The writing was on the wall as I bolted awake at 2 in the morning. My left breast, always a little troublesome and prone to blockages, was hard as a rock and hot to the touch. I rolled over on my front and went back to sleep, hoping the pressure would somehow help it to empty. I woke up again an hour later, shaking uncontrollably.
“Are you OK?,” my husband asked. My tremors had woken him up.
“I don’t think so,” I said. He got my pump from downstairs and wrapped me in pillows and blankets as I pumped, trying to stop my shivering. A few drops of milk came out, but the swelling and pain didn’t subside. A sudden wave of nausea hit me.
“I have to throw up,” I said, bolting out of bed. Weirdly, the next thing I felt was myself swimming out of a deep sleep. My husband was standing over me.
“Do you know what happened?” he asked. He seemed frantic. I smiled—I felt wonderful after my nap.
“I fell asleep?”
“No, you passed out! I was slapping your face just now trying to wake you up!”
I nodded slowly.
“Right, I had to throw up. Oh my God, I have to throw up!” I leaned over the side of the bed, heaving in waves.
“I’m calling the clinic,” my husband said. It was 4:30 in the morning. A perk of living on an island in Maine is a nurse practitioner who, in times of greatest need, will make a house call. This qualified.
“I’d call 911 but you’re the EMT on call,” he said. Our nurse practitioner arrived at the house and came up the stairs. She took my temperature (103!) and my blood pressure (too low) and gingerly touched the swollen area of my breast. I squirmed and yelped. She got on the phone with my midwife’s office to double check the antibiotic she wanted to prescribe, since I’m allergic to the really good ones, and headed out. The baby woke up and my husband put her in bed with me to nurse, which was akin to dipping my boob in a fire ant nest, but necessary. He headed down to the clinic to pick up a few pills to tide me over until my prescription arrived in the mail the next day.
I thought back over the weekend. My daughter Penrose had a cold and so did I. She had been nursing much more than usual, even in the middle of the night, which she hadn’t done in months. She had even been up, inconsolable, that night and had nursed—but only on the right side. I had a sinus headache that felt like a pickaxe in my nose and had made my husband soothe her back to bed. The school where I teach had its spring play and its closing matinee just that afternoon, and we’d been in the theater all weekend.
Stress, illness, and extra nursing: Mastitis was really the only possible outcome.
The message from my body was clear: slow the heck down. I hadn’t taken any sick days for myself, although I had left early one day to get my feverish, coughing baby from her babysitter. She’d had to come with us to the theater for dress rehearsals and performances, getting passed from one kind friend to another while I worried about her health and happiness. I was running on Sudafed and Benadryl fumes.
My husband came back and I took the first dose of antibiotic. I couldn’t even manage a few crackers with it, but was able to keep down some water. He took Penrose from me and lay down. She went to sleep on his stomach, and he went to sleep, too. I closed my eyes and settled in.
Rest was the single most important thing now. Not school, not reading the essay drafts a few students had emailed to me. Not worrying about who would cover my classes. My husband would stay home with the baby, and all I had to worry about was sleeping, staying hydrated, and nursing her. Maybe I could have staved off this infection by taking some pre-emptive rest, saying no to something, or nursing a little less, but it was too late now.
I didn’t stop for rest, as the poem almost goes, and so rest had stopped for me.