Words by Jenni Cannariato
I left my seven-month-old baby boy one dark and drizzling winter morning, before the light cracked the eastern horizon. For a month, he lived with my parents, and I watched him learn to pull up to stand through FaceTime.
I sat in the dark that morning, nursing him one last time, letting the soft pudge of his fingers envelop my mine.
I had dreaded that morning for three months, ever since the unusually sunny day in October when a voicemail from my doctor seemed to stop time: “Umm… I have the results from your CT scan and, umm, just wanted to, umm, go over them with you.” It couldn’t be a good sign that leaving me such a simple message had been so hard for him.
Honestly, I had forgotten about the scan. My husband and I had gallivanted around downtown Portland—one of our favorite things to do—and were just heading for home and nap time after a particularly yummy trip to a local coffee shop. We were giddy with sunshine and a rare day off together.
And then I listened to that voicemail.
My fingers shook as I called my doctor back. I remember the light slanting through the leaves, the way that the sunshine and autumn colors caused the city streets to dance with golden light. But the only words I remember from my conversation with him, before I hung up the phone, before my heart collapsed inward, were: “We found a mass in your brain.” Suddenly, the car, my seat belt, my own body, were a cage I couldn’t escape.
Over the next several months, I memorized every hallway in the hospital, every button in the elevator, that strange corner in which my husband and I held each other and wept.
We learned that the mass was a benign tumor, one so large that it was pressing on my brain stem. It needed to be removed soon. My overall outlook was good, but there was a decent chance that the right side of my face would be paralyzed. I would have to learn how to walk again, to stand again.
I could hardly look at my son without bursting into tears. He was so young, so fragile, so unaware of the way his mom and dad’s lives had recently shattered. My surgery day loomed ahead, and I knew that the moment was coming when I would walk out the door to the unknown, leaving my little one behind.
And so it did. As he finished nursing, I hugged his warm little body, kissed his full cheeks, and handed him over to my mom.
My memory of the few days after surgery comes in flashes of disjointed images and sounds, like peering through a ViewMaster. A push of a lever, a click, a picture. Darkness. A push of a lever, a click, a picture. Darkness.
When I could finally sit up in bed, my mom brought my baby to visit, but he didn’t recognize me. Although my face wasn’t permanently paralyzed from the surgery—a miracle that I am still so thankful for—it was slack and unmoving, the nerve temporarily unresponsive due to the bruising and inflammation caused by the surgery. I looked nothing like myself.
He clung to my mom and called her “mama” when she tried to hand him over. I was desperate for him to recognize me, to recognize that it was my womb that carried him, my breasts that fed him, my arms that held him when he woke at night. I was his mama. But it was as if I no longer mattered. It was heartbreaking.
I tried to nurse him, but he refused. My arms were weak, and I couldn’t really hold him right. I was disoriented and confused by my bruised brain and the narcotics, pain-killers, and steroids. When I drew him toward me, he got angry and scared.
He lived with my parents while I slowly learned how to be human again. I couldn’t stand by myself, let alone feed myself, bathe myself, dress myself, or even use the hospital-grade pump on my own. My husband became my live-in nurse. Each day, he would set dozens of alarms—for pumping, for medication, for physical therapy exercises.
I cried every day my baby was away. Time is such a thief; as mothers, we watch our babies grow and change and move away from us the moment they leave our bodies. I was missing precious time.
When he finally came home, I was desperate to connect with him again. I crouched on the floor to play with him, was the first to respond to his cries, and desperately tried to smile again, even though my face was still too weak to move.
I started pulling him into bed with me when he would wake at night, something I had sworn I would never do. In the semi-consciousness of his sleep, he would curl toward me, nestling into my arms. For those few hours of darkness, my mama heart was soothed. My baby still needed me, and I was still his mama.
And just like it always does, time passed, a relentless onslaught of days that restored my face and our lives to almost-normal. My baby is now an independent, strong-willed toddler who sleeps through the night in his own room.
Last night, though, he woke, mad and restless, about an hour and a half after I put him to bed. I wrapped him in a blanket and lay down with him on the couch, resting his warm body against my chest. He wrapped his soft little fingers around mine. I felt a little guilt at taking him out of bed, but I relished each moment he lay on my chest, his eyelashes fluttering and flirting with sleep. I don’t know how many more times he’ll do this.
None of us mamas do. We don’t know the last time our children will fall asleep on us. The last time they’ll come in the kitchen, throw up their arms, and ask: “Up?” We don’t know the last time they’ll want us to kiss their owies. The last time they will pull up to stand. The last time they’ll ever nurse.
Thank goodness we don’t. Motherhood is already heartbreaking enough as it is, and I’m not sure I could face the future knowing the lasts. Time comes like a thief in the night, and we have to cherish the time that is left to us to hug, to love, to connect, to snuggle.
I would give anything to get back those four weeks he didn’t live with us. I would give anything to have nursed him longer. But I am thankful that my surgery taught me to throw off frustrations and mom-guilt and rules and just hold my baby a little closer, this time. To wake up with him yet again at night, exhausted and soul-worn, this time. To kiss his owie, this time. To look deep into his face, listen to his babble, and hear him say “mama,” this time.
Because I don’t know the last time. All I have is this time.
About the Author:
When Jenni isn’t writing, editing, or gulping down the words of another great story, she can be found chasing her toddler, loving on her husband, stretching it out on a yoga mat, or hiking through the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest. Her friendship can always be won with a good cup of coffee, some quality time and deep conversation, or a square of dark chocolate - preferably all three. Learn more here.