ASHES IN THE MILK
I was so small, only six weeks old, it was right around Valentine’s Day and I was their firstborn. The miracle child, the one they had so much fun making when the doctors told them, “Go ahead, you can have a baby” after six years of thinking they would be childless.
My mom had gotten deathly ill six months after they married. Just before the discovery of penicillin, they removed her infected kidney to save her life. Soon after, they told her she could not have children, that it would kill her, that one kidney could not support a new life. My father was so afraid of losing her, she was the bright light, the kind one from a gentler childhood, the one who never raised her voice.
But here I was! And we both survived! All three of us, alive and vibrating with love and happiness and fear and sleep-deprivation.
There I was. And mom got sick. Again. A breast infection so that she had to stop breast-feeding me immediately.
This is where the story changes. To them, “Valerie went over to the bottle without a fuss.” For me, it was a vein of The Pain that ran through everything in my life, pulsing in the unconscious, driving me with pre-verbal angst and a frozen, unheard self.
So, mom has this 105F fever and the doctor makes a house call and tells her she needs to be in the hospital. She has mastitis. She is in terrible pain. She refuses to go because the hospital won’t take me back into the nursery and she’s not leaving me. The doctor teaches my dad how to give my mom penicillin injections and the doctor leaves.
Dad now has to feed me.
He is in the kitchen the size of a postage stamp. He is heating up milk as my mother instructed him. He is chain-smoking because that’s what people did. The end of the ash grows longer and he doesn’t notice because he is agitated by my crying. I’m hungry. I don’t know what’s going on but I do know that I am not getting any milk. The chunk of ash falls into the saucepan and spreads out across the surface of my milk. The milk for my first bottle, my first meal not made by my mommy.
I am not getting any comfort.
There is no other milk in the house. Mom was the milk. They didn’t plan for this; there was always enough milk for the next morning’s cereal and coffee, not enough to replace the ruined milk. My dad rages down two flights of cement stairs to the car and roars off to the closest market which is at least five miles away. I am lying on my mother’s sweaty chest on their bed. I can feel her hot body and she doesn’t have any milk for me. She probably didn’t even feel like singing right about then, which she did with me all the time. She had a beautiful voice.
By the time my father arrived with the milk, he was frozen in overwhelming fear, rage and grief. He thought my mother was going to die. Just like she almost died after they married. He warms the milk.
In my minds��� eye, I have stopped crying but truly I am sure I am screaming but part of me is gone. Part of me died on my mother’s chest, hating her breasts for abandoning me, starving me, letting him yell like that. My teacher told me that it would way too convenient for the baby to die, that finding that baby alive was essential.
Dad comes into the bedroom with a bottle. The nipple is too small and I cannot get any milk from it. I am squalling and purple, inconsolably hungry. He storms back into the kitchen and gets a different nipple. This one is too big and I choke on the milk, escalating my cries. We just can’t get this right and I am going to die in this storm of hunger.
Is part of me hanging out on the ceiling watching? I don’t think so, dead feels more like it. Pulled into my marrow and shut down, stopped ticking, stopped breathing. Gave up.
The third bottle gives me the milk. I drink and then sleep.
There, no problem, I got fed. No problem except for The Pain that took up residence that night, complete in its own fairy tale where I will never, ever be hungry again and there is no such thing as receiving or nourishment. There are only broken pieces of glass and a baby who appears frozen or dead.�� Without even knowing it, without ever suspecting it, I began to put on a show that assured me that no one gets upset again. Ever again. That anger was terrifying, jarring, violent.
I told myself a story the first fifty years of my life, “I gave mom a breast infection.” Before she died, she reassured me, “Sweetheart, babies don’t give mothers infections.”�� I felt comforted by that. Then, in preparing for this chapter, I read up on Web.MD about …“Mastitis is an infection of the tissue of the breast… It can occur when bacteria, often from the baby’s mouth, enter a milk duct through a crack in the nipple.” Maybe I did give mom the infection. Maybe my worst fear that I had started this awful ball rolling, was true.
It is as if a Want had been installed at a cellular level. It grew from ‘I Want Milk, I want my Mommy’ to I Want Love, I Want Safety, I Want Enough. My dilemma is that there is seldom, if ever, enough of whatever it was. Thus, I am not enough. Otherwise, there would be plenty. The saddest part of the dilemma is clinging to the notion that if I just work hard enough, if I do enough good, if I am smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, wordsmith enough, prolific enough, wise enough that I will never have to suffer again.
I was looking for a cup that never emptied because emptiness felt like the baby lying amidst broken glass.
Before sitting, get a pencil and a big table of paper, with or without lines, but preferably unlined.
Sit as quietly as you can. Have low expectations of how quiet you can become. I know people think that it should be easy to sit quietly, but that whips the Idea Horse into action, the Monkey Mind begins to swings through the trees. It is as if we swing away from the vast peace of our innermost selves, because the perceived emptiness is overwhelming.
Try, anyway. Listen to your breath. Listen to your body, notice where it is tense, where it is relaxed. Hang out where it is tense.
Close your eyes and just be with the tension and listen to its story. It may have a story to tell you.
When you open your eyes, write down anything that arose around the story you tell yourself about tension. Just be curious. If nothing comes, don’t force it. It will, perhaps later, in a dream or image. It will come when the psyche is prepared for it to come; never sooner, always just when it’s supposed to.