Flashback: It is April, 2003, and Andrew’s brother, Pete, will be marrying Kim next month. Kim is terrific, a wonderful addition to the family. She is a kindred spirit, easy to be around, and I am grateful to have her as another sister. Today is Kim’s bridal shower, which I am hosting along with several other people.
I design a very special cake for Kim. For weeks, I practice sculpting frosting roses, mixing buttercream frosting and discarding it by the pound. I envision an incredible cake for her shower, completely covered with frosting roses in hues of peach, yellow and pink. Andrew’s sister, Julie, comes to sleep over at our apartment the night before the shower. She decorates bright pastel spring cookies while I bake, frost and decorate the cake. When it is done, I am delighted. The roses are delicate, the colors richly contrasted against the dark chocolate frosting of the cake. It is the first “artwork” I have done in a long time, and it feels good.
I dress carefully for the shower, putting on eye make-up and lipstick for the first time in a while. I am upbeat, focused on celebrating Kim and her upcoming wedding; I want to show the relatives and family friends that I am doing well, that life goes on. It is a lovely day, fresh and sunny. The guests are arriving. Andrew’s younger sister Julie and her best friend Emily and I are in the kitchen, helping Nancy’s friends Ruthie and Mary arrange trays of food. The cake is beautifully displayed.
I move into the front room, visiting with several women, greeting Andrew’s relatives. One of the cousins-- who I have not seen in months-- catches my eye and bounds over to me, smiling. Eyes alight with excitement, she looks at my flat stomach and asks, “Baby?” I stare at her, confused. She tries again, “You had the baby? Did you bring the baby?”
The others look at her in horror. Slowly, comprehension dawns on me. She must not know what happened. Frozen for a minute. Quietly, I tell her. Awkwardly, she turns to her mother, standing beside us, “Mother, why don’t you tell me these things!?” I mumble, “Excuse me” and turn to walk to the kitchen.
Just as I make it inside the kitchen doors, I shatter. Slumping into a chair, head in hands, I sob. Nancy, Mary and Ruthie are in the kitchen bustling around. Barely two minutes earlier, I had been in there too, smiling, composed. Now Nancy rushes over to me, “What happened?” I cannot speak. “Honey, what happened, what is it?” I just shake my head, racked with sobs. Ruthie pours me a drink. I try. “She . . . asked . . . if . . . I . . .brought . . . my . . . new . . . baby.” Nancy sinks into the chair next to me, stunned. “Who? Who asked?” Nancy begged me. “I can’t believe there is anyone here who does not know what happened.”
I stay in the kitchen for about ten minutes, gulping deep breaths, regaining composure. This is Kim’s party; I will pull myself together and go back out there and be a good hostess. With effort, I work to redo my make-up, comb my hair. But this day is now like all the others before it, and the loss of Matthew is everywhere.
I am immensely relieved when the bridal shower ends, when the tense smile plastered across my face can drop, when I can sit outside on Ruthie’s front steps and weep. And grieve. Does it ever end? It feels unbearable at this moment. I remember the Princess Bride, a favorite movie of mine. “Life is pain, Highness,” says Wesley to Princess Buttercup. Life is pain.
Andrew, his father and Peter come over after the shower. Andrew silently takes my hand and we go for a long walk outside. The baby phone rings. It is a girl named Brooke. I am surprised.
This is the second call from Brooke, but I really disregarded the first one. It was a difficult conversation. Although she was the one to call me, she barely spoke. It was like pulling teeth to get her to say anything, and the conversation went nowhere. All I learned was that she is a teenager, living at a shelter, and she was two months pregnant.
Now, she is calling again, and she seems more willing to talk. She tells me that her pastor’s family is taking her in, how they recently gave her an Easter basket. It was her first one ever. Brooke lives in Indiana, and in this conversation I get a much clearer picture of who she is. She works as a personal companion/assistant to an older woman who suffers from a chronic illness. The birthfather is on drugs, beats her. She has no relationship with her parents. Her pastor’s wife was the one who bought the pregnancy test kit and sat with her when it tested positive.
We talk for about thirty minutes, then say goodbye with plans to speak again soon. Andrew and I are in a park near Ruthie’s house. I scribble Brooke’s number down on a scrap of paper in Andrew’s wallet. I lean against Andrew, drained. It has been a long day. The shock of what happened at the bridal shower, the energy required to put on my game face, and finally the call from Brooke.
Brooke’s call is well-timed. It propels me forward, forcing me to drag my focus away from the baby that we lost and towards the baby we will adopt. Grateful for the distraction, for the gentle reminder that life goes on, I sit with Andrew and feel sympathy for this young girl and her plight, for her lot in life. Just a teenager, yet already old in the ways of the world. The casual, accepting way in which she mentioned that the birthfather beat her, juxtaposed with the childish joy in which she described receiving her first Easter basket. Brooke. The unfairness in her life, dwarfing that in mine. Life is pain, Highness. I end the day with thoughts of Brooke, hoping that the world will comfort her when her pain feels unbearable.
Incidentally, Brooke never called again. I do not know what happened to her. Sometimes it seems as if she never existed, as if she were a girl who floated into my existence when I needed her most. I hope that the universe has provided for her as it has provided for me. Wherever you are, Brooke, I will think of you on this upcoming Mother’s Day, as I think of all the young birthmothers we encountered.