My mom died three years ago and long before then, I knew I’d be writing about how it would all go down. Somehow, so did she. I was barely a teen, when after a particularly disturbing episode in our family’s constant chaos, my mother jerked my elbow towards her oversized chest and through her teeth spat, “Don’t you EVER write about this!!”
It’s early March of 2015 and I get the dreaded call. Three planes and a time zone later, I’m in an all-night rental car skidding across an icy bridge caused by a freakish surreal snowstorm. I’d left these old stomping grounds when I was 22. Never before or since, had I met a snowflake falling from that epic Dallas skyline. With mom in a coma, it feels apropos this would be the time Texas turns into Doctor Zhivago.
There is a hotel near the hospital. I get a room and ask for special privileges to their kitchen’s freezer. I have a husband and a five-month-old back in New York and I’m determined to return to them with the milk I’ve continued to hand pump from my chest every three hours, much to the chagrin of the day’s TSA agents, flight attendants, and now, the wrinkled all-night hotel desk clerk who shutters when I say the word breasts. He’s called me m’am in between every one of his short sentences since I’ve mentioned them.
Even in this slight era of The Ovary, breast feeding a child in public is still considered potentially lewd in certain social circles. Imagine the looks I got hanging out in the airplane kitchenette while surreptitiously tugging on my chest with a device that looks like a cross between an air horn and a Windex bottle. Hand pumping breast milk can take 45 minutes to an hour. I think I still have the remnants of carpal tunnel and scopophobia whenever I polish a window.
The cowboy behind the hotel counter can no longer meet my gaze, but I’m a new mama grizzly bear headed to see an old one, and I have to pee from all the water I drink for the food machine that has replaced my body. I unapologetically hand over dripping milk containers, and the clerk winces holding out a garbage bag to capture them. He makes room in the freezer for “temporary storage, m’am, until mornin’ when the cooks need tending to the kitchen. M’am.” After I leave the lobby, I’m certain he’s quarantined the entire first floor and retched into the garbage can under his desk until his cows came home.
“It’s just milk!” I cry into the phone at my sleepy husband as the heaviest door in the world slams behind me and the emptiest room in the world lights up before me. I’ve been on the road for almost twelve hours with the will-I-get-there-in-time panic chasing the back of my neck all the while. The clock says I have a few hours before meeting with the critical care doctors. I glance in a mirror for the first time since the airport. The front of my shirt is damp in two strategic spots. I stay up and pump. Again.
“Good morning. Yes, I’m Liz’s daughter.” They’ve been waiting for me. “Do you have a freezer I can access for the day? I’m a nursing mother and I’ll need a place to store my milk.” One of the male doctors looked so confused I thought I was going to have to put on a white coat, draw indecipherable pictures on top of a clip board, and use condescendingly big medical words to explain how I’ve chosen to keep my five-month-old alive—just like he does when he cooly talks over my questions to tell me what’s wrong with my mother, who he’s never met. Her liver is shot and has been for years, doc. It doesn’t take a white coat to figure out why, I grew up with it.
I sit with mom the entire day and night. It’s never lost on me the life I pump out of myself while listening to the machines pump what’s left of hers back into her. She’ll never meet my son. I lay my head on her chest. I put my nose in her hair. I’m transported to childhood picnics and walks in the park behind our first house. You never forget how your mother smells. Or how she says your name. Especially when she can’t say it anymore.
It’s determined my mother needs more testing before deciding her fate. Testing that takes several days. I have to return home. Just as I leave the hospital, a frigid nurse hands me a canister of formula and a haughty smirk as a parting gift. “Perfect Start,” it boasts on the label. I put it in the formerly neglected freezer next to frost-bitten popsicles and gather up the day’s breast milk to hand to the hotelman while I pack. I fully expect he’ll be wearing a hazmat suit when I see him.
While our parenting has been less than a “perfect start” to our son’s new journey, my husband and I are driven, against the odds, to feed our child his mother’s own milk. It is hard and messy but it is the best of myself that I have to offer right now, and I’m lucky I’m able to produce it with little effort. Within hours, I leave the chilly hospital, the condemned hotel, and go back to horrifying the traveling public with my grotesquely primitive mammaries.
“Mom Cell.” My phone rings just before take-off and my stomach unfolds a bit thinking somehow my mother has magically recovered and managed to find the will to figure out how to use her cell phone, she never once called me from, to tell me everything is all right. It’s my not-so-little brother. He’s high on meth and calling to tell me he’s keeping our mother’s phone since she’s almost dead anyway and maybe now he can finally get a job. He laughs and asks to use me as reference. I realize I’ll be writing about his exquisite liver a few years later.
After a week, I’m landing in Dallas again with less hand cramps and my husband and son at my side. We go straight to the hospital where they are waiting for my arrival, and it’s my eyes my mother stares into as I talk her terror away and instinctively guide her into her next journey with…my words…
…my imperfect words…
…they’ve never been so important, these words. They spill out of me and take us to the places only mothers and children can share. They nourish. Like milk.
It’s hard and messy these days as I learn how to use my imperfect words. To write them down, and uncover what is the best of me, what is effortlessly nourishing. With the amazing support of family, friends, and peers, I practice my words on the ones who don’t cringe when I hand over the dripping containers.
Don’t worry, mom. Without shame, one day I’ll be able to describe your truest beautiful scent.
And to fellow travelers that find fault in the chaotic beginnings and endings of a woman’s journey, there’s a can of something boasting to be perfect probably still sitting in a hospital freezer in Dallas, Texas. You can have it.