Now that I’d begun my re-entry into society, I knew I needed to get out of the house more, or at least pick up a hobby. I figured I’d wander the bookstore until I found a how to book that appealed to me. Surely I’d find something that could occupy my days at home. I could learn to paint, or tile a floor, or build a table, something useful.
I found myself in the cooking section, staring at a wall of options. Cook like this celebrity chef. No, that celebrity chef. No, cook like this celebrity who doesn’t seem to actually have any cooking credentials. I was way too much of a newbie to be emulating people who more or less knew what they were doing. Where was the Learn to Cook Your First Meal book?
Oh, in the kids section of the cookbooks, of course. There were a wide variety of kid-themed cookbooks, from how to cook kid-friendly foods to how to cook with your kids. That would be perfect. I was probably at a kid’s level when it came to cooking skills, so that was where I needed to start. I could totally do this.
I bought one of the cook-with-your-kids books, and headed to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for my first cooking attempt. I figured if a kid could whip up some fish tacos, I could probably handle it without destroying too much of the kitchen. It would be such a nice surprise for Ben that I made him dinner. I certainly never had before.
I was hard at work in the kitchen when Ben got home from work. I hadn’t set anything on fire yet, and I’d only dirtied about half our dishes. I’d get the hang of preparing food without creating a mess at some point. For now, I was concentrating on the “preparing food” step of the process.
“What are you doing?” Ben asked in a horrified voice.
“You don’t know how to cook.”
“I got a cookbook.”
“We own cookbooks.”
“We do?” I asked, completely surprised. Where were we hiding those? “Anyway, this is better than our cookbooks. See, you’re supposed to cook with your kids. So the instructions are dumbed down for kids, and the recipes are pretty simple, I think.”
Ben stared at me for a moment, his forehead creased. Then he turned on his heel and walked out of the kitchen. Well, I knew he’d be surprised that I was acquiring a new skill, but I didn’t think he’d be angry. I was making myself useful, and taking some of the burden off of him.
“Ben?” I called after him.
“Not right now, Elise.”
“Are you okay?”
“I need a minute.”
What the hell? What had I done to upset him this much?
I turned off the stove and went looking for Ben. As usual when he was upset, he was sitting on the couch in the living room with his head in his hands. I stood in the doorway, watching my husband grieve. I didn’t know what I’d done, but clearly it had been something major.
“What’s wrong?” I asked softly.
“You seriously don’t even get it?”
“I seriously don’t, Ben. I’m sorry.”
“You got a book about cooking with your kids.”
“Do you have kids, Elise?”
I sat down hard on the couch next to him. Oh, God. I hadn’t even thought of it like that. I didn’t know what to say to Ben, who was clearly so hurt by something that hadn’t even crossed my mind. It wasn’t that I forgot that he was grieving too. I knew we were each grieving in our own way. I rarely saw him grieving outwardly, so his pain sometimes took a backseat to my own. I would never have bought the book if it had even crossed my mind that it might hurt him in the slightest.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, putting my hand on his.
He shook his head. “I wanted to do that stuff. I wanted to be a dad, and teach her things, and she’s gone, and we’re not going to get any of that now, Elise.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t mean anything by it. It just hurts to have it in my face.”
“I never meant to put anything in your face. I’ll throw the book out.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll be fine. I need a little while to process, you know? Like I know she’s gone, I know we’re going to miss out on parenting our daughter, but every once and a while I don’t think about that all the time. Sometimes I let it go for a little while, so it stops hurting.”
That’s what I was trying to do now too, I realized. I was trying to set aside some time where I wasn’t thinking about our daughter and what we’d lost. I was trying to find a way to stop the pain.
“We could do it together,” I said. “The cooking, I mean. You could teach me. I know it’s not the same. I know I’m probably not going to be easy to teach, but you have experience teaching, and I’ve made almost a full meal all by myself, so I’ve got a little bit of a head start.”
Ben smiled weakly. “Almost a full meal?”
“I mean, I’m only actually cooking the fish. I chopped up some vegetables, but that isn’t really cooking.”
“Did you wash the vegetables first?”
“It was a step in the cookbook.”
“Oh, it really is perfect for you.”
“I want her back.”
Ben took a deep breath, and ran his hands over his face. “Okay, show me this actual cooking you’ve been doing.”
Julianne and I made plans to visit with Paige, to help her make sure she was settled at home okay with the baby. The day before we were supposed to head over to Paige’s house, I pulled out my trusty new cookbook and found a cookie recipe that I didn’t think I could mess up too much. I picked up the ingredients from the store, and Ben supervised the actual mixing and baking. And the cookies actually came out edible! I was getting the hang of this cooking thing.
When I brought the cookies to Paige’s house, I tried not to think about everything she’d done for us, both right after Anna was born, and immediately after her death. Paige brought us groceries every few days, and those groceries were the only time we ate something that we didn’t have delivered or pick up at a drive through. Paige had been a lifesaver, and I was bringing her…cookies.
Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts, and I’d made them from scratch and everything! I knew she’d appreciate the effort that went into making the cookies, and that was good enough.
Paige answered the door clad in stained pajamas. Her hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, and there were bags under her eyes. She reeked of body odor and spit up. So that’s what having a normal newborn experience does to a person.
She let us in, and stumbled back to her living room. The room was cluttered with baby paraphernalia: a swing, a bouncy seat, a basket full of diapers and wipes, nearly empty bottles left on the coffee table, burp cloths and soiled clothes in piles on the floor. It felt a little strange to see baby gear. I knew that we had a ton of it in our house, but it stayed hidden behind closed doors. Here I was face-to-face with my mortal enemy: the remind of what should have been.
“I’m exhausted,” Paige said, collapsing on the couch, her head resting on a nursing pillow..
“Well, new babies will do that to you,” I replied. “We can watch him for a minute. Go take a shower.”
“No, no, I’m fine. You came all this way to see me.”
“I brought cookies,” I said, handing the plate to Paige.
“Thank you, Elise.” She looked down at the plate. “Oh, my God, you made these.”
“I did! Mostly by myself.”
“Are they safe to eat?”
“Oh, thank God. I don’t have time for food poisoning right now.”
“Where’s the baby?” Julianne asked.
“Okay, then, seriously go shower. You smell.”
“If your best friends aren’t going to tell you, who is?”
Paige shrugged and headed down the hall toward her bathroom. “I’ll only be a minute.”
“Take your time.”
“He’s in the nursery.”
“There’s a bottle in the fridge if he wakes up.”
“I appreciate this.”
I heard the bathroom door shut, and Julianne began to straighten up the living room, gathering the laundry in a pile, and taking the bottles to the kitchen. I didn’t want to touch any of it, the toxic baby stuff. It only screamed at me: “You’re supposed to have all of this too.” I’d eventually need to address the room full of useless baby stuff at my house, but for now I couldn’t even touch Paige’s things, so that was probably a long ways off.
I couldn’t touch her baby either, still leaving her and Julianne to his care. I could barely even look at him, at this tiny little person who was the culmination of all of Paige’s dreams. But I’d be able to do that eventually, I told myself. Eventually.