“You were born in a snowstorm,” it would have begun. “It snowed so hard the day you were born, we didn’t think we’d make it to the hospital on time.” The first personal legend for my son or daughter, who would have taken it in with a shy smile at first, in later years nodding, knowing the details by heart.
They had shown me the due date on a cardboard wheel in the obstetrician’s office. The energies of the cosmos and the zodiac had swirled together with my body to determine this fine point in time. “E.D.C.,” they called it there, for Expected Date of Confinement–an archaic, faintly misogynistic term no one had ever bothered to change. Mine would be January 12.
I suppose I should have covered my eyes and ears, knowing the history of my previous conceptions, hard-won and hard-lost. But against my nature, perhaps against Nature itself, I felt optimistic. A pathetic optimism, the kind a pessimist occasionally gets.
For I am not the silver-lining type. And I had allowed myself to be pinned in place by thousands of tiny nails, a consenting Gulliver, immobilized by the medical and psychological restraints imposed by infertility.
There had been others, two others–the first fruits, offered to appease the gods–but this was the last, best hope, made real by a cardboard pinwheel that gave me the hard nugget of a month and a day to hold on to. I had seen the embryonic outline this time on a sonogram, the one that was supposed to confirm the positive blood test by showing its little heartbeat.
I had been so sure this time that I almost didn’t bother going for the verification. Peppermints had suddenly begun to nauseate me, and my nipples had turned to rubber. “There aren’t that many highs in life,” Karen, the coordinator at the fertility clinic, had said. “Go and see the heartbeat.”
The dark image I saw had the hunch and curve I recognized from pictures. But it had no heart to beat. To make sure, the technician kept enlarging it until the screen was filled with its motionless hulk. Its shape, the kindly doctor told me after I got dressed, gave a clue to its trouble. It showed signs, he explained, that it might be about to “crumple”–an unmistakable word, with its unforgiving “k” sound and the abrupt energy of that “p.”
Of the millions of words I have heard, thought, and spoken about infertility in the seven years my husband and I tried to make a baby, it’s the word “crumple” that sticks with me this January 12, as I roam unconfined on my Date of Confinement. In New York’s record-breaking snowfall in the winter of 1994, it is the legacy of my infertility that I carry with me, not my baby.
Infertility is what I do. It’s my vocation: I don’t get pregnant, or I don’t stay pregnant. I’m good at it. I’ve been more successful at it than at anything else I’ve tried as an adult. My infertility is a layered, soft thing, spun of gossamer and tears. It will disintegrate if I touch it. So I give it substance in other ways.
I have a record of every date on which I menstruated and ovulated during the last seven years. Also every date my husband and I had intercourse. I could draw charts and graphs–”Here’s where I didn’t get pregnant that month”–to illustrate our childlessness. The ritual and science of failure.
When Ed and I started out, it seemed clear that determination and the right medical care would get us there. But we had to live in the world until then. And on the bad days, everyone I saw, even the men, seemed to be effortlessly, abundantly pregnant. How dare they?
But it wasn’t just pregnant people and babies–babies in blankets, babies in strollers, babies cooing, babies shrieking, everywhere babies, babies, babies–who had the power to stun. Every human being I saw was a reminder that I could not make one of those. It seemed mythical, a compelling fiction, that we had all started out from the successful union of egg and sperm successfully housed in a successful uterus.
I wasn’t sick, but over the years I collected the names of diseases and conditions that applied to me. I wasn’t dying, but I could not give life. I claimed a new terrain between the ill and the well, and there I alternated between hope and cynicism daily, monthly, yearly: we could be helped/we would never be parents; we had diseases that could be treated/we were losing incalculable, irretrievable time and money on a doomed quest.
As the diagnoses and treatments accumulated, I gradually built up a vocabulary of loss: endometriosis, varicocele, curettage, fetal demise. If worst came to worst, there was the terrible miracle of reproductive technology. And it works, sort of. It made me a little pregnant.
But first, I had to prepare myself. I had to become somebody else. Somebody capable of undergoing surgery after surgery, submitting to six months of medically induced menopause at age thirty-two, laying hot compresses of boiled ginger root across her midsection, chanting novenas in secular spots.
Ed and I traveled to California to continue treatment when the doctor we liked moved there. We traveled to Queens to call on the services of an acupuncturist. I rekindled a childhood pen pal correspondence in France in order to take advantage of the much cheaper fertility drugs in that country.
My break with the Catholic Church in junior high didn’t stop me from collecting the little laminated cards my sister gave me with incantations to the Virgin Mary and St. Gerard for motherhood. And toward the end, I began a series of experimental blood transfusions without realizing that they would have run into tens of thousands of dollars.
We tried everything: the sacred and the profane, the medical and the marginal, the cutting edge and the fringe. No gesture seemed too far-fetched. The more extreme, we thought, the more likely it would be to form another piece of the humorous, heartbreaking story we would tell once our parenthood was secured. We got the humor and the heartbreak, anyway.
There was the doctor who forgot to tell me that the diagnostic procedure he would be performing on me would put me in the long lineup of that morning’s abortions. There was the radiologist whose job it was to report my uterine X rays to my doctor, but who couldn’t keep his unfounded suspicions of endometrial cancer to himself. There were the slapstick maneuvers involved in getting the adjustable in vitro table to hoist my large frame (I’m nearly 5’10”) into the appropriate angle for the transfer of precious embryos.
And then there was Dr. Gold, my friend and confidant through the long, confusing years. From the start, he took a special interest in my case. I basked in his quirky attentiveness. I liked his directness, his Jewishness, his delicate surgeon’s hands, his birdlike movements. With his close-cropped black hair, wire-rim glasses, and scaled-down facial features, he was endearing, irresistible: Albert Brooks in surgical scrubs. For better or worse, I couldn’t have stuck it out without his intimate involvement.
I gave myself over to my infertility as to an inevitable trial, a test of will, of faith, of reason. Each monthly cycle, each new treatment, seemed the small, logical next step in a reasonable sequence. In the medical miasma, I couldn’t see the incremental madness. I saw only myself, trying to be a good patient, addled but agreeable; my husband, with his unexpected, intense love that both anchored and buoyed me, whose longing for fatherhood was so genuine that I ached to be able to offer it to him; and my doctor–energetic, compassionate, and personally rooting for me. The barren woman’s m”nage ” trois.
But even as Ed and I dutifully turned to successively more complicated treatments, as to the stations of some powerful pagan’s cross, I had a gnawing feeling that some unnameable sequence of wrong choices and the earth’s damaged environment itself had already preordained our childlessness. We were canaries in the coal mine, hallucinating in our asphyxiation that our rescuers were only shovelfuls away.
And early on, I knew that I didn’t necessarily want a child–no more than I wanted everything I had ever longed for and didn’t have. Like a peaceful childhood with the kind of father who would have taught me to dance by lifting me on top of his shoes and waltzing me around the room. Or getting back my best friend, Kathy, whose life ended at twenty-four in the fiery crash of a small plane in Vermont.
The difference here was that I could place responsibility for having a baby in the hands of medical authorities. They were our collaborators, our dream-catchers, dangling before us the constant promise of possible parenthood, a promise they had been known to keep. I threw myself at them as though they could give me everything I had ever wanted–as though, if only I could have this, I would never want anything again.
I think I also embraced my infertility for its drama and pathos. I love movies that make me cry, music in minor chords, books that let sorrow wash over me. Even in real life, sadness often feels more real to me than the alternatives. It touches a depth nothing else can reach. As my infertility gained ascendancy, it exploited that feeling in me. “You want sad?” it jeered. “I’ll give you sad.”
Even worse, it threatened to turn me wholly inward, shrinking my perspective down to the size of my uterus. On the day I found out that our attempt at in vitro fertilization had failed, in 1992, I saw the first photographs of the wasted bodies of Somali children on the front page of the New York Times. Who in God’s name did I think I was?
Someday, I thought, I might try to make sense of the ordeal by writing about it. Would that give me perspective? If I couldn’t be pregnant, maybe at least I could be poignant.
Now that my seven years’ bad luck have ended–my penance for mirrors and commandments I don’t remember breaking–and now that I can tally up the number of surgeries and miscarriages, reckon what has been lost and what gained, along with the sorrow and the relief, I also feel surprise that I took it that far. Part of me feels that I’ve been had, humiliated, given a metaphysical wedgie. Trying to have a child turned out to be no different from trying to be Bolivian or trying to have small feet.
But I was mesmerized by the process, so that as I progressed through each complex, futile stage, I was vaguely aware of having the choice of either jolting myself awake or just working it into the dream, the fever dream it took me seven years to wake up from. Now, sweating and disoriented, the frown of troubled sleep still upon me and the blood still roiling in my ears, I search frantically for some familiar sign of who I was back before the fever took hold.
©1999 by Linda Carbone and Ed Decker. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.