I'm not usually one for disclaimers, but this is a piece on a subject about which I've previously said very little publically. So, indulge me -- allow me to clear my throat and ease into this a bit: I wrote the following essay a week or so ago in my writing group. The prompt was simply "before." After I wrote it, I felt some relief, a lifting of a weight. But I felt even more of a burden lifting after I read it aloud to the group and got some nods of agreement. I realized then that although this is a deeply personal issue, it is one I need to talk about. I know I'm not alone in facing issues of fertility and infertility (cancer-related or not) but it is not a subject we discuss much outside of our bedrooms and doctor's offices, and thus everyone facing these issues feels tremendously alone. I'm finding that carrying around these feelings of sadness and hurt, confusion and judgement (yes, judgement) to be a very heavy weight. And, like most burdens, I know it will be lighter if I walk in the company of friends. It doesn't mean I won't cry anymore. In fact, that's probably a given. But tears also release tension and so I say bring on the tears, and the laughter, and the chocolate. Whatever it motherf-ing takes. -- April
I'm sitting alone at my dad's Scandanavian-style, pale wood drop-leaf kitchen table, the one around which we've managed to fit two adults and three kids-then-teens originally, and later when, as adults we come bacck with our growing our families: seven adults and two kids. At those times, all hard angled knees and shoulders and elbows fitted side by side, so crowded you had to inch sideways to and fron your seat, your jeans rubbing the thin table edge on one side and the blue and white tiled island scrapes against your pockets on the other. This table is the witness, the one that remains. It bears the scars and life lines deep in her wood of living with a family through thick and thin, infant to adult, birth and death: grooves, water marks, sun bleaching, ink and dried out patches.
On this day, though, there is no sun splashing across the table from the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mountains. Instead, outside wind and hail and thunder rage, keeping the view cropped close. Inside where, in the past, my dad's fires were notorious for sending the mercury to 80 degrees and above, causing us all to go from freezing to strip down to Ts and tanks even on the most wintery of days, today I'm shivering in the grey afternoon, pulling my hood over my ears. I'm ill-prepared for this arctic April freeze that seemed to arrive from nowhere. Today there is no cozy fire crackling in the woodstove (I won't be staying long enough to make it worth the effort), and to my right a freshly broken window lets in an icy draft that sends goose bumps prickling up and down my arms, the draft infiltrating easily my novice cardboard-and-packing-tape patch job.
I'm here despite the storm to do time-consuming, laborious things like pack my dad's T-shirts and shoes and belts into black plastic garbage bags, but I have something else I have to do first. I'm sitting at an empty table in an empty house with a stack of back and white forms before me because I have a looming deadline and I thought I'd easily tackle them in a quiet place. (I hadn't intended for it to be as lonely and cold as an iceburg, that's just bonus.)
I pick up the first form and write my name in the designated place. OK, great, good start! My eyes scan downward to the first question, my pen poised in a getting-shit-done sort of way. "When was your last menstrual cycle?"
Hmmm. I skip ahead and read the next, and the one after that, and then the whole page:
"How often do you and your partner have intercourse? ____ x per week/month"
"If you've done IVF before, what was the outcome?"
"Have you ever had a successful pregnancy?"
"Have you ever tried to get pregnant with someone other than your current partner?"
Too many questions, they start to swirl around me like mosquitos. Even the seemingly innocent first question -- when was your last menstrual cycle? -- is hard. Last true one? March 2012. Last spotty, weird one? Last week.
Overwhelmed, I put my pen down and reach for my cell phone instead. The woman who answers my call at the fertility clinic is curt: If you don't get the paperwork done today, I'll have to give your appointment to someone who is better prepared.
The unspoken message between the lines hangs in the moment of silence that follows: I'll have to give your appointment to someone who wants it more.
Someone who wants a baby more than I do?
I feel caught between different branches of science and medicine: On the one side these fertility experts who have the knowlege and the tools to help me but are hassled by my questions and hesitations and concerns about hormones and drugs and money. And on the other side is my oncologist who's chemo drugs saved my life, but also dried up my ovaries and paralized my eggs before they had a second at-batt.
Because I aready have been luckier than some: Three years before my cancer arrived, I cashed in one of my eggs and got my beautiful daughter in return. It was so easy back then. Of course, back then I thought a few months of trying was pure torture. I was 30, playing fast and loose with my biological clock. My mom was one year in her grave: She couldn't hurt me anymore, and so I decided it was safe to start a family. So I turned the car around, so to speak, ceased the years and years and years of actively trying not to get pregnant. I stopped the daily Pill, the condoms stayed in their wrappers, and the pink, rubbery diaphragm I never liked anyway stayed in the back of the drawer in its cream-colored clam-shell case. So much money and effort invested in keeping Mother Nature from her singular mission. I thought a pregnancy could sneak in as simply as falling off a log. What is this "trying to get pregnant"? And then, to my surprise it did take a little time, a little planning.
But, ultimately I opened my heart and my womb to the universe -- trusted my desire would be met -- and the universe delivered.
That was before.
This is now. Now, with an FSH level of 30 the doctor said plainly, "I would be very surprised if you got pregnant on your own."
That discussion lead to a referral and this stack of paperwork in an empty, freezing house. (The metaphor of the emptiness is not lost on me.) I look through my stack of papers, and then at my husband's twin stack beside it. It is like a loan application only more personal, intimidating and tedious. As I look, it strikes me as odd that my husband's questions are nearly identical to mine. Can't I answer all these for both of us, like the partnership that we are?
My eyes linger on, "How often do you and your partner have intercourse? ____ x per week/month"
I wonder, will his answer be the same as mine? What if his estimation is more or less than mine? What then? Is this a test? If we answer correctly do we get a baby? Who decides? Deep down I'm afraid it is the bank and the credit cards that will ultimately decide, not a doctor, not my scarred and broken body. How much we spend on this is a big question. How much of our existing daughter's security can be / should be spent in the persuit of a sibling for her?
Eventually I finish my stack of forms in triplicate. Grimly I put the papers in the red folder and shove the whole thing into my black shoulder bag. And then I stuff my ear buds into my ears and crank up Milky Chance till it thrums through my head and I turn to filling the back bags with T-shirts that still smell like my dad, and to cutting fresh cardboard to patch the broken window. Later I drive carefully through the hail that carpets the ground like snow back to my warm house and the life that I've created for myself.
I put the red folder on the counter and there it sits for a day and a half (missing the fussy lady's deadline) and then I dial the fertility clinic and I reschedule my appointment from spring to summer, April to June. There are some things I can face head on, but it seems the science of making a baby is not yet one of these things. Maybe I'm nostalgic for the old fashioned way. For before.
Before the cancer, before the menopause, before the forms and the price tags, before receptionists and doctors. When there was simply love and lust and excitement and a whole world opening up before us like the dawn cresting the mountain.
Like we were 30.