Our first night at Methodist Hospital, a nurse showed me a tub full of plastic gizmos and said it was my job to clean them, every three hours, for as long as we all shall live. It was 3 a.m. and dark, and the pile of tubes and funnels and syringes looked like William S. Burroughs's toiletry kit or something acquired from the back pages of Modern Alchemist. I took to the task with alacrity. I didn't want anyone to die.
In those first few days, when every drop of colostrum was handled like liquid gold, my job was more or less essential. I'd take the tiny puddle Lucy had pumped and carefully suck it into a syringe for Pepin to eat. And then I would clean all the equipment.
It wasn't enough. Pepin needed donor milk and then a feeding tube, a mechanical syringe that pushed the milk into her stomach, because she was too weak to eat enough on her own. And I suppose I've never gotten over that, those days when her weight dropped below five pounds, into the range of things I've kicked without noticing on the sidewalk, of things that can float away.
Feedings are fraught like that. Even now. Even though we're home from the hospital and Pepin has inflated with such rapidity that if you or I were to put on the comparative weight we would be admitted to the emergency room. If she so much as fails to choke down the last 15 millileters from the bottle, if she struggles for a minute to latch on, if she falls asleep on the job, I worry she'll shrivel into a husk and slip through a crack in the floor—a crack I've left open.
This is true of most fathers: Our breasts are merely decorative. We're not feeders. There's nothing on tap. I used to give Pepin a bottle after every feeding, to supplement, but after a couple weeks we went to breast-feeding only and now there's not much I can do but turn on some quiet music and read to my wife from magazines. I'm now a DJ/closed-captionist.
Mostly I fret. "That's it?" I say if Pepin only feeds for 14 minutes a side. If Lucy has to ask Pepin, "Do you just not like my milk today?", my heart breaks. And then I immediately wash any plastic gizmos I find in the sink.
Recently Pepin has been squirming away from the one bottle I give her every night. About halfway through, she grows red and shakes off the bottle, and we play a game of bucking baby or pin the bottle on the baby, until I give up. She always wins, but I can't help feeling—pouring out the rest of the milk in the claustrophobia of 3 a.m.—like we've both lost.
This is just the beginning, of course. She's preparing me for the rest of her life, which will run on a parallel track to mine and then diverge. This is how she's preparing me to let go.
(Photos: The bottling station on the kitchen counter and Pepin enjoying a fresh vintage of the house milk.)