Slowly, I began to piece my life back together. I started meeting Julianne and Paige for occasional lunches, or for special time with Nate. I was showering regularly, and putting on clean clothes. My house was starting to come back together too. Housework had taken a backseat for so long, but we slowly began to crawl out from under the piles of laundry and dirty dishes. I started cooking without supervision. I was determined to pull myself out of this. I wouldn’t wallow in my pain for one more day. I would still be in pain, but I didn’t have to wear it like a cloak.
Life slowly became normal again. It still hurt every day. We still missed Anna terribly. Her nursery door remained closed, the contents too painful to deal with. It seemed ridiculous to have a room we never went in, and to have all those expensive baby things that no baby would ever see, but we couldn’t handle it yet. It was enough to know that we were slowly beginning to deal with things that we couldn’t have faced before. Eventually we would be able to clean out the nursery, but now was not that time.
In late August, Paige, Julianne, and I began meeting for lunch once a week at our usual place, now with Nate in tow. He was a well-behaved baby, crying when he wanted to be fed, but otherwise sleeping, for the most part. Nate had become a regular fixture in our group. Paige had nowhere to leave him, no one to watch him. I had thought it would be hard to have this baby around, to hear him cry and coo and sigh. It hadn’t been easy the first time I had held him, but I was adapting to him, and glad to have him around. I knew that the more time I spent with him, the more I would adjust to the idea of Paige having a child, even though I wouldn’t have one. At least for now Julianne was also still waiting for her child. I wasn’t sure how I’d handle it when they were both mothers and I was left behind in the land of the childless.
“So,” Julianne said at one of our first lunches, “please forget that I thought Greg and I would be getting a baby soon.”
“Oh, Jules, they backed out?” I asked.
“Their oldest daughter is going to take the baby. Never mind that we technically have a legal right to it. She’s family, and I’m sure that this is what’s best for everyone.”
“Are you okay?”
She shrugged. “You know I never really thought this was our baby. I was always sure they would change their minds.”
“You’d think there would be some kind of cut off,” Paige said. “It is hardly fair to get your hopes up for months only to turn around and back out.”
“The baby hadn’t been placed with us yet,” Julianne replied. “The paperwork was in progress, but nothing was official yet. There wasn’t even a baby to be placed when they had their change of heart. There is now, a little boy, though I’m not entirely sure why they felt the need to let us know that he had arrived.”
“Ooh, salt in the wound. That totally sucks.”
“Speaking of sucking,” Paige said. “It would appear that it is feeding time.”
Nate had begun to whimper, and we’d all learned from experience that his whimpers were a precursor to full-blow wails if food was not forthcoming. It took Paige less than a minute to put together a bottle for him, but already the crying became a bit more urgent. Bottle ready, Paige lifted her son from his car seat. As she fed him, Paige rocked slightly, shushing him gently. I no longer felt tears stinging my eyes when I saw them together, but there was still a pull on my heart. That should be me.
“So, Elise,” Julianne said, and I forced my gaze away from Paige and her baby. “What’s new with you? Besides, what, like, ten pounds?”
That was certainly a good distraction from “Wow. Jerk.”
“El, if your friends can’t tell you that you’re getting fat, who can?”
I looked down at my waistline. I was still in my maternity pants, but they didn’t need to know that. Grief adds ten pounds. At least. The weight I had packed on while spending my days in bed mourning the loss of my daughter was sticking steadfastly to my abdomen. Every day as I dressed, I scowled at this new body, hating myself for not taking better care of myself during those dark days. I’d set out to punish my body, and clearly I had.
“Things have been hard the last few months,” I said defensively. “I haven’t exactly been motivated to hit the gym. I’m trying to pull things back together.”
“You and I could start working out together,” Paige offered. “I go on long walks with Nate. I’m working up to jogging.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Seriously, Elise,” Julianne said. “That’s quite a belly.”
I frowned at her. Wasn’t this off limits? Everyone knows that you never talk about someone else’s weight.
“Back off. I know, I got lazy. I’d been eating nothing but take out for months, and I never got out of the house. I’ll work on it. I’ll go walking with Paige a couple times a week. And I’ll eat one more salad a week.”
Julianne smiled softly. “I know that I’m hardly one to talk when it comes to weight. The infertility drugs put about fifteen pounds on me.” This was true. It happened to a lot of women. The fertility drugs were not kind to the body. “Elise, I’m worried about you.”
“I’m okay. I mean, I wasn’t for a long time, but I’m coming out of it. I’m going to be okay.”
“We’re here if you need us. I know you didn’t want us around for a while, and I understand. Now that you’re coming out of it, come to us. That’s what friends are for.”
“Ugh, corny. Why don’t you break into song?”
“Well, you are corny.”
“Promise you will come to us if you need anything.”
“Of course I promise.”
Just as they promised to be there for me if I needed anything, I was there for Julianne and Paige whenever they needed anything. That’s why Julianne and I came rushing to Paige’s house when she called us a few days later.
Her voice had been tearful on the phone, and it became obvious why she was so upset when we arrived. She had received a letter from her lawyer.
“My divorce is final,” Paige said softly when we arrived.
She had finally relented on her request that Jake meet their son, and had signed the papers, sending them back reluctantly. Either way, I knew that she had continued to hold out hope that Jake would snap out of it and come home to her. I had hoped for this as well. But now it was real, and was really over.
Paige was devastated. I couldn’t even imagine her pain. She had married someone, thinking that they would be together forever. After one bump in the road, he had left. Now she was alone with a child they had agreed to create together. Jake would have to pay some child support, which seemed like the ultimate joke. He had left because he refused to recognize this child as his own, and now he was being forced by a court to support that child. Paige was still in a difficult position, financially and otherwise. Money was tighter on only one salary, especially with a new baby. Jules and I did our best help out, at least with little things like treating Paige when she came out to lunch with us, or keeping an eye on Nate so that she could take a nap or a shower, but there was no way she wouldn’t rather have Jake.
Julianne and I did what we could to keep Paige in good spirits, but it wasn’t easy. We tried to remind her of all the things she had, like her wonderful little boy. I knew that it was some consolation to her, but not much of one. She had lost her husband, her friend since childhood. While she was very happy to have her son, that was a hard loss from which to recover.
When I got home from her house, I curled up next to Ben on the couch, so thankful that he and I were still together after everything we had gone through. I wouldn’t have been able to recover from the loss of our daughter without him.
“Everything okay?” Ben asked me.
“Paige is officially divorced now.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. I know everyone was hoping that Jake would come back. It had been so long since he left, but I still thought that he might change his mind.”
“You would never leave me, right?”
Ben laughed. “Elise, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have you around. You don’t need to worry. Not for a second.”
“Things were really hard right after we lost Anna.”
“Yes. Things would have been a million times harder without you here with me,” Ben said.
“You can say that again,” I replied, knowing that I would never have made it through without him.
“Good thing we’re a team.”
We had worked hard to keep our marriage together. We didn’t pull away from each other, we didn’t blame each other for anything that had happened. We both struggled with our loss, sometimes together, sometimes on our own. I would never have made it through without Ben. He really turned out to be my better half.