My baby is four and a half months old. Today she has learned to blow raspberries and spent her entire day practicing this new skill – in her carseat on the way to the grocery, cuddled against my chest in her Babyhawk carrier in the Asian market, drifting off to sleep. She is seconds away from rolling over for the first time. She is always ready to smile and laugh. Today she made a dozen new friends in the quilting store. She is thriving even though my breasts are not structurally capable of producing the milk she needs to grow. She drinks 100% breastmilk, though most of it does not come from me.
Picasso’s birth was the most joyous, empowering experience of my entire life. I labored blissfully at home and had a natural hospital birth. We got off to a great start with breastfeeding but she lost 10% of her body weight and then continued to plummet. Signs indicated dehydration. My milk had ‘come in,’ but there was only about an ounce of it a day. Total.
For four weeks Picasso received all supplements through the supplemental nursing system (SNS), at my breast. After four weeks and doing everything in my power to increase my supply, it was not realistic to continue to use the SNS so we began bottlefeeding after each nursing session.
When she was six weeks old, I asked my Lactation Consultants, ‘So, what do you think about donor milk?’ Their response – ‘We are all for it!’
A few days later, the day the phone call came, it was raining. A mom whose baby had died was donating all the milk she had pumped. Due to privacy rights, I needed to call her to discuss medical information and be certain each of us felt comfortable with the donation. Let me repeat this: I needed to call a mom whose baby had died to ask her about her medical history. I didn’t want to invade that private, sacred space but I needed that milk could help my baby thrive, so I had to do it.
I’m not good at the phone to begin with – I am a ball of nerves calling anybody I don’t know well, despite previously having worked in marketing (which I was surprisingly good at). I posted a few frantic Facebook requests – ‘Quick, help--what do I say? How do I not cry?’ – and handed my husband Reuben the baby, then went outside to make the call in case the baby cried, so Jeni would not have to hear. I paced the porch, scuffing the dirt with my sandal. Needles fallen from the non-native tree in our front yard pricked my toes. I dialed Jeni’s digits.
She picked up on the third ring.
--Jeni? Hi, this is deborah – I got your number from Jean at UMC Lactation Services. She mentioned you had some milk to donate and I needed to call you to talk about your medical history / medications because I can’t make enough milk for my baby and we would love the milk –
and here I started crying hard, despite biting my tongue and my upper lip to try to keep it together.
--I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to cry… I was trying so hard not to cry…
--It’s OK, I cry all the time. I’m happy you can use the milk, I’m really happy.
Jeni gave an overview of her medical history (nothing of interest) and medications (nada). She asked my baby’s name and told me about her daughter Caralynn, who had been born with truncus arteriousus and died following three open-heart surgeries and four others. Caralynn was three months, three weeks and three days old when she died. Jeni asked me to look up Caralynn’s Facebook page and let her know who I was, because she wanted to know where the milk was going. I tried to thank her in a way that really expressed the depth of my gratitude, but still felt I had failed to express it.
On the way to pick up Jeni’s milk from the hospital, there was a double rainbow. We’d borrowed big coolers that we loaded with ice at Quik Trip. I wore the baby up to the PICU and let the nurses know we were there to collect the milk. One nurse steered us into the room with the deep freeze. She opened the freezer door and I felt weak in the knees. ‘What love looks like,’ I thought. There were at least two hundred bottles filled to the brim. Biting my lip once again proved ineffective. I felt a profound grief and overwhelming gratitude simultaneously. The tears came quickly as Reuben started to fill our coolers with Jeni’s milk. Reuben pretended the milk wasn’t too heavy, but I insisted he leave me with it at the door and return with the CR-V.
The next few days were a chrysalis. We reduced the formula and gave Picasso Jeni’s milk, which she gulped down with happy sighs. I spent a lot of time thinking and looking at Caralynn’s Facebook page. I had such admiration for the frankness and honesty of all the photos; how Jeni, a photographer, captured difficult moments and showed them being lived. Jeni shared her beautiful daughter’s life so powerfully I felt an urgency to make every second count, and to help my daughters do the same.
One thing that stood out for me was that Caralynn had had a blanket baby made by Bamboletta Dolls (a Waldorf doll maker) and so did Picasso. Picasso’s was red with black ladybug spots and Caralynn’s was solid red.
An anchor of an idea: I’d see what would happen if I put a request out there into the Waldorf doll community for donations to make a care package for Jeni and Chris and Caralynn’s older siblings, Julieann (3) and Christopher (5). It still would not adequately convey my gratitude but it would be a start. I asked Jeni if it would be OK to send a token of appreciation, and asked Julieann’s and Christopher’s favorite colors.
People had been so touched by Caralynn’s story and, unbeknownst to me, many of my friends had been following her story on Facebook already because another Waldorf doll maker, Dragonfly’s Hollow, had sent a doll to Caralynn. People were happy to have a way to channel their grief at Caralynn’s passing into a tangible gift for the Johnson family. Etsy sellers sent donations from their shops and gift certificates. Individuals sent money for purchasing two Bamboletta Dolls directly from the owner, who sold them to me at cost. All in all, we put together a care package whose ‘value’ (as though one can put a dollar amount on comforting gifts) would have been over $1,000. I was blown away by peoples’ generosity. And yet I still didn’t feel like it was ‘enough’ – my gratitude still stretched beyond the gifts I was going to give.
I wrapped and boxed the gifts. The friend who had previously offered to pay for shipping was now, due to unforeseen circumstances, unable to, so I was in the midst of figuring out how to afford it. With my husband and I both unemployed and barely scraping by, paying for it myself was not possible. Jeni’s husband, Chris, had just begun his first deployment so I felt even more adamant that I needed to find a way to get the packages to Jeni. Then she messaged me again. She had the last of the milk she’d pumped for Caralynn at her house. Would I like to come to El Paso and pick it up?
I hadn’t realized how close El Paso was. All I needed was money to fill the gas tank to get there and back – and three generous ladies chipped in and paid for this. My steadfast friend Emily volunteered to go along for the ride on her day off. A relieved Reuben stayed home with our older daughter Alice, and Emily and I went, baby in tow, to El Paso on the two-month anniversary of Caralynn’s passing. Picasso was the exact age, to the day, at which Caralynn had died.
In addition to making phone calls, I’m also afraid of driving on the interstate. I spent the first half of the drive gripping the steering wheel and feeling slightly queasy, especially any time I had to pass a truck or was passed by one. At the Dragoon Road exit I drove over a bump and had a flashback to a summer 2010 flight. Flying over a tornado zone, our plane encountered turbulence that was ‘a 14 on a scale of 1-7’ according to the flight attendants, who had also believed we were going to die. I grounded myself.
Emily and I used this time to catch up. I hauled out the Lactina Select breast pump in gas station parking lots with the windows down, diligently collecting my 5mls at a time. Emily bounced the baby or walked her around. I downed a crazily indulgent 54oz soy mocha Reuben had made me before I left.
It wasn’t just fear of the interstate. I also worried I’d say something stupid that I’d obsess about for weeks. How would I know how long to stay? I’d always felt socially inept. Again, I focused on why I was going: to deliver the big boxes and pick up two more weeks of breastmilk for my baby.
Then we were approaching Fort Bliss and I had to pay closer attention because we were driving over a mountain. It was the first time I’d been on a military base and I joked with Emily I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a gate with armed guards to ask what we were doing so I could tell them we were going to pick up breastmilk. Instead, we drove straight into a comfortable neighborhood with grassy lawns, tall trees and beige military houses. The mid-afternoon light softened my nerves. I found Jeni’s house number and balanced the three big care package boxes while Emily carried Picasso. ‘What if it’s the wrong house?’ I thought, but then Caralynn’s name and birth- and death-dates were scrawled on the door in washable paint. We were definitely there.
‘Give me that baby,’ Jeni said. Picasso immediately smiled and vocalized for Jeni. I set down the boxes on top of the washer as Jeni asked. She had ordered a mushroom pizza for us and she reheated it now. This was all so surreal – meeting the woman who had been our first donor, seeing Caralynn’s siblings, sitting on the floor changing a diaper in eyeshot of Caralynn’s memorial shelf which I’d seen photos of on the Internet. Jeni showed me her camera, the Canon T3I which was the same digital SLR I’d been wanting to replace my SLR (which was stolen when our house was robbed).
I asked Jeni if it was OK for me to bring the care package boxes into the living room for her and the kids to open and she said of course. I gave Julieann and Christopher their boxes and Jeni hers. I tried to eat my pizza but was too excited.
‘WOW,’ shouted Christopher as he opened his box. He lifted out his blue and black Jellybeans pony and pulled out a red plastic whistle. Julieann had a purple one and the kids began blowing into their whistles hard. ‘Oops,’ I said. ‘I didn’t think the whistles through very well, did I?’ Julieann hugged her new Bamboletta and pony and then asked to take a bath with her new bath goodies.
Jeni opened her gifts more quietly, admiring each one while talking to us and the kids. She seemed to be very moved by the locket, noticing the little details like Caralynn’s birth stone.
She said she liked the blue and white of the journal and ceramic mug – they were the same colors she’d chosen for Caralynn’s nursery, which I had not realized when trying to intuit what colors Jeni might want around her at this time. She thanked us. As we gathered our things to go, Julieann hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for my special surprise.’ Then she asked us to go so she could have the juice she had been promised!
Emily and I hoisted the cooler into the trunk of the 2003 CR-V and I finally got to give Jeni the hug I’d wanted to give her since that first awkward phone call when I had to ask her medical history in order to receive the milk. I wished her the best of luck. I tried again to express my thanks.
Driving into the sun I realized I hadn’t taken a single photo so I snapped some terrible pictures through the window with my crappy point & shoot. It was rush hour, and we calculated when we would stop for coffee on the way home. Emily had memorized the exits that had Starbucks signs. I was going to need to pump soon.
Emily drove once it started to get dark, since my eyes were ruined for night driving by the RK surgery I had stupidly had at age 17. I sat in the back with Picasso, who was having a rough time getting comfortable enough to drift off. Emily pulled over at a huge parking lot off the interstate.
I unbuckled Picasso from her car seat and drew her close under the stars – so many, many stars doing something so much stronger than ‘twinkling’ but I don’t know that there’s a word for it. Stars doing something, me telling my baby to look up farther than she could possibly see. She stopped crying. I wanted the stars to stay like that, then it occurred to me that the stars are always like that, it’s just that other stuff gets in the way. And what I wanted to say about my gratitude to Jeni, as well as my gratitude toward the other milk donors, and the people who donated for the care package, and the many people who gave to me, and for my healthy and thriving family– what I wanted to say about that, the ache in my chest all the way home, it still was too big to say. It filled and refilled and the only way I’ve found to even begin to skim the surface is to give what I am able, when opportunity arises.
I pumped in the front seat while Emily held the baby. After opening every door of the car at least ten times to reorganize snacks, drinks, diapers, bottles, pump, etcetcetc, we were ready to leave. I stayed in the backseat with Picasso, who was not yet asleep. Once Picasso was asleep it was too risky to speak to Emily so I stared out the window. We listened to Loreena McKennitt, the same CD for three hours. As we hurtled toward home, the mountains glowed as if lit from within but it was only (only!) (only!) (only?!) the moon.