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Milk

The notice had been xeroxed onto a piece of paper, cut thin like a bookmark and passed out to members of the congregation between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Someone who knew her had given it to her mother, and her mother had given it to her. A request was being made for breast milk for a newborn whose mother had leukemia and was undergoing chemotherapy. The white slips of paper were distributed throughout the Jewish community in the hope that a nursing mother would respond. Her mother had simply laid the paper on the table between them. It seemed obvious. It had logic. She would pump the milk with an electric pump from the Breast Pump station. She had laughed with the telephone operator when she’d asked for the number. They had rented it some weeks before the baby was due. It sat there near the bed, gray and formidable. She had been shy of it.

But she took the note and thought she would give it a try. She would leave it up to G-d. If milk came, then there was supposed to be milk. At first the pump tugged at her nipple and it seemed ridiculous. She could not imagine how she looked, but she had a sense that she was seen. That G-d was watching and that the whole thing had been his idea. Even the death of her son. She thought the milk would be proof. That there had been a baby.

People had asked right away at what point he had died, as if to assess his value. It became clear to her that a baby who died even seconds after it was born had more value, more legitimate tragedy, than one that one that died before it was born, even seconds before. As if to love a baby that had been in your body, you needed to first be introduced. So she became practiced in her answer to meet that criteria. He died during the delivery, she answered. People understood at once the heightened fear of a fetal monitor sounding a smoke alarm of distress. The haste and urgency of contractions and grasped breath. It had not happened in exactly that way, but it was true in the way that a good fiction is true, in that it spoke to the heart of the matter. People responded then, with the right gravity. It made the loss real enough for them and they honored her with the right to mourn an actual child.

She rarely said stillbirth, because of the coldness of the word, the fear and even disgust it evoked. It was a stillbirth, of course, but not in any sense of the word. Her husband had been at work. Her mother was there to look after her, but after years of no privacy, she did not remember how to confide in her. When she did her kick count and felt nothing, she called the doctor’s office and the nurse said to eat chocolate and try again. It was a Friday afternoon and she had heard the noise in the background. They were busy. She knew it was not a good time for them to see her. She knew this from the nurse’s voice and she hadn’t wanted to bother anyone. She ate the chocolate and tried the kick count a second time. When she felt nothing again, she simply got up and left the room, as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. She could not remember moments after, even, how she had come to be standing in the hall. Later, when her husband came home, she pretended to try the kick count for the first time. She was not deceiving him. She could not be sure there had been another try. Then she was sure of it, she had done the count only now, with her husband in bed beside her. When they paged him, the doctor said, with no alarm, that if it would make them feel better, to come in. He was bored even, patronizing. He said, “Babies sleep, you know.” He told them to bring their overnight bag.

She showered and spent her last minutes alone with the baby. She knew this fully as the drops raced the curve of her belly. She felt no hurry. She kissed her mother and said they would call her. At the hospital they put her in a wheelchair, it was routine and yet the most comfort she had felt in her entire journey. They were there now. She sifted back into the chair and felt herself like a child. Her husband kept pace as she was pushed ahead by the confident arms of the orderly. She heard nothing but for the wheels of the chair bucking like a shopping cart over the door jams. She saw herself this way, a pregnant woman, at a hospital, on her way to have her baby. The orderly slapped a large flat button and the doors opened out to them. They moved into the suddenly unharsh light of the maternity ward and her husband pressed her hand. The orderly parked the chair and tagged a nurse from an illuminated doorway at the end of the hall.

The young nurse asked questions and she answered them. She sent her husband to fill forms and then helped her up to a table, lifting her at the elbow. The nurse chatted about her plans for the weekend as she squirted the cold jelly on the globe of her belly and hunted for the small heartbeat, the purposeful whooshing steady like trees past a train. The first try yielded nothing, but they were still in the game. The nurse asked her to roll, turn a little. This was nothing new. The nurse tried again and now the nurse’s own heart was rising, making it hard for her to hear, making her distracted. The nurse’s body knew first, and although she had not believed it, her chest was understanding that there was no heartbeat to find. She hit the machine in a lie and did not even try for fled, run even. She looked up with all the knowledge that she had and before truth could be made of it, she fled. It is likely that she passed the husband, who would not have known her from any other nurse.

When her husband returned she made no pronouncements. “I guess she’ll be back,” she said, and she guessed she wouldn’t. A new nurse who did not look at them told them their doctor would be there in fifteen minutes. He was at a cocktail party, but they had paged him. They regarded the phone and the paper cover on the examining table and, in a firm agreement between them, said no words. The doctor would be there in fifteen minutes, which mattered not at all. They had all the time in the world.

They moved them into another room, in a hall they had not seen before, away from the breathing and clapping of air in the lungs of new babies. A large room with a table and low light. She knew it was not, but she believed it to be soundproof. No time passed until the doctor came in, embarrassed like a tardy dinner guest. “Later,” he said, “you will be angry at me.” “That’s normal,” he added. She had to ask and she was apologetic. “The baby?” For his reply the doctor bowed out. She had never actually seen that done before, but he held the door and lowered himself, as if they were pharaohs and could destroy him. From this they concluded, because no one had said the words, that the baby had died. But they could think of no reason to make it more true by saying so. The husband sat behind her on the table and made a circle of his arms around her belly. His head lay between her shoulders and breathed. The measure of that sound, the only proof that they were not completely still. They stayed that way, this family, for the longest time.

They had given her an injection to stop the milk. They shouted it out during the labor. She hadn’t answered or even been asked, but she heard it through the heavy blanket of drugs that now flowed through her. She heard the anesthesiologists brag how much better if they could manage all labor this way. But this baby is dead, she thought. She awakened to their brisk activity. They were unintimidated by her circumstance. The room was fully lit and populated by a confident second string. The nurse was the kind who it seemed was more at home at the hospital than at her own kitchen table where she sat at day’s end and took off her shoes. A blessing, her mother would call the nurse later. The chart would describe her as emitting an audible crying during the pushing phase. She would not remember, except for an awareness that her mother could hear her through the heavy metal door and might worry. She was crying, because she did not want to part with her son, whom she knew as well as herself. And she was having, not in that room, but in her body, a fight with G-d. They wrested over the infant and it was that, not pain, that caused her to cry out. Because it was a vigorous fight and only because G-d was barely stronger than she did he win. He showed her, even in his victory, complete compassion and put into her mouth the baby’s name.

He was stillborn, but not cold. Warm, perfect. His mouth as if painted red in a kiss. She looked at him in utter confusion. He was no more dead than she was. She could find nothing wrong with him. This was ridiculous. These people should be sent away. But instead a woman came, a volunteer like the ones in the gift shop and she wrapped the baby and put him in her arms and they took a picture, two just in case, with a Polaroid. And then they left. She had had to ask. The doctor was talking on a phone on the wall and absently jotting notes, the volunteer fanning the picture so it would come to life. She had asked the kind nurse, the one she had imagined rolling her white stockings, she had asked her permission to be alone with her baby, her baby who had died and lay still warm in her arms. And she had asked her timidly, she had asked if it would be alright. The nurse shooed the doctor and made a face that showed that she loathed him. The others, suddenly embarrassed by her request, excused themselves with muttered apologies. And then they were alone. Her good husband and her only son.

She tried to memorize him. The length of his fingers the softness of the back of his hand. And then she tried to find a way to love him less. The wet curls pressed to his head. She told herself she could not love those. And she was ashamed. She begged his forgiveness. And she kissed his closed eyes and felt herself at once punished to never have seen his dark eyes opened or filled his sweet hungry mouth.

The hospital chaplain had told her that the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were auspicious days to die. She knew this, because her father had died on those days the year that she was eleven. She had walked home after services with a group of friends from school. When she walked into her house, her mother was on a low chair surrounded by friends. When they told her that her father had died that day, at once of a heart attack, she had simply backed out the door. She bounded down the drive and caught up with her friends halfway down the block. “Don’t come for me tomorrow,” was all she told them, “I’ll just meet you on the steps at shul.” She walked back into her house moments later and was surprised to find her father still dead.

A young man, the cantor’s son, had been the shomar; and had stayed awake all night to guard the baby’s body. He was buried the next day, in the place where she would someday be buried, and she returned to her room where she opened cards and slept with her eyes often open to the blue light of the yarzheit candle. On the third day her milk came in. She felt mocked by it, a mother with no baby. She stood again in the shower, the water too hot, to try to soften her breasts, pressed to her like stones. She sat at the table in her robe and her mother placed the note on the table wordlessly. When she read it she did not feel generous or brave. She thought instead that if she were to do this, it would keep her from taking tranquilizers. And she wanted to resist them, because the pain was the truest thing she knew and she did not want to dull it. It let her stay with her son and it was almost not enough.

She sat on the side of the bed and let her robe fall open in the same lazy way she had seen new mothers. The pump sat on the nightstand beside her and she cupped a plastic trumpet to her breast. She read the instructions to herself and felt for a moment like a regular person reading. She had to put on her glasses and smiled at the image of herself, attached with these tubes to a machine. And then she rocked the switch to on. The noise and suction startled her. She winced at the pain and, finding the knob, dialed down the power. Then she waited. Now quieter and rhythmic, the air teased at her nipple and she watched fascinated, as if at someone else. The nipple stayed dry and resisted the persistent pull and her wish to produce milk. She let her head fall back and rest on the headboard and at once felt the pleasant ache of pressure. She opened her eyes and saw, like condensation, small beads of yellow white colostrum. She knew this to be the rich first food of infants. She fell again into rest and knew without looking that now streams of milk were shooting through the pump. She closed her eyes and saw herself young in summer, running her toes across the spine of the sprinkler, the sun breaking the water into sprays of diamonds. She felt the milk pull from her and watched again as it gathered in a sterile bottle. When her breasts were emptied, she sat up and turned off the pump. She wiped the milk with a washcloth and pulled her robe back around her. The milk collected in ounces and she detached the little plastic sleeve. This milk she would throw away because of the drugs used in the delivery. But later she would take six ounces twice a day to the freezer and tie them with a twist tie. Her husband would pack them in a cooler and drive them to the woman who knew the mother who had leukemia and could not nurse her infant. And that baby would grow and be stronger and move with grace into the world.

Racelle Rosett Schaefer is a writer who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. She is the recipient of a Writer’s Guild award for episodic drama for an episode of “thirtysomething.” This is her first published fiction.