This afternoon, I was thumbing through a rack of little coats and jumpers labeled 6 months at a thrift store, when a woman walked in carrying an infant car seat with a newborn strapped into the buckle. The poor thing was all red in the face, crying in a way that Aspen grew out of around month three - the kind of wail that stops every now and then for lack of breath, that rattles in the lungs and gets louder, sharper, more desperate. She walked slowly and bounced intentionally with each step, all the while looking through the clothes, unfolding little pants and then folding them again, taking things from hangers, checking the screen of her phone. After a while, the boy still hadn't stopped, and the woman sat the car seat by the front desk and walked back to the racks of clothing.
She set him down like something that was too heavy, a screaming, sobbing burden, and left to shop. The woman's mother was with her, and I heard her say, "Jesus Christ, sometimes that crying really gives you a headache, doesn't it?" The woman nodded, holding her temples.
I stood fixed to the floor, watching this fragile little babe wailing alone in his seat, tearing at his buckles with those trembling, newborn hands that my own daughter had so recently exchanged for reaching, grabbing ones. I had Aspen at my side in her sling and I started to rock, patting her on the bottom, telling her that it was alright, that he was okay, that everything was fine.
But it wasn't.
"Someone pick up that baby," I whispered to the wall. "Please, for the love of God, someone pick up that baby." I wish I had been louder. I fought my feet, for they tried to carry me over to the front desk. I fought my hands, for they wrung nervously and itched to unbuckle him myself, to pick his quaking body up, to bury him in my chest, hold him close, shush him and rock him while his own mother picked at her hair in the mirror.
My milk let down. I crossed my arms across my chest, but still the milk soaked through the cotton of my shirt. Aspen started wiggling in her sling. She could smell the new milk growing in dark rings around my breasts. The baby was still there, crying on the floor, so I left. I ran away, really. I simply had to. I was sure that if I stayed, I would die right there on the tile, torn in two by the boy's helpless cries.
I should have stayed. I should have raised my voice. "Someone, please pick up that baby!" A shout, not a whisper. But it wasn't my place. Motherhood is a strange and certain thing, like religion, like politics. Everyone's right and everyone else is wrong and only you know how to care for your child.
I got back into my car, clicked the snaps on Aspen's car seat, and she started to whimper. So I pulled her back out again, shifted the car into park, and held her for a while longer. I watched the woman walk out of the store with her mother, a bag of folded clothing in one hand, and the car seat in the other. The baby had fallen asleep, it seemed, his little head leaning over to one side. And I kissed Aspen's velvet cheek and told her, "For the love of God, I swear I will always pick you up. Carry you close. Touch my skin to yours when you cry. Dear one, I hear you. You're not alone. Here I am. Here I'll always be.”