You’ve put off going to an infertility specialist for three years because you’ve clung to a belief that you shouldn’t need help. Almost everyone else seems able to do this — including each of your seven siblings and your 15-year-old neighbor — you should be able to, too. But you’ve read all the books, you’ve graphed your daily temperature, you’ve charted the consistency of your cervical fluids, and you’ve stood on your head after sex. You are weary. You finally admit that it’s out of your control. You enter the world of the infertile.
In the beginning, your husband makes jokes. “If I’m going to be ‘giving samples’ in the doctor’s office at seven in the morning,” he says, “I’m going to need more than a ’72 Playboy.” And you laugh because, in the beginning, it’s funny.
“Cry me a river,” you tell him. While he’s hanging out with Miss October, your feet are in stirrups and you’re giving your own samples, taking tests that you might fail. In one, a screen flashes black and white next to your examining table, and you watch dark ink travel up your fallopian tubes, outlining shapes that look like trees with thick trunks and black spidery branches. The ink courses upward, fills every limb and twig and tells them no; no endometriosis, no damage to your tubes. Move on.
You learn the language of infertility. After six months of ovulation induction, it is determined that you have hostile cervical mucus that stands guard before your uterus, apparently gunning down every determined sperm who dares approach the gate. You try three months of therapeutic insemination, where a nurse shoots your husband’s sperm directly into your uterus with a syringe. You find no new words, though, to describe the heartache when you bleed month after month after month.
Your husband doesn’t really get the sadness. He stands at the sink and shaves while you sit on the toilet seat and cry. He pulls his cheek aside, slides the razor down in front of his ear and says to the mirror, “We’ll just have to keep trying.” And he’s right, of course; you’re not at the end of the line. But he does not lose energy with each drop of blood, does not imagine that he can actually feel the eggs leaving his body, does not ache from back cramps and emptiness.
You learn another term: Totally Unexplained. You are one of ten percent of infertile couples who fit that category. You take a break, maybe a short one, maybe forever. You wonder again why you want this so badly. You are two contented adults who can read the Sunday paper and watch “Meet the Press” and drive three hours to Chicago for a spontaneous weekend getaway. Why try so hard, why rile up more tears and frustration, why spend more money than you have — just to mess with a good thing?
But you see yourself in old age. You even flash-forward to your own death scene: the hospital bed you’ve diminished in, the perfunctory visits from your nieces and maybe a surviving friend. It’s not that you want a child simply to take care of you, but you do want one to miss you, to love you, to know you. You believe you could get close to your child like you have to no one else. A selfish reason to want a child, perhaps, but a true one.
And you want to be pregnant. You know it may not be easy; one friend spent her pregnancy kneeling over a toilet, a niece was bedridden for months. But you want the physical and metaphysical experience of pregnancy: the arms, legs and heartbeat of a life that’s part yours, part his, inside your body. It’s so base, so instinctive. You imagine yourself Everymother, humming lullabies while you gently rub your belly and rock in the child’s nursery.
You keep these desires to yourself, though, unable to admit to anyone but your husband how much you want this. It’s too personal and you’re embarrassed, somehow — a failure for not being able to make this natural thing happen. People ask: “Don’t you want children?” You’re tempted to tell all — just to illuminate their insensitivity. Instead, you smile at the question and say with a shrug, “Oh, we’re thinking about it.”
You come out of your hiatus to grasp at one last chance. Your doctor explains that you might conceive with a procedure called GIFT: Gamete Intra-Fallopian Transfer. He scribbles the steps on his pad:
1. Hormones — stimulate ovaries
2. Daily blood tests — hormone levels
3. Ultrasounds — determine egg readiness
4. Surgery — conception?
You withdraw the rest of your savings and double your second mortgage for a 50-percent chance. You buy pills that make you crabby and shots that make you crazed. You snap at the bagger who doesn’t put the milk jug in a bag; you cry at a party because someone’s put olives in the bean dip. You withdraw from social contact.
One of the shots contains the urine of French nuns. You give it to yourself every morning by grasping some flesh around your waist and plunging the needle into your stomach. Each night your husband administers the other shot into the meatiest part of your thigh while you lie on the couch and watch “Frasier” reruns. He apologizes each time, and each time it hurts a little more. He’s eventually shooting into bruises.
Your arms, too, are black and blue. You go in daily toward the end, excusing yourself from meetings to jump in your car and speed to the lab, hoping for the older bee-hived technician who is adept at navigating the tender purple skin at the fold. She slides the needle in quickly, precisely, says nothing while the tube fills blackish red, presses the bandage on with a gentleness that makes you want to cry, pats your arm to send you along.
And then one day the doctor says you’re ripe.
You and your husband are one of four couples to have the procedure on the same day. Eight people in one waiting room all wanting the same thing, but no one looks at anyone else. You’re competing for odds that call for two winners and two losers. You page through Good Housekeeping and Newsweek and leave the parenting magazines in the holders.
Your husband kisses you as they wheel you away and he waits down the hall while they slice into your navel and abdomen. They suck your five plumped eggs out of your ovary, then squirt them back into your fallopian tubes. They follow with your husband’s pre-washed sperm. They discharge you that afternoon with instructions to get a blood test in 12 days, and hand you a videotape of the operation. You wonder if you’re holding a record of the moment your child was conceived — or a memento of one of your biggest disappointments.
On the twelfth day you rise, you shower, you dress for work, you drive to the lab. Your bruises are less purple, more yellow, but your technician is young and misses twice. He doesn’t pat your arm. He says the doctor should have the results by noon.
Your husband knows first. By arrangement — your arrangement — he takes the call at work because you want to hear the news from him, want him to deliver it, good or bad, a reverse of the months and years when you have been the messenger. He barges into your office, and he is crying. You’ve never seen him cry.
And you look at his glen plaid jacket and his starched white shirt because you can’t look at his face, can’t bear to read his eyes. You focus instead on his tie and you stroke the silk, run your finger along the bright blue and black diamond design. He bends down and holds you, wet cheek to dry one. “You’re pregnant,” he says behind your ear. “We’re pregnant.”
You’re pregnant. You’re 12 days pregnant. You sit down in your chair and, for the first time since your husband ran in, you hear the bustle of the office world on the other side of the door. You’re sure you feel a flutter, the faintest of wing-beats down deep. And you weep.