This is actually Sue's story and is told by her, from her perspective (Sue speaks fluent Spanish). It took place in Venezuela's Canaima National Park (Angel Falls) in 1986, before HIV became a common household word.
Would I do it again? I don't know. I only know that the bond of woman to woman overcame any doubts I had at the time.
Lakes and "tepuis" in Canaima NP, Venezuela
Jon, his mom and I had sought refuge from the tropical sun under a palm-frond shelter on the banks of the jungle-clad lake at Ucaima Resort. Across the way, the river tumbled over black rocks to froth and foam at the base of a waterfall. Relaxed, I let our 3‑month‑old first born suck quietly from my breast. Our companions in the shade were women from France and South Africa.
I didn't notice the newly arrived Venezuelan woman and her friends until they were standing directly above me. They spoke rapid Spanish and shuffled uneasily, like children who are excited and embarrassed. With the indifference of a contented cow, I glanced up, sensing they were talking about me or, more likely, little blond Christopher who lay nursing in my arms.
"We've been looking everywhere for an infant ... saw you here; my friends said you were nursing him...."
Venezuelans love babies, and everywhere we took Christopher someone would gurgle to him or tweak his toes. It was one of the bonus pleasures of traveling with an infant in South America. I smiled to the woman and nodded encouragingly, only half aware of what she was saying. Yes, of course she could hold the baby, but, well, he was nursing, and so....
"Si? Verdad? Me presta el bebe?"
Loan her the baby!? I played the Spanish verb through my mind and confirmed the translation. What was she saying? This was obviously not the standard "Oh, he's so cute, let me hold him" routine.
"Please", she continued, now more sure of herself, her face at once pleading, smiling, and reassuring. "My breasts hurt so much. I saw an infant here feeding, could you please loan me your baby?"
She didn't yet have her arms out to receive him, so I stalled for time though I had already said yes. The outlandishness of the question stunned me.
She went on, "My husband was afraid to bring our 8‑month‑old baby to the jungle. He said it might be dangerous, and we didn't know. So we left him at home. My breasts hurt so much. May I really?"
By now she was seated on the bench beside me, her arms open. They were soft arms, pale from an indoor life, accented by crisp dark hairs. I saw a woman, short and soft, like a scoop of ice cream slightly melted, a young figure just softening with motherhood. Raven hair framed a rounded face that suggested a diet heavy in rice and beans and sweets. Careless eyebrows strove to join over deep brown eyes. This woman, this stranger, wanted to borrow my Christopher, my first born.
"Si, claro," I said. "Yes, that would be fine. I understand." Wrenching my gaze from her soft eyes, I looked down at my son who sucked with the steadiness of a heartbeat, his purple-brown eyes round and clear. I slipped my right forefinger between his lips and gently substituted finger for nipple. A mixture of fear and possessive love stirred in my stomach, causing me to give him a gentle hug as I handed him over.
What was I doing? The hands that reached out for Christopher were as strong and sure as my own. The woman deftly raised her blouse, snapped open her bra and cradled Christopher's head in her left arm. He didn't even squirm. Her nipple was hard and she squeezed it to expel a drop of pale blue-white milk.
"You see," she said, meeting my gaze with a gentle rolling of her eyes. I saw her relax as my baby began to suck. He seemed unaware of the change of mothers.
He doesn't need me! My mind blurred with confusion and questions. What if she has some dread disease? No she can't. She looks healthy enough, if a little pale.
I struggled to recall what I'd read about breast milk and disease. None of my books addressed this particular question. I was on my own. Together, she and I had to trust our instincts.
"Who is caring for your baby?" I asked, wondering if I would catch her in some devious lie and discover she had abused or abandoned her child.
"Oh, we left him with my mother in Caracas. But you see I don't want to dry up, and my breasts hurt so much. It's so difficult to squeeze the milk out."
"It's true," said a voice above me. "Thanks for the loan of your baby." I looked up at the unexpected sound of a masculine voice in the intimate circle of women, and felt a wave of resentment.
"You've made MY job a lot easier now, as well," he added, grinning shyly, as he was introduced as the husband.
Laughter started in my stomach and flowed upward till it soothed the muscles in my jaw. Our eyes met, and we looked together towards the American baby nursing from the Venezuelan woman.
Christopher had finished on the left and the woman fluidly lifted him to her shoulder, burped him, cuddled him, and then lowered him to her right breast. My gaze fell on the waterfalls beside us, and I felt suspicion wash from my mind. Only a loving mother of another nursing baby could handle mine with such ease and care.
"He's big, isn't he," I said, knowing that Christopher was probably the same size as her 8‑month‑old. "He's only 3 months and already 8 kilos!"
"Is he breast fed only?" asked one of the woman's friends, who had been standing quietly nearby.
"Yes, I have super milk!"
"But it's the best thing for the babies," chimed in a French woman with a softly accented voice.
"Of course it is, and so much more convenient," added another woman.
"No bottles to wash."
"No formula to mix," said Jon's mom. The conversation swirled and flowed from one woman to another, forming a circle of confidences. When I said how strange it felt to see my baby being fed by another woman, this started another round of comments about wet nurses. About how my mother-in-law had fed her niece when the mother was too sick to do so. About how we're all the same, really.
Christopher and the woman and I posed for pictures. She burped him and held him gently on her lap. "Thank you, little one. Did you have a nice lunch? Do you want to go back to your mommy now?"
Shyly, she looked at me. "May I borrow him again this evening, that is, if you'll be all right?"
"Oh, I'll be all right. He's eats all the time, and I don't usually get engorged except at night. But we're leaving on the afternoon plane for Caracas. I'm really sorry."
"Oh, well, thank you again. I feel so much better. Now I can enjoy the jungle!" She linked arms with her husband and women friends, then disappeared among the palm trees.
I never even learned her name.
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