At any given time, the WakeMed bank has about 135 donors. Most are mothers of healthy infants who happen to have an abundance of milk. But some are mothers whose babies have died, and for these women, donating breast milk can be therapeutic. Giving away their babies' milk so another infant might survive can help a grieving mother make some sense of catastrophe.
On October 11, 2007, Lynn made her usual 2 a.m. phone call. Reese's lungs had always been compromised due to her extreme prematurity, but more recently, things had gotten worse. Her liver had become enlarged and begun to press on her lungs, which made it hard for them to expand, which made it hard for her to breathe properly, which made it hard for oxygen to get to her heart. That night, though, she seemed to be holding steady. Everything is fine, the nurse reported. Reassured, Lynn finished pumping, climbed back into bed, and curled up against Chris. A couple of hours later, the telephone jolted them awake. "We need you to come in," a nurse said.
Reese's heart rate had slowed so dangerously that doctors had had to resuscitate her. She'd survived six and a half months after the death of her brother and sister, but now her system was collapsing. At the hospital, the attending doctor told Lynn and Chris there was nothing more anyone could do. Lynn and Chris talked it over. They decided they wouldn't withdraw treatment but wouldn't ask for heroic measures, either. As Chris went to tell the doctor, Lynn glanced up at the heart monitor just in time to see the numbers drop again.
At 6:30 a.m., Reese died in Lynn's arms, with Chris by her side. "We let her go," is how Lynn still thinks of it today.
Reese had lived 203 days, every one of them in the hospital. Lynn had gotten to hold her maybe two dozen times. Now she and Chris stayed with her, holding her once more. For the first time, there were no wires or monitors or IV lines.
By 9 a.m., Lynn's breasts were throbbing, painfully full. She'd skipped her early morning pumping session to be with Reese, and now Reese was gone, and still, here was this milk, this force of life that wouldn't be denied. "I need to pump," she said, even though it seemed surreal. She headed for one of the pumping rooms, sat down in the nursing glider, and let the milk come.
Later that day, back at home, she and Chris would sit and stare at each other. They would make arrangements to cremate Reese, as they'd done with Seth and Rowan, not wanting to leave their babies behind should the navy ever decide to transfer Chris. After Seth and Rowan died, Lynn had found tiny porcelain urns in the shape of baby shoes, laced with satin ribbon and sprinkled with a delicate floral pattern across the toe. They would have to order another shoe, for Reese.
But for now, Lynn pumped. And at some point she turned, overwhelmed, to a nurse. "What am I going to do with all this milk?"