Thawing Love

By March, the worst of the winter would be over. The snow would thaw, the rivers begin to run and the world would wake itself again.  -Neil Gaiman

I feel a piercing pain in my chest as I talk with my friend Libby about the inevitability of weaning my daughter Charlotte. My body begins to shake as images and stories emerge of the times she skirted death under the careful eye of NICU nurses, neonatologists, and thoracic surgeons.

Born with a rare congenital heart disease, her earliest nourishment came through intravenous electrolytes and a feeding tube. With this precarious start, it was nearly impossible to strengthen the oral muscles necessary for the arduous task of latching. It’s a miracle that she’s been able to nurse.

My milk was the only part of my own body that flowed into hers, my only means to sustain her life when so many other factors were out of my control. In the hospital, the warm sustenance from my breasts offered an antidote to the cold metal monitors and the pharmaceutical infusions.

Libby spoke compassionate words and encouraged me to name the war my body has fought to conceive, birth, and sustain life. Bringing life into this world has required Charlotte and I to experience both the brutality of bitter freezes as well as the warm hope of spring.

All three of my daughters were once microscopic blastocysts, composed of 100 cells, cryopreserved to -196 Celsius, the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The day of my transfer, the embryologist thawed each “frostie” as we affectionately named them, and placed them in a long sterile pipette sliding them into the warm soft lining of my uterus. I held delicate hope that I was carrying life in my womb, mustering faith that blood could pulsate through tiny veins and that hand and foot buds would form in the heat of my womb.

Because of her heart defect, Charlotte endured the most brutal of surgeries. Her body temperature was turned cold to preserve her brain, and her heart was drained of its own blood, which was mechanically ventilated through life support. Time froze as I handed her to an anesthesiologist and they walked through the door marked “Surgical Staff Only,” where two pediatric heart surgeons would carefully repair her four pulmonary veins, disconnecting and reconnecting them to create a normal circulatory pattern. After seven cruel hours, I held her cold, clammy hand in post-op. Tubes and monitors covered every inch of her skin.

I prayed desperately, “God, who can withstand your winter?”

My own body, a place where hundreds of stainless-steel needles passed hormones through the subcutaneous fat of my stomach, now pumped milk through a hospital grade pump. A nurse placed the milk in small vials marked “Blackston” and stockpiled it in the NICU deep freezer. A nurse’s shift routine was to warm that milk, allowing living cells called leukocytes to awaken. She placed it in a narrow feeding tube to flow through my daughter’s tiny nostril and into her belly. I held her, wondering if the milk would somehow soften the barbarity of what her small body had endured.

 During the time of Charlotte’s conception and birth, my own heart was going through a process of freezing and thawing. Months before my embryo transfer, I began to name dark stories of exploitation and betrayal that had been frozen in time for decades. I was six months pregnant with her when I traveled to Recovery Week. Charlotte was kicking as Dan Allender and my group laid hands on me, praying that soul ties would be broken.

My own longing for a mother, which had remained cool and numb for years, seemed to be painfully thawing. My own heart felt raw and cut open. I was vulnerable and unmanageable in the presence of my therapist, a kind and prophetic woman, whose voice and face seemed to both terrify and soften me.

I recently read that in Biblical times, according to Jewish customs, the time a child is weaned is cause for great celebration. A weaned child has survived the fragile stage of infancy and can now eat solid food.  As I read this, I felt a nudge from the Spirit of God. May I not only mark this space as a time of grief, but also a time of celebration for the ways my milk has sustained Charlotte’s life.

Last week, my husband looked at Charlotte’s scar, visible as she jumped in and out of our pool with vigor.  “She seems so sturdy and resilient now. As she becomes more independent, the sting of trauma seems more distant.” I will treasure and mourn the final moments when Charlotte toddles up to me with sass and says, “Mommy milk…this side please.” As this unique season ends, I am holding in my heart the miraculous journey that both of our bodies have endured.

Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks.   She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael cofounded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.