When they gave her the tiny T-shirt, Crystal Arjona nearly cried.
On the front was a smiling zebra, above the words "especially cute" in cursive. It matched a pair of little striped pants with footsies and pink bows.
But what made this shirt perfect for Arjona's 1-month-old girl, Anaiya Longoria, were the little pink snaps that opened the shirt from the front.
"Room for all the cords and wires," someone explained.
• • •
It was Meghan Armstrong who said it.
Armstrong helped organize a baby shower last week for Arjona and six other mothers of babies in Brandon Regional Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.
They gathered in a spare hospital classroom with "BABY SHOWER" banners on the white walls and purple tablecloths on fold-out tables. They played games, nibbled cupcakes and guessed how many diapers were in a cake-shaped diaper tower.
It was a rare hour and a half away from the cold unit where Anaiya and other babies live in incubators. For many of the mothers, it was the first taste of happy congratulations.
• • •
Anaiya's birth came two months early, on Oct. 18 by emergency C-section. It was a week until doctors let Arjona hold her.
"I cried and cried," Arjona remembered. "All I did was cry."
Anaiya is Arjona's third child, but she's the first preemie. It means Arjona pumps her breast milk every two hours instead of nursing. She feels a jolt of anxiety every time her cell phone rings and a blanket of guilt when she's at home.
It means she never had a baby shower. Hardly any of these moms did. The babies arrived before invitations were sent, before cribs were assembled, before anyone was really ready.
So with their babies still attached to monitors across the street, Arjona and the other moms celebrated for the first time, courtesy of local preemie support group Mommies Little Miracles and the county Healthy Start Coalition's Help U Grow program. The groups chose November, Prematurity Awareness Month, for baby showers at Brandon Regional, Tampa General, St. Joseph's, University Community, Mease Countryside and Lakeland Regional hospitals.
"Even having a baby in the unit one day can be traumatic," Cindy Collins, who works with Help U Grow, told the group of mothers. "It's not normal."
Arjona looked at her food, then pushed her plate away.
She didn't expect this. Her other two kids, now 1 and 8, were full term and went home the next day.
Every time Arjona leaves the hospital, she cries.
It's too quiet at night.
• • •
Between games and a raffle, the mothers flipped through a scrapbook filled with pictures of premature babies who have since gone home.
Two moms at the shower were now part of that group. They brought their babies to the party.
"Must be nice," said mother Valerie Boston.
Arjona flipped over another page in the scrapbook.
"Look how much they grew," Boston said.
"Anaiya's so little," Arjona whispered. Sometimes, she said, she wants to tuck her in her purse and sneak her out.
Boston let out a laugh.
Arjona finally smiled.
When it was over, a couple of mothers stayed behind to take down decorations and clear away the finger foods.
Debbie Mak, a grandmother of a preemie, attended the shower in her daughter's place. She excused herself to take a phone call.
Doctors induced labor and delivered baby Cash on Nov. 2 after his mother's blood pressure reached dangerous levels.
After a few minutes, Mak ran back inside clapping. Everyone turned to look.
"He can go home!" Mak said. "We're going home!"
Arjona didn't hear. She had already walked out the door, headed back to the hospital to tuck her tiny baby into her too-big T-shirt.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or email@example.com.