This is hard to share because there’s a certain shame and stigma to going through this in a first world country, but it’s important to know that it happens, here in our country, and that it is more pervasive that we like to admit.
When I had you Bella, it was so hard to leave you. You were such a little thing, born a bit early; you weighed 5 lbs. and 8oz. When you would curl up your tiny limbs up to your chest, you could easily fit inside a shoe box. How could I leave you? I only had six weeks with you before it was time for me to go back to work and when I went back that first day I couldn’t help it; the tears kept streaming down my cheeks and it hurt so bad to be away from you. I had taken one of your undershirts with me to work so I could smell your scent while I was away but it only made my emotions come tumbling down and the sobs rise in me uncontrollably.
I didn’t have to be away from you for long.
That week I went to a doctor’s appointment and they told me, “Congratulations, you are pregnant.” The doctor didn’t see you on the floor in your car seat and when he saw my shocked face and his eyes fell upon you, he understood. He was very kind and recounted a personal story of not being able to have children with his wife and how I would see how very lucky I was to have you both down the line. What a wise man indeed.
I gave my notice at work the following day and decided to stay home with you because the health insurance would be more affordable if I didn’t work and we only had one income in the family.
But times were lean.
When Iza came smiling into the world, I couldn’t imagine a life without the two of you. My two little joys, my two angels. No love had ever felt truer, clearer, or everlasting. What startling beauty I found in your little faces.
But times were lean and nobody knows how difficult times were back then.
We lived in a tiny converted basement that was damp all of the time and made Iza chronically sick. We would make weekly visits to the emergency room during her first months of life because her asthma and symptoms were so severe. I couldn’t sleep; I was so paranoid that I would collapse in exhaustion and not hear the awful purring sound coming from her chest. I slept with you, Bella, next to me and Iza on my chest so I could help her breathing fall into my own rhythm.
It was hard. But we found beauty in everything we rested our gaze on. When I took the two of you for long walks around the city, I pointed to the flowers and taught you the name to each one, I showed you my favorite buildings downtown, and hours later when we made our way back home, you were in a peaceful sleep and I comforted myself with the fact that you knew no better.
But the walks back were torture for me. Before I climbed up the steep hill, pushing and pulling the double stroller you and Iza lay in, we would stop by at the corner grocer’s market. I would pull out my change which I had previously exactly accounted $4.25. And I would make it stretch; measuring out exactly the amount of chicken, potatoes, tortillas, and a carrot or two that I would be making the following few meals with.
The grocer would “forget” to charge me for an item or two and try to give me change back. I would object but he would plead me to accept it with his eyes, and it was easier to relent than to look into his face full of sadness for me.
Once we were at the top of the hill, I would carry you on my left hip, pick up Iza and hoist her on my right hip, lean far back to balance the two of you without waking you, and fold the stroller with my right arm and leg, and carefully walk down the steps to our home. When I would lay you on our bed, I would stand there and look at the two of you and take in your perfect features, your smooth foreheads free of worry and the aches in my bones and pain in my heart would dissipate.
When dinner was done, I would serve the two of you and make sure I rationed and set aside the following meals in the fridge. Bella, you were so independent at such a young age that you would feed yourself in your high chair at just shy of a year old. You were such a neat lovely little eater. Such a good little loving companion.
And soon our home would fill with stillness; he would sit and eat his dinner without a word. His sadness was deeper than mine; I could never touch it. I would hold his handsome face in my hand and turn it up towards me, caress the stubble on his strong jaw and run my thumb lightly on his lips. But his eyes were so full of pain and defeat that I could never reach him.
The days got leaner and soon enough our daily fried potato tacos with cheese would become boiled potatoes and tortillas, with the vegetables saved for the two of you. And that’s when we would start to go for long walks that always seemed to end at grandma’s house right around dinner time. To keep her from realizing what was going on, I would feign that I was full. While you two ate with my parents and siblings, I avoided looking at the food and chatted excitedly with everyone, trying hard to keep my mind focused elsewhere. We would say our goodbyes and most of the time they would insist we stop by the following day if we were free and a weight on my chest would be released as I secured your meals for another day.
I can’t shake that empty feeling in my stomach, that gnawing hunger that clawed at my insides. Or the shame that I wish I could unhinge from my chest and lay it to rest. The two of you never went hungry; I always made sure the two of you were never acquainted with hunger.
We are at such a better place now; the three of us, but I can’t shake it, a sense of failure permeates my thoughts when I remember what now feels like a past life.
I will always make sure that the two of you never know hunger; whether it is for nourishment, affection, or love. I pinky promise, and we never break those.