There is a book, Franklin in the Dark, on the shelf of the Iroquois Public Library. In part the inscription inside its cover reads, “donated by Paulette Bourgeois in memory of a special little girl, Shelby.”
Above it, carefully displayed in a shadow box, is a bright blue, knitted sweater, with Franklin the Turtle in his red scarf, happily scurrying somewhere. Beneath this box is a simple paper plaque which reads, in part, “This sweater was lovingly knit by Freda Bourgeois. She was the mother of Paulette Bourgeois, the author of the Franklin books. Freda called herself Franklin’s grandmother…Freda was a wonderful and talented woman…The sweater is displayed in honour of Freda.”
This is the story of how a baby called Shelby and a grandmother called Freda touched many, many hearts.
When their daughter Shelby, born in February, 2000, was barely six months old, the Staye family of Iroquois was given news that would devastate them.
Shelby was diagnosed with a very rare type of brain tumour. So rare is this form of cancer that there were, at the time, only 12 cases in all of North America.
“She had a fever all the time,” recalls her mother, Cheryl O’Duffy-Staye. “She could not keep her food down. She was very ill, always, due to increasing pressure on her brain stem.”
Doctors at CHEO could only offer the family a three per cent possibility that Shelby would survive her illness.
On June 6, 2001, baby Shelby Staye died.
“The only good thing, I guess,” Cheryl said quietly, “was that she was too young to understand what was happening to her. I saw too many parents trying to explain to their older children the reality of what was happening to them, trying to console them.
But it was a very tough time for her dad and me.”
During the dark and difficult days while Shelby was in CHEO undergoing different types of treatments, Cheryl met other moms whose children were taking cancer therapies.
“CHEO insisted that we had to attend parent meetings with Philip, a psychologist, to talk and to share our pain,” Cheryl said. “I didn’t want to go to these meetings at first. I felt that I was not at the hospital to make friends. But in the end, it was a good thing I did attend. I did make friends with moms who understood what I was facing.”
Eventually she grew very close to a particular group of seven women. She also met a wonderful CHEO volunteer, an outgoing elderly woman who often baked loaves and cookies and brought them to the meetings or presented them in baskets to the families.
This volunteer was Freda Bourgeois, who, Cheryl later learned, was founder of the Bouclair chain, and also the mother of Paulette Bourgeois, creator of the much beloved Franklin the Turtle.
Freda often introduced herself, with a laugh, to parents and families on the oncology floor as “Franklin’s grandmother.”
The Group of Eight Moms, as Cheryl and the mothers began calling themselves, “adopted” the cheery little woman they had all come to like.
“When our children didn’t need CHEO any more,” Cheryl said quietly, “we decided to create our charity, The Group of Eight Moms, and held different kinds of fund raisers for the hospital.
We supported the Children’s Wish Foundation, and when CHEO re-vamped its cancer floor, our Group raised the funds to purchase TVs, DVDs and video players for the children who had to be in isolation wards. Every Christmas the Group still collects donated gifts from area merchants and creates lovely baskets for families. We all understand what it is like to spend Christmas in the hospital.”
That bright blue sweater that now has its home in the Iroquois Library was especially knitted by Freda for Cheryl, to comfort her through the difficult days.
The Group did not learn until later, however, that their Freda, who had already survived one bout with cancer, was quietly battling ovarian cancer. This would be a fight she would not win.
Cheryl cherishes a photo she has of herself with Freda in her last months, shortly before “Franklin’s grandmother” passed away.
“After we lost Shelby, I kept Freda’s special sweater for a few years. Then I decided that it should be out where people could see it. Our family loves reading, so I presented it to Eleanor Pietersma, of the Iroquois Library: when it was mounted, I sent a photo of it to Paulette in her mother’s memory,” Cheryl said.
“Paulette wrote me back, saying it was a wonderful gesture. She then sent a personally signed Franklin book to our Library. Freda was a wonderful, optimistic woman. I suspect having Freda for a mom may have inspired Paulette’s stories.”
When Cheryl learned that she was again pregnant with a little girl (son Callahan was almost seven), “I was so glad. In a way I felt it was like having my first baby back again.”
Baby Shannon and big brother Callahan do not forget Shelby. Her memory is kept alive in her family. Like grandmother Freda, baby Shelby continues to touch many lives.
Their mother smiles at her two laughing children as they play in the library near the shadow box and the Franklin books.
“Even now, when Callahan draws a picture of our family, at the top of the drawing there is always a tiny baby with small angel wings.”