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The Reservoir: A Postpartum Reverie

The way he looks up at me when I'm breastfeeding, the white at the edge of the iris tender, the iris dark sea color softening the way a wave does just before it breaks on the sand.

Or how, asleep on my breast, his mouth loosens and his head rolls back, and through his parted lips I see the curl of the tongue, still beating out its soothing rhythm. How then he will rouse himself, jerking forward, grasping for the nipple, still stretched out and flattened by the anvil of his tongue. But he can't hold on, and his head rolls back again, and this time the eyes too roll up behind the pale skin of his lids, etched with fine red lines.

Or when he pulls off the breast with a satisfied pop and turns his chin up to face me, eyes closed, his cheeks appear fatter, his head more oblong. Maybe he's most beautiful then, when he does this. My breasts wax and wane in the rhythm of his needs. When they are full, the nipples tighten in a circling motion, as if some peg inside me is being turned. Once you get used to it, latch on is a wonderful feeling. Like pulling the plug on a bathtub so all the tension in you just flows out.

His cry from the beginning surprised me. More like a "lah, lah" than a "wah, wah." I hear its music, even when it upsets me. So soft and plaintive. I wouldn't have believed before knowing him that his cry would not make me angry. Sad and flustered, but not angry. At least not yet.

Sometimes, despite myself, I laugh. This is usually when he's just fussing, complaining about nothing in particular. As he continues with a hiccup series of cries, the laugh comes up out of me. I hug him tight, and laugh hard, like you do when you're a teenager sitting around with friends and get the giggles for no reason.

Anyone I cared to consult would most probably tell me not to let him stay asleep at my breast. But more often than not, I let him lie there, his head balanced in the crook of my arm, no matter that my muscles tremble from the strain of holding him so long. It doesn't matter how relaxed and asleep he is now, so soon as I shift his weight, pivot myself forward and onto my feet, the breastfeeding pillow toppling to the floor, no matter how gently I set him down onto his back, as my arms pull away his eyes fly open, instantly awake. Most often he sweetens the pot with a smile, that will turn to a frown and wail if I leave him. So more often than not, particularly on those days when I don't have the nanny coming in, I'll let him stay there, cheek against my breast, and either nap myself or keep reading the book or magazine I've managed to prop between my free arm and the other hand and the pillow he rests on. (Note to newspaper publishers: it is impossible to read a newspaper while breastfeeding. Even a large magazine is a struggle to keep upright.)

So many times when this happens I lose track of time. After he wakens with a start, those dark eyes focusing on me in recognition—I think—then I can move him over to the other side, where he will suck himself avidly once again into sleep and the cycle will start again.

In this way, you could spend a whole day, nursing and reading and napping. Aside from the wear on the nipples, it doesn't sound that bad. I'm sure the pediatrician would not approve.

Sometimes I wish I'd studied painting or drawing or sculpture and then I wouldn't have this torture of dealing with words, of weaving individual strands of experience into skeins of language. But sometimes it's as if his pull on my nipple tugs my imagination into action, releasing the flow of words.

He's not always a calm feeder. Sometimes he kicks his top leg, arches his back, and pulls the nipple back with him as he comes off, as if he's slurping on a long strand of spaghetti. He lays one hand proprietarily on the round topside of my breast. His other hand is tucked underneath, never far from his mouth. Sometimes he pushes backwards, pressing his wrists and palms against the surface. Sometimes he lifts the top fist and bangs it down, as if to release the flow. I try to read something about his essential character as it will reveal itself in later life—his passion, tendencies, proclivities, but give up, deciding that can't be done. One can best see the child in the man through hindsight; I am happier to believe in a wide open, unpredictable future.

I find myself singing to him. I make up songs as I'm going along. And pieces of songs from my childhood, ones I'd thought I'd forgotten—"I'm a Little Teapot," "I've Been Working on the Railroad," with its rousing chorus of "Dinah, won't you blow," and also the songs my mother used to sing at bedtime, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham"--come back to me. There are also the bittersweet Christmas songs—"Silent Night," "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem." When I was a shy, scared child the words "among thy deep and dreamless sleep" and "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight" gave voice to the ache and yearning that up until then I believed I suffered alone. Now, these all seem unbelievably beautiful and poignant, enough to carry all the emotion I could ever feel.

This story has no plot. If you define plot as the unusual, the unexpected. As they say, man bites dog is news because it doesn't happen very often, while dog bites man is only what you might expect. This story has happened over and over and over and will go on happening as long as there are still human beings giving birth or caring for newborns. No less remarkable, though, for all that.

The body lives in the present; it's the mind that time-travels.

When I was seven months pregnant, my mother died. She had a stroke on an airplane; somewhere in that never-never land above the clouds, she fell asleep and the vessel burst its bounds and bloomed into her brain. When my father discovered her and alerted the crew, the pilot landed and they brought her right to a hospital. My father was with her those last days, before we made the decision to disconnect the tubes that helped her breathe. He talked to her, relived their travels, told her he loved her, brought news of me and the little boy I was carrying.

My father is happy to see his grandson, of course, but even as he holds him, he's reminded of her. It's not just the mouth he recognizes, but that all his experiences trace back to that loss, too large to swallow. Everything he experiences now, he experiences alone, without her. A fact he cannot forget, and that keeps bowling him over again and again, like waves in a strong surf.

He grieves mightily and openly, beautifully and horribly. Everything reminds him of her, and yet he seeks the reminder, tends her memory the way he resolves to tend to house and garden, make them bloom for her.

A year ago I learned that I was pregnant for sure, the cells that would become my son growing and dividing even then. On the mantelpiece is a card with a photograph taken from the garden of Tor House, the stone cottage the poet Robinson Jeffers built, not far from my parents' house. In the foreground is the deep rugged green of the California coast, dots of color from blooms of flowers I cannot name, and in the distance the ocean, topped by foam, biting into the jagged rocks of this shore. Jeffers' wife, Una, tended the garden while he celebrated the wildness of nature on this coast.

My father tells me that in retrospect he could see that she knew something was going to happen. The night before the flight, she stayed up late working at her desk. In vain my father tried to lead her to bed. "I have to," he says she told him. "I just have to finish." In the few months before that, he says, he'd come in from outside or another room. "She'd look so sad," he says. "I'd ask her, 'Do you feel depressed?' and she'd say, 'No, I don't feel depressed.' I'd ask her if she was taking her anti-depressant. 'Yes,' she'd say, she was. And I'd hug her and say to her then, 'We can do anything we want to today. Anything you want. It's just you and me.'"

Late afternoon in late November, the sky a soft charcoal haze. I sit on the couch. My son quietly feeds. My father is reading. I look over and see his hands loosening, head rolling forward. I look down to see that my son has fallen off the breast. Then, as I watch them, as if they are connected by a thread that someone has just pulled, they jerk awake simultaneously.

It hasn't even been six months, I'm thinking, and then he says, "It'll be six months next week."

He says he thinks of her every hour. "How could it be otherwise?" I say. I don't know how to help him through his pain and loneliness, or if I can. He says he wouldn't want it to be otherwise. He says he likes to be among her things, reminders of their life together. He likes to go places they've been. He says that he'd hate most of all being numb. He says he feels alive. He should be along familiar things, he should not be rushed in his mourning. And yet, I don't want him to wallow. But can I discern the difference between sadness and depression, mourning and wallowing? He says to me, "You have your own life." True, and he has his.

The day he left was damp and foggy. The mist was supposed to lift but it didn't-- appropriately for the cocoon of feeling that coalesced around me.

In the late afternoon, we fed on the couch and watched the darkness encroach. The house across the way had strung a row of small white lights along the eaves. That glowing a lifeline in this season. What I want for Christmas is comfort stuff: food, hot drink, soft fabrics and most of all light. In the first weeks after I gave birth, I wanted to be cared for as I learned to care for my son. I wanted someone to shield and pamper my shell-shocked body. I wanted my mother.

Our bed remains unmade more often now. I never understood before why such a small task could be difficult. It's not that it takes a long time, it's that you can't even find those two-three minutes. Tasks once leisurely completed must now be parceled out into their components, performed separately with the hope that an eventual harmony will result.

When my son cries, he seems to be crying for all of us. The day is overcast, and we are spending the late afternoon in his room, with windows facing west, to catch the best of the light before it goes away completely. As we watch, the sun turns a cloud a peachy gold for a moment.

His eyes are the color of water, or its many colors: deep blue, green, gray and brown. They are the kind of dark that burns though the darkness when he's restless or hungry at night. When I stand over his crib they pierce me with a knowledge beyond comprehension.

I grew up near a number of reservoirs. Three within easy walking distance of our house fed the town at the bottom of the hill. The Quabbin, serving metropolitan Boston, was only a short drive away. (None of this water was stored for us; our neighbors and we got our water from individual wells.) Any number of times, I have run and rolled down the enormous grassy hill that blocked the river's flow. Viewed from the air, Quabbin is shaped like a hand, with long fingers stretching from the main channel. Up close one discovers that this design is replicated at each level of detail: each finger in turn branches into other long channels, which in their turn give way to smaller channels, and on down, as veins and arteries narrow to smaller and smaller capillaries.

Once, after a Columbus Day picnic, a group of kids and I were exploring and scrambling up a ridge and looked down suddenly in one of these finger capillaries. The water was the color of deep tea, glinting below a covering of red and yellow leaves. At one end, a small brook trickled over a concrete lip--drool from a dragon's open mouth. That night I dreamed that I was in a car with my mother. She was driving too fast and we barreled off the road through the trees, down the slope toward the water. There was a bridge, but it was incomplete, reaching only halfway across. I begged my mother to stop, but she said eagerly, "We can make it," and she floored the car just as we hit the edge of the bridge and we went flying up in the air and came down in the dark water which I was terrified to let my body touch.

The water of the local reservoirs was the same tea-in-a-wine-bottle color. The two I liked most you reached from a dirt road behind the United Church at the end of our street. The closest one, which we called "the first," was a picturesque, round pond not far from the road. It was easy to walk clear around it, using the small white painted plank bridge across the feeder stream. From there you would follow a trail up to cluster of rocks that created a natural overview. You could climb down onto the rocks by the outlet and feel the spray from the waterfall. In drier times, it was even possible to walk across the lip of the dam, carefully, watching out or slippery spots of moss or algae. A well-maintained stone pump house with glossy, red painted doors emerged some yards from the shore, with a another white plank bridge leading out to and fully around it.

The second reservoir was wilder, further up the road, and a further hike in as well. It featured a long, gradual spillway, rather than the waterfall drop-off of the first reservoir. As you made your way gradually up the hill, the sounds of water would intensify imperceptibly. If you were walking with a companion, you wouldn't notice until you would suddenly realize that your voice had been rising and now you were shouting to be heard. Still the water would be hidden by the dense screen of pines, until you reached the top of the rise, where the landscape suddenly flattened and you looked out onto the surface. A crumbling concrete rectangle stood some way from the shore, with a small tree growing out of its top, bringing to mind an abandoned castle in some damp, northern land. The first time my father came here, with his friend and our dog, it was winter, and the dog unwittingly walked out on the lake's snow-covered surface. The ice was not strong enough to hold her, and she fell through. My father and his friend waded in and managed to rescue her. My father dried her off and wrapped her in his coat. "We almost lost her," he said.

Despite or perhaps in part because of that history, I came to love the second reservoir. While the first was charming and welcoming, the second attracted me from that first visit for its mystery and indifference. For all the times I went there, I never saw another person not accompanying me.

The first time I came was with my father, the afternoon of Christmas Eve. It was overcast and I remember that what sun there was had already sunk below the trees. We hiked to the rhythm of our breaths and the sound of the water. It was dusk by the time we started back. At home my mother greeted us with hot drinks and dinner, and I felt like an explorer who had been away for years and seen wondrous things.

In the late afternoon light, I see my son ice skating on the second reservoir. The surface appears opaque at first, but it's luminous, like hair, letting off deep highlights of gold and red when the light hits it. He is big now, tall, and I try to focus on his face because I'm so curious about what he will become, but he keeps darting away and I can't quite see. He etches patterns in the hard ice. The shavings fly from his feet. Unseen beneath him, the river makes its way as it has always done. There is no force of nature, no human-engineered dam, strong enough to stop what wants to flow from flowing, only to suspend that motion for a moment, which has to be enough.

{The Reservoir: A Postpartum Reverie appeared in slightly different form in Amoskeag, Vol. 22, #1, Spring 2005}