Sacred Bodies, Holy Hungers: Pumping Breast Milk at the Pope’s Pizza Party for Mother Teresa

A contraption sucked milk from my breasts while my newborn baby slept next to my hospital bed and the Pope canonized Mother Teresa on television.

He must have bused in homeless people from Milan, Bologna, Florence and Naples while my nipples filled with thick colostrum like mozzarella. In St. Peter’s Square, he blessed the chefs who cooked pizzas on ovens set up in the streets.

The hungry were fed. My child would also be fed.

And so, earlier today, some nurses brought in a pump and told me how to use it. I remember the whistle of the machine, the relief of extraction, the way I lined up those little bottles with yellow lids like an Aesop’s animal storing food for the winter.

One morning, I nearly slipped in the shower in shock when milk sprayed out like it was a double-barreled squirt gun.

Weeks before work, I would wake up with cream beading on my nipples. One morning, I nearly slipped in the shower in shock when milk sprayed out like it was a double-barreled squirt gun. Despite my ready body, I was surprised when my waters broke on the second day of a fall semester when I was supposed to teach students how to write theses.

In high school, I had written about Mother Teresa the year before she died, the year before I learned how to give myself an orgasm. I tried to be selfless, to feed the hungry, to kiss and grope the ardor without showing my breasts.

Mother Teresa believed that every life mattered, and as a teenager I wanted to believe that too. Put me on a plane to India, I prayed. Let me never wish against pregnancy.

Mother Teresa hated birth control. My mom put me on it when I was 14. She said it was to regulate my period. I think it was in case I slipped, in case sex made me dumb and hungry.

Doctors called me “geriatric” for getting pregnant in my late thirties. Mother Teresa might have been happy if I had become a teenage mother instead. At least then, the ecstasy would have been for a purpose. I wouldn’t have shoved, shaken and hung for finite possibilities.

On hospital television, a cadre of chefs lit wood-burning stoves on the cobblestones, and I glared at my partner. He saw the impetuous machine sucking my skin and backed off. We then made a pact: he would change diapers – as much as I could in the baby and toddler years – and I would stretch and strain my body for this child.

We had been in love for over a decade, and for most of that time we had decided not to have children. I would take winding train trips to southern Virginia or Quebec City to visit friends and write in the lull of the rails. He was about to photograph destination weddings and current events. We met between the hustle and bustle of crossword puzzles and long, naked mornings.

When the Pope came to Philadelphia a year before our son was born, my partner ended up with a press badge and a spot on the tarmac. Ever amiable, he chatted with the director of the local high school orchestra, who had decided at the last minute to bring his entire family to see the pope, including his son Michael, who was living with severe cerebral palsy.

The pope waved to the crowd from afar, then got into his Fiat and started to drive away. Most of the reporters stayed, but my husband followed on foot. Suddenly the Fiat stopped. Pope emerged, a hair’s breadth from my partner, where he reached out to Michael and touched his forehead, holding his palm there, skin to skin.

My husband took the photo of this blessing and it went viral.

Three months later, we were standing in the hallway of our house, staring at the stick in disbelief, and crying, anticipating what we didn’t even know we had wanted.

But before all that – before the news outlets called us and friends sent us clippings, before we had dinner with Michael’s family and learned that they had adopted their three children, Michael being the twin the agency said they “didn’t have to take it if they didn’t want to” – my husband got on the press bus and cried. And then he called me and wept, telling me the story, telling me how close he had come to holiness.

Three months later, we were standing in the hallway of our house, staring at the stick in disbelief, and crying, anticipating what we didn’t even know we had wanted.

Now, as nurses changed shifts, dazzling pizza ovens filled the square. I could almost taste the dough, yeasty and full like a placenta.

Pope Francis invited 1,500 homeless people to a pizza party to celebrate Mother Teresa at the Vatican on September 5, 2016. (MAURIX/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Our son was born five weeks early. Nurses said it may have been Hurricane Hermine, which was moving up the East Coast with its barometric pressure drop. Maybe it was the sweet orgasm I’d given myself the night before to relax my tense body that had tensed into sciatica. Perhaps it was breast milk, already eager to nourish.

But our child was born, ahead of schedule, and we had to come to terms with our new reality much earlier than expected. Friends assembled our nativity scene. Others have installed a car seat. Someone brought home the baby blanket to the family dogs so they could get used to the smell of the baby. And, of course, people were delivering food.

Perhaps that is why Mother Teresa was canonized – not for a space of chaste absence, but for the places of satiety she created where hungry people gather around pizza ovens, d instructions for fitting cradle and tattered nipples.

Benedizioni a Leiwhispered the Pope, reminding us how close our bodies were, and came, and came back, from holy.


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