Published on March 25th, 2021 | by Liz Tichenor0
Milk: An Excerpt from THE NIGHT LAKE
The fourth day, I went to open the note even before making coffee.
This note was the sturdiest. Tan, perhaps just tagboard. I opened it:
I am strong!
I am powerful!
I am beautiful!
“God, if only,” I muttered. Utterly without control in this grief, I felt none of these things.
The breast pump had arrived that afternoon, the Monday after Fritz died, at the same time as a stout flat-rate box of hand-me-down clothes from my cousin, who I later heard felt horrible about the timing, having mailed the package when Fritz was still alive. I laughed. I was still near the beginning of discovering all the ways the situation might be made worse, but nothing could make me sad again—I was already steeped in it.
But oh, the milk. So, so much milk. I’d always had too much milk: it was my superpower. And it was a good superpower, except that it made my babies throw up. When Alice was a newborn, she puked. All the time. Everywhere, massive quantities of milk, sprayed to cover a room, a whole person, at any moment. The standard advice of waiting it out, finding an equilibrium? It made no difference. I was bathed in baby vomit, over and over, every day.
When Alice was six or eight weeks old, a friend asked me if I had tried pumping. I had not. I knew nothing about breast pumps, save that they were supposed to make the problem of too much milk far worse. My friend’s kids were bigger, and she offered me her old pump. She brought it to church one Sunday, and we went into the bathroom in the basement. She pulled out tubes and flanges and stoppers, showed me how to connect them to this magic suckling machine. I tried it at home that afternoon, surprised by the full tug, the milk spraying out and rhythmically pounding the back of the bottle contraption. In a few minutes the bottle was full, then overflowing, as my other breast leaked. No wonder Alice is throwing up all the time, I thought—it was a ridiculous amount of milk, and it was jetting out like water from a fire hose.
It was also an absurd amount of extra milk to just have hanging out in our fridge, for this baby who refused bottles. But there was no way I would pour it out. I had heard about milk banks somewhere along the way, and googled with my right hand, holding Alice asleep at my left breast, finally content after being fed a reasonable serving size. Her relentless vomiting ended that day.
Milk sharing, I was finding out, was a thing. Beyond banks, Facebook groups were set up by region. All free, just mamas who had too much milk connecting with those who did not have enough. I was sold. After a few times of passing off my milk through these groups, Nathaniel arrived. He was the newly adopted grandson of Ann, a woman who worked at my seminary, one of the first women to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. Ann had heard I had too much milk. Her daughter Abbie, Nathaniel’s mom, was interested. Done. The bags stacked up in our freezer, rectangular but thicker at one side, so they never really stayed in place. I’d pass off full coolers to Ann. That summer, when we were up at Tahoe working at the camp, I sent a full chest cooler down to the Bay with Stuart, who met up with Nathaniel’s dad in a hotel parking lot. It felt like we were sending a drug runner across state lines, the great contraband being frozen breast milk.
When Fritz was a couple of weeks old, Abbie had emailed me. She’d heard of Fritz’s birth, and we were once again in sync: she and her husband had just welcomed home Ruthie, another newborn. Did I have extra milk again? she wondered. Ruthie would love it.
But Alice was still nursing, too, one of them on each side, my arms full. While they both suckled, Alice would reach to hold hands with Fritz, curving her legs around his body. I didn’t have to pump this time around; Alice took care of the extra for me. As I was beginning to think about having to go back to work, though, I was looking toward needing to pump for Fritz’s bottles while I was gone in Reno all day. We were going to need to teach him to drink from a bottle soon. I pulled out the old pump, but it was dead. The light turned on, and nothing more—no sound of a motor, no suction. I called the company, grateful for the stellar warranty. A new one would be on its way promptly.
And there it was in the Monday mail, four days after Fritz died.
Alice nursed, lots, but I had far more milk than she needed. I began to pump again, remembering the feel, the strange wobble of the plastic bags, barely holding their structural integrity under the weight of my warm milk. I wrote to Abbie again, saying that I did have milk for Ruthie after all. It was awful to pump, but worse to hold it in. I tried to slowly dial back my production, but still my breasts were massive, aching, engorged. Even as the mechanical hum of the pump was heartbreaking, it gave me some relief. At least my body could help keep some other person going, growing, living. Once again brick-like bags of frozen milk began to stack up in our freezer, though it was small enough that I had to periodically move them—well labeled—to the camp’s walk-in freezer behind the kitchen.
The next day’s note came with different handwriting and as a much-needed complement to the previous day’s suggested mantra. It was another faded red note, a diagonal stripe of green cutting across the bottom corner, just overlapping the red: May you be blessed with patience.
Right, I thought. It did not need to all happen, all be healed, all be solved today. But I did not come with patience. Not naturally. If there would be any patience, it would arrive as a blessing. It would be a gift of grace to let this road in exile simply be: slow, plodding, forward.
read more of Tichenor’s journey through grief in The Night Lake
“A sad, tough story, but finally so life-affirming, filled with spirit and love.” – Anne Lamott,