Last fall, my husband, Dan, and I were hiking at Larrabee State Park to celebrate our second wedding anniversary. Our dog, Jack, trotted alongside us. We descended through the verdant silence of the firs and madronas and emerged on the startling palate of greys of a Northwest beach. Slate stones were washed by charcoal-stained water under silver grey skies. Jack chased and retreated from the waves, tickling the the pebbles. An impending discussion of our infertility, the greyest of subjects, weighed down on us heavier than the Northwest skies.
When Dan and I met as 30-somethings, he asked me where I had been all his life. “I was busy,” I teased him, tapping on his perfectly tipped nose. Three decades of boys, school and wanderlust made for sparkling cocktail party conversation, but I was ready for hearth and home, and the trappings of coupledom.
I had always wanted to have children. As a college freshman, I had dreamed that I was infertile, as barren as a cursed wife from a Mexican realism novel. My barren body, like hers, dried the earth around me, until it filled my nostrils with red dust. Choking awake, I found myself alone, gasping in the dark, a sense of worthlessness soaking into me, unable to separate reality from the tendrils of nightmare that remained wrapped around my chest.
In my 20s, I sublimated my baby-cravings as I finished college, medical school, and residency. Sublimation was easy when the only babies I saw were being delivered to 15-year old mothers at the county hospital where I worked 80 hours a week. Sublimation became harder when I became an aunt, again, again, and again, each one dewier, and finer, with more sweet milk hair than the one before.
As I approached 30, I was alone, my baby dreams evaporating in the Texas sun. Time to relocate, I thought. A medical mission called, “Famine?” I asked. “Angola?” I echoed as I scrolled through the CIA fact book online, “Sure, I’d love to go.”
Angola was both an antidote to baby cravings and a curse with her rich, iron-stained soil. She awoke from her famine while I watched, my own hunger unsatiated. Wilted babies arrived from the bush, carried on their mothers’ backs in colorful panus which belied the gravity of the situation. We watched with delight as the babies recovered their well-deserved baby chub. After the seasonal rains came, rows of corn marched from the hand-tilled fields. Fewer and fewer wilted babies arrived in the night, and suddenly our sullen, bloated, kwashiorkor toddlers were laughing as they rode our hips, their hair bleached by malnutrition, growing in black. It was time to go home. I was 30, and as my two-year-old nephew screamed at me everytime I saw him, “Tick-tock, tick-tock!”
I moved to Seattle for a fellowship in pulmonary medicine, and I was transformed from a woman content to park herself in a comfortable, unsatisfying relationship into a dating mercenary. I dated each man just long enough for my friend, Anne, who was seamlessly tucked into marriage, to ask, “When do I get to meet Drummer Boy (or, Indian Neurologist, Drunken Artist, Folk Singer, English Professor, Dissatisfied Lawyer, Tunisian Boy)?” They were destined to fail the moment I anointed them with their caricatured moniker. Then, I met Dan.
Dan was different from the men I had dated before. Bright and driven, he loved his job and knew what he wanted. He was handy, helping me hang a range hood on our fourth date. He could be vulnerable, but didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve like other Seattle yoga-men. Before Dan, I believed love was like concrete; it was an ugly mess that had to be mixed together on the ground with a shovel before it could meld anything together. From the first moment I saw Dan unfold his lanky frame from the chair at Cafe Fiore, I realized love could be easy with this “way too cute for me” boy in an oatmeal wool sweater.
“When it’s right, you’ll know,” my mother always counseled. With Dan, I finally knew. I had finally found my someone, my pack-mate, my soulmate. With one minor complication.
“Dan does not want to have children.” I blurted out to my friend Henry on the phone one night.
“Maybe he just thought that, you know, before he met you,” Henry’s reasoning echoed through the phone.
“I think he is pretty certain,” I bit my lip. “He had a vasectomy.”
When I broached having children, Dan asked, “What if it changes us, just trying, you know.” He said “us” as if we were a singing duo from the 1970s with spangled jumpsuits and our name in lights.
Dan had reason to fear the loss of “us.” He had known two couples with fertility issues; both ended up divorced. We were very “us.” On our third date, we planned to cook a Sunday meal together. The morning was gloomy, I started some bread and pulled down the stockpot for soup. When he arrived, he swooned at the yeasty smell and presented me with a new cookbook of soups. “Funny, I was thinking we could make soup.”
“Us” went so far to have a brand. The first winter we were together, I invited Dan cross-country skiing with me. Near the top of Mt. Ozbaldy, he began drawing in the fresh snow with his ski pole. A couple came up behind us and as I crab-walked out of their way, I saw a perfect heart, pierced by an arrow. My heart warmed, but then seized with an urge to flee, to run away, to slide down the mountain, away from this perfect man, who was so wrong to be in love with me. Dan added a D + K in the center and then turned around with a flourish. We embraced, the layers of down and fleece giving way to the solidness of flesh.
After that, the D + K brand was left behind in the snow, sand, and mud where we traveled. It even found its place on top left corner of the directions to our wedding. Anne frowned when she saw this. “It’s a bit cheesy, don’t you think?”
Months later, I stood outside an examining room. His urologist, the best in the city, was examining Dan in private. His privates, in private, I laughed to myself. Dan’s doctor beckoned me back in with his kind, droopy eyes. “We can work with Dan’s problem.” He rolled toward me on his stool, “but, you’re the problem.” His eyes transitioned from kind to cold. “How old are you?”
“Thirty six.” The air went out of the room and my cheeks burned as if slapped. Dan grabbed my hand as if to rescue me from the hole opening below my chair.
“I’d recommend you get started right away.” His grandfatherly eyes returned, “Listen, I’m in the business of making babies.” He rolled back on the stool. “Work and other things are important in a young woman’s life, but unfortunately, you only have a limited time to have babies.”
In April, Dan had his procedure. Now, it was all up to me and my ticking womb. Baby craving bled into every unstanched space of my being. If a patient cancelled, I would open up my library link and research our chances. In one article, the researchers had shown a linear relationship between maternal age and timing of reversal with likelihood of conception. “Hmm, linear relationship,” I whispered to myself, “so I just need to find the slope of the line.” I searched in every drawer of my desk and ultimately, made graph paper by hand to discover we had a 17% chance of getting pregnant without intervention.
Our babymaking life became a prison calendar of counted days and pee sticks. There are sticks to know when to have sex and sticks to know 4, 3, 2 and 1 days earlier that you are not pregnant. During some months, my stereotypical premenstrual irritation would creep up my spine, and I would know that in two days, the blue line would be absent. Those months, I threw the negative sticks away quickly. Day 1 of a new month would arrive soon with another 2% chance per month of conception. Other months, sensing the tiniest quake in my being, I’d leave the stick a minute longer, turning it in the light to make sure I wasn’t missing a shadow of a line, of hope. Infertility becomes your religion, complete with faith in the unseen and a toilet seat as your altar. You sacrifice sushi, wine, and coffee to its idols. You submit yourself and your spouse to rituals and procedures in hushed, neutral-toned offices.
Friends with rounded tummies, smiled beatifically at me and promised, “you’ll get pregnant when you least expect it.” I felt like standing on a corner and screaming, “God, I’m right here…and I’m least expecting it.”
The trail at Larrabee climbed up a bluff from beach. For once I was glad that I was officially not pregnant. That night, we had reservations to eat at the highly touted Willows Inn and I was anticipating a gorgeous meal with a luscious wine pairing. The grey skies opened and unmasked the sun as we sat in the blustery wind for a Christmas card picture with Jack. We talked openly about our fears and superstitions of fertility treatments and what life could be like without children. Although not especially religious, we both shared a what if God is trying to tell us something? superstition about our infertility. We were a team again, but still I wondered if this babymaking could be unknowingly dividing us, an invisible chisel wedged in the rock.
My chest grew heavy as we drew nearer to the parking lot, and our D + K brand remained unetched in the sand and pebbles. As if reading my mind, Dan handed Jack’s leash to me, “Just a sec, I have to do something,” as he crouched to face the grey waters of Puget Sound. Perfect heart, arrow’s tail, arrow’s point, then D + K. Bestill my heart.