Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Mother's Day Love Story to my babies I never knew

Spending the day with my granddaughter Sahana who is the image of her mom, my daughter Sharmila, reminded me of when I was a very young nineteen year old expectant mother, excited at the prospect of having a baby and at the same time, scared that I might not know how to take care of her. My mom wasn’t here in Canada to provide all the advice and nurturing that I had grown accustomed to when I was a child.

Perhaps it was instinct but I decided that I would breast feed her because that’s what I had seen mothers in Guyana doing. In the early to mid 70's, bottle-feeding was in vogue so it was going against the norm to breast feed your baby.  When Shramila was born in March, 1974, it was a joy I could hardly comprehend. God had given me a beautiful and perfect child and my heart was content even to watch her, even in sleep.

Sharmila was about two weeks old and one day, I was rocking her in a rocking chair I had bought especially for that purpose. I was watching TV while I was breast feeding her and I saw a newscaster making a plea for breast milk for new babies who were hospitalized because they could not digest anything but breast milk. I made a decision to help, so each day I would pump the extra breast milk I was producing and freeze it in ice cube trays just like they had announced on TV. I then called the Health Sciences Centre Women’s Pavilion to tell them that I had a large quantity of milk to donate. They were pretty excited about that and said some volunteers would come to my home to pick it up. Running out of freezer space and not wanting to throw away the extra milk, I made several more urgent calls in the next two weeks before a pick-up date was scheduled. By this time, my small fridge freezer had almost completely run out of room and I had a large grocery bag full of frozen milk cubes.

Two volunteers finally came to pick up the milk, bringing four empty 125 ml baby bottles. They explained that it might take a day or two to fill one bottle but I could keep the contents in the fridge till the bottle was full and then freeze the milk in the bottle. They would return once a week to pick up the bottles and drop off additional ones. I listened to their instructions very carefully and then said that I didn’t think the bottles they brought would be enough because I had lots of milk. They smiled knowingly and said that the bottles would be more than adequate because most people only get an extra ounce or two of milk each day.

The volunteers cooed over Sharmila while I went off to the fridge freezer to bring my treasure trove of milk cubes. I set the almost overflowing grocery bag down in front of them and instead of pleasure, the dismay on their faces was practically crushing. Thinking I had not followed the TV instructions carefully, I asked what was wrong. They gently explained to me that although it was a nice thing for me to do, they expected breast milk, not cow’s milk. Mortified, I said that it was breast milk that I was saving and freezing everyday after Sharmila was finished nursing – and there was at least 16 ounces extra each day; hence my urgent calls to the hospital. Realizing the misunderstanding, the three of us had a hearty laugh and the volunteers promised that a courier would be there every third day to pick up the frozen milk.

I was such a good donor that the hospital asked me to do a televised public service announcement that September to let new mothers know how easy it was to pump and save even an extra ounce each day to save a child’s life. After the initial embarrassment of having to talk about pumping breast milk on TV, I did the announcement. Fortunate for me that I didn’t have to do an actual demonstration!! I donated breast milk for more than six months totaling almost 90 litres of my gift of life. When my second child Sunita was born I donated about 30 litres. By the time my third baby Subhadra came along, it was all I could do to keep up with three young children so there was very little to no donation.

On Mother’s Day 1975, the Health Sciences Women’s Pavilion had an Appreciation Tea for all the mothers who donated milk the previous year. I attended and wondered about the babies whose lives were saved because I donated my breast milk – truly a Gift of Life. I anticipated seeing some of the babies who had received the milk but they were not there or if they were, I didn’t know them.

I have celebrated each Mother’s Day for the last 37 years with my daughters and now four grandchildren, and each year I wonder what ever became of those babies. Did they have a good life? Are they doctors, engineers, teachers? Do they speak different languages? Are they tall, short, disabled, Indian, Black, Aboriginal? Does that matter anyway? Do they know that when they were born, a stranger gave them a gift of life, the same gift she gave her own children? Probably not. I sometimes wonder if they are having babies at the same time that my daughters are having their babies because they are the same age as my daughters. I wonder if some of them are friends with my daughters. I wonder if I ever taught any of them. Will their children play with my grandchildren?

Some nights when I lay drifting off to sleep, I marvel at how life has blessed me – making me a mother of children who never nursed at my breast but are my children nevertheless. Maybe someone reading this will know one of those babies or better yet, one of you now-grown babies will know from stories told to you that it was you. I don’t know you but I hope life has been good to you. I loved you then and I love you now.

To all you moms who gave life and loved and cared for your babies as they grew up to become adults and to all you dads who loved and cared for your children like a loving mother does, Happy Mother's Day to every one of you.  I am going to spend the day with my mother, daughters and granddaughters.

I'm excited that I've raised $955 to date for my Cancer Care walk

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