A tin of Milo on a green and yellow background

KaiJanuary 12, 2023

An ode to Milo

A tin of Milo on a green and yellow background

In hospitals and labour wards and care homes across the country, Milo is the drink that helps people hold onto hope.

This story was first published on the author’s newsletter, Emily Writes Weekly.

Content warning: This post includes details of my son’s hospital admissions and health journey, it might be triggering if you’ve been through similar trauma. Please take care.

Three years ago my son was finally being released after surviving another brutal attack on his body by his body. His blood had curdled, turned acidic, turned poison in his veins. His kidneys had shut down. His pancreas had given up. He’d emerged from a diabetic coma with an incurable, lifelong, chronic condition. But months later, he was strong enough to come home. All of this – from a tummy bug.

As I waited for his final visit from the hot Irish doctor, I made myself a final Milo and hoped to God I wouldn’t have another one too soon.

Milo is the official drink of Ward One. The drink of the hopeful and hopeless, the exhausted, and the lonely.

Ward One is the children’s ward. Well, it used to be. The new children’s hospital is gorgeous, spacious, fit for purpose. You don’t need to bring a can of CRC for the door which is handy.

The old Ward One had a little room with a label on the door that said “whānau” and that’s where you went to have a Milo. In the dead of night, though it never really feels like night on the ward, you’d trudge to the room and make a Milo.

The coffee was terrible even by terrible coffee standards, so you always had a Milo. You also had too much coffee during the day, so you always had a Milo.

Sometimes I would walk with my Milo toward the labour ward. I would listen to the cries echoing through the corridors and think about journeys just beginning. It was a way to remind myself that we all start somewhere. Journeys on the children’s ward were often ending.

And on the ward, you lived in some kind of middle. A limbo – body still, but heart and mind always racing.

I found myself craving Milo. I’d never really liked it in the before times. And that’s what happens when your child is Very Sick. You have before times, and you dream of after times.

In the before times, we didn’t even have Milo in the pantry.

It’s not just a children’s ward thing. There’s Milo on the labour ward too.

Me, my Milo, and my new baby

My midwife made me a Milo as I nursed my brand-new second son. He was so robust. Twice the size of my first born. He’d taken so long to arrive, days of labour, weeks of pain. My first born had come quickly, maybe too quickly? I don’t remember having Milo when he was born but I remember them trying to make him breathe.

My second son was screaming before he’d even fully emerged from me. He made his presence known as if to quell the fear we had that we’d have another baby born unable to breathe.

I sipped my Milo and thought Oh, is this what it feels like? For it all to be just fine?

Soon we were back in Ward One with our firstborn. Our second born refused to come in. He seemed to know the ward was a bad place. No bribes of Lego or a playground would make him enter.

I made Milo.

Sometimes I would go to make myself a cup and I’d find another mother. A new mother. She’d stare at the Milo tin. Sometimes new mothers in the ward sway ever so slightly like they have their baby in their arms and not tangled in tubes and wires in a hospital cot.

Sometimes they pace – up and down, up and down. Sometimes they lean as if the weight of this world is just too much in this moment. They take this moment then straighten, and outside their child’s room they take a deep breath and smile widely.

In the whānau room they can weep and sag and falter. In their child’s room they’re bright, chirpy even, their pain hidden – wiped away like an Etch A Sketch.

We make Milo for each other. It’s a small thing we can do. The veterans of the children’s ward make them for the new recruits. They’re shellshocked, we’re numb. We can make Milo.

Choose a cup – chipped and stained. You search for a teaspoon. There are never any teaspoons. You rinse the teaspoon in the sink. End up washing the dishes because what else can you do? Your child is asleep, untouchable, but you can’t sleep and you long for something to keep your hands busy.

You heap spoons of Milo from the impossibly large tin. Put sugar in because why the fuck not? This is not a time to deny yourself sugar when the universe is conspiring to deny you your child.

Don’t look at the clock. Whisper “milk?” even though the ward is loud enough with the beeps and the cries and the cush cush cush of the machines keeping our babies alive.

Smile. Smile even if there’s tears in your eyes. Smile as you hand the warm cup over. Smile and they’ll smile too.

Yawn and then laugh as they yawn too. Don’t look at the clock.

Shuffle to the couch. Sip. Yawn. Sit in silence.

Cry. Cry openly and easily.

Cry without shame. Without judgement. Cry because it’s all you can do. Cry because there’s nothing you can do.

Cry and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry.

Stand up. Hug silently.

Make another Milo.

Shuffle back to your child’s room, ready for the rounds.

Look out the window and know that the morning crew will be opening the coffee shop soon and you’ll be able to buy a real coffee.

Know that a baby is being born upstairs. Know that a midwife is handing a new mother a Milo.

Know that the newspapers are being delivered. Know that a baby will be discharged from the NICU. Know that the piano player will come, and he’ll play Moonlight Sonata soon.

The corridors will be mopped clean. In the whānau room they’ll wipe the benches clean and make sure there’s enough Milo for a new day.

And the nurse will come and say, “Good morning. How’s our baby?”

And you’ll say, “Good.”

And you’ll smile and you’ll drink your Milo and know that this is the only place, this in between place, where it will ever taste like this.

Like love, like loss, like hope.

This story was first published on the author’s newsletter, Emily Writes Weekly.

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