2020-04-29


Reader's Advisory: This column contains a frank tribute to the breast, the hardest-working body part in show business.

Before we get down to the business of explaining midyear widowhood, you need to know this about me: I am no poster child for breast-feeding. My introduction to nursing was like induction into a religious cult. You know: the disrupted sleep, the repetitive tasks, the litany of trite homilies intended to numb the mind and paralyze the spirit into compliance. "Breast-feeding can be uncomfortable at first," the books said. Uh, yeah. Bruised, battered, and appalled to discover that new babies nurse every couple of hours around the clock, I spent the first six weeks of Mona's life alternately crying, berating my husband, and soaking my nipples in basins of salt water.

Then things got bad. I developed an infection in my left breast, and the hybrid cure my midwife devised had me stuffing cabbage leaves in my bra each morning, expressing milk with a Frankensteinian industrial-strength pump after every feeding, and popping a combination of homeopathic pills and narrow-spectrum antibiotics each evening.

Oh, and also trying to relax. The books were big on that. The first step toward successful nursing is to relax. So I did what any self-respecting woman would do. I took to my bed, hit the booze, and asked my husband to read me soft-core erotica.

OK, OK. I'll stop there. But when it's the gift of life you're talking about, and you are desperately tired and awash in crazy hormones, you just have to get the job done.

Flash-forward to widowhood. I discover that the rest-cure for grieving is much like the one for successful breast-feeding. Except I can't very well ask my in-laws to read me Penthouse Letters.

So anyway, I was home for a few days to settle unpleasant business: taxes, overdue work, insurance matters, and medical bills that had been hanging over my head since Gil died. Back in January, I arranged for Mona and me to escape for the summer to her grandparents' house in Massachusetts, the house where Gil grew up. We spent July going barefoot together in the clean, quiet streets, playing in the sandbox, visiting neighbors, and swimming at nearby ponds. Now it was time for me to fly home alone and tackle items that still gave me sleepless nights. Mona stayed behind to enjoy the New England summer with her grandparents.

My house was just as I'd left it. There was a pleasant scent of cool in the front hallway, and the scattered toys and magazines made it seem I'd only been gone a few hours, instead of a month. I opened mail, threw away things addressed to Gil, and headed upstairs to bed.

I'd forgotten my breast pump.

This thought occurred to me as I stopped to peek into Mona's empty room. Everything about this trip had been planned and re-planned, except for one crucial detail: My breasts would continue to fill on a toddler's schedule, ready for morning and evening duty. By tomorrow, I'd be sore and complaining if I didn't act now.

It was midnight. A drugstore was open somewhere, of course, but I'd have to grab a bus or cab to get there. In my neighborhood, neither is easy to find at that hour. I decided to take matters into my own hands.

From my kitchen I fetched a bowl and a clean jelly jar. I washed my face and climbed into bed, put on the classical station, propped a picture of Gil and Mona six inches in front of me, and tried to relax.

There I was in the privacy of my own bedroom--and what sad, abundant privacy it is now, too--doubled over a picture of my dead husband and my left-behind daughter, kneading my breasts with all the subtlety of a drunken prom date. Any dignity I might still have had evaporated with the first squirt of milk into the jar.

But as I warmed to the task, something better than dignity welled up in me and took its place. Call it the pioneer spirit. Call it pride of workmanship. These breasts of mine had been innocent ornaments for 35 years, firm and forthright, gawking at their various admirers without ever knowing a higher purpose than beauty. Now they had borne the pressure and pulling of a tiny mouth and little fists for 500 days. They were soft and a little southerly now, but tougher than ever, like old leather that's been worn and oiled and worn some more. Their very suppleness allowed me to wring them out like sponges. They work, they work hard, and at night they never even request a cold beer and a little soft porn anymore. They, and I, have forgotten we could ask.

It wasn't the first time I simply buckled down to do what had to be done. But it was the first time I felt the choice of action was entirely mine. And I realized I'd made a permanent change for the better.

I will always be the kind of person who does what she must. But over these months of living with loss, I have learned a lot about what really must be done. And at the end of each day, I've found that very little falls into that category. Morning after morning, I have made a little list--sometimes only one item long--and evening after evening, I have been forced to forgive myself the procrastination and exhaustion that are part of grief. I have kept Mona safe and happy, or called someone to do it for me when I couldn't. I have eaten and slept as sanely as I could, or called a friend or wept or bathed when I couldn't. I have written appeal letters to the tax man, the hospitals, and even my few remaining, oh-so-understanding clients. I have paid the bills from savings and Social Security. I have counted my blessings that I could do this much.

And on this night, although a suitcase full of bills and dunning notices sat waiting for me downstairs, I took some real satisfaction from checking off my modest list of two: produce a few ounces of milk, and get some sleep.

Tomorrow was another day. Maybe I'd start the morning list with three items: 1. Stop at the corner store. 2. Get a six-pack and a couple of magazines. 3. Relax.

Read the next installment of "Widow's Walk," All Vows Forgiven, or choose another column here:


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