Alissa Zachary was a 28-year-old law student at the University of Texas Law School when she unexpectedly became pregnant.
Though she and her husband of two years, Billy, now an acupuncturist, had not planned on having children at the time, the couple quickly warmed up to the idea. “We were shocked for a little while, then scared, then made all the plans and everything went into place and we were excited,” remembers Zachary, now 39.
And then, tragedy struck.
At a routine check-up when Zachary was 7.5 months along, her doctor couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat. While Zachary knew that it had been a few days since she had last felt the baby move, she had simply chalked it up to stress.
“You know there is something they don’t want to tell you — the only reason they can’t tell you anything is when something is wrong,” she says.
Up until that point, Zachary’s pregnancy had been progressing well. But tests later revealed that although the baby was developing normally, there had been a tear in the umbilical cord, along with some hydrocephaly. The grieving parents were told that their daughter had most likely passed away very quickly and that it could never have been caught because there were no signs that Zachary would have noticed.
The couple received the sad news on a Friday, and on Monday they went back for an induction that they knew would result in a stillbirth.
The actual birth happened quickly. They named their daughter Penelope, or Penny, for short.
Throughout the process, everyone in the room was hyper-focused on Zachary and her needs, she says, but in the whirlwind of the birth and dealing with the baby and recovering, her husband’s grief and need for closure was pushed to the side. Although Zachary was able to hold and touch her daughter, Billy was not.
“Nobody thought we should make sure he got the chance to touch her, too,” Zachary remembers. “By the time someone thought about it, she had already been taken to the morgue and would have come back cold and he was not able to handle that. He didn’t get to have his grief.”
Because the couple was living on a student budget at the time, already in debt from the high deductible from their insurance that barely covered the hospital birth, they accepted the hospital’s arrangement to cremate their preterm stillborn baby for free. “We could have not afforded the cost for a casket funeral,” Zachary explains. “It was a choice made out of economic necessity.”
For Zachary, the overwhelming grief did not hit her until later.
“For me, the waves of grief, that welling of grief that just surrounds you, didn’t hit until two weeks after the stillbirth,” she explains. “Two weeks after, I got chest pain and was convinced I was having a heart attack.”
She went to the ER, where they told her she was actually having an anxiety attack brought on by her loss.
“I had been holding it together up until then,” remembers Zachary. “That was the moment I broke and cried and cried. It did not happen until the to-do list, the doctor finding, getting the procedure, having the baby, figuring out what happened, making it home, cleaning the nursery, putting things away — that all got done and then I broke.”
Zachary and her husband’s journeys through grief were long, ragged, and very different. While Zachary struggled in a way she calls “really open and obvious,” her husband struggled silently. They were left with literal pieces of their daughter and no way to put back together their shattered life.
Until one of Billy’s best friends stepped in.
Daniel Gardner, a professor of Ceramics at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, who had been Billy’s suite-mate in college, offered to take their daughter’s ashes and incorporate them into a sculpture for the couple.
Without any direction, Gardner transformed their baby’s ashes into a beautiful sculpture of an egg in a nest that helped Zachary and Billy heal in ways that they didn’t even realize they needed to heal.
When Gardener presented the art to his friends, they were all overcome with emotion. But as time passed, the commemorative piece of art brought hope and healing to the grief-stricken couple.
“Penny wasn’t with us for long,” says Zachary. “This baby, her loss in the grand scheme of a lifetime, it all happened in less than a year. But it had weight. It was an event with weight that affected us. The [sculpture] also has weight that I can hold in my hand [and it] is also real, smooth, and rough at the same time. There’s a part of my brain that doesn’t connect to words [but does] connect to the physicality of the egg, of the art.”
For Billy, who never had the chance to touch his daughter during life or death, the sculpture has had special meaning by providing him with a way to do just that. He often puts the sculpture in his lap and meditates with it.
Zachary describes her story as one with a happy ending. She gave birth to a son a few years after her daughter’s death and her now seven-year-old is friends with Gardner’s son. “The boys are very good friends, they have declared each other cousins,” she says. “We see them regularly and the boys hang out just like their dads, so the cycle of friendship continues.”
Today, Zachary says her daughter’s sculpture stands in their house, safe and secure on a bookshelf, as a symbol that has been with them through the different stages of grief. The egg in a nest, says Zachary, is very much a metaphor for pregnancy, as well as a symbol of the love that carried them through the birth of their baby and eventually their healing.