I arrived at the conference groggy and spent, the glands in my throat two swollen tender lumps. Both Smoke and Stump had been sick the week before with pink eye and a nasty cough, and now my own body hosted their germs. Stump had kept me up for half the night before, squirming and crying, and then I’d risen at five to catch my flight to Utah.
I traveled with five other colleagues, people I knew only from committee meetings and all-campus emails, and as we approached the hotel it began to snow. This was only last Tuesday. This was June. At first it was a joke—a few flakes mixed with pouring rain—but minutes later it was falling in earnest. It accumulated on the grass at the edge of the highway.
In my disoriented state, I was relieved to make it to my room alone. Here before me were the things I had dreamed of for months. Two beds with clean sheets, all to myself. A television. A heated outdoor pool down the hall. But it wasn’t the moment it should have been. I had no idea what to do with myself.
We were here for a conference and I’d given myself permission to miss the opening address. I was nursing a cold, after all. But already I felt torn between duty and self-care—the very feeling I was hoping to escape from.
I talked myself into taking a long shower, and once that task was through, I remembered that I needed to pump. I sat on the bed farthest from the window, and held the small plastic contraption to my left breast. The last time I had fed my son was this morning on the opposite side. He was in a strangely quiet mood, and he nursed with his eyes wide open, silent and content.
When my milk let down, a sigh went through me. I wasn’t crying, not really, but my eyes felt the pressure of tears and my body felt the pressure of longing and it was such a strange thing to be emptying my left breast into a plastic contraption so that I could continue to be away from my child for another three days.
For some reason, I began to think about women who lactated for babies they’d lost.
A week after my fist son was born, an acquaintance came to visit and she told me that she had a stillborn child many years before. “No one warned me that my milk would come in,” she said. Only two feet away, Smoke lay sleeping on my bed. “It was such a strange and terrible thing to have lost a baby and then to be making all this milk.”
My morbid thoughts were absurd. My baby was and is alive. He walks and talks and eats and demands every ounce of milk and energy I have. But I was sharing with a machine an event that I normally share with my child, and for that moment I felt somber and haunted.
And then the moment passed. I put on my pajamas and turned on the TV. I piled up the pillows made a spot for myself on the impeccably clean bed.
Over the next three days, a part of my brain held a constant awareness of the 900 miles between my body and my sons’ bodies. Since I wasn’t there to keep them safe, I prayed that they would be intact on my return. I tried to tuck this awareness deep into my brain, so I could Do Work Things, and when I wasn’t doing work things I flitted like a hummingbird from blossom to blossom, sampling all of the sweet uninterrupted pastimes I long for when I’m home caring for my boys.
When I returned, the baby walked to me, alone, arms open, saying “Mah. Mah. Mah. Mah.”