welcome to our modest home

Three years ago, we made the decision to sell our big house in the leafy neighbourhood to move to a much smaller house in the generic suburbs.  I always say that we did it to get our son into the (more inclusive) school across the street – but the other reason we moved was to downsize.  We downsized our possessions, our house, our mortgage, our taxes, our utilities and our renovation bill in the process.

I follow the Becoming Minimalist blog.  Today’s post is called The Things By Which We Get Embarrassed and reading it gives me comfort.  Everywhere I turn, media and society tells us – accumulate MORE MORE MORE.  We are in our mid-40’s/early 50’s and apparently in our highest earning years.  We have friends building massive mansions with soaring ceilings, granite countertops and hot tubs in the walk-out basement.  I am not beneath feeling great envy when we visit these spectacular homes.

For the first 18 months of living at our new modest place, I felt very embarrassed.  In my Canadian way, I apologized for everything about the new place.  I’d be quick to say:  we moved here for Aaron’s school, and apologize for the miniature front entry, the commute to get here and the lack of street parking.   I’d never admit that the other secret reason we moved is that I hated seeing my husband lie awake at night, worrying about the next huge renovation on our 50 year old house.  Our youngest son was not welcome at the old neighbourhood school.  Our eldest son had moved out, and there was just 4 of us rattling around an excessive amount of square feet.  Sometimes we could not even find each other in the house.  This seemed a bit ridiculous.  So we downsized considerably – in price and square footage – and moved twenty minutes south to a newer, affordable neighbourhood.  We’ve now been here over two years.

We had our annual open house last Friday and our little house was stuffed to the rafters with 40 people.  I used to have a twinge of pride when people came over to our old, prestigious house, and bask in the glory of their compliments (oh, this is such a nice neighbourhood!  Oh, your house is so beautifIMG_3671ul!).  Now I’m like:  Meh.  Stack your shoes at the front door, cram yourself inside, and here’s a drink.  

The thing is, last Friday, nobody cared about the size or location of our abode.  They were here for the food, Christmas cocktails and company.  Kids zoomed up and down the stairs chasing cats, while the adults happily ate ham sandwiches and Christmas baking.  The size of our house did not matter to anybody but the old me.   This year, I was so pleased that people bundled up their little kids and took the time to make the drive across town and to celebrate the holidays with us.  It meant a lot to me.  It is obvious that it is about the people inside the house, not the house itself.

This may sound silly to you, but this is an epiphany to me.  Now that our daughter has also moved out, our nest is emptying, and there is just the three of us.  We are putting this house up for sale in the spring.  We have a kid with a disability to save for, and debt to get rid of, and a basement that we never use.

Next up in our minimalist adventures?  Moving to a townhouse.  Who would have ever thought that?  As Joshua Becker says, we are getting embarrassed over the wrong things.  What if excess became the embarrassment? And responsible living that championed generosity became the norm?

Next December you are welcome to our annual open house.  You might have to stack your shoes higher at the front door, and squeeze in tighter to find some space amongst the revelers.  But the welcome will be warm, the food will be tasty, the baking will be homemade, and the cocktails will be strong.  You are welcome to follow us wherever we go.


my bugaboo – the horrors of bias in journalism

My bugaboo is the use of biased language in the media. There, I said it. While I try to focus on my passion for compassion and kindness, when I come across writing in publications or on websites that is subjective and degrades people (or people-to-be) with disabilities, I dissolve into a smoldering rage.

I’ve written about this here.  I’ll keep saying it, and calling writers out every single time until it stops.

There is an easy reason us folks who love someone with a disability cringe at poor choices of words. We have very little control over so few things in the world – how our kids or siblings are referred to is one of the things we try to control. For instance, for the record, in my world, it is:

Down syndrome, not Down’s or Down or Down Syndrome
Boy with Down syndrome not Down syndrome boy
Never ever use the ‘R’ word (I can’t even type it out)

My son is not afflicted, burdened or suffering. He is not unhealthy. He does not have an abnormality or defect. He does not have a disease. The correct language is simple and factual: He is a boy who is living with Down syndrome.  When he was in-utero, he was a fetus with Down syndrome.

The more complicated reason that I am so sensitive to language is this: words hold power. How you describe people with disabilities is a reflection of your own values and misconceptions, and the use of those words in print continues to spread those stereotypes in society.

This is particularly true in the prenatal world.   The power of words is strong there, because you are not talking about a baby you are holding in your arms. The baby is more abstract at that point (although maybe not to the mother), and the use of negative language by the media and health professionals is just ethically wrong.

This is because one word can unduly influence a woman’s choice when she’s pregnant.   And if we really all believe in informed choice like we say we do, that means that there are three choices when there is a chance a baby has Down syndrome or some other prenatally discovered diagnosis:

  1. To continue with the pregnancy and parent the baby
  2. To continue with the pregnancy and place the baby for adoption
  3. To terminate the pregnancy

Three choices, not just one. Just because you would choose #3, it is absolutely and ethically wrong to influence women to make the same decision. And you are influencing women through your biased language.

As a case study, there was a well-written article called Oversold Prenatal Tests Spurn Some to Choose Abortions by Beth Daley in the Boston Globe. The writer had obviously done extensive interviews, and the piece is about prenatal screening communication. This is a really important topic that I can get behind.

However, I almost wept when I saw the language in this piece. Talking about prenatally discoverable syndromes, the writer uses the words:

Birth defect, risk, chromosomal abnormalities, life-threatening condition, false alarm, genetic defects, problem, problematic fetus, serious genetic abnormalities, fetal abnormalities

The worst phrase of all was the horrors of Edwards syndrome, with its heart defects, development delays, and extraordinarily high mortality. The word horrors is used to reference another human being.  How would a mother who has a baby with Edwards syndrome feel reading this?

Journalists, if you use offensive language, you will turn off your readers. You will also unnecessarily influence your audience based on your own value systems. Here’s the simple solution to this: use value-neutral language. I’m not even saying use disability-positive language. I’m just saying use language that is neutral – that doesn’t express your own values one way or another.

Here are examples of value-neutral language v. not:
Chance or probability v. risk
Chromosomal difference v. chromosomal abnormality

The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of Canada has a good article about value-neutral language here.

I’ve been asked on many occasions to review a magazine article or health care pamphlet to ensure the language used about Down syndrome is value neutral. Why not ask your local support society or disability studies faculty if they can review your piece for language? This is a simple step to ensure your writing is as unbiased as possible, and does not cause offense. Even Googling “value-neutral language, disability” during your editing process will help.

As a writer, I think that reviewing your language is just due diligence for a good article. As a mom, I beg you to think about the ethical implications of referring to another human being in such negative terms.  How would you feel if the child you loved was referred to (prenatally or not) as an abnormality or a defect?  People with disabilities are worthy of value and respect. Difference is a part of the diverse human fabric in this beautiful, imperfect world.

on rejection

I had an interesting email discussion the other day with a fellow writer Debby Waldman. Debby is what I term a real writer because she’s published books. She’s a great storyteller, and a passionate mother. We first met when our teenage daughters played soccer together many years ago. She asked me how I handle rejection. The honest answer is not very well.

In the olden days, when us writers submitted a piece, we’d mail it and then wait for a letter back in the mail. This is so old school. Now we email our submissions, and we hear nothing back. There is just a blank inbox blinking at us on the screen for weeks at a time.

I carefully follow the submission guidelines for publications. Sometimes I have to query them with an idea; sometimes I can submit an entire essay directly to their editor. After I press send, I wait. And wait. And wait.  Note:  it doesn’t matter how many times you press the ‘Get Mail’ button – it won’t make the emails from the editors appear.

It is common courtesy not to send in the same writing to a number of different publications at a time. But what if you hear nothing back? Most recently, I submitted a piece in October to a well-known parenting magazine. I endured 8 weeks of silence. (Insert the sound of crickets here). So I took my essay back, and resubmitted somewhere else, somewhere more prestigious. So there, well-known parenting magazine! I’ll show you! (Yes, I submit some writing in pure spite).

Ah, but we must keep our thoughts about specific rejections underneath our hats. I bore witness to writer Ayelet Waldman, who recently went off on Twitter when the New York Times didn’t select her book as one of their “100 Notable Books of 2014.” Russell Smith wrote a good piece in the Globe and Mail about it, where I believe he further insulted her by calling her a ‘minor writer’. Ouch.

Writers are sensitive flowers. I do understand Ayelet Waldman’s rage – rejection stings, hard, right in the middle of your chest. It makes tears well up and breathing to become laboured.   But alas, writers also always need an editor, which is why Twitter is so dangerous for us – words fly right from our heads into our Twitter feeds, with no editorial intervention. I’ve ranted on Twitter about a number of topics – mostly about the media’s use of language associated with disability, and tokenism in patient engagement – but I’m careful to keep my mouth shut about the hands of the publications that feed me.

How I handle the silent rejection is this: I resubmit my writing elsewhere. The joy of having a blog is that I’m my own publisher, and I can post anything I want here. Anything! Even if it is crap – nobody stops me. (Sorry folks).  Rejection is a natural part of this writing thing. I’d suggest focusing on the glory of your published bylines instead.

But please go forth and keep telling your stories.  That’s the only thing that’s going to make change in this damn world.

make it your job to spread some love today

IMG_5744Having empathy is not enough.  Feeling for another person doesn’t mean much – unless you show – somehow in your words and behaviour – that your heart is open to another person and their experience.

Lauren Casper’s essay, When someone saw more to the story reminded me of this.  That young lady that gave Lauren flowers will never even how that simple kindness meant the world to her.  It never takes much – only the courage to extend out and connect with another human being.

It reminded me of all the simple kindnesses that have been demonstrated to me as a mother over the years.  I distinctly and fondly recall all the people told me that my baby with Down syndrome was beautiful.  I also choose to remember all the knowing smiles in the mall (not the people who look away when they see my son).  Let love win.

For health professionals:  Nobody knows how much you care about your patients unless you demonstrate it through your words and your actions – a touch on the shoulder, a hug, holding someone’s hand.  An added bonus for health:  people who feel cared for will care for themselves.

For parents:  Your kids don’t know you love them unless you tell them and show them.  And you don’t withdraw your love because your kid is making choices that you don’t approve of.  I’ve sadly seen parents do this over and over again, especially with their young adult children.  The same goes for spouses and partners.  You cannot assume someone knows that you love them, even if you’ve been together for a very long time.  (That’s my plug for my husband to bring me flowers).

When you see a mom with little kids struggling in the grocery store, thinking to yourself, ‘oh man, I’ve been there’ isn’t enough.  Make eye contact with her and smile.  Ask if you can give her a hand.  If she says no, that’s ok – you’ve demonstrated that you care in a non-judgmental way.  I’m famous for letting moms of young children in front of me in line at the grocery store.  In fact, I let anyone with a small order in line in front of me, as my grocery cart is usually filled to the brim.   People are shocked when I invite them to bump me in line, and it such an easy gesture.  It costs me nothing.

What if you told a mom friend who is floundering that she’s doing an awesome job and you know she loves her kids so much?  What if you allowed yourself to be vulnerable and admit that you, too, have yelled at your kids, and locked yourself in the bathroom to get away from them?

When my eldest moved away to LA in the fall, the one thing I was desperate to know from him was this:  do you know that you are loved?   And he said yes.  As Raymond Carver says, we want to feel beloved in the world – but we won’t feel this way unless people tell us AND show us.

Make it your job to spread some love today. xo


the dreaded christmas concert


Say you have a kid like I do who has mobility challenges and issues with noise, people standing to close to him, bright lights, or changes in routine. The annual school holiday concert can be a real cause for dread and sleepless nights.

I calculated that I’ve attended 16 Christmas concerts in my lifetime of being a mom. The last seven years I’ve attended our youngest son’s concert. Aaron has Down syndrome, auditory sensitivities and doesn’t appreciate people standing “in his grill.” He struggles with climbing stairs and standing for long periods of time.  He also thrives on routine, and does not appreciate changes in his environment. Each year I hold my breath, and trust that the teachers will support him to be a full participant in the concert. This was thankfully true for last night’s concert (see picture). But success does not happen without advance planning from both parents and teachers.

When Aaron was in kindergarten to Grade 3, he met the expectation required for the little kids at the school. He climbed up on stage with his classmates, and searched the audience for a familiar face. Then he waved frantically at us, had a hard time standing still, and fidgeted around while occasionally flashing us with his belly as he lifted his shirt up. He stood at the very end of the row of students, and his Educational Assistant was in the wings to redirect him if needed. He fell within the general social expectation for him as a younger kid, and all was ok.

He’s now in Grade Six. Lifting his shirt to show his belly in front of an audience of over 1,000 in his huge school is now not within the social norms for an 11 year old. Now that he’s older, my anxiety level with Christmas concerts has risen.

Here’s what I’ve figured out over the past three years in our new school: support from the music teacher makes all the difference. Aaron needs adaptations and understanding to participate in the Christmas concert as fully as his classmates.  For our kids, Christmas concerts can mean:

  • Change in routine with increased rehearsals at school
  • Pressure from teachers who are anxious about their classes performing well
  • Pressure from us parents who are praying for a compliant child and worried about what others might think (if I’m totally honest about it)
  • Wearing unfamiliar clothing (this year, he had to have a button-up white shirt – which was itchy and also ‘showed his pecs’ which he didn’t like), along with new black dress shoes
  • For our large school, the concert is held at an unfamiliar local concert venue, not in the school gym
  • Going out in the evening and staying up past regular bedtimes
  • Waiting for a long time backstage
  • Walking on-stage with hundreds of people staring at you, and under bright lights and with unfamiliar noises
  • Stress from trying to remember all the words, notes on an instrument or dance routines
  • Having to stand still for long periods of time

It is super important for educators to recognize how hard the Christmas concert time is for kids.

Here are some tips from Aaron’s awesome teachers that have made the past few years of Christmas concert a success for Aaron.

  • Rehearsals to show our kids the venue, or at least share pictures with them.
  • Talking to them to remind them what to expect when they are at the concert.
  • This year, they had the younger grades go first, and then the older grades watched from the balcony (instead of making the older kids stand around backstage, bored stiff).
  • In Grade 4, Aaron struggled with playing the recorder. His little fingers couldn’t reach all the holes, and didn’t have the strength to cover the holes in the instrument. Plus, both blowing and moving his fingers was hard for him. And he quickly got bored, and found it amusing to see what happened when he used the recorder to bop people over the head with it. Oh dear.
  • SO the teachers figured out that he needed another instrument. He chose to play the triangle instead – it was more accessible and a less dangerous instrument for him. Modify and adapt!
  • Last year, Aaron volunteered to do the dance routine, which was pretty complex. Nobody said to him: ‘no you can’t do that.’ Instead, the choreographer they brought in went up on stage and danced right beside Aaron. They danced together so he could follow her dance moves, and so he could fully participate. Sure, he stood on the very edge of the stage, so he wasn’t right in the middle of the dancers, but that was fine. I still tear up thinking about this young lady doing what she had to do so my boy could fully participate in the concert. That, my friends, was an excellent example of a champion supporting inclusion.
  • In Grade 6, they start Band, where the kids have to pick an instrument. This year, his music teacher helped Aaron pick percussion, instead of a brass or horn instrument. Banging on the drums is something he can do.
  • The music teacher modified his drums this way for the concert. I’m ok with this, since I know that hitting a loud instrument at the wrong time would drown out the other students – he got a drum pad and drum sticks to play. The drum pad wasn’t plugged into anything, so didn’t make a lot of noise. I’m assuming Aaron didn’t notice this. He just knew he had an instrument and that he was playing with the rest of his classmates.
  • They also gave him the sheets of music, like everybody else. He dutifully changed the music sheets in between each song, even though he wasn’t really reading the music.
  • I especially loved this last night: although he sat on the edge of the row with the band, (I know his Educational Assistant was in the wings, ready to redirect him if he needed help), he sat with the rest of his class on a chair, but his legs are too short to touch the floor. Having his legs dangle is very distracting to him, and so a grade 8 student built him a little wooden stool so he could put his feet up on it. I think this is an awesome example of community: kids helping other kids out in their school.

He very seriously played along with all the songs, and was very pleased with himself afterwards. He had his stool, and his adapted instrument: voila, success!

And what we, as parents, can do to help:

  • Talk to the music and classroom teachers about what success looks like for your child.
  • Have your kids participate in shopping for the concert clothing, and then practice wearing the new clothing.   Aaron complained his button up shirt was ‘itchy’ so I had a spare white shirt in his bag, just in case he insisted on taking off his shirt. (This kid does not like to be itchy).
  • Keep the time before the concert low stress. Have a leisurely dinner, leave early so you aren’t running late. Drop your kid off at the door, if possible, and then find parking.
  • Be low key when you drop them off – I simply say, ‘be awesome!’ and give him a high five. Don’t hover, and let him hang out with his classmates.
  • Minimize our own anxiety about our kid’s performance. To be truthful, nobody is looking at your kid. They are only watching their own child on stage.
  • And so what if your kid lies down on stage, or doesn’t follow the dance moves? I guarantee there are other kids doing the same thing (you just don’t notice them).
  • Take pictures or video so you can show him afterwards. Use photos/video to prep for the Christmas concert next year, to remind him what it is all about.
  • Afterwards, emphasize your child’s strengths and what they did well. Was he able to be on stage during his part of the concert? Emphasize that, not the fact he was sitting on the bleachers instead of standing. This is a time for celebration, not for perfection.

Planning for success is all about perspective: it is a kids’ Christmas concert, not a Broadway show.  I need to take my own advice:  most of all, relax and enjoy: your kid is awesome just the way they are.

one hot mess



women who bake

It is early December, and I have to fight the undercurrent of the holidays pulling me down. We have never travelled to spend Christmas with our extended family, who are thousands of miles away, but I’ve always had my kids here together, every second year at least when they weren’t at their dad’s.

This year, my eldest is in LA, living a self-imposed life of poverty in Koreatown, and I’ve carefully assembled a little box of treasures that I have to mail to an unknown address for his LA girlfriend to pick up. There is a vegan cookbook, a Croneberg novel, soap, a chocolate orange, a sketchbook and pens and gingersnap cookies baked by his younger sister. I’ve included a big wad of US cash, which I hope does not get waylaid when the package arrives at this strange address in a season-less place that has no December snow.

Basically, our family is a mess over the holidays, with estranged mother-in-laws and stepchildren, but we make the most of what we have. My husband often says: ‘let’s concentrate on who we do have here, not who we don’t’ and I’ll work to adopt this practical philosophy, especially this year when I’m one child down.

To soothe me, let’s inventory my Christmas traditions. We watch the movie ‘Elf’ when we put up our Christmas tree. It is always a real tree, from a real tree lot, and its needles shed all over the rug, but it also makes our house smell fantastic. By Boxing Day, I’m ready to rip the half-barren tree down and throw it over the back deck for the garbage men. But until that point, I do love our tree, and especially revel in watching the kids rearrange their presents into little stacks under the tree.

We host an almost-annual Open House where I make specialty cocktails like Crantinis and Limoncello martinis, and prepare devilled eggs and provolone and basil wrapped in proscuitto. We invite an assortment of people we like: work people, old neighbours, and friends. The kids disappear downstairs to play and hopefully nobody wanders upstairs crying with a bloody nose. This party is my annual deadline to get the house decorated, tree up and Christmas baking done.

Since my beloved daughter moved out this fall with her boyfriend, she hauled her Mixmaster back here last week and we spent two full days baking nine different types of cookies and candies together: almond roca, whipped shortbread, key lime meltaways, black bottom cupcakes, fruit and almond cookies, coconut shortbread, gingersnaps, chocolate snowcaps and Nanaimo Bars. We kept having to run out to buy unsalted butter, but happily made a floury mess of my kitchen, aprons on and mixers whirring, with Christmas tunes inspiring us in the background.

Last year, my daughter’s boyfriend joined us on Christmas Day. I vowed that any partners of children would be full holiday participants, and not relegated to merely in-law status, so this meant I went full out – stocking, Santa gift, big gift from us. This added to my shopping list, but since I do both the ‘food is love’ and ‘gifts are love’ thing, I don’t mind one bit.

My children, when they aren’t living in a different country, have alternated Christmas morning at their father’s and here since they were four and seven years old. The most exquisitely painful part of being divorced was the first Christmas Day I spent without them, I sat alone in my cousin’s empty apartment, counting the minutes until I could legitimately go to bed in the early evening so I could just be unconscious and have the day be done with, a sad mother without her little children.

Waking up on Christmas morning with a shrunken family got better when I found a new husband and we had our own love child together. But not having my other two up at 6 am to check stockings still hurts. I finally figured out to leave town with my new little family every-second year, driving to the mountains to spend two nights at a lodge with the other broken families. When we drive back later on Christmas Day, voila, my other kids appeared, and now that they are adults, sometimes they even start Christmas dinner for us – prepping salads and putting hams in the oven. This helps.

I make shortcut cinnamon buns Christmas morning, and we have our own roast beast for dinner, with mashed potatoes, gravy, white buns, broccoli and salad. We are so tired of eating Christmas sweets by then I just throw some crumbly Christmas cookies on the table for dessert, and that is that. We recline on the couch on Christmas Day, digesting and watching the fire.

My parents call on Christmas Day and we pass the phone around so everybody can express gratitude for the presents from Gramma and Pappa. My mom is the best gift-giver ever. Their eagerly-anticipated package arrives chockfull of thoughtfully chosen and creative gifts. Gramma sets the gift-giving bar high.

On Boxing Day we have the odd, but pleasant tradition of meeting another family for Dim Sum, and fill our recently-emptied bellies again, but this time with Chinese dumplings and buns.

My Norman Rockwell dreams of the perfect Christmas with a huge crowd and extended family and happy stepchildren has never ever happened, so why would I expect it to suddenly appear this year? The key to success for a happy holiday is to lower expectations, and embrace what’s in your control. I never ever complain about Christmas preparations, even if I’ve spent half an hour circling the shopping mall lot looking for a place to park, or I’ve been standing on my feet for 12 hours cooking in the kitchen, and washing a never-ending sink full of dishes.

This is what we do, and we do it because this is how we pass on our holiday traditions to our children, who will do a version of what we did for their own families. My grandma made a dozen different holiday cookies, and over-stuffed our stockings, and filled her dining room table until it was heaving with food, and that’s what my mom did, and that’s what I do, too.

The thanks comes in the little things, and you might have to search for them, but they are always there. The little eyes that light up, the bellies that are full, the excess of Christmas wrap all over the living room floor, the stuffing of stockings at midnight by giggly parents, the tree that is annually knocked over by a cat in the middle of the night.

I love Brene Brown’s dire warnings for us ringmasters of the circus.  I urge you to take good care of yourself so you can take care of your families, too: disappear upstairs for a hot bath and to watch ‘Say Yes To The Dress’ to recharge, vent about overheated Costco line-ups to your friends, but don’t forget it is up to us to invent holiday joy for our own families, and to pass it on – even if your family is stunningly  imperfect like mine.

Embrace that hot mess, because that’s all we’ve ever got, and that’s perfectly enough.

put your hand in her hand

This essay was originally published in Chatelaine in 2002. This was a long time ago, before the advent of online content, so it isn’t available online. I’m posting it because my friend’s son Scott would have been 15 years old on December 5. He is not forgotten.

handsWhether your friend is aching because of a divorce, miscarriage or another brand of heartbreak, only one thing you can do is guaranteed to help. Sue Robins explains.

This was not the call I was supposed to get. The day after my friend Maureen was to give birth to her third child, the phone rang. I picked it up and heard a halting choked voice. “Maureen’s lost the baby.” “What?” I asked, confused. It was my former husband. I was in Vancouver visiting my brother. “Where did she lose the baby?” Then I understood.

Maureen’s baby, Scott Thomas, was stillborn on a Sunday in December. He was a perfect eight-pound infant. When I finally saw Maureen after she came home from the hospital, she appeared small and frail. Her face was consumed with sadness. What I most wanted to do was bring Maureen’s baby back, give her the baby she deserved, the baby she so carefully nurtured those nine long months. And I wanted to hold Scott in my arms, admire him and coo at him and buy him little baby clothes and have I-want-to-have-another-baby pangs when I was around him. But I could do none of these. All I could do was be the best friend I could be to Maureen.

In a time of crisis, true friends come shining through for you. During my divorce, good friends clustered around me like a supportive tribe of women. Others fell by the wayside. What are the forces, I wondered at the time, that make or break a friendship? What keeps a friendship going through hard times? Grieving with Maureen and staying the course with her, I found the answers.

In the beginning, I felt desperate to alleviate my friend’s pain. I wanted to tear off a chunk of it and feel it for myself so she would not have to bear all the unrelenting sorrow. There was nothing I wouldn’t do. I organized the lunch buffet after the funeral, bought a picture frame for Scott’s photo, scoured the grief sections in the bookstore for any shred of information that would take away the crushing burden. I took flowers, dropped off cards, cleaned her house, babysat her other children. I did all this for mainly selfish reasons – I couldn’t stand to do nothing. I finally realized that my efforts were misguided when my six-year-old son said to me, “All you think about is Maureen and her baby.” His comment forced me to see that there’s a fine line between deep concern and doing too much. A hug, a gift, soft words, kind thoughts…none of these things bring babies back to life.

It’s not as if I couldn’t help my friend. My challenge was to follow her lead, to let her show me what she need. I remember being afraid to mention Scott’s name for fear of upsetting her – until she told me that it’s more upsetting not to mention her son. It struck me that, unless I was being offensive, I couldn’t upset her any more than she was already upset. By talking about her third son, I was honouring him and his place in Maureen’s heart. But it’s not easy.

My mouth stumbled over Scott’s name. “Scott, Scott, Scott,” I practiced in the car on my way over to Maureen’s. Why was I so reluctant to say his name? I revered to pronouns, when I should have been saying Scott. In the same vein, for the first 12 months, I remembered Scott by dropping a card in Maureen’s mailbox on the fifth of every month. I wanted her to know I had not forgotten. Someone asked me why I did that. “You are reminding her what happened and not letting her move on,” the woman said. I responded by asking if she thought Maureen would ever forget. The death of her beloved baby is something that weighs on her mind and her heart all the time. My response might not have been perfect, but it was better than being paralyzed by discomfort. People are so afraid of doing the wrong thing that they err by doing nothing. It takes very little effort to say, “I’m thinking of you and your dear baby.”

And I ask to see photos of Scott. He is beautiful and peaceful and his lips are ruby red. I can almost forget that he’s dead until I look at Maureen’s face. The grief in her eyes, the sadness that burrows right down to her soul, kicks me back to reality. It’s painful for both of us, but healing too, to acknowledge that Scott was here.

Like all friends, I’m not perfect. I say stupid awkward things. I’ve been guilty of blathering on and on about clothes and movies and other friends when I’m with Maureen, as I seem to want to fill the air with my incessant chatter. I do this just to avoid a few seconds of silence and feelings of sadness. It took me a while to understand that Maureen’s grief was hers – not mine – and it was presumptuous for me to think otherwise.

While I tried to learn how to be a good friend to Maureen, I thought of how others had been true friends to me. For months after my divorce, it took all my energy to get myself out of bed and look after my children. I had none left to nurture friendships. My friends understood and waited, supporting me while I regained strength. As I sent through my own metamorphosis, my remaining friendships evolved into something more substantial and real. These women felt secure enough in our friendship and their own marriages to adjust to my newfound status as a single mother. They were patient with me and I have learned to be patient with Maureen. I let her be. Maureen helped me to accept sadness. I now know how to be with a crying friend. I just listen and hand her some tissues to wipe her eyes.

I also learned not to shy away from difficult conversations. I once asked Maureen how to talk about Scott. For example, I was not sure if I should refer to Scott’s birth or his death, for they are one in the same. Scott was born on December 5. She birthed him. I’m glad I asked because I didn’t want to refer to her son only in terms of his death or funeral. He was indeed alive inside of her; I witnessed his growth over the months.

I know my limits. I will never totally understand what Maureen is going through. The only person who speaks the same language as a grieving mother is another mother whose child has died. I have learned that there is no shame in saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”

Two years have passed. Our lives continue. Maureen has since given birth to her fourth child, a healthy boy named Joshua Scott. I’ve made new friends and acquaintances. Scott’s birth and death taught me that I can’t expect Maureen to be the same person I knew before. Although we still go for coffee and see movies together, our relationship has changed inexorably. We are finding a new path, and in some ways, a new friendship.

I know what I have given to Maureen will return to me tenfold. If a horrible tragedy were to strike me tomorrow, Maureen would walk beside me in my pain. I know that much is true.