Ellie sighs in relief when she finds the pump room unlocked. It’s been five hours. Her day has been busier than usual, prepping her eight-month-old patient, Alice, for surgery. She fixes the plastic flanges to her breasts and feels a surge of relief as the rhythmic, chugging oscillations of the pump drain the pressure. She doesn’t even need to look at the picture of Layla she keeps in the pocket of her bag with an outgrown onesie. The milk jets into the bottle effortlessly.
Ellie’s coworker Jen, also recently back from maternity leave, complains about the time it takes her to pump, another task added to an already packed schedule, but Ellie doesn’t mind it. She relishes the moments with the door locked, when nobody asks anything of her.
But moments after Ellie sits back, someone knocks at the door.
“Occupied!” Ellie calls. “I’ll be about fifteen minutes!”
She closes her eyes and puts in her earbuds, but the knocking continues, growing into an insistent pounding. Making sure the flanges are held tightly in her bra, Ellie stands up, pulling her scrub top down over the whole contraption. Her patient is in surgery, and the unit has no scheduled admits this afternoon. There’s no reason for her to be bothered in her one place of refuge. She cracks the door, doesn’t attempt to disguise the annoyance in her voice.
“I’m not done in here,” she says.
Alice’s mother stands there, pump in hand. “Oh, it’s you,” she says. She’s forlorn in her threadbare yoga pants, mascara ringed around her eyes. “Sorry to barge in.” She looks down. “I haven’t been able to nurse since midnight, you know, because Alice couldn’t eat before surgery. Now the housekeeper is in the room so I can’t pump in there. Can we share?”
No, Ellie wants to say. No, this is the one place I go for a few minutes to be alone, and even this act is charged with service to someone else. No, I don’t want to sit here and think about your baby, who is probably going to die, who reminds me of mine, and who has exhausted me body and spirit this shift. No, no, no.
Instead, Ellie says, “Come in.” She pulls the footstool away from the chair and perches on it, leaving the recliner empty. “There’s another outlet there.” She points to the left of the chair.
Alice’s mom hesitates before taking the chair, but she sits down. Ellie closes her eyes, leaning her head against the wall as the woman assembles her pump and a second mechanical whoosh fills the air.
“How old is your baby?” the woman asks.
“Eight months,” Ellie responds, thinking of Layla’s chubby knees starting to scoot across the floor, her fists grabbing strawberries to mash with her toothless gums.
“Just like Alice! I had no idea.” The woman’s voice is overbright. “When’s her birthday?”
“August 8th,” Ellie responds, and then they say together, “a week before Alice.”
“Of course you know that,” the woman says. An oversized Dodgers shirt bunches over the flange against her breast. Her hair is greasy, her lips dry and chapped.
“I’m sorry, I should have waited to come in,” says the woman again. “Everything feels so urgent these days. Like, if I just pump enough of this ‘liquid gold,’ if I just manage to stay by Alice’s side all the time, if I just play every card right, she’ll be okay.”
She waits for Ellie to respond, but Ellie can’t speak. She’s worked on the pediatric oncology unit for three years, but since having Layla, it’s much more difficult to forget the specter of illness after clocking out. She’s making the same bargains, following the same rules, hoping to ward off catastrophe.
“Alice was exclusively breastfed until we started solids,” the woman continues. “Her baby food was homemade, organic. Even her clothes and blankets were organic. I was so, so careful to do everything right. But my baby still has cancer. They’re sticking tubes in her little heart, needles in her spine.” She looks tearfully at Ellie. “How can you stand seeing this every day?”
It feels like an accusation, an arrow against the stone wall Ellie has kept up all shift. As she took the baby’s vital signs, gloved hands against Alice’s pale skin dotted with petechiae; as she timed the drip of red blood cells into a tiny IV sticking out of a tiny, bruised arm; as she watched the woman now sitting across from her grapple with the implosion of her world, like an incantation her thoughts have pulsed: Don’t let this touch me, don’t let it plant a mine of fear in my heart, or I can’t do this work.
But here, in this enclosed space, she can’t avoid empathy. She is naked, her professional demeanor crumbling. Unwillingly, she pictures Layla with tubes in her throat, a hole in her chest wall, bruises over her spine. Ellie lets her mind go over the secret financial calculations she makes when she’s lying awake at night, Layla snuffling in the bassinet beside her. The adjustments she’d have to make if she quit to stay home. The question of whether she’d ever be able to leave the children in the white numbered rooms hooked up to beeping machines and yards of IV tubing.
She used to say she could never step away from nursing, that it was her vocation, her purpose. She’s not sure if that’s true anymore.
She meets the eyes of Alice’s mother for the first time, places her hand over the cold fingers gripping the side of the chair. “I can’t bear it, either,” Ellie says, voice breaking. She releases the woman’s hand and looks away. The pumps swoosh in the silence.