Memoir Mondays

Worry

Worry became my prayer, my way of holding vigil. If I held this baby in my mind during every waking moment, perhaps it wouldn’t leave me. At this point, after two years of trying, I found it hard to believe that my body wouldn’t bleed, that I wouldn’t flush away this growing thing. Flushing was my body’s habit; it knew no other way, and so I spoke to my body constantly, instructing it—pleading with it. I closed my eyes and imagined nine months without bleeding. When I inhaled, I willed my organs upward, into me. I begged them not to let go, not to purge, cleanse, release.

By the time a blood test confirmed that I was pregnant, my period was four days overdue. “All your levels looks great,” the nurse told me over the phone. “You have no reason to worry.”

I had every reason to worry. My body had failed me over and over.

I could not use the bathroom without fearing that I’d find a bloodstain on my underwear, or that I’d leave a drop of red behind to spread in the toilet water, or that when I wiped I’d see a trace of pink. I could imagine these details so easily.  To ward off my fear, I developed an elaborate set of rituals.

At work, I could only use the first floor bathroom, first stall on the left. It was a stall I’d rarely used before I conceived. I had never bled in that particular toilet, never changed a sanitary napkin there, and so I trusted that stall to keep me safe.

Wherever I went, I held my breath as I pulled down my pants. I stretched the crotch of my underwear between my two fingers and inspected the fabric for anything resembling blood. I learned to carefully wad the toilet paper before I wiped, otherwise the pink of my finger might show through a single ply and startle me. It would take me minutes to recover from the sight of what I thought was blood.

Because so far I had no pregnancy symptoms, the worrying was all I had, the only difference between pregnant me and me alone. If I didn’t worry, if I didn’t spend all of my mental energy on protecting this thing that was growing, then how could I be sure that it was there?

Sometimes I worried about my worrying. All those months as I tried and failed people had told me to relax.  The implication was clear: worrying had made me infertile. This made me worry even more. I tried to talk myself down. I told myself that I was a worrier, that worriers before me had babies. I thought of pregnant women living in war zones, of domestic abuse survivors, of all the babies that had been brought to term in situations far more hostile than the womb of a preoccupied mother.

I told myself that in reality there wasn’t much I could think or feel that would kill this baby or keep it alive. If this baby couldn’t survive my emotions, well then this baby just wouldn’t survive.

On the surface I looked calm. That’s how worried I was. I was so worried that I couldn’t break the shell of worry, couldn’t say aloud how scared I was. No one knew about the first stall or the toilet paper.

Note: This is the second installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. I don’t promise to move chronologically or reveal the whole story, but you can click on the Memoir Mondays tag below to read earlier installments.

Image Credit: Photo by Peter Almay, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/csutka/3956855512

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That’s So Gay

From birth to age seven, I was an only child. I didn’t want to be. Our family home had two floors and more rooms than we needed. My parents had a room, and I had a room, and still there were two more bedrooms, each one filled with furniture, piles of books, and jigsaw puzzles—things we only saved because we had the room to store them.

My own bedroom was pale blue with a small crack that ran through the wall beside my bed. Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I traced it with my finger. I often played alone with dolls and stuffed animals, memorizing my favorite books. Every day, I daydreamed about how the house might change if I had a younger sibling crawling from room to room, filling the house with living sounds.

Up the street, my best friend Mandy Filcher lived with two older brothers. Her house was in many ways the opposite of mine, exploding with toys, bean bag chairs, Atari, and sibling rivalry. Mandy was a year older than me with brown pigtails and buck teeth. When we weren’t eating ramen noodles in the kitchen or watching The Price is Right in the den, we were mostly playing Barbies in her bedroom, which was so small it could barely hold all of her stuffed animals. The Barbies and the Kens belonged to Mandy, which meant that she was the boss of them. Always she assigned me Pink ‘n’ Pretty, who was the designated outcast. She was a genuine Barbie, but something must have gone wrong in the factory on the day she was made. Her skin tone had some extra orange so she looked like she was wearing a fake tan. None of the other Barbies liked Pink ‘n’ Pretty, and the Ken dolls didn’t want to date her.

Still, we had fun undressing them and having them skinny dip in the sweetheart pool or lie in the same bed. Because Barbies outnumbered Kens, they often danced with each other. One day, as two of our Barbies were slow dancing at the prom, Mandy interrupted to ask me if I knew what “gay” meant. Gay was the word we’d been tossing around when something was stupid or uncool, like admitting that you liked Mr. Rogers, or wearing sports socks with your Mary Janes: That’s so gay. Gay was the opposite of Awesome, the other word that Mandy had recently taught me.

“Gay is like when a boy marries a boy, or a girl marries a girl,” she explained.

I instantly felt relieved. I did not decide that I was gay in that moment, but I was happy, like she’d answered a question I’d long held somewhere inside of me. It mattered that we were using the word as an insult, but it mattered much more that such things were possible, that men could love men and women love women. I was happy for that option.

Baby_doll-Calineczka-2006Back at my own house, I lobbied for a baby. By the time I was six it had become a routine topic of discussion. At night, when I visited my mom in her bed, I told her I wouldn’t care if it were a sister or brother. I’d love it no matter what. At the dinner table, I hounded both of my parents for an answer, saying, “So is it yes or is it no or is it maybe?”

I didn’t realize that behind closed doors, my mother had been lobbying for the same thing. For years, she and my father had considered a second child. My father might have been happy to put it off forever, but as my mother approached forty her idea of a new baby, once distant, had evolved into a pressing desire.

One day in early autumn, my mother sought me out in our backyard. I was lying on the grass in the afternoon sun, when a shadow passed over me and I opened my eyes to find her standing there. “I have something to tell you,” she said.

I didn’t shout or clap my hands or jump up in the air. I just stayed there in the grass and felt a tingle in my belly—the joy of expectation—it settled there and grew. We were going to have a baby.

I was seven when my brother was born. On the night when my mother went into labor, I slept on the loveseat in Mandy Filcher’s living room. Her mother slept on the sofa across from me so I wouldn’t have to be alone. By morning, he still hadn’t arrived, and so I went to school as usual, wondering throughout the day if he had safely entered the world.

My father picked me up that afternoon at Mandy’s. I had expected the drive to the hospital to take a few minutes, but it was two towns away, and we kept driving through neighborhoods of trees and houses, comfortably silent. The hospital room was white, the sheets were white, my mother wore a pale blue gown, and there was my brother, wrapped in white with a tiny pink face and closed eyes. If I sat in the chair I could hold him. For such a tiny thing he had heft; he felt more like a sack of flour than a doll. He breathed and made tiny little half-cries as he slept.

Some children beg for a sibling and when he arrives, they beg to send him back. I didn’t. I bottle-fed him, spoon-fed him, cradled him, read to him, and sang him lullabies. On Saturday mornings, when he woke before my parents, I tiptoed into his room and brought him downstairs. He sat on my lap while I watched cartoons. Together, we ate dry Cheerios from a plastic bowl.

Note: This is the fourth installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. You can click on the Memoir Mondays tag below to read earlier installments.

Screw Fate

Memoir Mondays, Installment #3:

All of those stories about infertility, the ones with happy endings, they all seemed to go the same way. The pregnancy didn’t happen on the sixth try or the seventh, it happened at some critical juncture, when all hope was on the verge of being lost.

Maybe it happened after three failed rounds of in-vitro fertilization, or after the husband learned that his sperm were immotile, or on the mother-to-be’s forty-second birthday after half a dozen miscarriages.

As we prepared for our tenth insemination, I tried to have faith in the happy-ending stories, to believe that my own good news was imminent. I imagined calling all my friends and telling them: It was meant to be. Our last vial of sperm. Fate was testing us, but in the end it was kind.

Kellie met me at the fertility clinic for a procedure that had now become routine. Each visit had included the same painful exam where Dr. Norman entered me with gloved fingers and announced that my uterus was retroverted, and each time I wondered why he couldn’t have just written that in his notes and skipped this part of the ritual.  This time, if Dr. Norman had noted that we were using our last vial of sperm, that there was nothing left of our original stockpile, he didn’t mention it. He headed for the door with no special goodbye, no good luck wishes.

“Wait!” I called as he entered the threshold. “One last question.” I asked if he had any advice if I wasn’t pregnant by the end of this cycle. We had been trying for a while now, I reminded him. Should I be taking some tests? Were there treatments I should consider?

He opened his manila folder and glanced over my chart. “This is your tenth attempt,” he told me, as if perhaps I hadn’t been keeping my own count. “We normally recommend in vitro after six failed tries. So that would be my recommendation: in vitro fertilization.” He nodded and left the room.

“What’s in vitro?” Kellie asked me. It took me a minute to answer her. I felt like he had hit me over the head with a tire iron, and as I lay there in a hospital gown, I tried to gather my composure.

“That’s the thing where you pay them a million dollars, and you inject hormones in my ass every day. Then they harvest a bunch of my eggs and make embryos in a petri dish.”

“Oh,” Kellie said, unfazed. “We’re not there yet.”

I agreed with Kellie’s assessment more than I agreed with Dr. Norman’s.  I had asked him the question in a moment of recognition that he was a doctor, a specialist, and perhaps he had untapped wisdom. But no, all he had were protocols, and those protocols were irrelevant to my situation. For a straight woman to arrive at six failed intrauterine inseminations would have meant that she had already tried to conceive naturally for over a year. It also likely meant that she had undergone a series of tests. But Kellie and I had done none of that. We’d simply walked through their door. I’d had acupuncture and three months of progesterone, but so far no one had even drawn my blood. As desperate as I felt, I wasn’t ready to be told that I was IVF material.

When I rose to leave the building I was alarmed by the rush of fluid to my underwear. This had happened every time, and yet it never ceased to dismay me. Though one vial of sperm was less than a tablespoon, and though I remained supine on the exam table for half an hour to better guide the fluid towards my uterus, it always spilled out of me in a rush the moment I stood up. It struck me as an expensive way to juice up your underwear.

On the car ride home, I held onto Kellie’s hand. I dispelled Dr. Norman from my mind, and tried not to consider the indefinite future. For two weeks I waited and played that hopeful story on a loop. I told myself maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe soon I’ll be calling my friends with good news.

But I didn’t make those phone calls. My period arrived on time.

There was no special way to mark it, this period that arrived thirteen months after our first attempt at conception. We’d been through summer, then through autumn, winter, spring, and now we were coming to the other side of summer again. I took the dogs on a long walk under a flat gray sky and thought about what I would have by now if things had gone the way I expected: a baby strapped against me, nearly four months old. I wondered about these eggs that I’d expelled, each one carrying its own unique code of who it might have become if given a chance. Some of them were girls and some were boys. They assembled in my brain, a party of babies, all of them wearing onesies, some in bonnets, some in tiny leather shoes, some of them laughing, some of them crying, some of them gazing contentedly at nothing in particular as newborns often do. These were the kinds of thoughts I entertained every day, but never spoke out loud.

Note: This is the third installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. I don’t promise to move chronologically or reveal the whole story, but you can read earlier installments here and here.

A Body Alone

2

“Stop taking the progesterone,” Dr. Xiao commanded me during our first meeting. Dr. Xiao was an acupuncturist and herbalist who lived sixty miles away from me, and who had a reputation for helping her patients solve mysterious fertility problems. After six unsuccessful inseminations and four failed months on progesterone supplements, I had finally decided that needles and herbs were worth a shot.

Dr. Xiao had a round, freckled face and wore her long black hair in a braid. She had put on a pair of black reading glasses to examine the thick stack of fertility charts I had handed her, all of them crinkled and some of them tea-stained. As she glanced at each one, I felt a small sense of accomplishment, as if all of the months of logging my temperature finally counted for something. Dr. Xiao held up my most recent chart and pointed to the line that indicated the second half of my cycle. “You have plenty of days here,” she explained. “Progesterone not helping you.” She moved her finger to the mid-point of the chart, the sudden line that signaled ovulation. “We work to make this stronger,” she said. “I want to see sharper rise.”

I had mentioned from the beginning that my partner and I performed six inseminations using donor sperm, and wondered if she understood that we were lesbians. I braced myself for questions, but either Dr. Xiao understood exactly what was going on, or she didn’t care. Perhaps the lines on my chart told the only story she needed.

“Don’t inseminate for three months,” she instructed. “Don’t spend your money. Give me time to do my work.”

For Dr. Xiao I kept my clothes on, but rolled up my sleeves and my pant legs. I lay down on her table, closed my eyes, and pretended to relax. Her office smelled like dark herbs and sounded like rushing water. She stuck needles in my wrists, my ankles and my feet. Sometimes she stuck my ears, and sometimes she stuck between my eyes. Always, the last thing she did was place a call bell beneath my right hand. “You call me if anything not right,” she instructed.

When she left she closed the door behind her, and I would feel how the needles were shifting things around, opening veins, rerouting blood, stretching my nerves. I knew people who claimed to love acupuncture, who said that the needles relaxed them, that they fell asleep on the table and left the office feeling restored. I was not one of those people. Sometimes an ache would move up and down my leg. Sometimes a particular needle felt especially sore, and then the pain would pass. Sometimes my stomach turned. Sometimes a great wave of discomfort would travel through my body. The discomfort was never great enough that I considered ringing the call bell. I treated these feelings as the magic doing its work. But what drove me crazy was the waiting. Sometimes Dr. Xiao returned and removed my needles after only twenty minutes, but more often she left me there for so long that I could no longer track time. I would hear a door open and close, hear her footsteps in the hallway, and think that she was finally coming to release me only to hear her enter another room and talk in muffled tones to a different patient. My stomach growled in hunger. I had to pee. I thought of the piles of student papers waiting in my office sixty miles away. Often I wondered if she might have possibly forgotten about me, if perhaps I should ring the call bell to remind her I was waiting.  I never did. When she finally returned, she set about her work of removing each needle and asking me how I felt. “Good,” I always answered.

At the end of the first visit, Dr. Xiao sent me home with a bag of brown powder and instructions for making tea. “Once your temperature rises, you stop,” she commanded. “No more tea. You come back; I give you different tea for next phase.”

I did as I was told. I took comfort in the tinctures, in drinking each cup until the liquid was cold, and there was a sludge of spent herbs at the bottom.  I imagined my ovaries heeding the instruction these herbs provided, my eggs rearranging themselves. They were getting ready in the dark, like bulbs beneath the ground.

I took comfort also in Dr. Xiao’s view of things. She seemed to treat conception as an indefinite process, a thing that would take many tries and involve many failures. There would be no instant gratification. So far, she was the only doctor who seemed to respect the complexity of our bodies. Dr. Norman and Dr. Katz had protocols, the same for every patient. Dr. Xiao had herbs, a knowledge of meridians, and ideas about my chart.

By the time we inseminated again, our seventh try this time, I had driven alone to Seattle and back seven times. I tried to make luck out of this number—superstition was available to me everywhere—but what I felt more than anything was lonely. After every visit to Dr. Xiao’s office, I walked down the street and dined alone at a small Thai restaurant where I was often the only customer. As I pushed brown rice across my plate, I recognized and eerie feeling that had marked my life in different eras, one that I first noticed as a freshman in college. Every weekend my dorm roommate went home overnight to visit her parents and I happily claimed our shared space as my own. But though I enjoyed the solitude, I often felt like my own shadow waking, eating, and dressing with no one to bear witness. Often as I did my own dishes I sang this line from a Throwing Muses song: a kitchen is a place where you  prepare….and clean up. It seemed like a throwaway line, and yet it spoke to me,  calling attention to the strangeness of doing something only to undo it, to make a special meal, only to have to do all of the dishes and put them away. Which was, in a way, what my life had now became. All that effort into preparing my body every month, over and over, only to bleed it away.

Try number seven ended in blood. Try number eight ended in blood. Try number nine ended in blood.

Try number ten was the last try we had, the only remaining vial of the stockpile of sperm we had purchased, the last of the samples our selected donor had left at the clinic before moving on to the next phase of his life.

Note: This is the second installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. I don’t promise to move chronologically or reveal the whole story, but you can read the first installment here.

She’s Not My Mother

bigstock-sperm-going-for-the-egg-38755240The fertility clinic waiting room was not what I expected. I had imagined leather couches, warm lighting, and potted plants—the kind of décor that might suggest to clients that the thousands of dollars they were spending was being directed, at least in part, to their own care and comfort.

Instead, I opened the door to find two rows of uncomfortable chairs, outdated wall paper, and fake plants that frayed at the edges. The reception desk was empty, but Kellie and I weren’t alone. A woman in a long dress and bonnet stood watching her two boys play in the corner while her husband, dressed like his sons in a collared shirt, pants, and suspenders, sat reading a magazine with one leg crossed over the other. I recognized them as Mennonites; I’d seen other Mennonite families before, not at the downtown library or at the local drug store, but always, remarkably enough, at Costco, walking through the aisles with a passel of children, filling their cart with rotisserie chickens and boxes of cereal. I tried not to stare in Costco just as I tried not to stare now. It was hard for me to understand that someone with two sons already would pursue medical intervention for infertility. Two kids seemed like plenty to me. If you found that a third child didn’t come easily, wouldn’t you just call your family complete?

Neither the husband, nor the wife, nor either of the sons made eye contact with us, but surely we had crossed their periphery and they had questions about us as well.

Kellie sat anxiously, her face hidden behind long hair and a brimmed stocking cap.  Normally, she moved through the world with ease. Just a week earlier she’d amazed me when she met me for happy hour at a bar that I normally frequented without her. It was the kind of place where the waitresses are notoriously grumpy—it’s part of the décor, and you tip them extra to apologize for being a customer. That day the waitress and I had a typical curt exchange, but when Kellie arrived she greeted the waitress by name. “Hey there Anne,” she said, sliding into the booth.

“How you doing?” the waitress responded. It was the first time I’d seen her face bear any expression other than a scowl. They bantered for a moment before Kellie ordered a beer.

“You know her?” I asked Kellie, awestruck.

“Not really,” she said. “We’ve just both been around for a while.”

It would never occur to Kellie to fear a grumpy waitress. It was a rare situation, like being in this clinic, that made Kellie feel she had to hide.

Eventually, a nurse called my name and led us down a corridor to deposit us in a room with a giant desk. “Dr. Lu will see you in a moment,” she explained. “And then you’ll consult with Dr. Norman.”

We sat in silence for several more minutes. Kellie marked time by tapping her foot. I examined my nails, and pushed at my cuticles.

Dr. Lu entered through a door at the back of the room and we rose to shake his hand. He was a middle-aged Korean man, broad-shouldered and lean.

“Who’s this?” he asked, nodding at Kellie. “Your mother?”

My heart dropped. “My partner,” I corrected, and watched his face to see if his error registered, but his expression did not change.

“Ok, fine,” he said, and looked at me. “You carry?”

“Yes.”

He took out his clipboard. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Twenty-eight.”

“How many times have you been pregnant?”

“Zero. None.”

“Are you sure?”

Kellie and I exchanged panicked glances. In my mind, the worst case scenario hadn’t been this dramatic. I’d imagined an office that felt like the real-world incarnation of all of those brochures and websites I’d looked at. I imagined doctors who were welcoming, who smiled at us and treated us like regular patients, but quietly signaled they were less than comfortable. I imagined they might avoid making eye contact with Kellie, but I never imagined they’d ask if she was my mother, or question my very definitive answers about my body’s own history.

“I’m certain,” I told Dr. Lu.

He kept rattling off questions, his eyes fixed on his clipboard, and I kept answering them; my entire body was tense as if I were waiting for the right moment to flee. I could feel the same tension in Kellie’s body. It was like we were one animal.

The questions ended. If there was one thing I could credit Dr. Lu for, it was that he didn’t waste any time with small talk. “Dr. Norman will come soon,” he informed us while rising with his clipboard. This left Kellie and me alone in the office once again.

“I want to walk out of here,” she said.

“Do you think we should?” I asked. I wanted to support Kellie in her reaction to our treatment so far. I told her that if she wanted to leave right now, I would follow. But I felt trapped. This was the one fertility clinic in our town. The fact that there were two larger cities within sixty miles of us, that they might easily welcome us, didn’t occur to me. This place had a file for me. They were already storing our sperm. I didn’t want to wait another month. And besides that, I couldn’t imagine walking out mid-appointment. What would we tell the receptionist? What would the Mennonites think? I straightened my back in the chair, and told myself it didn’t really matter where or how we conceived our baby. Sure, this clinic sucked. But did this process really have to be magical? In my mind, I willed Kellie to cool down.

“Maybe this next doctor will be better,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, with no trace of hope in her voice.

Dr. Norman entered the room in his white lab coat and shiny brown loafers. He introduced himself with a soft voice; his hand, when I shook it, was dry and cold. He resembled Mr. Rogers, only taller, stooped, and aloof. He did seem like an improvement on Dr. Lu, if only because he wasn’t barking questions at me, and because he seemed to understand our situation.

“So,” he said, looking over the clipboard that Dr. Lu must have handed to him backstage, “we want to have a baby, and we’ve agreed that the younger one of you will carry.”

Kellie and I nodded. He looked up. “I’m going to write in your chart ‘Male Factor Infertility.’” Kellie and I laughed together, assuming he was making a joke to break the discomfort, but Dr. Norman returned his gaze to the desk and proceeded to write down exactly that.

Months later, I would remember this moment and understand it from a new angle. Dr. Norman wasn’t being funny; he simply had no protocol for lesbians. He was preparing to administer a medical treatment and, even though we were paying out of pocket, we needed a diagnosis. Apparently, it wasn’t standard practice to simply scrawl out: Lesbians.

We left that day with instructions to call their office at the first sign of ovulation. During the car ride home, Kellie and I barely spoke. Instead we looked straight ahead at the road, the crosswalks, the traffic lights; we replayed the uncomfortable moments on a loop in our minds, privately, as if by not speaking them aloud we could erase them.

The above scene marks the launch of a new feature on this blog: Memoir Mondays. Once a month I’ll be sharing a scene from my memoir-in-progress.