My dad taught me about the birds and the bees at Mom’s Peppermill Diner on Route 33 in New Jersey. I was only eight years old. I have no idea why my dad chose that moment in particular to shed light on the mystery of creation.
We sat in a booth next to the window facing the parking lot. Waitresses carried steaming piles of hash browns and hot pots of coffee past our booth as my father launched into his lecture.
I remember he said the word penis. I remember that he drew a diagram on the back of a paper placemat. On the other side of the placemat were the puzzles and mazes I did while we waited for our food to arrive on Sundays after church. The paper was transparent, so the two images overlapped. A uterus drawn in blue ink; behind it, a set of puzzles waiting to be solved.
It was very scientific, not so different from other lectures of his that I liked very much. He had one about the Big Bang Theory — where the Universe came from. In another, he explained how the dinosaurs became extinct. Like his lecture about the mystery of creation, the dinosaur lecture was also accompanied by a diagram: the earth and the sun, and between them, a sinister blob shaped like a cloud. The blob blocked the sun and transformed the earth into a block of ice. My father told me that the dinosaurs probably all froze, or starved. I remember that the blob on the diagram was labeled “something” to indicate that we didn’t know what that agent of doom might have been.
I couldn’t have known over pancakes that day — because diagrams evoke an unassailable truth, even when they are sketched out at roadside diners — that my father’s lecture wouldn’t apply to me. I assumed that my body would know all about the mystery of creation. When the time came, I would sit back and relax while an entire universe was formed within the confines of my belly.
But by the time I was 31, my husband and I had already done all the tests: a sperm analysis to rule out male factor infertility, a transvaginal ultrasound to rule out cysts or other structural anomalies, blood work to measure my ovarian reserve, and an HSG (hysterosalpinogram) to check for blockages in my fallopian tubes. When our specialist finally told us that there was no specific condition preventing my husband and I from conceiving a child, I thought about my father’s lectures. How science and medicine delineate the unknown. How I had always seen myself as an integral part of the mystery of creation, but had never considered what it must have felt like to be a dinosaur grazing in a field of sweet-grass when the sky suddenly grew dark.
I saved myself for marriage. Kind of. My husband, Mike, and I lived together for four years and were married for one year more before we had unprotected sex for the first time. We were camping in the middle of a field on the mid-coast of Maine. It was August. His parents were no more than ten feet away in their own tent. The same tent they’d taken on their honeymoon the summer they married in 1976. By 1977, they had a son — Mike.
It was cool outside, the way Maine always is even in the dead of summer. As we settled into our sleeping bags, Mike reminded me that the best way to stay warm is to take off all your clothes and snuggle skin-to-skin. It has something to do with increasing the amount of surface area available for the exchange of body heat. Mike explained it to me once a long time ago, when getting me to remove my clothes required more convincing.
That night though, I was already slightly intoxicated from the fresh Maine air. Breathing here was different than breathing in Philadelphia in August, when the city air is full of steaming trash and car exhaust. My head buzzed with extra oxygen as I filled my chest again and again with the smell of evergreens.
The inside of our tent was glowing with moonlight. I opened my sleeping bag to invite Mike in and placed his palm on my bare hip. “You’re already naked!” he whispered, as he unzipped his sleeping bag and hopped in to mine. “That’s the way, baby,” he continued softly, “it’s much warmer without clothes on.”
Mike and I tried hopelessly to minimize the noises coming from our tent as we began. The swooshing sound of movement inside a sleeping bag. Our breaths growing faster. A giggle muffled by the touch of a finger.
It would be another two years before we started trying to get pregnant, and another six months after that when the thrill of unprotected sex began fading, as the act turned into a mechanical exercise roughly corresponding to a diagram drawn in blue ink on the back of a diner placemat.
After the round of diagnostics that failed to explain a year’s worth of negative pregnancy tests, I am about to undergo my first “assisted cycle.” The doctor leans in between my legs with a catheter — not the kind for pee, he explains, but the kind used to thread through your cervix to inject the sperm past it, so they have a better chance of reaching the egg. The doctor is down there, tinkering, and it hurts, even though they say it’s not supposed to.
“Your cervix is curved,” the doctor says from behind the paper sheet draped over my legs. Then he pops his head up. “I’m going to have to use the hard catheter,” he says. “Using this one’s like trying to thread cooked spaghetti through a needle.”
The doctor gets the hard catheter and warns me that patients say this one hurts more. I stare up at the tiles in the ceiling as the doctor begins tinkering again.
It was during that first IUI that I started to see that the doctor was a machinist and I was his machine. Even though I had seen the diagram of the human uterus and had understood — at least since I was eight years old — that baby-making could be reduced to the synergy of a few moving parts, I still felt as if I was losing a piece of my humanity there on the examining table. “This is how babies are made,” my dad had said, or something like it. He didn’t mention intrauterine insemination. He didn’t talk about a doctor or a catheter (hard or soft). There was a penis and a uterus, and I assume a vagina (though this too was missing from the diagram) and an unspoken assumption of love and fidelity.
After the doctor finally passes the hard catheter through my cervix, he pops his head up again, looking somewhat boyish with pride. “There,” he announces. “I just needed the right tool for the job.”
I am a rusty u-pipe beneath the kitchen sink that gives the plumber a hard time. I am a dusty mimeograph machine on the front lawn at a rummage sale. What I am not — in that moment at the infertility clinic — is a warm palm placed on a bare hip. What I am not is the smell of evergreens in the fresh Maine air, or the inside of a moonlit tent.
When the doctor finally injects my husband’s sperm into me, I start to cry.
“Oh, no,” he says, “What’s wrong?” And it looked like he really hated this part of his job. The part where patients sometimes cry. I imagined how helpless the machinist must feel when his machine grows sad and there is nothing in his power to help it.
“It’s just all the medical stuff,” I reply.
But the thought that really made me cry was this: I looked at the man standing in front of me under the florescent lights, a name tag clipped to his lab coat, and I thought, This is how my baby will be made.
I cried because I didn’t want to be a machine. I wanted to make a baby with my husband in a blinding flash of love, like a lightning strike pre-ordained by God. I wanted the moment Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel, Adam receiving the Breath of Life from a single, heavenly touch.
I woke up on Thanksgiving morning, 2011 in a fancy four-poster bed with pineapples carved into the wood. We were spending the night at this bed and breakfast to decompress before celebrating the holiday at my brother’s house. I’d been in a minor car accident a week before. I’d had another IUI that month. Statistically, if IUI doesn’t work in three tries, it’s very unlikely to work in four. We were on our fourth. I stumbled to the bathroom to pee. I peed. I wiped. I bled.
We have enough money to stay at a nice bed and breakfast every once in a while, but we don’t have enough money (or good enough health insurance) for more effective infertility treatments like IVF, in vitro fertilization. That fourth IUI may have been our last attempt.
I arrive at my brother’s house in a daze. I have whiplash from the car accident and severe menstrual cramps. And I’m trying to process the fact that, at 33 years old, I may be done trying to make a baby.
Periodically I excuse myself from the group to “lay down” in the upstairs bedroom because “my back is hurting me from the whiplash”; but really I go upstairs to cry for ten or 15 minutes at a time. Each time, it feels like releasing a pressure valve that prevents something volatile from exploding.
After dinner, my four-year-old niece prances around the kitchen in her underpants. All the relatives sit around the kitchen table, watching my niece. Her long, curly hair flows down to her behind. She has tanned skin and you can see the shapes of the muscles in her legs. Her play is a mixture of ballet and karate. She smiles and makes dramatic faces for us, play acting some story in her head that we’re not in on. Often she sticks out one hip and freezes in a pose, like she’s on a catwalk.
“She’s so beautiful,” my mother says. She tells my brother and sister-in-law, “You two make such great babies!” Shaking her head in awe, as if it’s the first time she’s seeing my niece, she says, “Good genes!” My aunt adds, “Look at the bod on her! Now that’s a bod!”
“I’m going to go lay down. My back is hurting me,” I say. I make it up the stairs just before the pressure valve gives way.
I have a fantasy about what our baby would look like.
When I walk the loop from my house to the art museum and back, I can look out onto the field that separates Pennsylvania Avenue and Kelly Drive, the Philadelphia skyline in the background, and there on the short grass, I can see the child. Diapered and happy, he is sitting up and holding my gaze with my husband’s blue eyes. The child has red hair, like the photo of my father-in-law that hangs on the fridge in the house where my husband grew up in Rhode Island. In the photo, Mike’s father, at 16, stands up in a boat, legs like honest-to-goodness beanpoles, just like Mike’s. He squints against the sun as the wind blows at his soft, red curls. Mike has light brown hair, but his beard grows in red as an apple. I call the mental image of our child “the ginger baby” for the uncommon genetic signature I hope he might inherit.
There on the grass, traffic flies past behind the child, but he is safe. He looks sturdy — that comes from my side of the family. My nephew was so broad-shouldered, my sister explains, he got stuck on the way out. The ginger baby is a hearty child, but his skin looks fragile. Mike and I are both so fair-skinned, any genetic child of ours would be nearly transparent.
I see belonging in these details. I see belonging in the replication of DNA. Even in the impractically pale skin that my husband and I happen to share — a mutation that makes us nearly allergic to the sun — even in this, I see belonging. The recessive gene is like a trail of breadcrumbs that says, “These are my people here. I am one of them.”
As I walk past the child on the grass, I know he is not really there — I am only imagining him into being. This does not stop us. He leans forward, then shifts his diapered hips to the side, easing onto all fours, his skin impossibly translucent in the noontime sun. He crawls toward me, and though I am leaving the grassy space between Pennsylvania Avenue and Kelly Drive, and entering the narrow streets of my neighborhood, I am also standing on the grass, as the ginger baby crawls toward me. I pick him up in one fluid motion and cradle him in that seat of unconditional love that my mother taught me, and when I feel the soft weight of him on my chest and brush my lips past his temple, I am somehow also in my own mother’s arms, and she in her mother’s.
When you have taken for granted the eventuality of giving birth to your own children, and then discover you may not be able to, what you lose is not an actual child — instead, you lose every dream you ever had about children. You lose your own place in the world. You lose a piece of yourself that you didn’t even know was there until it was gone.
I have often judged my inability to move directly from infertility diagnosis to a decision to adopt as a lack of imagination, because there should be so many ways to imagine motherhood. Yet, I invented an imaginary child so effortlessly that he appeared one day at the slightest provocation: I want to allow myself to hope again. I want to allow myself to want what I want.
For some time now, I have thought of infertility like a tiny apocalypse, as though Mike and I were facing extinction. A sinister blob labeled “something” had gotten between us and the sun, and now our kind was doomed. The best we could do was huddle together, skin-to-skin, as the sky grew dark.
In New Jersey, the most important conversations happen at diners. I’ve crossed over the river from Philadelphia to have a heart-to-heart with my best friend, who has an eight-month-old baby, Ben. If my last IUI had been a success, I’d be about ready to deliver. Instead, Mike was diagnosed with cancer in March – 100 percent curable, but traumatic, especially for a man in his thirties. His treatment and recovery put the baby-making project on hold. With all that has transpired, I’ve been preoccupied — I’ve only visited baby Ben a few times since he was born.
Inside the diner, the space is too quiet, it’s remarkably clean, the powder blue decorating theme has been taken too far, and it smells like old people. My best friend and I agree on all this before we’ve even been seated at our booth. We can’t help but be on the same page. On these small matters at least, our 18 years of friendship still trump the year and a half of distance that started when she became pregnant.
We put in our orders. When the waitress leaves the table, there’s an uncomfortable silence. We both know the protocol on important conversations at diners: you wait until the food order is in before you commence.
“I’m lonely,” she begins. And for a second, I’m relieved, because she’s not angry with me, she’s sad. She lost a friend in this whole raw deal, and she’s asked me to meet her today because she wants to know when she’ll get me back. When will she be able to tell me about Ben’s daily exploits without hurting me in the process? “When will it be over?” she speculates innocently. “Will it be after you try IVF? If you try it? Or will it be after you adopt? If you do that . . .”
I don’t let her question sink in. Instead, it bounces off my body and floats away. I sip my coffee, feeling oddly grown-up and in control for a change. After a hellish year, finally, someone has asked me a question that I can answer with some certainty.
“It will get easier,” I say, “but the pain won’t ever go away completely. I’ve lost something that I can never get back.”
Her eyes go wide and watery. She looks as if I’ve just told her that there isn’t any Santa Claus. I don’t blame her for being shocked by the news. I’m still getting used to the idea myself.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and I reach across the table to touch her arm.
Our eggs arrive, and after a while, my friend mentions that she has to pick-up Ben at daycare soon. It occurs to me that one of the benefits of having a fantasy baby is that I never have to worry about daycare. Baby Ben is somewhere across town, in a room full of other real babies, maybe crying or confused or cold. Meanwhile, I can calmly finish my toast, and contemplate a gentle tugging at my t-shirt, a tiny hand encircling my index finger, a ginger head resting on my thigh.
When I get home from the diner, Mike is watching television, but he puts it on mute to ask me how it went. I plop down next to him.
We stare at the television on mute. Soon, it goes to a commercial for baby food. Neither of us says anything. Mike slips his palm into mine. I lean my head against his shoulder. Soon, it goes to a commercial for not-baby food. Outside, the bus growls past, a swirl of trash in its wake.
What I’d really like to do is to transport us both back to that field on the mid-coast of Maine, where we laid together in the moonlight, where just breathing was enough to remind you of your place in the world. Where we woke the next morning, and stood in an embrace at the lakefront, our skin looking impossibly translucent in the early morning sun.