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Essay

THE LAST TIME YOU SAW your mother alive, she helped you heal from your C-section. It wasn’t what you planned, with your careful study of the benefits of natural childbirth, your doula, your pelvic carriage the midwife called beautiful. Your own mother’s births had been natural, her milk abundant. She always said that being a mother was the one thing she did right, even if she didn’t always do it well. At first, you’d asked her not to come after the baby was born. You didn’t want the interference or the fights. Now you think about how lucky it was that you needed her then. Now you can remember how she jumped out of the car and held your son before she hugged you. How immediate and consuming her love could be. How unfailing and stupid and true. She forgave you every time you let her down, but you can’t forgive yourself. Then you might forget how, when the tide of hormones changed in your body, your mother held you down with blankets until the shaking stopped. When your son spit up bloody milk, she rubbed lanolin on the scabs on your breasts. She swaddled your son and sang to him while you cried.

§

In ancient Rome, those in need could visit the Columna Lactaria in the market. There, wet nurses would feed your baby for a fee. You could also hire a wet nurse to live with you and take care of all your child’s feedings. In the first century AD, Sonarus recommended a wet nurse’s breasts be unwrinkled, soft, of medium size. The nipples couldn’t be too big or too small, neither too compact nor too porous, but soft and smooth. The Goldilocks ideal of breasts, the Pythagorean ideal. The wet nurse herself was required to be self-controlled, sympathetic, tidy. And Greek. Her traits would be transferred to the baby upon nursing. In the milk, that calm. In the milk, that moral cleanliness.

§

You wonder what you’ve already given your son—fear, awe, worry, exhaustion, a few ounces of your own blood. You’ve often been a disappointment as a daughter and hope you won’t fall short as a mother, too. At least you were not the first to harm him. The surgeon cut a millimeter too deep and split his flesh. Thank God it wasn’t his face, your mother says as you kiss the sliced and tender foot. He was breech, unwilling to roll down headfirst, stubborn as your own need. You were cut by the same scalpel he was, though your wound is deeper. The gauze keeps reddening. The clear glue holding the edges of you together barely seems like enough to keep you from coming apart. Maybe that is what you’ve given him—shared scar, shared history, same healing. Your mother prays for you, but you don’t know which Christ is coming for you—the one that’s a lamb, or the lion.

§

Scholars have translated the Greek word for lion to mean five different things in the Bible. You don’t understand how language could fail this abundantly. A single ferocious mammal could come to mean everything. Your mother doesn’t understand how you can stop going to church and still win Bible trivia every year at Christmas, as though attendance and curiosity were mutually exclusive. You remind her that you’ve been saved more times that you can count. It had become a source of rapture for you and embarrassment for her, that call to the altar and your reliable surrender. It just felt so good to know God wanted you each week without fail. And so you explain to your mother that you only did what God wanted of you, and when God went quiet, you went in search of him in quieter ways. You began to dissect words to discover their histories. You found the red words of Jesus. You found the lion. You began to find a lion in every book.

Your mother thinks God wouldn’t let himself be misinterpreted. He says what he means. In one out of five cases, she is right. One lion is, naturally, a giant cat named by Adam. Dear hunter who was surely a tame vegetarian until God found Abel’s bones rotting in the midden. Ruler of the pride. King of the beasts. The Lord who will lap the blood from your hip, that bone curve of sex and cradle.

§

In the story of the founding of Rome, the twin heroes Romulus and Remus are abandoned by their mother and nursed by a wolf. This may not shock you. Children have often been given goat’s milk or cow’s milk for nourishment, and interspecies nursing can go both ways. For several centuries, women nursed puppies to ease engorged breasts and to drink the colostrum. That first milk you’d been taught to call nutritional gold was once suspected of being tainted. When Mary Wollstonecraft lay dying of puerperal fever, her doctor ordered puppies to nurse from her breasts, believing it could help her uterus contract and expel the infected placenta that was poisoning her.

§

Your friend calls it vampiric, the hunger with which your son attaches to you, but you enjoy it. When you were wheeled into the recovery room after you’d been stitched shut, you saw your husband, shirtless, your newborn gumming him from collarbone to shoulder. He crossed your husband’s empty chest, dressing him with spit and instinct. When he was laid on your chest, your body knew. His mouth seizing your nipple was a familiar sensation, even though you’d never nursed before. It was a need you understood, a need you could meet—at least at first.

On the third day, when your son tries and tries and fails to latch, the lactation consultant comes in and shows you different holds and techniques. When these all fail, she attaches a double pump that tugs your nipples with regular compressed air cycles that simulate a child’s suck and gulp. This is how you learned one side was dry. Your son was frustrated and hungry because you kept trying to offer him the half of yourself that had nothing to give.

The lactation consultant consoles you. This happens, she says. It can still come in. They did, after all, have a milk bank at the hospital if it came to that. She is patient, untroubled, wise in the knowledge of the body and how it can nourish. And you know it was the mythical figure Philosophia-Sapientia, the personification of wisdom, who suckled philosophers. The breast was the site of such wisdom, such virtue. Even the Virgin Mary’s milk was equated with Christ blood. A picture from the Day of Judgment in the Hereford Mappa Mundi shows the Virgin displaying her breasts and making her plea for humanity. Christ intercedes before God by showing his wounds. Maybe blood and milk are both miraculous. Pilgrims flocked to Walsingham and Chartres to venerate the Virgin’s milk, allegedly contained in phials there as relics. Medieval mystics would meditate on the image of milk as a metaphor for the nourishment of the Christian soul, like a pearl foundering in cream. In the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux had a vision of drinking from the Virgin’s breast. His offering was devotion. Her milk, the reward.

And then it happens. It arrives as promised. That weight in your chest descends. Your own milk is the reward of biology and a patient lactation consultant. There was no pilgrimage, meditation, or vision, but you thank God anyway. You’ve always had a talent for offering God that which he has no use for.

§

The Roman goddess of filial piety, Pietas, conducted her sacrifices by fire and altar. Unlike other virtues, putting parents and country before self was not a gift from the gods, but an inborn desire. Or at least it should be. Children who failed to honor their parents needed to perform diaculum, expiatory rites, for the infraction. Usually the expiation involved an animal sacrifice upon an altar. Blood has always been such an easy symbol of atonement, as if it were your own you were shedding.

You always struggled with apologies, even when you knew you were wrong. Like every time you valued honesty over kindness. But your mother was the one who taught you this—to confess to crimes no one had discovered yet, to admit your own thoughts as if the cruelties of imagination needed to confess themselves to an audience. You secretly felt that the person to win an argument should be the stronger one. And in the contest between you and your mother, that person would always be you. You hated her need for words, for those two words in particular. In fact, some days you hated her need in general. You’d rather make it up to her by slitting a pig’s neck and letting it bleed out on a stone.

§

Your mother has always loved Job. His patient suffering. His enduring faithfulness. You’ve always detested his compliance, the easy way he accepted another set of children to replace the ones God allowed to die. But you have to admire how he argues. Some scholars say Job proves his faithfulness because he wins the argument with his friends about God by simply being more poetic. His metaphors are better than theirs. The lion in God is the snake in God is the whirlwind swayed by an image. No one could deny God’s power in the face of Job’s suffering and how he rendered that suffering into language.

In this way you realize you and your mother do have something in common. You admire Job, too. Not his faith, but the quality of his verse, his deft allegories. It’s about time you realized God cares about rhetoric. Your own sentence depends on it.

§

You didn’t argue with your mother but accepted right away that she wanted to dress your three-day-old infant in little costumes for pictures. Tiny elf. Sweet pea. Topped with a bow like an early gift. You congratulated yourself on this accommodation of her desires, her perennial insistence on showing her love through images. How she framed your son in photos. How she re-wrapped all your presents under the tree. You love beauty too, so for once, you were grateful. You were finally kind.

Though you noticed your mother had a hard time breathing as she helped you clean your sutures, you won’t really start to worry until the second time she’s in the emergency room. You have been too focused on sleeping, nursing, sleeping, eating, nursing, trying to unhook your snarled hair from the brush. You take your son on walk after walk as the ground thaws and you think about your mother. Why she’s vomiting. Why she’s weak. Why blood tests show nothing.

§

Like so many miraculous things, breast milk was thought to be a curative. Queen Isabella’s pharmacist stocked human milk as a restorative for when the queen was ill. Pope Innocent VII prescribed himself breast milk for his various ailments. Even you dabbed milk on the corners of your son’s eyes when they started to seal shut, thinking: Maybe it will work. And it did.

§

The Columna Lactaria in Rome was also a place babies could be abandoned. It was presumed that a wet nurse would see the forsaken child and take pity upon it. A friend tells you that when her daughter was three months old, she tried to sell her baby on the internet. Before your son was born, you would not have understood this. But now between your sleepless worry about how many ounces he is drinking and how you can get more than three hours of sleep and how your mother told your uncle that she didn’t think she was going to make it—and it took a minute before you understood what she meant by make it, and your hands shook, and your son would not stop crying—and you knew that you, too, would have to abandon one love or another. And your son was still so new. Your history together only contained kicks and then cries. Surely there was someone else out there who was better prepared, or stronger, or had a mother with a strong heart the next town over.

God tried to show you what to do, but you are no Ruth. You would not stay by your mother’s side no matter what. You would not go where she would go. Her people were not your people. Her God was not your God. There was no way on God’s green earth you’d pick up discarded threshings like it was charity, no way you’d lay yourself at Boaz’s feet. You had a life to live. You embraced your freedom like a son.

It’s about time you learned that the quality of mercy is as weak as the tendons in your knees. Even the dark comes when you name it. So does the lion when you call it king. Gift-burdened, he rides with two wise friends under a rare star to drink the milk leaking on your shirt.

§

Your husband jerks back and looks down at your body with surprise. Mmm, he says. What? you ask, and he says, Milk. You look down at the watery white pearl that buds on your left nipple before rolling off. You both thought you were done with this. Dry. He thought your breasts belonged to him again, but then this wet reminder of your son in the next room. Your body a geography of nourishment, pleasure, and comfort shared between father and son. What does it taste like? you want to know. I don’t know, he says, and then more quietly: Sweet.

§

Romans could also go to the Columna Lactaria to hire a woman for erotic nursing. Those who felt undeniable lactophilia could resume the relationship they began with breasts when they were minutes old. In this, the breast could be a source of nourishment, of pleasure, of power. Nearby, in the temple of Pietas, was a painting of an old motif—Roman Charity. The woman in the painting is a daughter, just like you used to be. Remembered for her actions, she is nameless now. But her mother gave her one, even if history has forgotten it, two syllables plucked from the air. Pretty, that’s what all mothers hope for. A pretty name they’ll never want to say in anger.

§

If the lion is Christ, then he is also the lamb, or you are the lamb, or you are the woman in the painting baring the whites of her eyes to heaven while she feeds her father. This rare, obscene mercy. This way only a daughter can save. In the background are Roman guards who will discover her act and pardon her starved father, awed he was honored like that.

§

Before your sister phones and you hear code blue, code blue repeating on the hospital intercom, you were examining the Book of Luke, that doctor among fishermen. You’d been arguing with a friend about Christ’s last words, but you were both right. The gospels couldn’t keep their stories straight. Luke and John in their late remembered testimonies said Jesus cried: It is finished. Or, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Darling son. Dear trust. It was Matthew and Mark who wrote that it ended with Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani. They say the sky went dark because God could not watch his only son die, and his son wanted to know My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But Mary watched, as perhaps only a mother can. And when the Roman soldiers took Christ down, she held him. She cleaned his body. She prepared it for burial.

In the last letter your mother wrote you, she said: Will write more soon. You ask your sister what your mother’s last words were, and your sister says the last time she saw your mother alive she just kept shaking her head. I think she was too weak to talk. Stop worrying about whether or not your last words were kind. That’s not where you failed.

§

Your sister says it was good you sent your Mother’s Day present early. You’d shopped weeks before, laid fabrics across your wrists to test their softness, judged the rose patterns against one another. You’d sent them express to make sure they arrived in plenty of time, thinking your mom might like some new pajamas in the hospital, a way to feel pretty in the starched and stiff bed. Your sister gave them to your mother the day before, and your mother said she couldn’t wait to wear them. You decide to bury her in them.

§

Though your mother left a list of objects that should belong to you, all you want are a few photos and her old pajamas. Even though the smell of her fades, you wear her red pajamas every night, refusing to sew a new button where she’d clipped a safety pin, the thin, cold metal resting against your breastbone at night. Your sister said the hospital gowns were what your mom hated most in her last days. She complained about them to a nurse who told her to get over it. No one cared. They saw naked bodies every day. That did not console your mother. She didn’t see why illness and privacy could not coincide.

Your mother was shy about her body. In Brazil she grew up thinking she was half man, half woman because puberty was so slow to arrive. She said other girls would tease her, and she would run into the jungle after school almost every day and pray that God would finish making her a woman. Even after he did, he made her modest, too. She would refuse to change in front of you, and your easy way with your body shocked her. You liked that. Shocking her. Both because you liked making people uncomfortable and because you thought she could learn from you, you who knew what it was to be brave.

But one day she said she wanted to surprise you. One bright Florida afternoon, she showed you her breasts in the bathroom mirror. It stunned you. You didn’t believe you had inherited this particular beauty or this particular courage. The most beautiful part of your body is the scar you’ll never show your son, red grimace whitening between your hip bones like a scythe, and he the reaping. Pain’s cruel reminder: alive, alive, you’re alive. He doesn’t know you cry when he naps, cry as you push the stroller, cry when you think about the mercy that should’ve been yours. Even now, you’d give anything, like the woman in the painting holding her father’s mouth to her breast.

§

Your mother used to talk about her death when you were a child, describing how to remember her, down to the last floral detail, as if she already knew the absence she was preparing. Sometimes in her last few years she would seek it, that kind of pain that could knock her out, gift her with numbness. You could hear her on the other end of the phone, not her voice, but her body’s thump thump thump against the wall as if she had the courage or will to beat herself hard enough for that blissful black fog to find her. Thump, she tries. Thump—the whole force of her body launched at the wall—thump—as if one quick pain could help her escape the rest of it. Thump. You called for help from six states away while your sister put herself between your mother’s body and the wall, and you knew your mother’s walls were green, her bed was probably unmade, that she put on makeup before she cried. When the police arrived, she would be embarrassed. Not at the extremity of sadness or the dents in the wall, but the messiness of her house, the unbeautiful way her mascara leaked down her undammed cheeks.

§

By now you know God’s not much of a talker. When your mother died you had milk to give and no way to reach her, but that’s not why you’re guilty. Her death hurt you. Her suffering never did. If the lion is also the devil, unbutton your shirt and feed him.


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