Perhaps the most disturbing news I have ever received came to me in a hauntingly normal way, early in the morning, while drinking coffee over the morning paper and watching the cat lap the dregs of milk from the bottom of my cereal bowl. My wife came to me in her old terrycloth bathrobe, sleep still strong in her eyes and in her speech. "I got my period," she said.
That was it.
It wasn't exactly a surprise. I had expected our final try at in
vitro fertilization to fail--the implanted embryos had been frail and we'd
failed twice before, yet, like Hannah, I had hoped and prayed that this time we
might get lucky or be blessed. In secret I'd even asked the Master of the
Universe to reward our four years of trying to get pregnant--including 18 months of intense and expensive fertility treatments--with twins.
Instead, as if this were any July morning, any random cycle of the moon, the news came to me: "I got my period."
And that was it.
I had expected to greet this news, when it came, with some kind of
primordial howl, perhaps the rending of a garment or two; my wife had
spoken of shaving her head like Annie Lennox as an expression of her grief. But that morning we both felt a simple longing to have healthy
ovaries and strong sperm, to be able to procreate, to dream of grandchildren. To be normal. In search of normalcy, I did the dishes. She took a shower and opened a box of tampons. We both went to work.
In the months since then, sadness has permeated every facet of our
lives, and we've become socially nervous because our particular sadness is not
one that is generally understood or respected in American culture as we
experience it. Ours is a tragedy where nothing happened, a tragedy because nothing happened, and that, for most people, ourselves included, is uncharted
emotional territory. As we move through this strange and unfamiliar
landscape, we find ourselves having to overcome the always well-meaning but
often hurtful comments and suggestions of our friends and family.
Usually, we are given advice on how best to rectify our condition.
Mere reproductive novices fancy themselves great fertility experts. Perhaps
they once got pregnant while using a diaphragm and figure this makes them wise
in the ways of procreation. "Relax," they tell us. "You're too stressed
out." As if the world isn't filled with stressed-out parents who, despite high blood pressure, are parents nonetheless.
"Go to Italy and make love on a hill overlooking Florence. Try wearing boxer shorts. Go visit my sister-in-law's acupuncturist."
Mere reproductive novices fancy themselves great fertility experts. Perhaps they once got pregnant while using a diaphragm...
Then there's "Why don't you just adopt? Adoption is a great cure for infertility." And there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that couples who adopt subsequently become fertile. But I don't believe that using adoption as reproductive therapy is either medically reliable or morally sound. Adopting a child should be an end, not a means to an end.
Or, the attempt is made somehow to redeem our infertility. We are
told that God has schemes and plans yet to be revealed: perhaps a special
child is waiting for us to adopt her, perhaps in another country, perhaps in
And we probably will adopt that special child someday, but our sorrow
is not that our lives may, in time, be filled with happiness when a parentless
child becomes grafted into the fellowship of our household and makes of us a
family. Our sadness is that we will never hold a child in our arms whose face
reflects the families that would be her heritage and ours.
Sometimes friendly attempts at redeeming our condition are more
visceral. Not long ago, I was recovering from having taken part as a
Protestant co-officiant in a Greek Orthodox wedding, in which every other
prayer seemed to mention the fruitfulness of the bride's womb, the miraculous
births of Isaac and John the Baptist, and the blessing of seeing one's children's children. A dear, lifelong friend put her arms around me and, having listened for a time to my sadness, whispered in my ear, "At least you don't have to worry about birth control!" But what wouldn't I give to fill my life with bits of latex covered with poisonous ooze, if that meant I could once again experience the joy of sexual intimacy that is infused with the hope of new life.
A dear, lifelong friend put her arms around me and whispered, "At least you don't have to worry about birth control!"
Ultimately I don't know if for us there ever will be a rectification
or redemption of our infertility. Some sorrows in life stay with us and
forever remain unresolved. But while our lives likely will remain marked with
a sadness that is unique to the childless, I believe and trust that some
kind of healing will grace our lives, and I suspect that the healing will come
in much the same way as the devastating news of infertility first came.
Perhaps in the tender cool of a summer morning, drinking coffee, reading the
newspaper with my cat, now grown a year or two older, pestering me for milk, I
will notice that, while still very real, the pain and sadness of infertility
are not so present in our lives as they once had been. My best guess is that
by the grace of God, the goodness of living among a community of friends--even
clumsy friends--in a world of wonder and of beauty will eventually wear off on
us, and the gifts of hope and joy will, in the fullness of time, wend their
way back to the center of our lives.