Everyone was surprised when I volunteered to co-host Theresa’s baby shower. It was less than a year since Zachary died, but Theresa was my best friend and had organized a party for me when Hannah was born. Since I would be in attendance either way, I figured it would be easier to host than to be a guest. The hostess is a busybody, refreshing the punchbowl with crackling ice, bringing out more paper plates, and tracking down extra pens for the party games. A guest has to ogle over the swaddled infant and applaud the gifts. Theresa had a baby boy; at the time of the shower he was three weeks old.
My co-host, Lisa, arrived early, trailing candy-apple-green and periwinkle-blue helium balloons behind her. One particular balloon was extra large and shaped like a cradle, boasting, ” It’s a Boy!” in baby-blue swirls. Lisa tied the balloons to a frilly weight and put them in the corner of the living room beside the couch and extra chairs Aaron had hauled in before taking Hannah to McDonald’s for ice cream. Lisa and I hung metallic swirly streamers from the kitchen light and put our two gifts on the table as a cue for the other guests. We scattered milk-bottle-shaped confetti across the coffee table and sprinkled it around the snack plates in the dining room.
Guests began to arrive, toting large teddy-bear and rocket-ship gift bags, boxes wrapped in superhero paper with blue ribbons and sportthemed cards. Ladies beamed at Theresa’s sleeping newborn, rocking him and bickering over which parent the child most resembled.
“Good for you for hosting,” an older woman whispered in my ear, nodding with approval as if I were a pillar of strength.
“I am so happy for Theresa,”
I replied with a lopsided smile.
I fidgeted once my hosting duties were checked off the list. With the main floor of my house looking like a pastel wonderland, the plastic wrap removed from the plates of snacks and Lisa leading the shower games, there was nothing left for me to do but sit in the circle of women. Theresa held her child lovingly to her heart, standing and swaying, stroking his smooth, glossy brown hair that matched her own. You will not make a scene, I warned myself, looking away.
That was the first party for Theresa’s son, and in the years that followed I expected I would celebrate many more milestones with their family. Zachary, on the other hand, had no such future. There were no cradle-shaped balloons to announce his arrival, no baby shower to welcome him; there would be no report cards, stamped passports, caps and gowns, wedding rings, or bags of outgrown clothing as he wore the wardrobe of an expanding life. All I had were minutes with my baby before he died, and the hours I held him against my skin afterward, rocking him back and forth, willing his lungs to suck in air and his heart to beat.
Zachary’s ashes, which lived in a heart-shaped metal urn, were all that was left of my son.
On the morning of the baby shower, Hannah chirped for breakfast at six. I let Aaron sleep and carried my girl on my hip downstairs to our kitchen. “Eggies,” she squealed. As I slid the egg carton from the top shelf of the fridge, I happened to read the words printed between my fingers. BEST BEFORE OCTOBER 14. My breath wheezed through my throat.
A trigger is an event, image, or person—anything, really—that reminds you of the moment you ceased to be you and became someone else. A memory, loaded and cocked, fires, annihilating your carefully monitored composure, spilling sadness like blood. The force of impact sends you backward into another time, which you relive in anguish as wounds are unstitched.
October 14 was Zachary’s expiration date. I don’t know how long I stood motionless at the fridge door, my feet rooted deeply to the grey-blue kitchen tile. I clutched the refrigerator handle with one hand while the egg carton hung limply in the other. Coldwhite light leaked out and made my skin glow and goosebump. Hannah’s high, happy voice rang out, but I could not understand. Her words were a murmur. Everything was static, a hum.
“Thank you for the gifts,” Theresa said as some of the ladies stood to leave. I must have been staring but abruptly snapped back to the baby shower, jumping to my feet to retrieve their coats. Guests thanked Lisa for the gift bags and me for hosting, a few women offering me long glances of a silent sympathy before heading out the door.
“That was a success,” Lisa said when we were alone. She began unhooking the swirly streamers as I vacuumed up the confetti. We stacked all the salvageable decorations, and I put them away quickly in my purple bin of party supplies. Lisa didn’t want them, nor did Theresa. I refused to let myself wonder if I might have a use for them one day.
During that time, I recalled reading that the earth balanced upon a perfect axis—that, if tilted even a degree away from the sun, we humans would freeze; a degree in the opposite direction and we’d burn. It was obvious to me that I had been thrown off my balancing point, despite my outward appearance of functionality. Am I burning? Or frozen? Or both? What was abundantly clear, though, was that I was hopelessly, frustratingly lost within my own life.
Caught in a cycle beyond my understanding of how I survived the last day or what my place was in the present one, I could not worry about the impending tomorrows. I couldn’t see even that far ahead and chose not to dream. The future was dead to me. How did I get here? And yet there I was; there we all were. My parents still fed Hannah too much vanilla ice cream and too many Smarties. My house needed cleaning. The stack of books I wanted to read gathered dust.
How did I get here? The question haunted me. Every night it peppered colorless dreams. Someone important was missing—has everyone forgotten? All things moved forward, shifting, changing, growing, and dying all around—and yet there I was, like a frozen burning being in the midst of an eerily familiar life. There were those who said, “Move on.” But how could I? I was lost and didn’t know the way.
In the quiet absence of party guests and my home mostly back to normal, I took a breath. A deep breath. I didn’t want to think about baby boys anymore. Not that day. Aaron and Hannah returned home from McDonald’s, and my girl instantly fell in love with the balloons I had forgotten in the corner. I cursed myself for not immediately puncturing the helium-filled reminders of my son’s absence.
“Get rid of them, please,” I whispered to Aaron. He released the balloons from our back deck as Hannah wailed in protest inside. “When will this get easier?” I wondered aloud. Aaron did not answer.
Excerpted from Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing, and Pregnancy after Loss (April 18, 2017) by Alexis Marie Chute.
Alexis Marie Chute is a leading expert in creativity and healing. After her son, Zachary, died at birth in 2010, she used her extensive background in visual art and writing for healing. Since then, she has become an advocate in supporting and educating others on how to process their grief in creative and authentic ways, promoting healing through the arts and sharing stories in community. Alexis Marie is an award winning artist, writer, filmmaker and speaker.