical capabilities quickly.  Fall was when we saw her lose her ability to walk, talk, swallow very well and use her left hand all in a matter of weeks.  It was not an option in my mind that Stella would still be here 9 months later.  That would be crazy.  That would mean all the expert Doctors, the best in the world were wrong.  That would be inconceivable.  That would be impossible.  That would be…so Stella.  I should have known.  Aimee knew.  She kept insisting it was a possibility Stella would still be here, despite my eye-rolling and dismissive hand waves whenever she brought it up.  Aimee kept reminding me it was a possibility, even as I refused to believe it.  She was right.  Here we are on the brink of having three children.  I am terrified.  I keep asking Aimee, “how are we going to do this?”.  I keep thinking about how it’s going to be possible to manage to give Stella all the physical, mental and emotional attention she will need when we have an active 9 1/2 month old who is crawling everywhere and needs more and more stimulation as well as a newborn with the sleep deprivation and neediness that comes with it.  Aimee just keeps looking me in the eye and assuring me we will figure it out.  I want to believe her and be as confident as she is, but I’m not there yet.  I want to be able to give all my children the love and attention they need to thrive, but we are barely making it with two kids.  Barely getting the cooking and cleaning and laundry done in between caring for the two kids we already have, balancing naps and meds and paying bills and…now three kids!???  It feels like something’s going to have to give.  We have often spoke about how 13-months into Stella’s diagnosis we are feeling tired and as though our support people are also feeling the stress of having lived like this for over a year.  Living each day to the fullest is a good thing in most ways, but it’s also an exhausting way to live.  The pressure of not “wasting” any days, the guilt you feel if you don’t think you gave 100% as a parent each and everyday when you know those days are numbered, the frustration at putting your own life and wants and needs aside day after day after day, the difficulties in balancing trying to plan for the future, appreciate the past and live in the moment.  It’s not easy for any of us and I fear that with the addition of a newborn to our already insane lives, we are about to push all the people who have supported us past their breaking point.  And there is still so much of this journey left to navigate.  Yet despite these feelings, we are so excited to meet our new son and to introduce him to all the people we love most in the world.  We chose to have this baby and we have no regrets, despite our nervousness.

 

There have been so many lessons that Stella’s cancer has taught us.  Literally hundreds of opportunities for both big and small lessons.  But I have always felt as though the lesson that has been hardest for me to learn, and the one that keeps popping up over and over again, is how little control we have over events we feel entitled to control.  And I keep thinking as things happen, “Okay. I’ve learned the lesson, I get it…” but then I get kicked in the ass with new things that pop up that seem to mock me and my continuous attempts to control anything at all, even as I proclaim I know I can’t.  But how can you really accept that you are powerless to protect your children from horrible things?  We are not raised to believe that.

 

I was giving a bath to Sam tonight.  He was splashing in the water and having a great time playing with bath toys.  My mind kept flashing back to when I used to give Stella a bath, back when she was his age.  Stella also splashed, wonderment in her eyes as she kicked her legs and watched the water lap up against her knees.  I remember Stella throwing the same rubber penguin in the air as Sam did tonight, and then trying to eat its beak.  Sam is still new to the “big bath”, and kept clinging to me for safety and looking over his shoulder to make sure I was still there.  At one point he turned around, flashed me a big smile while using my knees to pull himself up to standing, and wrapped his arms around me in a big hug.  Instead of getting that warm, happy feeling that I should have had, my eyes filled with tears.  I knew that in this moment Sam was completely trusting of me, dependent on me and looking to me to ensure he was safe.  And I thought about how many times in Stella’s life she had turned to me with a big smile, waiting for me to give her that feeling of safety.  To kiss her head when she keeled over learning how to walk.  To pick her up when she fell trying to climb up the slide.  To hold her in my arms while she fell asleep in a new place.  To gently push her into the room with a reassuring smile when it was time to start a new daycare.  And yet, when it came down to it, there was nothing I could do to prevent cancer from taking everything away from her.  But she still looks to Aimee and I to keep her safe.  I don’t know if she questions why she can no longer talk or move or play with her friends.  I don’t know if she watches Sam crawl around and pull himself up on furniture and babble and wonders when she will get to do that again.  But I know that when she is tired and wants to nap, she curls into my chest and closes her eyes.  I know that when she first opens her eyes in the morning, she rolls them as far as she can to the left to make sure I’m lying next to her, ready to carry her to the couch for breakfast.  I know that when she is unhappy she fixes her eyes on me and makes a whining, seal-like noise until I figure out what she wants/needs.  I know she needs me and depends on me more now than ever.  She has no idea how much I wish I could do so much more for her.  She doesn’t realize the guilt I carry with me each day because she grew inside me and now she is dying.  Aimee and I make sure she sees only our smiles and our delight in the smallest things she does, not the heartbreak that follows.  As Sam leaned against me in the bath, depending on me to keep him safe, I was reminded forcefully that for Sam and his brother-to-be, we have so little control over ensuring they are protected despite what we want to believe. 

 

Aimee and I can provide Sam and Flick with as much as possible to prepare them for what is to come, but life is so random.  I can’t really stop bad things from happening.  How frustrating.  Why do all the parenting magazines and specialists try to make us believe that if we sign our kids up for the right programs, put them on wait-lists in utero for a good daycare/school and buy them expensive lead-free wooden toys, we guarantee them a good future?  Sell that to S.L.’s family, who lost their vivacious and athletic 18-year old daughter when she was hit by a car that was momentarily blinded by the sun as she stepped off the curb.  Sell that to E.Y.’s family, who has just had their toddler undergo over a year of painful chemo treatments, only to find out the tumor has continued to grow and they have another year of treatments ahead of them.  Sell that to T. R.’s family who lost their beloved daughter to a random car accident as she was driving to the cottage for a fun family weekend.  Sell that to the 150 parents a year in North America who find out their child has a DIPG tumor.  It’s all bullshit.  But then again, it turned out to be bullshit that Stella would only live 3-4 months after her diagnosis.  It’s been 13 months and we just returned a few days ago from her Make a Wish Trip to Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls.  A trip that she needed to be three (according to the Make a Wish Guidelines) to be able to take.  A trip we weren’t sure we could manage.  A trip Stella smiled and laughed and swam and enjoyed thoroughly.  A trip.  That’s what parenting Stella has been like for the past three plus years. 

 

Our family is due for big change in the coming week or so.  And even though I’m scared, I know deep down that life does not get better with chance, but with change.  Stella will meet her new brother, she will have had the opportunity to meet both her brothers before she dies.  That is a beautiful reality, a light in the tunnel of darkness she is headed towards.  We are having another baby.  Another boy. Another opportunity to have a bright future as a family. 

 

So here we go…again.  The only truth I can cling to as we move closer to this new phase in our lives is that we will continue to take each day one at a time and do the only thing for each other that we can— love our children wholeheartedly, love them completely, love them honestly, love them for who they are.  The rest, I trust, will come. 

Make A Wish Trip to Great Wolf Lodge, June 26-28, 2012:

 

Sam, Stella and Xavier at Great Wolf Lodge wearing their new GWL T-shirts!


Gracie and Stella getting manicures at the “Scoops Salon”:


In the lazy river with Auntie Heather


The Great Wolf Lodge Crew (Sam, Aimee, Auntie Angie, Juju, Mishi, Stella, Gracie, Auntie Heather, Xavier and Uncle Daniel):


Happy Make A Wish, Stella!



 

 

 


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Fumbling Towards the Future

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Fumbling Towards the Future

One of the comments that Aimee and I get most often is how strong we must be to be living and laughing despite the slow death of our beloved oldest child, Stella.  People ask us how we do it.  The easy answer is that we have no choice, but the longer answer is that having Stella and Sam to look after forces us to start each day.  If we didn’t have them, we would have no reason to get out of bed, no reason to eat breakfast, no reason to force ourselves to act funny and crazy just to get them to smile, no reason to put one foot in front of the other day after day, week after week, month after month.  I often think that having Sam has been such a miracle because, after Stella dies, if not for him, I’m not sure that I would ever bother getting up out of bed or leaving the house again, as I’m certain the pain is going to be absolutely unbearable.  Sam reminds me that even though things feel bleak right now, Aimee and I do have a future together, and a family full of joy that we have lovingly crafted and worked so hard for.  I don’t want to imagine my life without Stella.  It makes my chest hurt, it makes my stomach sick, it makes my jaw clench.  But I don’t have the luxury of tricking myself into thinking Stella will be here forever.  Each day that goes by is another day closer to when she will be gone forever.  It’s a maddening way to live—trying to appreciate the present, and still make plans for the future.

When Stella first got diagnosed, time seemed to stop.  I remember the calendar for July 2011 which had once been full of play dates, school assignments, and dates, was suddenly wiped blank.  Aimee and I were afraid to plan anything in advance.  How could we when we didn’t know what was going to happen to our daughter, and when it was going to happen and how.  We stopped work immediately, both dropped out of our respective school programs, cancelled every single thing we had planned for three months.  But once the shock had started to wear off a bit, once the weather turned a bit colder and the seasons changed, we realized that other people’s lives had started to go on and ours had to as well.  Our son was due at the end of October, and we needed to plan for him…to buy clothes, set up the nursery, assume that he and Stella would get to meet.  It was difficult to do at first, but marked our re-entry into the community we so loved and needed.  Slowly, intentionally, we started to put things on our calendar once again.

One of the hardest things for me to do was go out in public with Sam.  At first it was so hard to be out with Sam and not Stella, that I literally ran from areas where I thought I might know someone.  I cried the first dozen times I walked by the park Stella and I used to go to after daycare.  I bawled the first three times I took Sam to the library Stella used to run around in.  I wanted to kick the tire of every car I passed on my way to the first moms group I attended without Stella.  And when I joined Rainbow Songs a few weeks ago, which I also did with Stella when she was 6 months old, I had to escape to the bathroom for an impromptu cry when everyone sang, “You Are My Sunshine” the very first week (seriously—think of the lyrics, what a sad and horrible song).  But the unexpected bonus of forcing myself to do these things has been small moments of normalcy that creep into an extremely abnormal reality.  There is an inside and outside world, and Aimee and I have been trying to teach ourselves how to live honestly and fully in both of them.  But it’s not always easy.

Even now, whenever I go out I wonder if people are judging me.  I wonder if the people who know about Stella, watch me drinking a Starbucks pushing Sam in the stroller and chatting on the phone and think I’ve forgotten about Stella.  Or, if I have Stella with me, I wonder if people are staring at her and trying to guess what is “wrong”.  Most often, when strangers see me lifting her onto the slide like a rag doll they make a comment about how tired she must be.  And in every conversation with a stranger regarding Stella, there’s a split second when I have to decide whether to just smile and not continue talking, or tell them what’s really going on and then brace myself for the myriad of reactions from shock and pity to discomfort and silence. But I am keenly aware that no matter what someone’s reaction and feelings are, they get to go back to their “normal” life and Stella and I become just a fleeting thought for them, whereas Aimee and I live and breathe it every moment of every day. So I try not to care too much what other people think.

Parenting Stella through her cancer over the last 10 months has had many unexpected lessons.  One of them is that Aimee and I have needed to stretch to the limit our understanding of what parenting is, what it entails, what it’s overall goal is.  And we’ve needed to redefine ourselves, our lives, our expectations, plans and vision of the future.  Even though our lives are nothing that we ever could have even come close to imagining, we’ve realized that parenting is not something that leaves you, even if your style has to change and even if the journey is not as you imagined it would be.  Like it or not, Aimee and I are parents 100% of the time.  We still want Stella to eat healthily and so take the time to blend up broccoli for her, along with the ice cream.  We still want Sam to learn how to put himself to sleep and nap in his crib, so have conversations about sleep training.  We still try to remind Stella about “please” and “thank-you”, even though she can’t say them anymore.  And most of all, even though our dreams have been irreparably fractured, we still want to have the family we once dreamed of.

From the time Aimee and I talked about having children, we always said we wanted two.  Two felt manageable, two felt familiar (Aimee had one sister and I only had one sister until I was 16 and my brother was born), two felt perfect.  We always assumed we’d have two boys.  I’m not sure why, but that’s what we always talked about.  While I was pregnant with Stella, we decided our sons names would be Evan and Finn or Evan and Owen.  We didn’t find out the sex of our baby, so when Stella was born— a perfect package of red-headed, screaming, fury— and most definitely girl, we were a bit shocked.  But we adjusted and were absolutely tickled with our red-headed imp.  Then, when Aimee got pregnant just under two years later, we thought our dreams and our family were complete.

But, as you know, the universe had other plans for us and our family of four.

Even if not everyone vocalizes it, I know people want to know if Aimee and I plan on having another child.  There is an overall feeling that having another baby will somehow help us heal from losing Stella, that it will “replace” her in some way.  But the truth is, we could have 15 children, children who look just like Stella and act just like her, and they still wouldn’t be Stella.  You can’t replace a child that you lost and you can’t cancel out the agonizing grief of the death of one child with the birth of another.  No one is more aware of this than us.

Yet, Aimee and I couldn’t let go of the vision we had of our child having a sibling.  It took a lot of tears, and time, but we’ve finally accepted that Sam and Stella are not going to get to grow up together, they are not going to be the two children that we raise to adulthood and take to soccer practice together, and teach how to swim at a cottage and ground when they cut each other’s hair into a mohawk.  That dream will never happen, no matter how much we wish it.  If we wanted two children, we would have to do something active to get that dream, because we were not going to get to keep Stella.

So, one month after Sam was born, Aimee and I decided to try to do an intrauterine insemination one time with the same donor sperm as we used for Stella and Sam.  It was a crazy time in our lives.  Stella was declining rapidly in the fall, Aimee was completely incapacitated due to her pelvic injury, we were living off of donation money, had volunteers sleeping on a mattress in our living room to help with Sam, and were eating off of the generosity of friends almost every night.  We felt like we needed something happy to distract us from the chaos and stress of our everyday lives.  We weren’t in a place where we could seriously think about having another child, we just needed something to look forward to, something positive to focus on.  We decided to leave it up to the universe.  If we were meant to have another child— this child— it would be, and if not, not.

We inseminated on Remembrance Day.  I went by myself because Aimee was still too injured, was in and out of the clinic within an hour, and headed home on the subway as casually as if I’d just taken a book out of the library.

Two weeks later, we got the news we were pregnant.  Ironically, we got the news the same day we finalized the $12,000 payment for Stella’s funeral and burial plot.  What a strange day that was.

Aimee and I were excited…and terrified.  We already knew firsthand how little control we have over life when it comes right down to it.  We knew that this pregnancy would be emotionally complicated, and that more than likely I would be carrying this child when our first-born died.  It was a different feeling, a different type of pregnancy.  We were sometimes afraid to be too happy, there was trepidation and fear about being judged as completely insane, even by our closest friends and family.  But what kept us from drowning in all these complicated emotions was the knowledge that we have so much incredible love, and have gained so much knowledge as parents, and we want to share it.  We want our future.

So… we are proud and pleased to let everyone know that we are due with our third child this August.

We do not expect Sam or this baby to temper the horrific pain and sadness of losing Stella in such a painful and unfair way.  But we do expect any children we have to benefit from the lavish amounts of love we have to give, and to bring light on the days when all we see is darkness.

Over the last few months Aimee and I have slowly begun revealing our news to friends and family.  We are aware that some people might think it is a mistake.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we are confident that we made the right decision for us, and are excited to bring another child into our incredible family and community of friends.  Stella is very happy about the new baby and likes to kiss my belly and put her hand on it while she falls asleep.  We love that she is so thrilled at the prospect of another baby in the family, and hope feverently that maybe…just maybe…she might be able to meet this one as well.  But no matter what, she loves him already.  Oh yeah— it’s another boy!

This is a time of great emotional upheaval, but also of healing and hope for the future.  We may not know exactly what our future will look like, but we are certain that it will be full of light, love and laughter…because those are the parts of Stella we will carry with us always and forever.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one – Khalil Gibran

Stella is delighted with her new sibling to be!


Saying “hello” to the baby we have been referring to as “Flick”.  Short for flicker of hope…and flick for how active he is!:

 Stella waking up from a nap…check out that hair!!!"/

 

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Game Time

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Game Time

Well… here we are, on the even of Aimee’s induction (hopefully).  I say hopefully because there is a chance that Aimee won’t be ready to go tomorrow in which case we need to wait a few days and try again.  The very thought makes my planning brain have high levels of anxiety, so I’m crossing my fingers that the baby drops, everything that’s supposed to happen does, and we will welcome our son sometime Thursday…but if it doesn’t happen as per my plan I know there’s a whole long list of people waiting to say, “I told you so, Mish”.  I know, I know, I’m still trying to control the uncontrollable but old habits die hard, right!?

 

“Are you ready?” has been the question of the day.  I don’t know, are you ever really ready?  On paper we’re ready.  The hospital bag is packed, the baby’s room is set up, the diapers are unpacked, the clothing is neatly folded in the drawer and the crib sits at the ready.  The only thing missing is a baby.  Emotionally and mentally are we ready?  No idea.  I am wholeheartedly ready to welcome this baby to the world, but I am also terrified and trying to come to terms with the idea that at some point in this journey we will have to watch our first born die while trying to care for our second-born.  I had a moment of profound sadness tonight watching Stella play on the couch with her Aunties and thought about how, in different circumstances, we would be so ecstatic tonight.  We are still excited, but the excitement is tinged with that squeezing hurt that has surrounded my heart since June 24th.  If only… I keep thinking, then I get mad at myself for thinking it.  I thought I was past the wishing and hoping phase of Stella’s illness, but tonight, of all nights, I find myself reliving those terrifying first few hours in the hospital and trying to convince myself that maybe that was another family that those doctors were talking to…maybe they mixed up the MRI results…maybe my daughter is meant to live a long, healthy life.  But my heart knows that truth isn’t real, so I try to just appreciate that today Stella laughed with me and I read her books and she hugged me and said “Tella will be a big sister on Wednesday”.  The words are slow and drawn-out, but I can see the sparkle of excitement in her eye when she says it.

 

So I decided that despite the mixed feelings and doubts, today is the day to focus on the love and hope that the new baby will bring to our family.  Today is the day to be thankful for everything and everyone that we have.  Today is a day to remember that life is temporary, even for those of us who live to be 100 and the only real certainty we have is to celebrate this day and this moment.  My heart is filled to the brim with love as I see Stella napping peacefully on the couch, Aimee leaning up next to her with her baby belly brushing against Stella’s leg.  This is a magical time, one of excited expectation that I hope to look back on with reverence and happiness for the rest of my life.

 

Surprisingly, in the last week Stella has had a turn for the better.  If what she had was a temporary illness, or something curable, I would be inclined to think she was on the mend.  Instead, I’m left to ponder why all my wishes, wants and needs keep changing so drastically, why my views of what is quality of life are being shaken to the core and why, quite suddenly, Stella is eating again, laughing again, sitting at her desk and colouring again, asking to go for walks outside again.  Honestly…she had such a great day today I half expected her to hop off the couch and run across the room, turn around with a huge grin and say, “I’m all better Mama!”.  I actually picked her up and held her feet on the floor just to see if she could bear any weight.  She couldn’t, but she did ask to sit on the floor and scooted herself across it with me supporting her back.  It was completely unexpected, and welcomed.  5 weeks ago if you’d told me I would be ecstatic to see my child struggling to push herself across the floor with one leg while I pushed on her back, I probably would have burst into tears of frustration and sadness.  But today it felt like we had just witnessed the impossible, and I hugged and kissed Stella and we twirled around the living room to “Dora” just delighting in each other’s company.  In the face of death, I feel so alive.  In the face of life, I feel the shadow of death.  It’s sweet and bitter, happy and sad, light and dark, but it all somehow mixes together to form a strength that is propelling us forward towards and uncertain but hopeful future.

 

Aimee is sure that Stella’s rally is because she wants to meet her brother and she wants us to be a family of four…for a little while at least.  I like thinking that.  It makes my mouth tickle with a little smile to think that.

 

So…ready or not, the next phase is about to begin.  Ready or not.  Ready.  Not.  But willing, able and open to the beauty and pain of what the next days will bring us.

Photo by Silke Fischer

 

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