Hannah finished the painting. She was the third of three daughters in five years, born on the 29th day of April, 1996.
The first night with the newborn Hannah, sleeping between us in a flowered room of the Warwickshire Hospital, England, was the first night of our providence – she was born healthy despite a heart defect. The question was whether she should have been born at all. The bright moon, the same moon that has saved so many lost ships, seemed to have saved this child.
When Hannah passed away at home as a result of osteosarcoma – the same bone cancer that struck Terry Fox – on the 17th day of January 2007, our memories of her first moonlight, her first smile, her first words were temporarily lost. The mind becomes blank, time passes slowly, life dwindles to a black spot.
A tear rolled down Hannah’s cheek as she collapsed into the position in which she was born, exiting to another reality – to one of butterflies, blue jays and loved ones past.
This was it – the worst that could happen to us – our child was gone. We thought that we would never feel anything again.
The tongue gropes across the palate in vain. Silence surrounds you. There are no words that seem applicable, borrowed or otherwise, no precedents to follow. Life could never be just as it was. When you learn that your child, after two years of chemotherapy, operations and hope, will die in a few weeks, everything you learned before becomes null and void.
Sitting in our meadow, where we watched Hannah climb an old oak tree, pick wildflowers, imagine shapes in clouds, wonder, dream and laugh hysterically, everything we considered important no longer counted.
Yet, as I remembered her mother bending over Hannah in hospital – rearranging her pillows, moving aside a bed tray, a heart monitor, a chemotherapy tube coming out of her arm, brushing an invisible hair from her face, and kissing her cool forehead – I realized that the end of now was becoming a new beginning.
And, mysteriously, over time, the good memories have returned. They help to relieve the painful memories of holding our child, preparing her for another life-threatening surgery, tube insertion or needle.
Hannah's sisters too have come back from a dark place, to remember her singing and dancing. Her playfulness. Their experience has provided them with a wisdom, a sense that death is a continuation of life. They are tentatively building the place where they can be happy again.
Once Hannah was diagnosed, she was determined to make a difference and her resumé during her two years of illness was prolific. She was the first child in Canada to have a repiphysis, an expandable implant in her right leg, instead of amputation. She worked with the Candlelighters children’s cancer charity and was a volunteer for the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Foundation. She did television interviews, met Lance Armstrong and spoke at schools about cancer. She presented daffodils to Michaëlle Jean and Stephen Harper on behalf of the Canadian Cancer Society.
For one of her speaking engagements, she was disconnected from her chemotherapy tubes at her request. On the way we had to empty her vomit basin. She stood on stage, gave an inspiring speech, returned to the car and became nauseated again. While in hospital she often spent time visiting other young cancer patients to help pick up their spirits – especially when it came to getting needles and losing their hair.
Her wishes – to help the families of sick children, to help children in Africa and to help the homeless – still resonate. During her wake, a homeless man wandered into the chapel, apparently drawn to the “light” and not knowing how he arrived. The funeral director learned the next day that the man was 20 kilometres from his usual hangout. It was a powerful message.
Hannah's story is still unfolding. In the five years since her death, her impact on family, friends and community has continued, through the memorials that inspire other children with hope and fundraising events that provide financial assistance for families of injured or sick children.
This April 29th would be Hannah's 16th birthday. We mourn her no less now, because we saw what could have been – we would have watched in awe as this passionate young girl embraced life.
The big question is: Hannah, what's to become of the world, now that you're no longer here? It’s a ridiculous question in a sense, when we can still feel your presence, your warm head resting on Mom's chest and your feet in Dad's hands – the opposite position of your entry to this world.
No event has a higher price than the loss of a child, but there is also no greater consolation than the knowledge that our child – who always seemed like an old soul – is still with us. Her words, now prominently etched on a bench in our little village – “I love the world and everyone in it” – have become our mantra, as we continually move forward to fulfill her promise.
Brian Patrick Billings lives in Navan, Ont.