Friday, March 23, 2018
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Baking cookies helps Tampa couple start to heal after the stillbirth of their son


It's late, and their day jobs are done, and here they are, just like every other night, baking cookies. Their kitchen is a tight fit, but they move around each other as if choreographed, this husband and wife, rolling dough, cutting shapes, watching the oven. In a side business they never foresaw, Bill and Dulcinea Kimrey make hundreds of sugar cookies, week after week, for weddings, birthday parties, baby showers.

"People don't buy cookies because of a divorce or because someone died," Dulcinea says. "They buy cookies because they want to celebrate."

They bake, sometimes until the wee hours, before shutting off the lights and heading for bed, passing a door that always remains shut.

On the other side is a nursery, where footie pajamas lay folded in a dresser, and bottles, toys and diapers sit boxed, tagged, new. There's a photo on the wall of Bill and Dulcinea, her pregnant belly huge, her face radiant.

It was taken three years ago, before their son was stillborn, before they learned how intense, and enduring, grief can be.

They don't know how to live without him, how to wake up every day and step into a world full of parents and babies.

So they bake.

Dulcinea never thought she wanted kids. Then she met Bill.

She is a 39-year-old vivacious, hot-headed Texan with an electric smile who worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army.

He is a 43-year-old graphic artist, quiet and thoughtful, the eldest son of a South Carolina high school football coach. As a kid, he'd set his alarm and get ready for school before anyone else in the house awoke.

Both believe in self-reliance and hate asking others for help. Both put themselves through college.

They met in 2009 on Their first date was a costume party. He made an Indiana Jones outfit. She wore a racy Queen of Hearts dress. They ended up at Four Green Fields, an Irish pub in Tampa, where Dulcinea sang songs loudly.

They kept seeing each other that week. When she left for a church mission trip, they emailed each other at night.

It was love.

In 2011, Bill sent Dulcinea a text message telling her to look out her apartment window. There he was, on one knee, in a blue dress shirt that made his eyes sparkle. On the sidewalk he had written, "Will you marry me?" in rose petals. She nearly tripped down the stairs, she raced so fast, throwing open the door, running over the petals and into his arms.

They married in April 2012.

By October, Dulcinea was pregnant.

Everything about those nine months was normal. They decided to name their boy after Bill, whose full name is Wilson Monroe Kimrey.

Wilson was due July 5, 2013.

At church on June 30, Dulcinea noticed he wasn't moving. They went to brunch, and she ordered a ginger ale. Sugary drinks always woke him up. But he was still. She had Bill read him a story, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Wilson never failed to wiggle when he heard his dad's voice. He didn't respond.

They called the doctor and headed to St. Joseph's Hospital.

Dulcinea relives these memories over and over because they are the only ones she has of her son: the cold jelly squirted on her pregnant stomach, the doctor swirling the ultrasound wand, the horror of hearing her say Wilson had no heartbeat.

Being changed into a gown in a haze.

"Am I being admitted?" she asked a nurse.

"Yes, honey," the nurse said.

Being wheeled to a room far away from the laboring mothers. Being induced. Spending more than a full day in labor only to develop a fever and have an emergency C-section.

Dulcinea and Bill held their still baby for hours, memorizing every precious bit of him. He was perfect, 7 pounds, 14 ounces, nearly 20 inches long. Blue eyes, black curly hair, chubby arms, tiny fingers and toes. Their pastor baptized him.

The doctor said his cause of death was fetomaternal hemorrhage, when the baby's blood is lost in the mother's circulation. It's rare. It can be caused by trauma or an abnormal placenta. Often the cause is unknown. That's the case with Wilson.

Dulcinea and Bill saw Wilson again the next day, when he was brought swaddled from the morgue. He was cold. A nurse saved a lock of his hair, along with his footprints and tiny wrist bands, and put them in a memory box.

They were urged to say goodbye to him, and they did.

After five days in the hospital, Dulcinea was wheeled out of her room holding the memory box in her lap instead of Wilson. As she waited for Bill to bring the car around, new mothers congregated alongside her with babies in their arms.

The pain felt like physical blows.

Across the parking lot, Dulcinea could see her mother-in-law struggling with something. The car seat. She took it out of Bill's car and moved it to hers so Dulcinea wouldn't have to see it empty.

Bill pulled up in the new SUV they bought for parenthood and got Dulcinea inside. The car in front of them had a balloon floating in the back seat, "Welcome Home, Baby Boy!"

Bill sped away as fast as he could.

Dulcinea spent those early days in the gliding chair in Wilson's room, looking at his photos, listening to a recording she had made of his heartbeat at one of her doctor's visits.

Every morning when she and Bill woke up, they opened the blinds in their room together and prayed. "Please, God, give us better days." She opened the blinds in the nursery, too, but stopped after awhile. It hurt too much.

On car trips in those first months, Dulcinea took Wilson's urn with her, buckling it into the back seat. What if the house burns down while we're gone? We can't leave him all alone.

At this same time, her father was dying from cancer. Flying to see him in Texas, she yelled at TSA agents inspecting the urn. "That's my son! That's my son in that box!"

She returned to work a different person. Her door was closed. She was angry, sad. The rare times she laughed, she felt guilty. She blamed herself for his death, though the doctor said it wasn't her fault.

Dulcinea and Bill had to learn how to navigate this new reality. Reminders of the life they were supposed to have were everywhere.

They couldn't walk on Bayshore Boulevard because of all the joggers with strollers. They went to restaurants late and sat at the bar, if they could; if not, Dulcinea asked to not be seated next to children. They made sure to attend church services without baptisms.

Dulcinea was livid each time someone told her Wilson's death was part of God's plan. The saying "There's a reason for everything" made her want to punch things. At parties, someone would inevitably ask if she had children. "Yes," she'd say and walk away.

At the dawn of the new year, she and Bill gathered all the 2013 calendars they could find with highlighted doctor appointments and smiley faces and Wilson's circled due date, and burned them in the back yard.

They went to a support group. It helped. Dulcinea saw a therapist. That helped.

They took something that would have been Wilson's — a stuffed toy monkey — with them to places they would have taken him, and took photos of Monkey on the trips. Monkey with sand castles on the beach where Bill spent his childhood summers. Monkey at Epcot, wearing Mickey Mouse ears embroidered with "Wilson."

They prayed for another child, but they weren't getting pregnant.

Dulcinea's egg production slowed. Bill's sperm weren't perfect. In vitro fertilization turned out to be too expensive, with no guarantee it would work. They couldn't afford adoption, either.

Dulcinea's biggest fear felt like it was slowly becoming a reality.

What if the only baby we have is a dead baby?

She took fertility medicine that played with her hormones and made her feel crazy. She tracked her temperature to make sure they had sex at the optimal time. She ate healthy, exercised and lost weight.

She and Bill opted to try intrauterine insemination, a fertility treatment in which sperm is placed inside the uterus to increase chances of fertilization. Insurance paid for 80 percent of it, so they could afford it.

"We're going to assume you're pregnant," the nurse told Dulcinea after the first one. Dulcinea savored those words, replaying them again and again in her head.

But two weeks later, she got her period. It was devastating.

And that's how they lived their lives, try after try after try.

On what would have been Wilson's first birthday, they lit a candle on a cupcake and sang Happy Birthday to him at the memorial garden at their church, where some of his ashes are buried. His nameplate on the wall is the only one with just one date:

July 1, 2013.

When they blew out the candle, Dulcinea wished to be pregnant.

A few weeks later, they got news that Bill's sperm morphology numbers had gone down, decreasing their chances of getting pregnant even more. They were home after work when Bill asked Dulcinea what she was thinking.

"What am I thinking?" she said. "I'm thinking I need to break something, hear it shatter and break more stuff."

So they did. They found all the old vases, cheap mugs, everything fragile they could part with and took them to their patio. They took turns, heaving, slamming, watching something that was whole shatter into a million pieces. Too quickly, they ran out of things to break.

That autumn, Dulcinea couldn't stand to think of surviving another Christmas without her son. She came up with an idea she thought might bring her comfort and proposed it to Bill:

"We should bake."

Dulcinea lost her father, Manuel Cuellar, the year she lost Wilson. Colon cancer he had beaten years earlier had reappeared in his liver, and he battled it for 18 months, dying days before Christmas.

He was the legendary family baker, famous for his pies and breads, who shooed her out of the kitchen, saying she was a bit clumsy and he feared for her safety. He always made Dulcinea's favorite brownies.

It was nearly a year after his death. Christmas was coming.

Dulcinea needed to feel close to him.

She had never really baked before, but Bill had. They got out her dad's 1976 KitchenAid mixer, which still worked perfectly. They watched the Food Network. They gathered family recipes and found new ones and experimented with them.

They fell into a new routine.

At first, Dulcinea made everything: brownies, gingersnaps, peanut butter cookies, Mexican tea cakes, Christmas tree cakes, banana bread.

Then it became sugar cookies. They tweaked a recipe from Food Network personality Alton Brown and used Dulcinea's dad's favorite Mexican vanilla. Dulcinea made a game of cutting the cookies, trying to position the cutters without wasting any dough. They made stockings, stars, ornaments. Angels in blue.

Dulcinea couldn't stop baking. It was all she could do to get out of bed, shower, work and come home. She still carried Monkey in her purse. Her sadness was so overwhelming.

She made at least 800 cookies. Plus dozens of banana bread loaves and minicakes. It was a frenzy.

One night Bill told her there was no more room. The freezer was full.

Dulcinea held a cupcake mold in her hand, tears streaming.

"No amount of baking will ever bring your father or Wilson back," he gently told her.

Dulcinea stormed off to their room and sobbed.

A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, she had a panic attack at church. All she could see were babies and toddlers and pregnant women. Wilson should be here. She felt like she couldn't breathe. The world spun. Sounds were elevated.

"Baking cookies didn't work," she told Bill.

"What do you mean?" Bill said.

"Christmas is still here."

The following year, 2015, they baked cookies, though at a slower pace, experimenting with flours and techniques, buying tools, studying videos.

They kept trying, too, for another baby.

Dulcinea had surgery to fix her fallopian tube, which wasn't working correctly. The procedure was supposed to be quick but ended up complicated and painful. It still didn't pay off with a pregnancy.

She and Bill realized they couldn't keep living with this excruciating, debilitating disappointment. And little by little, they began to let go.

Dulcinea stopped tracking her temperature and gave away her prenatal vitamins. They made plans to give some of Wilson's nursery items to Bill's brother and sister-in-law, who have a baby on the way.

We have each other, Bill and Dulcinea say.

We have the cookies.

Dulcinea and Bill launched Silly Monkey Cookie Co. in February this year. They wanted a name that honored Wilson but made people smile. They thought of Monkey, who was always silly, and the name came together in minutes.

They studied the art of sugar cookies, learning how to replicate characters and logos, henna and stained glass. Bill made his own cutters out of aluminum, so he could create exactly what customers wanted.

Alton Brown shared one of their cookie photos on Instagram. They were interviewed for two Food Network shows.

They'd like for the business to be full time, but they aren't sure how to make that leap when they need both their incomes to survive.

Dulcinea and Bill include a note with each order, telling their story, about her dad and Wilson, so people know these cookies mean more than a business. They also want those who have suffered a loss to know they're not alone.

Bill has developed a finger callus from mixing so much icing. He's the happiest he has been in a long time.

Dulcinea is, too, most days.

Baking for baby showers is still hard, but they do it. It's not my shower, Dulcinea tells herself. It's not my baby.

Knowing her cookies bring people joy helps her share in a little bit of it.

She prays over each order — for the recipients to be well, the pregnant moms to have safe deliveries, the children to be happy, protected and loved.

She daydreams that Wilson's spirit is there, too, at all these fun parties, laughing, cookie crumbs on his face and hands sticky with icing.

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