Mother’s Milk

She cried incessantly while I tried to coax a fire to life in the old, wood-burning, pot bellied stove. The house was cold and my breasts were hardened with the milk that refused to release. I wanted to lay down and cry with her, but that wasn’t an option. My baby and I were cold. My little boy, only a year and a half, would wake up any minute from his nap to the cold, and I had no one there to help me. I wanted to cry in frustration as the flame went out from underneath the logs once again in another failed attempt at heat. I had to make this fire work.

I held little Mircea, only a week old, to my chest with one arm while lifting a couple more logs into the stove with the other, setting my weight back on my heels. Her small infant hands grabbed at the neckline of my milk stained nightshirt, her mouth opening in whimpers and sobs. I remembered Kerry, mom’s roommate, had said something about newspaper helping start the flames so I added some crumpled up newspapers to the mix. I had never made a fire before and so much was riding on making this work, there in that old ranch house.

I had fled there only weeks ago from where he had kept me prisoner for months. My belly heavy with my baby girl, nothing but shorts and a tank top on in the middle of winter, and my little boy, confused as to why mommy was finally taking them away from that house of horrors. I had broken down the locked door to the garage in a house I was unfamiliar with. I knew in my bones that he would kill me. He had threatened to take my cell phone, my last connection to life, and the little bit of desire to survive sparked back up in me, and I became a mother bear, ready to die for her young. He was driving to take “care of me” and could be merely minutes away by now. I carried Caden out into the cold night, knowing he could arrive at any minute. He had slashed the front passenger side tire of my old Honda Civic. It didn’t matter to me then, I had to drive until the damn thing fell off if only to get us as far from that house as possible.

I’m not sure why it wasn’t enough when he raped me. I’m not sure why it wasn’t enough all the times he choked me into unconsciousness. I will never know why I didn’t love myself enough to leave earlier. But I knew this much, I loved him more than I loved myself for too long. A mother’s instinct, an ancient tool passed down for generations before me, a primal itch that must be acted upon by both beast and man, lit the sparks in me to a raging fire and I finally ran.

The civic sputtered to life and I started driving the wobbly vehicle away in the first direction I saw. I did not know the neighborhood. I didn’t really know where he had been keeping us, but I could see the main highway a few miles off, lit up like a holiday. I simply followed that old voice within, a mother’s voice, to flee from a predator.

I drove several blocks away into another neighborhood, Caden repeatedly saying “mama” from his car seat, not as a question, but as an answer. He knew I was taking us away from certain harm somehow and it seemed he was cheering me on.

“Mama. Mama. Mama.”

It felt like a mantra. I had to remember who I was and what I was to save us.

I found a dark cul de sac, nearly a mile from where he would be searching for me. I pulled out my phone and with shaky hands, I did the one thing that he had assured me would end my life. I dialed 911.

Caden and I waited for two hours for the police. The baby was quiet in my belly and Caden, being his usual happy and jovial toddler self, was blowing raspberries at me. We had made several games while waiting in the car for the police to come. I played peek a boo, popping up from behind the driver’s seat, much to his squealing delight. All the while I was keeping a nervous eye on the road, fearing the Christopher would find us and it would all be over.

Headlights appeared from the main road, turning onto the cul de sac and pointing directly at my windshield, blinding me. I did not know if he had found me or if the police were finally here to save us. I hit the lock button on the doors, even though I had locked them several times over in the past couple hours for fear he would come any minute.

Two police officers stepped out of the vehicle and approached my driver’s side door. I glanced in the rear view mirror before opening my door to the officers. I never knew what he could pull, to what lengths he would go to get me back in that garage where he held me captive. I stepped out into the frigid night air, wearing nothing but my shorts and tank top I used for sleeping.

“Ma’am, are you Miss Hoffman?” said the older officer, taking out a small notepad and pen.

“Yes, sir. I called.” I replied, shaky from fear and the winter chill.

“What seems to be the problem tonight?”

“My husband, he…” I trailed off. Suddenly it sounded crazy. Christopher was always telling me I was crazy and that was why I made him do things. What if these officers thought the same thing? What if I really was crazy and Christopher had been saving me from myself? It had been days since I had eaten and I was no longer sure of anything anymore.

“There’s a child in the back seat.” the older officer’s partner said, as though I may have been keeping this a secret.

I looked at Caden, his large brown eyes taking us in. He was resting his head back on the car seat, sucking his thumb.

“You were saying something about your husband, ma’am?” the older officer addressed me again.

“Um, yes. He has been keeping me locked in a garage not far from here. He keeps food from me unless I….unless I give him what he wants. He is a registered sex offender and he threatened to kill me tonight. I left.”

“How did you leave, if you were locked in the garage?” the officer said with a smirk.

“I just, I dunno. I busted down the door. I can’t….” I couldn’t remember clearly and then I could see from their perspective; if things were really that bad, why hadn’t I left before it came to this?

The younger officer, a man in his mid-thirties stepped forward so I could see him better. He had short brown hair, cut military style and light green eyes, much like Christopher’s. He shone a light on my arms and chest, looking for injuries or bruising.

“She has a couple bruises on her wrists and arms.” he stated to the senior officer, as though I weren’t standing right there in front of him.

The officer wrote something down in his notepad.

“I want to press charges and have a restraining order in place. I ran and now he is really going to be pissed.” My voice shook, but I tried to remain strong. I didn’t want to upset Caden who was still watching everything from the back seat. I had to remain calm.

“Press charges for what? And if you’re trying to say he raped you, you can’t be raped while pregnant with a man’s child. I don’t see how anything can be proven. You got away and now you are here. You can’t even tell us the address where he is, can you?” The senior officer’s tone was now confrontational and I began to feel like a fool.

“No, I can’t. But I can show you were the house is. He is probably there now looking for me.”

“The best thing for you to do is find another place to stay, ma’am. Obviously staying with him isn’t working out and you have a kid to worry about, and another on the way.”

I shivered in the cold and secretly hoped they would offer me a jacket. They never did.

“What do I do if he finds me? I have a flat tire too. I don’t think I can make it that far. If I break down and he finds me…” I felt defeated. It was cold and I felt like a complete fool for putting Caden and I in this predicament. But I didn’t know what else could have been done.

“We can call you a tow truck, but that may be awhile. For now, ma’am, you should probably go home and see if this can’t all be worked out. Couples fight. Now if you don’t have another place to go, we can take your son back to their father for you until you get things figured out”

I felt a wave of shock and shame roll over me, reddening my face and raising goosebumps on my arms and the back of my neck. They were not going to help me or worse, these officers would probably deliver me right back into my captor’s arms.

I couldn’t let them resolve this. I had to find another way.

“You know what, I will make my own way back. Thank you for your help. I apologize for the trouble”

“Anytime, ma’am.” The senior officer said, flipping his notepad shut and heading back to his squad car, his rookie in tow.

I slipped back behind the wheel of the civic and closed the door, locking it immediately. I knew I had to move in case the officers met up with Christopher and they were to show him where I was.

The instant the squad car was out of sight, I turned on the car and pulled back out onto the main road. I had one place I knew I could go, even though I was ashamed.

I had to take the main, four lane highway to the next town over 10 miles away, hoping the flat tire would not keep me from making it. I don’t remember the drive, all I know is that we made it there.

My mom lived with a friend in an old ranch house in a rural area called Winchester. Mom was expecting me since Christopher had called her, notifying her of my disappearance. She had me park the nearly disabled vehicle behind an old barn on the property, obscuring it from the view of anyone passing through on the road. It was just past midnight.

I pulled a sleeping Caden from his carseat and set him on my hip, head on my shoulder as mom and her roommate, Cheryl, helped me navigate the uneven ground in the dark, leading to the main house.

The floor creaked as we stepped inside the old ranch style home and mom shut the door quietly behind us. She then took me into her soft embrace and held me tightly for a long time. I had been sparing her the pain of knowing how bad things were. But she knew as any mother would. I had been asking her to leave bread at the garage door of the house and when she pressed as to why, I never gave her the entire story.

She led me to the large kitchen where Cheryl was preparing tea. I sat on a barstool at the center island counter and mom got me a glass of water. Cheryl offered me tea which I politely refused and she then excused herself so that mother and daughter could talk in privacy. Mom took Caden from me so I could rest.

“He called me, you know. He said you were unstable and he thought you were going to kill yourself. He was going to make it look like that, wasn’t he?”

I was too tired and shocked to cry. I simply nodded.

“That son of a bitch.”

I drank some of the water, cool and refreshing, bringing me comfort as I felt it fill my empty stomach.

Mom went into the living room and laid Caden on the couch, tucking his blanket around him.

“I told him that if I didn’t hear from you within the hour, I was having him arrested.” Mom said, making her way back to the kitchen.

“I met with the police mom. They wouldn’t do anything. They threatened to take Caden from me if I couldn’t ensure that I had another place to go tonight.”

Mom sighed deeply, leaning forward on the counter. Her short, auburn hair framed her soft face as her green eyes sparked with anger and pain. I knew her newly replaced titanium hips were aching from standing for so long.

“Well, you are here now, you are safe. But you can not tell him where you are, Becca. This has to be it. He can not know.”

I nodded slowly. I then reached into my bag and withdrew my phone. I handed it over to her.

She turned it off.

I knew I couldn’t be trusted to not reach out to him eventually. It was a sickness I would later learn as Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological bond with one’s captor and abuser which causes them to seek them out, defend them and even empathize with them. I still loved Christopher in a sick and obsessive way and I wasn’t safe with my own self anymore.

Mom walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a couple tupperware containers filled with chicken and rice.

“You need to eat. When was the last time you ate?”

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I was skin and bones except for my large belly full of baby girl, an unplanned child in the midst of my first attempts to leave Christopher.

After I ate my mom’s home cooked leftovers, she settled me on to the couch in the living room with my slumbering baby boy and several spare blankets from the hallway closet.

A few days later, my sister, brother in law, and retired marine corps friend named CJ returned to the house with me to retrieve my few belongings. I was always able to find it by landmarks. We had learned through some mutual friends that Christopher was out of town, making a new home with his girlfriend. I stayed in the car while the men worked with my sister, retrieving everything I had listed that I needed.

I spent the final days of my pregnancy alone in that large ranch house while mom and her roommates went to work and about their daily routines. I cared for Caden in a daze and made to-do lists for us to keep my mind and hands busy.

11:00 AM; take Caden out to the garden to play in the flowers and climb the tree.

12:00PM; read the baby magazines mom had picked up from work for me, refreshing my infant care skills. Lay Caden down for a nap.

After a few weeks of this, one day I very nearly checked out. There is only so much heartache one can bear before they make any attempt to dull the pain. My attempt came in the form of delusional denial.

Mom had just come home from work and settled in her room when I came in, carrying Caden on my hip. I put him down on the rug in her room and closed the door. Caden immediately began chasing her rescue persian cat under the bed, squealing in glee.

“I’m not going to have the baby.” I declared to mom, sitting in her desk chair.

“What?” she replied, unsure of what I meant.

I shifted my weight in the chair, trying to get comfortable with my large belly.

“I’m not having the baby. I’m just not going to.” I said, hearing myself from far away. There was an echo everywhere I went in those days, a distance between myself and the screaming inside my head, an effort to function minimally if that.

My beautiful mom, the one I had taken to comforting during the majority of my life while she had suffered through her divorce, illness, and homelessness, drew in a deep breath of quietly assured strength, a strength I knew was always inside her but that I rarely experienced since I was always her supportive partner more than a daughter. She was resting on her stomach on her bed and she drew herself up onto her elbows, her green eyes set lovingly on me, but firm in their gaze.

“You are having this baby. We are having this baby. She is coming and we will love her and we will get through this together.”

“No.” I replied, something inside me beginning to break open like a dam inside my chest, holding back the fear and sadness that threatened to take me over and render me forever useless if I allowed myself to drown in this lake of emotions. “I’m not. I’m not.” I said, sounding weaker and weaker, my voice beginning to crack.

“Yes, baby. We are going to do this together.”

The dam broke, tears streaming down my face while I continued to repeat “No, no, no…”

I felt my muscles give way as my shoulders sagged. I had remained so far removed from myself since that night I ran. I did not know a life without Christopher and I did not yet know myself. I was on the precipice of the unknown and there was nothing I could do to stop from plunging into the darkness and mystery of my near future.

Mom held out her arm and I knelt in front of her bed, resting my head in her arms while I sobbed until I had no strength left. She gently stroked my hair like she used to when I was a small child. The sobs rocked my entire body, waking the small infant within, that beautiful baby girl I would name for the peace she brought my life in such a time of sorrow; that little girl who has brought light to every single day since I met her. She nudged my ribs as though to acknowledge my sorrow and to remind me how important it was that she was there, as though she too were reassuring me that we would all survive this together.

When I collected myself, mom lifted my face between her hands and dried the remaining tears. “Now I am going to pour you a glass of wine, Caden will stay in here and you need to get some sleep.”

“I can’t have wine!” I cried out, near sobs again from the defeat of it all.

“This far in the pregnancy, one small glass won’t hurt a thing!” she assured. “One glass of wine and then go to bed. You need the rest. You are not alone, honey. We are all in this together. Family doesn’t give up on family.”

Mom scooped Caden up from the floor where he was lifting the bed skirt in order to further terrorize the flat faced persian cat, and I followed her into the kitchen. She poured me a glass of white wine and I sipped it slowly, feeling at first anxious for having any amount of alcohol while pregnant, then relaxing into the exhaustion that had been hovering in my peripherals for months. Mom leaned in and kissed my cheek while Caden reached out to pull a strand of my hair and giggled. I felt relief for the first time in so long. I wobbled over to the futon bed we had set up for me in the dining room, and I fell into a deep sleep within minutes, not finishing my wine.

***

Mircea came after three days of labor, only the final day was spent in the hospital until she was finally delivered. Much to my mother’s disapproval, I informed Christopher that his daughter was being born. I said it was because any parent deserved to see their child born, but in truth, I knew that I needed to get his signature on the birth certificate for the upcoming battle.

Mircea Simone Isabell Hoffman was named after the Romanian word for “peace”. When she was born, I didn’t hear her cry at first. In those first few moments after she left my body, I realized I wanted her. I woke up, truly woke the fuck up and knew I wanted her and this could work. I hadn’t been able to want her or want anything for that matter during my pregnancy except for food, water, shelter, and to not be abused anymore. But in those first few moments when I didn’t hear her cry, I woke straight up from my fear and apathy, terrified that somehow she would be taken from me, that because of what we had gone through, she hadn’t survived and it would somehow be my fault because I hadn’t been able to focus on actively WANTING her. In that moment, I wanted her and nothing but her and I just needed her to cry, to let me know she survived this with me.

I couldn’t form the words to ask if she was ok. I was frozen.

And then I heard her beautiful, shrill cry. I wish I could say it was melodious or something prettier, but it was a high pitched staccatto yell of defiance instead. I immediately burst into tears, loud sobs shaking my battered body which had been paralyzed from the waist down with an epidural block for pain.

“What’s wrong with her?” one nurse asked in a condescending tone.

My sweet, mild mannered and soft spoken mother yelled, “She just had a fucking baby!!!”

That was the last I saw of that nurse.

This incredible little creature, unplanned and heaven sent, was placed on my chest. She curved her small body in between my breasts and fussed, as though the work could finally begin picking up the pieces of our lives that had been scattered to the wind.

Christopher left shortly after Mircea was born, much to all our delight. I still felt a need for him but feared that need, knowing how close this sick love had brought me to dying. The baby girl sleeping on my chest, lips dribbled with milk, wouldn’t be here either if I had stayed, and that was more unforgivable than anything else for me that day. I learned to love myself enough later on to feel that same about myself.

I spent the night in the hospital for observation since there had been a complication with the epidural and I was not able to regain the use of my legs yet. The hospital hummed and sighed, new life resting after a brutal and harsh entrance into a confusing and sometimes frightening world. It was all beginning.

I rolled onto my right side with much effort. I could see my sweet Mircea sleeping in the see through bassinet next to my bed. My roommate was snoring softly on the other side of a thin curtain drawn down the center of the room. Her baby was either asleep or in the nursery. I had to hold MIrcea, I needed to feel her here there with me.

I found the red button for calling the nurse connected to a long wire extending from the wall and clipped to my bedsheet. I pressed it.

A nurse appeared within a couple minutes, short with wavy brown hair flowing from her nurse’s cap and baby blue scrubs. She seemed weary, working the late shift. I looked at the clock, it was 3AM.

“Is everything ok?”

“Yes, but I need help lifting her out of the bassinet.”

“Why? Are you still in pain?”

“No, it’s just….I still can’t use my legs or hips or anything so I’m worried I won’t be able to get her out safely.”

The nurse looked at my chart, reminding her why I was staying for observation.

With a calm and forgiving smile, the nurse lifted my sleeping baby girl out of the bassinet and placed her in my arms as she began to fuss.

“Will she be staying in the bed with you or do you want me to put her back in a few.”

“I think she should stay in bed with me if that’s ok.”

The nurse smiled in approval and quietly left us alone.

I touched a finger to the tip of her tiny nose and she scrunched it up in frustration at having been woken up after such a tough day.

The TV was playing softly from a speaker near my pillow. Snow Patrol was playing Chasing Cars just as it had played during the drive to the hospital to deliver Mircea.

“If I lay here, If I just lay here, will you lie with me and just forget the world? I need your grace to remind me to find my own.”

Tears slid down my cheeks as I stared at the beautiful miracle that had come into my life from so much darkness. Everything was right again and I had faith that something bigger than me had a plan for all of this.

***

The newspaper caught under the dry logs again as I crossed my fingers, hoping that this time the logs would finally catch. Mircea fussed while I stoked the flames, blowing softly on them the fuel of my breath. I watched in awe as the wood turned black while a blue flame curled up around it’s edge. The warmth from the small fire radiated outward into the frigid great room of the ranch house. I made a small noise, a shriek of excitement like a cave woman discovering fire for the first time, which sent Mircea into a full fledged fit of sobs.

“Shit”, I said, immediately lowering my tattered nightgown and lifting her head to my breast. She began to frantically suckle as we both hoped together that with this small victory over nature, my milk would let down as a reward for my effort.

Finally, I felt that euphoric tingling down my breast as my milk released and she began to relax, guzzling the flow from my body, mother’s milk. I sighed in ecstatic relief as the fire began to crackle the remaining moisture from the wood inside the stove.

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