Everything Changed

On January 21, 2015 I held a small plastic stick in my hand. I held my breath and waited to see if a plus sign would appear and turn my life, and my husband’s, towards a new path.

Little did I know then, that as soon as I saw that plus sign, I should have put down the pregnancy test and immediately picked up my phone to call midwives’ offices.

Throughout my first pregnancy I had all the naïve expectations for a completely “natural” pregnancy and birth. I believed that somehow my body, strong as it is, would know what to do. I absolutely did not believe that my baby or I would need medical intervention for what I thought of as “the most natural thing in the world.” I was never against medical intervention if needed, but right from the beginning, I wanted my pregnancy to be supported by people who shared my views and had the training and sense to support us through a healthy pregnancy, and call in the doctors if needed.

And so, in late January I set about finding a midwife. Not as easy a task as I had imagined,  especially not in the month following the most festive time of the year. I called midwifery clinics in New West, Coquitlam, and then Burnaby. Each time I was put on a waitlist or was told they were full for late September/early October arrivals. I didn’t know what to do.

Midwifery care is covered by BC’s Medical Services Plan. Many pregnant women choose not to follow the “traditional” care path of an obstetrician or delivering GP and—unless there is a medical reason to be with a doctor from the beginning—will  seek out a midwife for the same reasons as I. With only 322 midwives registered in BC and nearly 45,000 live births in the Province annually—not to mention supporting mothers whose babies die in utero—midwifery care is in huge demand. Midwives are also limited in the number of clients they may take on at any one time.

Ganga Jolicoeur, CEO of the Midwives Association of BC (MABC), says: “BC leads the country when it comes to midwife assisted births,” and notes they are well on their way to reaching their goal of having 35% of all births midwife-assisted.

“MABC believes that an increase in maternity care services across the province will improve health outcomes for expectant families.”

The association is also an advocate for both the International Bridging Program—to allow midwives from other countries to be registered to practise in BC—and the doubling of seats in the midwifery program at UBC.

In my case, I visited my family doctor to begin my prenatal care and we talked about the differences between doctor and midwife support. I shared my preference for the midwifery model, but said I hadn’t been able to find one with space. She highly recommended Pomegranate Community Midwives in East Vancouver, who also service clients from New Westminster. I called their office, and was able to book an appointment. From our first meeting Rob and I felt confident we had made the right decision and that we, and baby to be, were in very capable hands.

During our time with Pomegranate, my family’s wishes were respected and we felt heard. We also felt we were given enough information to make informed decisions about optional testing or screening and we discussed where and how we wanted to deliver our baby. Also, they were available to us by phone 24/7!

We had monthly appointments until my eighth month of pregnancy. Each appointment lasted 45 minutes to an hour and began with our midwife asking Rob and me if we had questions or concerns. It impressed me that they asked questions about possible stresses in my life—financial security, the baby’s and my safety, the availability of a support network, my work, and how was I feeling about pregnancy, about labour, and about becoming a mother. Our midwives understood that this pregnancy affected all areas of our life, in good and in challenging ways, and wanted to make sure we were managing these changes as best we could. They took my blood pressure and felt and measured my growing belly. The very best part was listening to baby’s heartbeat. I always felt they shared in our excitement for our little one.  

My pregnancy progressed beautifully. Smudge (our baby’s nickname) was hitting all her prenatal milestones and I was in excellent health. Rob and I went to prenatal and breastfeeding classes and toured the hospital’s labour and delivery ward. Things were going so well we began to talk to our midwives about about birthing at home or even a water birth. During labour, I wanted to remain home for as long as I felt comfortable, and possibly for the entire birth. The option to go to the hospital was always there, but as long as everything was okay we could stay put under the care of our midwives.

 Towards the end of my pregnancy, we saw our midwives weekly. Our due date came and went, but everything seemed just fine. Until week 40, day four. During this appointment, my midwife was concerned that I was developing preeclampsia—a serious condition marked by high blood pressure and swelling of the hands and feet.

I learned that midwives consult with obstetricians and gynecologists as needed. Our midwife referred me to a specialist where tests confirmed I was developing preeclampsia. Now that Smudge’s and my health were at risk a hospital birth was mandatory. My dream birth plan was not to be, but ultimately this was my ideal birth—no medical interventions unless needed. Now they were needed, and I will be forever grateful they were available to us.

The next day, we went to Burnaby General for a previously-scheduled 41 week check up to see how Smudge was coping. Tests showed that Smudge was doing fine, but as the preeclampsia progressed, we decided to begin procedures to induce labour.

everything-changed-35A team of doctors and nurses were now managing my health care, but Smudge was still with our midwives. I thought this was incredible. I was taken by the respect my entire team had for each other, and for us. Everyone knew my wishes for an intervention-free birth and supported me as much as possible. Smudge was continuously monitored and was never in any distress. That gave us time to talk with our team and, after many many hours of labour, Rob and I decided to go forward with a cesarean section. Our midwife was with us in the operating room.

At 4:37pm Saturday, October 10, 2015 our Mara was born.

After a quick stay in post-op, I was moved back to our room where I was assigned a nurse for 24 hours to monitor my high blood pressure. As ever, Mara was doing wonderfully and had no problems breastfeeding. Rob was quickly learning how to change teeny tiny diapers and to comfort our baby girl. A doctor saw me every day of our stay at hospital. Our team of midwives attended to Mara, and supported us, answering all of our questions and concerns about caring for our precious girl. Once I was deemed healthy again, we returned home. My next visit with my doctor was scheduled for six weeks later at her office. In the meantime, the midwives came to our home.


Our time together at home was perfect. Mara was in great health. She was feeding well, sleeping well, and gaining weight steadily. Our routine was completely focused on responding to our little girl’s needs. For us, this time was joyous despite  the exhaustion known to every new parent. Our midwives visited to check up on Mara and make sure my incision was healing well. We asked friends to hold off on visiting until we were more settled, but did spend time with both sets of grandparents. Our world was perfect.

Then one morning everything changed.

We awoke to discover that sometime during the night, our perfectly healthy baby had stopped breathing.

Mara died on October 21 at 8:37am. We had only ten days with our baby girl.

Mara’s cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). This means it happened for no reason that anyone will ever understand. SIDS is the “sudden and unexpected death of an apparently healthy infant under the age of one which remains unexplained, even after a complete autopsy.” It is the term used when all known causes of death have been ruled out.

SIDS is not suffocation. It is a medical condition that is not yet understood by science. Though risk reduction strategies have helped lower the rate of SIDS in recent years, SIDS is not predictable or preventable.

I called our midwives as the paramedics worked on Mara. Our midwife met us at the hospital and stayed with us as we tried to make sense of what was happening. She was with us when we needed her, and also gave space for the three of us to be together to say our final goodbyes. Hours later, when we were ready, she drove us home.

img_8473We didn’t know what to expect in the blurry days that followed, but our midwives were a constant support to Rob and me. Even though Mara had died, they still came to our house to check on my health, and help us through this devastating time in any way they could.

 Our empty house was soon filled with flowers from friends and loved ones. We wondered if there was a longer-lasting way to honour our Mara. We learned of a holiday hamper project for vulnerable families in our midwives’ care, and asked that donations be made to this project, in lieu of flowers. This year we have again decided to honour Mara’s memory by supporting the Pomegranate Community Midwives Holiday Hamper Fund.  

fullsizerenderNow our midwives at Pomegranate, along with our doctor who delivered Mara, are caring for us through a second pregnancy. We look forward to the arrival of Mara’s younger sister in early 2017. While we’re cautiously optimistic that everything will be just fine, we know too well that sometimes life has other plans. For now we hold our breath, and hope.

People tell me all the time that they think of us often, but don’t know what to say. My advice: say Mara’s name to us. Even though it may feel uncomfortable, let us know that our girl is remembered. Mara’s arrival brought us more happiness than we ever thought possible. Her sudden death brought more pain and sorrow than anyone should ever have to endure. Rob and I are realizing that time doesn’t heal all wounds, but somehow, bit by bit, time helps soften the pain, and lets us breathe a little easier. We will never get over losing Mara, but we’re slowly learning to keep her memory alive in ways that bring us comfort. Our grief for the baby we no longer have now rests alongside the joy her memories bring, and the growing excitement for the arrival of her younger sister. It’s a bizarre journey…trying to figure out how to be parents to a child who is no longer here. But somehow, I think both our daughters would be proud of us.  

The Ghosts of Havenholm (Part Four)

This is a series written and illustrated by JJ Lee. 

Part One |  Part Two  |  Part Three



The story so far: When Oscar moves to a shunned neighbourhood with a dark history, he is sure his meagre social life will become completely dead. After a fatal tumble, he makes friends with the child ghosts of Havenholm. All of their souls are stranded on the hill because a soul-sucking monster swims the supernatural waters that surround Havenholm.

Oscar, being a ghost, did not need sleep. Sometimes, however, when he settled into a corner of the sunken library, he could fall into a nothingness without dreams. Time could slip by without his reckoning.

        “It’s just weird that the leaves were falling and now there’s snow,” he called out to the darkness of their stuffy refuge.

Willa stirred from her corner. “That’s ghost time.”

“It’s nearly Christmas, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “You can see it from the big tree. They’re stringing up lights on Main Street. You should take a look. It’s pretty.”

Oscar had avoided going up the tree since the day he became a ghost. The tree stood taller than any tree in the world of the living. It grew so high that no ghost had ever reached the top. From its high branches, you could see farther and further than normal. Oscar saw his body from the tree. His lifeless form lay in the tall grass across from his home.

        “I don’t know.”

        “You should go up. I see your mum and dad sometimes.”


        “Yeah. Your dad goes to the college and your mum goes to the hospital.”

        “Is she sick?”

        “I don’t know. She goes every morning that I’ve seen.”

        Oscar’s  heart ached. He already felt terrible when he imagined how his death affected them, but the possibility of his mother dying plunged him into misery. Bleak thoughts washed over him like waves crashing over a boat in a storm. If his mother died, would he get to see her? Did he wish his mother dead? Would the monster get her? It wasn’t supposed too. It only wanted children. But what if its appetite changed? And even if her soul was allowed to go where it was meant to, where was that place?

        “I don’t want her to die.”

        “She looks more sad than sick. Don’t worry.”

        Willa rose and searched under the library’s desks, tables, lecterns, benches, and chairs until she found the twins, the ghosts of three-year-old Virginia and Andrew. They had stacked books into the shape of a canoe. They paddled with imaginary oars. “We are crossing the river.”

        “That’s very nice,” said Willa. “But try not to make a terrible mess. Tough Tom gets cross when he can’t find a book.”

        “We won’t,” they replied in unison.

        Oscar asked, “Where does Tough Tom go?”

        “He keeps watch.”

        “Over what? The monster?”

        “No. Not the river or the monster. He watches the man who lit the fires that killed Virginia, Andrew, and me. He watches the man who wants our souls. He watches Maurais.”


        The twins started to whimper but Willa seethed and ignored their distress. “He was here when my mum and dad worked here. He was the groundskeeper. And he was more than that. My parents worried that Maurais was around when Havenholm was a school for the deaf and blind. He was here when Tough Tom was a boy. He tended the gardens and paths in the woods from Tough Tom’s time until the day I died. But he also dug holes and tunnels into Havenholm looking for something.”

        “He killed your parents?”

        “Oscar, he killed everyone.”

        The twins huddled at the bottom of their boat of books, overcome with unwanted memories. Willa knelt down and hugged them. She whispered into their ears. Words Oscar could not catch. The twins calmed. Willa stood up. “If you’re ready to know more, we should talk outside.”

        Brilliant winter daylight streamed into the library when Oscar opened the door. Willa managed the crumbling stairs with ease. Oscar slipped and scrambled until he emerged among the giant roots of the great tree. Through its crown, Oscar saw a cold, clear blue sky. If he was alive, steam would have come from his breath. Willa pointed north to the other side of the hill. “Maurais lives over there. In a house. On our side.”

        “I thought all the buildings on our side of the road… river…whatever, are gone.”

        “They all are, except his. He used to creep out at night and roam the forest. At least that’s what my mum and dad believed. After the second fire when Tough Tom saved me and the twins, he wouldn’t let Maurais wander the hill anymore.”

        “Why doesn’t he just get him?” Oscar asked. Oscar knew, living or dead, the ancient ghost was the most powerful being he had ever seen. Tough Tom was like The Hulk or Superman trapped in an eight-year-old’s body.

        “Tough Tom chased Maurais from most of the hill but he can’t get into his house. Something keeps him out.”

        “Can’t he break the door, or a wall?”

        “Maurais is a wizard, I think. He uses magic to keep us out. The same magic that makes the road into a river and the monster.”

        Oscar remembered the last day he played with Simon. They brought balls of mud, bricks, and rocks to the overpass in his old neighbourhood and dropped them onto passing cars. “If I could throw like Tough Tom, I’d pick up a boulder and chuck it at his house and squish him.”

        Willa barked a harsh guffaw. “We tried that. It bounced off. Anyhow, I want him to come up to the hill.”



Willa gave him a look that sent shivers down his spine. He knew what she wanted. Tough Tom said it plain and simple the first day they met: “vengeance.” Willa’s only wish.

“I don’t understand why you wanted me. That night I saw you in the tall grass, you kept pointing at a spot. What did you want?”

“There hadn’t been a child on Havenholm in years. When I saw you, I thought you could help. I can barely do anything.”

Willa swiped at a low branch hanging from the great tree. It hardly moved. A few snowflakes fell. “I’m not like Tough Tom. I can open a door or blow some curtains if I try hard enough, but I can’t dig. And Tough Tom has to keep an eye on Maurais. I thought you could help me, but then you fell.”

She cast her eyes downward. “I’m sorry about that.”

Since that day, Oscar had time to think about the circumstances of his demise. Willa had frightened him, but she also saved him from the river. If he felt anger, it was at the water and the soul-sucker and being trapped on Havenholm. From being kept from speaking to his mother and father one final time, letting them know it would be okay (even if it was a lie) before passing into the land of the dead. Whatever lay across the water, wherever, and whatever Death was, it called to him. So, yes…anger, now that Oscar thought about it.

When Tough Tom explained that Willa sought vengeance on Maurais, he shuddered. The emotions seemed reasonable on one level.  Oscar understood a child could have terrible tantrums (he had a few of his own), but vengeance seemed too deep for someone as young as Willa. Then again, Willa was older than Oscar’s parents, wasn’t she? Time was different on Havenholm. Oscar felt hundreds of years old. Maybe it had to do with staying beyond your time, and having no choice.

In the ghost stories Oscar had heard, the phantoms were always frustrated and hateful. Oscar felt frustrated and hateful. Maybe he could not heave rocks like Tough Tom. Maybe he could not flit through the underbrush and trees like Willa. But he could do something. Oscar swatted a branch. It whipped back and forth. A clump of snow and ice fell to the ground.

With his face set with a grim expression beyond his years, Oscar declared, “I can help.”

Featured Artist: Biliana Velkova

This month our featured artist  is a familiar face to many of you. Biliana Velkova is the Arts Coordinator for the City of New Westminster, an an accomplished artist in her own right.

About the Project:

The Silver Centre Series (2008) is a project of compiled found photographs from a senior’s home. The photographs were of seniors celebration special events such as craft fairs, luau dinners, and Christmas parties. They were being discarded and were going to be lost forever. The artist consolidated this history into a set of six photographs to preserve this incredible archive of celebrations.






biliana-velkovaAbout the Artist:

Originally from Sofia, Bulgaria, Biliana Velkova is currently based on Vancouver and works in New Westminster. Her practise incorporates photography, performance, and humour to explore the significance of consumerist culture, diaspora, and social identity. She has an MFA from the University of Saskatchewan and a BFA from Concordia University. www.bilianavelkova.com

This is Your Time

it-is-your-time-39For years, I denied myself. I walked around wounded, feeling like a victim, not nourishing myself spiritually. Recently, this came crashing down on me as I realized I’m not getting younger and my life isn’t going to figure itself out, unless I help myself. Take responsibility. Claim my happiness. Claim my time. Celebrate my awesomeness.

I’ve always been a very creative person. From an early age, I crafted, took pictures, painted, drew, knitted, sang, and danced. You name it—pick any form of art and I was into it. Then something happened. The opinion of others sank deep into me, like an anchor. It remained lodged there. It told me I was mediocre, told me to study business, to work in government, and that art does not make money. It encouraged to “go with the flow” and be “normal,” just like everyone else. I died inside, in a way. I became a shadow of myself. I walked around knowing I could be so much more, yet I refused to allow myself  to open up and embrace the possibilities that lay before me.

One day, I visited the craft fair at River Market at Westminster Quay, and saw talented artisans and artists selling their goods. Some incredible, some ok, but most very doable. It suddenly struck me: I can create like this! Why am I not?

I realized it’s fear. Fear of being criticized. Fear of not being “good enough,” of not “making it,” of failing miserably. Yet here I stood, surrounded by simple beauty. I asked myself, “is it not time to step into the darkness, towards the unknown, the uncertain?” A long-silenced voice whispered, “perhaps it is…”

it-is-your-time-40I planned on starting small, but then I did a big thing—I applied for an arts job, just … because. I didn’t think I’d get it—-art school was 21 years ago. Fast forward, six months later and I’m now an art teacher. I create and things are flowing, I love who I am again and I’m filled with a constant stream of ideas. I’m starting to celebrate every little thing I create because—let’s face it—a few short months ago I did nothing. I am celebrating my own strength, the journey that led me to here, to the point where I am feel I can do it. It is my time. My light will no longer be dimmed. It is my time to celebrate all that is alive within me and let it shine.

Even when I was anchored down, I collected pretty things. I’m using them to create collages. Deep down, I must have known I would resurface. I started taking pictures again, I started crafting again.

I love living in New West. It’s so beautiful. A lot of my photography is local and the inspiration just keeps on coming, from the epiphany at the quay, to every market I attend, every Pinterest page I visit, every photo I take. So much of it comes from nature, and so much of it comes from within. I’m finally on the brink of something big. I’m finally celebrating what I’ve always been, but was too afraid to show—an authentic, creative me.


Compassionate Communities

compassionate-communities-37We surely do celebrate life when a baby is born. The family gathers, bringing gifts. We wait until the baby is actually there before we celebrate.

But the celebration that happens at the other end of life is different. We wait until after the person dies before we celebrate their accomplishments and connections. We know that the death may happen but somehow we don’t gather to say goodbye to them in person. Marking the end of life is important but we do it without the person whose life ended.

Maybe it’s because we’re reluctant to talk about death. It’s painful to think about losing someone in our lives even though we know it’s inevitable for all of us. Perhaps our death-denying society would rather celebrate manufactured youthfulness  as seen in ads for products that mask signs of aging.

It seems like it would be more meaningful if we could find a way to celebrate their life with them to show our appreciation and love. People at end of life have shared they sense it seems difficult for family and friends to talk about what will happen. It can be a lonely experience.  

New West Hospice Society suggests we work toward making New Westminster a “Compassionate City,” where death is no longer taboo, people know what to say and do, , residents can die with dignity, and family members and friends can grieve well. This fledgling society, only recently incorporated under the BC Societies Act, is truly grassroots. At its first public meeting, attendees were asked to help devise board priorities to help build a city where residents care and celebrate life at its beginning and end.

compassionate-communities-38The board identified three priorities:

Through education and conversation, “normalize” how we talk about dying and death.

Dr. John You, who has led research at McMaster University on death and dying, says: “We need to normalize conversations about death and dying so that people can be more comfortable having advance care planning discussions within families before there’s a crisis.”

Recruit and educate the community to be involved.

We need to “reach in” instead of reaching out. The New West Hospice Society identified that people are often reluctant to ask for help and instead suffer in silence. They ask, “can we find a way to be the neighbours, friends, family, or even local business owners who reach in and offer to help?”

Start the process of reinstating hospice beds in New Westminster with the goal to eventually open a hospice residence.

Founding members deliberately did not bring this idea forward themselves because they believe if it is to come about, it must be truly owned by the community. This was the first idea small group discussions at the meeting revealed and was reinforced by every group that followed. One of the participants remarked “This is something I have been waiting for for a very long time. Since the Hospice at Queens Park Care Centre was closed. I volunteered there for years, and look forward to being a part of our very own hospice residence.”

Without knowing about what is happening in other cities being designated as Compassionate Cities around the world, New Westers identified the priorities that will the city become a community where “people are motivated by compassion to take responsibility for and care for each other”—a surefire way to be more comfortable in celebrating life even at the end.

You can find out more about the New West Hospice Society and join the conversation through their Facebook page, facebook.com/newwesthospice.

Oh Wasn’t That a Party!


The New Westminster Museum and Archives collects objects and the stories that come with them. As you can see here, not everything in a museum is antique. Modern objects fill in pieces of the puzzle of our city’s history. One day, today’s everyday objects will become part of our generation’s history. Our job at the Museum is to ask questions and record answers. Who owned this? How did they use it? What did it mean to them? Are there photos of the owner with the object? Every object in the Museum tells us something about the city and the celebrations we’ve had.

oh-wasnt-that-29Lucky Lager bottle

This commemorative Lucky Lager bottle was given to staff when Labatt closed its Sapperton brewery in 2005. The bottle still contains beer.

Birthday cake charms

In the 1930s, fortune-telling cake charms were baked into cakes. A die meant one was a gambler, a boat foretold a wedding trip, a baby predicted a large family, and so on.

Shovel with bow for breaking earth

This shovel was used at a 1989 sod-turning ceremony for “The Renaissance.” The Italian-inspired condos built by the Molnar Group went up the next year along New Westminster’s waterfront.

oh-wasnt-that-30May Day crown

Alvina Eliza Clara Munn wore this crown as the 1899 May Queen. In later years, she performed as a soprano with the New Westminster Symphony Orchestra.

Beer stein

A commemorative beer stein awarded to the winners of a local canoe race in 1893; H.T. Tovey (a Bank of Montreal clerk), E.H. Johnston, E.R. Wilson, and G.L. Brown (a clerk at a painting and wallpaper store).

Turkey platter

A 1867 turkey platter from the Briggs family, who were related to the original family at Irving House. Gravy dripped down the platter’s tree pattern into the depression at the bottom.

Cellulose nitrate hatpin

A hatpin made of cellulose nitrate, a highly-flammable early plastic.

oh-wasnt-that-33Christmas candles

These unlit Gurley Novelty Company candles were probably used as festive decorations.

Hariko tiger

This papier-mâché hariko is a gift from Moriguchi—New Westminster’s sister city in Japan. The bobbing-head tiger was made by one of the premier craftsmen in the Osaka Prefecture.

Granville Street Bridge opening ceremony scissors

Vancouver Mayor Fred Hume used these gold-painted scissors to open the third, and current, Granville Street Bridge in 1954. Hume was mayor of New Westminster from 1934 to 1942. Hume Park is named after him.

oh-wasnt-that-31Terrier trophy

A trophy from the first Provincial Exhibition after World War I. The Hudson’s Bay Company donated this trophy in 1919 to the Best Team of Terriers.