Ben took a photograph of me as I breastfeed our son for the first time; he did not take a photograph of me breastfeeding for the last time. It was not supposed the be the last time. I do not remember the last time.
Toronto, Mount Sinai Hospital, newborn
Only my shoulder is visible, our son, Arthur, nestled in my arms, his head covered with a beige hat, smurf-like. A nurse’s forearm is in the picture; she was squatting by the hospital bed, helping Arthur and I figure out the latch. The blue draped hospital gown and the ochre wall add to the intimate calmness of the scene. I am focused on the task at hand, oblivious to Ben’s emotions. They sent us home 48 hours later, deer in the headlights, feeding our son drops of golden colostrum with our pinkies in the middle of the night.
A few days later, my parents arrived from France and stayed for a couple of weeks. My father had been battling brain cancer for five years and had poor mobility, so my younger brother Pierre and his partner Farah joined them. We knew it was our father’s last trip. They would all show up around three o’clock in the afternoon to cuddle Arthur and make us dinner. They babysat for our anniversary as I cried over tacos, worrying if he was crying in hunger.
Toronto, High Park Neighborhood, eight-week-old
I enjoyed breastfeeding and remain glad I did it. And yet, it was annoying to be the only one that could feed him and therefore had to get up at night. After taking paternal leave, Ben started working on the psychiatric inpatient unit again, and, by November, I let him stay in bed. I was afraid that the lack of sleep would lead him to make a medical error (he always waxes on about the legal implications of treating psychotic patients). I woke up to feed Arthur and change his diaper after one breast so he would be more alert for the second one and feed better, therefore sleep longer.
I quickly produced enough milk. To my surprise, amusement, and slight embarrassment, my nipples could shoot milk across the room. I had to acquire one of these silicone receptacles that you suction to the breast the baby is not latched on to collect the extra milk, which I would keep in a little cooler and then freeze in the morning, accumulating a decent stash in a matter of weeks. I did get Ben to bring breakfast up to the bedroom before leaving the house. I would prepare the tray before going to bed with a piece of fruit, a muffin that would defrost overnight — I found a great lemon and cranberry recipe online and baked them during nap time—, and a thermos travel cup so my coffee would stay warm while I breastfed and enjoyed Arthur and the leafy autumnal view through the bay windows. I have never been one for pastries or muffins at breakfast, I am much more of an oatmeal person, but this was a time of my life when I relished it. We had moved in two weeks before my due date, all this was new: baby, muffins for breakfast, homeownership. That was plenty, it would have been fine to not add anything else.
Paris, 20th arrondissement, twelve-week-old
There are photographs of me breastfeeding over the holidays in Paris: in a restaurant while eating a beef tartare; on Christmas Eve while holding a champagne flûte. My ninety something grandmother came from Dijon to meet her great-grandson. It would be the last time she saw her son, my father. The day we left, my father was not able to get down to the main floor. I went back up to his bedroom several times, pretending his grandson wanted to say goodbye one more time.
In the car, Pierre and Farah announced she was pregnant. They told us that, when they had visited after our son’s birth, new parenthood looked “manageable,” so they decided to give it a try. Our kids would be born nine months and one week apart. We were the firsts to know. I was delighted that we had managed to make it appealing while not knowing what we were doing ourselves and as I recovered from the c-section (“we have to go to a c-section or the baby may be compromised,” convincing words from an obstetrician). It gave us something else than my father’s obvious decline to talk about all the way to the airport.
I would see my father again before he passed.
Toronto, High Park Neighborhood, fourteen-week-old
I flew back with my son less than a month after Christmas. My father had to be hospitalized at the Pitié Salpetrière, one of the largest and oldest teaching hospitals in Paris. My brother, François, was clear on the phone: “If you want to see papa while he is still conscious, you need to come now.” I sent in an academic job application I had been working on, we went to the neighbors’ so they could witness Ben authorizing me to take our three-month-old out of the country by myself. Our neighbor gave me a couple of the “healthy” carotte-chocolate chip cookies he had just made with his kids for the week ahead, they saved me from hypoglycemia during the flight. I packed, not sure whether I needed to size up for Arthur. The transatlantic flight was fine, he was so small, all I had to do was to put him at the breast as soon as he made a peep. The lady in a black hijab and abaya seated beside me did not seem to mind the cries, she smiled at me. She was large enough to hide me from her husband and I did not have to use the wrap I had packed. I never figured out how to use it anyways.
Paris, Hôpital de La Pitié Salpetrière, three-month-old
When we arrived, I went straight to see my father. Such a contrast from a Canadian hospital. It was the neuro-oncology floor, most patients were incapable of walking independently, yet very little was designed with accessibility in mind. At least they had an elevator. I breastfed in front of it, a female patient on a gurney gave me a thumbs up as the porters wheeled her in.
It was a double room, my family reported he already had had several roommates, some depressed, some loquacious, some as mute as him. The dividing curtain had a lighthouse scene on it. My family told me which public bathroom to avoid and which one was “nice.” I remember taking a picture of the bathroom to send Ben to show him what a “nice” bathroom looks like in a French hospital: no toilet seat, a half-dead plant — probably rescued from a former patient’s room— a roll of toilet paper resting on the handrail. Clean enough. A sink (with soap, I think), a cloth towel dispensed out of a large, continuous roll so that, when you pull on it, you get a dry spot, and the previous user’s wet spot rolls back in (I have only seen these in France). A big window looking over the glass roof of the Gare Austerlitz.
My father did not stay at the Pitié for long. He was transferred to a newer, smaller palliative care facility, within walking distance of our house. The private rooms were much bigger, with large windows looking into a white apartment building complex shaped in a semi-circle.
Paris, Hôpital Jean Jaurés, four-month-old
My mother and I visited every afternoon. François told me he could not go every day because he did not want to “be a robot.” I needed the emotional blunting of the routine to make it through; my mother must have found something soothing in it as well. What else could we do? Visits were only loosely regulated and families welcomed. At about four o’clock, the kitchen staff would come around to offer tea, coffee, and a snack. My mother got into the habit of bringing homemade muffins, replacing the cranberries of my lemon recipe with frozen red currants she had picked over the summer. (After a career in law and politics, and while taking care of my father, she retrained as a patisserie chef). We were encouraged to bring items from home, all my dad accepted was a comforter, dark red with a paisley pattern. He did not want any visitors other than us, no friends, no extended family. We sometimes packed the six and a half of us in there: my father, my mother, myself, my two brothers, Farah, her pregnancy now showing, and my son. We were all there when Pierre and Farah opened the envelope that contained a post-it with their baby’s sex on it. A girl. Later, they shared the future name with my father. He gave them a thumbs up, the rest of us had to wait until her birth.
When my father was cremated, he was wearing light blue jeans and a dress shirt with light-blue squares, his uniform for the past five years. The shirts were left-over from his work life as an executive. I later found out from my mother that they placed the post-it in one of his jeans pockets; my son’s birth announcement card was in the other. Jeans, shirt, an occasional polo, and always a hoodie, the kind that zips in front. He had winter ones lined with ugly, fur-like material to be warm. My mother kept one and wore it in the morning when she visited during the Canadian winter a year later. She taught my son to say “tout doux” by having him stroke the soft lining. When he started talking, it became one of his favorite things to say: he would run after dogs and say “toudou,” he would stroke one of his many stuffed animals — “toudou.”
I spent two months solo-parenting in Paris. I would stay home in the morning, slowly waking up after a night of breastfeeding and sleeping propped up with a stuffed-up infant in my arms, feeding, changing Arthur, trying to have him take a morning nap. My breast were overproducing, I had to massage them and manually express milk, which I preciously froze besides the currants. Sometimes, I would have lunch with a friend. I met a childhood friend for Pho one day. Miraculously, Arthur slept, so that, for once, I did not have to breastfeed in the restaurant. By that point, I did not need to hold his head anymore, I could just pop him on my lap and keep going with eating and conversing. I wanted to hold on to some of the pregnancy weight but my body would not.
In the afternoon, I would make my way to the hospital while he napped in his stroller in his grey wool outfit that made him look like a little seal, “un petit phoque.” On my daily walks, I reached an entirely new-to-me neighborhood on the northeast edge of the city with metro stops I had never heard of: Botzaris, Danube. Not a single tourist in sight; many large orthodox Jewish families; some gentrifiers, entering hip cafés with young kids in tow.
My father was pissed off by his condition. Only my son could bring a smile, and a small one at that, on his face. I had a few not conversations but monologues with him as his speech, which had already been impaired, became inexistent. All he could do was babble back at Arthur or get upset with us for not understanding his gestures, though we knew his quirks well enough that we could anticipate most of his wants and needs. I quickly realized there was not much to say. Overall, we had had a good relationship, we did not have anything to settle. I wanted to study in North America, he supported me, and once it became clear I was building my life in Canada, he and my mother never asked me to even consider coming back. Before moving to the palliative care facility, he told me, while holding up his hand as if to show the way, “Jusqu’au bout du chemin”: to the end of the path.
I breastfed my baby on a cot beside my father’s deathbed. My son’s absolute refusal of the bottle, even one containing my own milk, meant that I could not leave him with the various friends and cousins who offered to babysit. It might have been for the best as it distracted us from the intensity of the situation. We put Arthur on my father’s strong side and took pictures of the two of them. I changed my baby’s diapers in the room dedicated to families and hard conversations. We got to know the nursing staff, some of the other patients and their families. Once they reached that unit, people did not stay long, a few days to a week, my father hung on for much longer and stayed for two months. In retrospect, these were not unhappy times, we huddled together. I went home before my mother, by five-six o’clock Arthur would start screaming and I had to leave. On the way back, I would stop to shop for makeshift dinners I prepared for my mother and myself.
Paris, Parc de la Villette, five-month-old
In the beginning, we would often go for walks to the nearby Parc de la Villette. We would push his wheelchair all the way to the canal where we could see the children’s science museum on the other side, and the Géode, a sparkling sphere with a 360-degree screen inside we used to go to on school visits. The Villette used to be Paris’ meatpacking district. Redevelopment in the 1980s added many buildings, including 26 “folies,” small bright red pavilions scattered throughout the park, but also re-used existing 19th century structures and kept the bumpy pavers that rattled the wheelchair. The latest addition is the Philharmonie concert hall, a controversial shiny piece of rotund architecture with great acoustics.
My brothers and my mother took my father to a classical music concert there. I went with them all the way to the entrance but did not go in as I had Arthur with me. I did take my father to the Cité de la Musique, part of the same complex, where they have collections of old instruments and live educational programs. We went to one on the historical evolution of embouchures, the part you blow in on a wind instrument. It ended with a bagpipe demonstration. The surrounding sound of the instruments inside the dark museum immersed us in a fantasy Celtic parade. I was apprehensive of my father’s reaction, he had become intolerant of loud noises and the bagpipes echoed everywhere, but he seemed content enough.
Maybe it reminded him of rugby, his sport, the only one I ever saw him watch on TV. Family lore has it that he watched France-Ireland in my mother’s maternity room two days after my birth. I have fond teenage memories of watching the then Five, now Six, Nations Championship together. We watched the first games of the 2020 one with him, the first year they also put the women’s game on TV. But thanks to COVID, no one won that year. I must have left Arthur with someone when we went to the Cité de la Musique, maybe it was the week in February Ben came to visit. I could not have pushed both my father and the stroller.
My father was already out of it by the time the coronavirus —as we still called it then—really hit our collective consciousness, so, although he died about a week into the confinement and his ashes could not be properly buried for over a year, he had no idea what was going on outside. Arguably, he did not notice that our visits and their timing got more and more restricted.
The last time I saw my father was March 17, 2020, my 36th birthday and the beginning of the state ordered lock-down in Paris. He was heavily sedated. I had a feeling it was the last time. The hospital had informed us: only one person at a time. I told my family: “it’s my birthday, I’m going first.” I went without my son, Ben had arrived a few days prior —his birthday— on an empty plane, just as the borders were closing. He must have been one of the few people willingly going to Europe. By that point our son had started weaning and I considered that if someone could deal with the hunger cries, it was him.
My father’s formerly strong, now just massive, body laid on the bed. The doctor had explained the biological process of death and the progressive slowing down of the body, the rattling sound he would make — “like a locomotive.” I put a pillow against the bed’s railing to rest my head while looking at him, though I also spent a fair amount of time looking at the floor, my head between my arms. I was fatigued, emotionally empty, my mind could not hold the situation. I cannot remember whether I cried but I was relieved he did not die on my birthday.
The policy changed to one visitor per day. We all agreed our mother should be the one going, every day. She told me she played music for him, filling the room with Philip Glass’ string quartets, while staying a meter away with a mask on. She read, after all she had done so beside him every night for close to forty years, this seems fitting. She did not tell him that, in the last week of his life, his daughter was in hospital with a brain tumor diagnosis. What would have been the point?
Paris, 20th arrondissement, six-month-old
Ben was with me when, on March 21st, out of nowhere, I had a series of massive epilepsy seizures at the organic food store, shopping for essentials. I don’t remember the event but have reconstructed the scene from what he told me—too many times for his own taste, I was having memory issues. We were at the checkout when I realized that we had forgotten tomato cans. I went back while he stayed in line with the stroller. He heard jars falling and thought I had let something slip out of my hands. When he got to the aisle, he saw me on the ground, convulsing on the unfinished concrete floor. He had to keep people away from me as they wanted to hold my tongue so I would not bite on it, which, it turns out, is not the thing to do. He was lost in the middle of concerned French shoppers and had to establish that he was not only my husband, but also a physician. He used his broken French to ask the security guard to keep an eye on our son. Someone called for an ambulance.
When the paramedics arrived, they asked him how old I was, a tricky question as we both just had our birthdays, so the answer had recently changed. He felt helpless. Though he had managed epilepsy on a hospital ward, he had never seen it ‘in the wild,’ even less so happening to his own wife. All he could think to do was call Pierre, who arrived in time to see theparamedics intubate me. They cut through my favorite breastfeeding t-shirt, the black one with oversized white dots shaped like milk drops. I thought they cut through my pants as well but they reappeared in Toronto, with the grocery list in the pocket. I keep it in my wallet.
Early on, to help me put things in perspective —or maybe to help himself put things in perspective— Ben told me that the hardest part of the whole thing was already done: it was surviving the status epilepticus, a grand mal as they call it, using the old French terminology. Grand ache, indeed. Electrical currents wreaking havoc through my brain.
Paris, Hôpital Lariboisière, six-month-old
I woke up in the ICU when they removed a tube from my nose. The pain woke me up. The blood dried up and coagulated, stuck in and around my nostrils and I remember picking at it, the metallic taste of blood. I explained that I needed help with my breasts, which were full of milk. I had been on the edge of mastitis for several weeks and was spending my evenings massaging them with hot compresses. It took the nurses a while to catch up to the issue but they consulted the sage-femmes and someone manually pumped my breasts. I was in and out of consciousness — the cliché holds true, everything was blurry.
They told me I needed an MRI. I thought: “Ben told me it’s very loud, I should try to remember.” I do not remember the MRI. They asked if I had any scars on my body while my c-section scar was exposed. Probably the only reason why I was able to answer. They kept asking me if I had lost weight recently. I thought it was hilarious and replied: “20 kg! I had a baby!” A neurosurgeon told me I had a brain tumor. I explained right away that my father was dying of one; they already knew and gave me even longer faces. Not genetically related, just horrible luck.
I shared a room with another woman who nurses kept calling “Madame” while telling her to make an effort to do this and that. It was not so much out of respect as French habit. I do not remember how they addressed me but after 15 years of using first names in North America, it was striking. She had been there for a while, disconnected from the outside world. It seems I was bringing news of the pandemic to her. She talked about her two kids, her ex-husband, and losing her phone charger when moving rooms. She borrowed my phone to call the ex-husband, and I called him back after being discharged to impress her need for a charger. There was no separation between our beds, nurses sponge-bathed her. We were served a lot of yogurt cups; we swapped some, I prefer the plain ones. Hospital food. Once, fish that was not that bad.
I vaguely remember calling my Ben and my family as visitors were not allowed. Pierre bought and passed on an electric pump; that was much better than the manual one. My roommate watched me pump my milk and dump it in the sink. Like many French women over 45, she was surprised I was even bothering to breastfeed. My family told me later they had been reassured when they heard me switch from one language to the other and that, one of the first things I told them, was that there was some breast milk in the freezer. By the time I was discharged, Arthur had been effectively weaned off the breast. In three days and nights, Ben had done the brunt of the work.
CDG – YUL – YYZ, six-month-old
It took a week of coordinating with the insurance so we could be repatriated to Canada. Seizures have anti-depressant and disinhibiting effects, I lounged on the sofa and called friends to tell them the crazy story that had just happened to me. Unbelievable stuff, right? And at this very moment? Incroyable. I continued to breastfeed Arthur in the morning for a few days until it became obvious that my anti-epilepsy medication dose was too high. I was drowsy and could not walk straight; I avoided holding him when I was standing. Good thing Ben spotted and explained this, otherwise I would have freaked out that this was the new me. The French doctors had prescribed stuff to stop the milk, but I did not want to take it. For a couple of weeks, I would ‘pump and dump’ when needed. When we got home to Toronto, I had a big enough stash in the freezer that Arthur had a bottle of breast milk every morning for a month. By the time our 14-day quarantine was up, and I was admitted to St Mike’s hospital for awake neurosurgery, my milk had dried up. I still packed the pump.
There was an imbroglio at the eerily empty Paris airport about my wheelchair and whether I could walk by myself or not so that we were the last to board. The agent at the gate changed our seats, resulting in me not being seated by the nurse that had been sent from Canada to fly back with us. By this point my breasts were ready to explode and I was, legitimately, tensed. I lost it in French on the crew. My husband and the nurse gave me a lorazepam to calm down. This was the first panic attack of my life; the second came as I watched my father’s funeral on WhatsApp. No need for chemicals then, I sobbed-yelled that I needed to breastfeed, resisted the urge, and Ben ended it by grabbing an icepack and forcing me to hold it. The cold made me snap out of it.
I checked my phone when arriving in Toronto and saw the photo of my father that my cousin’s husband had sent to the family Facebook messenger group. That’s when I knew he had passed away. Or did I see it during our lay-over in Montreal? Ben confirmed it in the taxi taking us back to our house. All I know is that I knew before he told me. I don’t think I cried; I already knew. My mother told me he passed just as our flight took off. She had stayed home to see us off and was not with him.
The photo is a portrait of him hugging a tree by the deck at the cottage. He is wearing a black wool hat, rolled up so that you can see his ears. Cottages are not a French thing, but he and my mother had fallen in love with the concept during their travels and built one in the east of France, where my father’s family is from. He was already sick and his face is a bit puffed up. It must have been early spring, the blurry background is a fresh green. A friend had bought a small Buddha figurine at a garage sale and attached it to the tree, the color of the Buddha blends with the bark. My father’s gaze, leveled with the Buddha, looks away into the sky with a little mischief.
Toronto, High Park Neighborhood, seven-month-old
I went through a serious muffins-for-breakfast phase again during my six weeks and a half of daily chemo-radiation treatments that spring. Banana ones. Ben would join us as he took time off and then started seeing patients remotely. I loved these breakfasts in bed, they were sweet parenthesis of joy. Once I was put on a one-week-per-month chemotherapy regimen and we did not have to drive into the hospital every day, we decided that we had to get back to some sort of normal routine and take our breakfasts downstairs. Arthur was on solid food by then and needed more than our scraps. I had never had breakfast downstairs in our new house. It was not all muffins and banana bread. Despite the rush of our departure and the stress surrounding it Ben, always the practical man, had smuggled some comté in our luggage.
Toronto, High Park Neighborhood, toddler years
By the time I started writing this essay, a year after my father’s passing, my son was happily drinking formula. His weaning experience was abrupt but maybe it was for the best. I am glad he did not reach the stage where he could have lifted my shirt. Within weeks, he seemed to have entirely forgotten he was ever breastfed and started calling for his dad at night. Saddened and relieved, I forcefully announced my appreciation of formula to the various friends and acquaintances that came to drop off food and visit, masks on, on our porch.
The toddler has moved on to cow’s milk; though, despite his climbing and jumping, he won’t have it in a cup and requires a bottle, which, for the longest time, he refused to hold himself. He takes it nestled in our arms; no complaints about that, we get a good cuddle out of it.
Camille Bégin is an award-winning historian of food and the senses who turned to creative writing as she faced a formidable set of life-changing events. Her writing has most recently appeared in Gastronomica. Born in France, she has been calling Toronto, Canada, home for over 15 years.