by Miriam Zoll
At the red light I jumped out of the car into the cold December night. We had been fighting these last few weeks. Quibbling was really the right word. Putting our fingers on the small pulses of our life together and offering polite critiques like rabid political pundits during the presidential season.
This evening Michael was pointing out the negative ways I continued to frame the disappointments of my life. He wanted desperately to have a glass half full but I was still half empty.
“I will not paint a smile on my face where one does not exist,” I told him angrily as I slammed the car door.
It was just turning cold enough to see your own breath and he watched as small puffs of white air trailed behind me like the trail of breadcrumbs Hansel left for the woodcutter. But he decided not to follow me. I turned right at the intersection and he turned left.
I watched him drive away then stood still for a moment in my thin leather jacket looking up at the tops of tall sugar maples backlit by the streetlights.
“What am I doing here?” I wondered. We had been so warm and affectionate that morning and now I was standing alone in the cold in the middle of an unknown town. It was truly like a Star Trek episode where Spock and Bones and the Captain are beamed down to some distant planet that is completely alien to them. All of my physical readings looked normal: I could breathe the air, stand on solid ground, place one foot in front of the other and walk all the way to Timbuktu if I wanted to. But inside my emotional compass had lost all of its bearings. I was no longer capable of steering my life or his on an even keel. Now here I was unsure of whether our marriage would make it through to the morning. Over the last few years our love had been shredded like a letter. What we were now experiencing was the confetti of our love; the little bits and pieces that comprise the whole, the little bits that are so disjointed you can’t really tell where we fit together anymore. In the middle of that intersection I realized I could head north, south, east or west. One path could lead to motherhood. One path could lead to divorce. One path could lead to a life of asceticism, like the gaunt and bony holy homeless of India. Which path would I take?
It took me a few moments to decide but I chose the route he had taken, hoping in my very draatic way that he would come looking for me so I would not turn into a frozen martyr. After five minutes Michael phoned me and I pretended not to hear. His natural inclination was to make peace, to easily admit his role in a battle. I hated his inbred diplomacy. It never allowed for enough stewing or cold shoulder treatment. He couldn’t bear that kind of thing, and neither could I except that sometimes the anger of a human soul is just what you need to carve out a new space in your own heart, or in the heart of a relationship that has been dragged through the mud. I would apologize but just not yet. Right now this fire needed to burn.
We had searched for our Holy Grail for six years and had come up empty handed. We had spent most of our savings and all of our emotional reserves trying to become pregnant through the grace of God and science. Neither approach had worked. Now when he looks at his reflection in the mirror he admits, as he first did after his father died, that he is a genetic dead end. “It stops right here,” he told me one night as his throat closed up in grief. “When we die it will really be the end of the line.” I had just stood in the bathroom doorway watching him. It was impossible to say something like, “Well, look on the bright side. At least we still have each other” because by that point it was not clear that we did. It was not clear that the love that had once been so palpable to us and the rest of the world was strong enough to survive this gauntlet.
I had spent most of the past winter in bed with a hat pulled down over my eyes to keep the glare of the white landscape to a minimum. We were living in the country then and the open fields and mountains were truly beautiful against the gray skies and purple clouds. But day in and day out the barren terrain overwhelmed me. Winter was the gestation period for spring, the season for hunkering down. I had spent five years hunkering in a state of focused family planning and it had not paid off. I was tired. My womb was empty.
All through January and February he worried about me and I assured him that my bronchitis was the real reason I couldn’t go outside and frolic in the snow. Every morning he invited me to get out of bed and go with him to the café for coffee. Every morning I gently refused. “Please just leave me alone,” I prayed silently as I watched him harness all his confetti love with the hope of resurrecting my shriveled spirit. “Doesn’t he realize that because of me he’ll never be a father?”
Everyone said it wasn’t my fault, of course, and I knew that on some level. But I was the one who lacked the courage and the faith to believe that I would not relive the abuses of my past or perpetrate them against an innocent. By the time I manifested my own compassionate heart the overpaid doctors told us it might be too late. It was an expensive game of Russian roulette we played with the fertility clinic. We had gambled all our faith and money on them because in America we thought that if Mother Nature can’t make you pregnant the drug companies and the doctors certainly could. PEOPLE magazine and articles in the Sunday New York Times reinforced that message weekly and we swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. We bowed down to science as though it were a God.
One time out of six we did get pregnant. One time we experienced the euphoria of impending parenthood, that sense of wonder about the miracle of life. Seven weeks later that life disintegrated and the depths of despair began to strangle us. It had never dawned on us that our high-tech pregnancy would not last. We had not, until then, understood the difference between the meanings of “lives births” and “pregnancies” in the fertility literature. We learned the hard way that pregnancies were a dime-a-dozen in the fertility business. Lives births were not.
Neither were fertile egg donors. We had chosen two egg donors to work with. One was a lovely blonde-haired girl of 21 who wore a cowgirl hat and looked like Annie Oakley. A month before the procedure a cruel, dull witted clinic nurse told us in a monotone voice that tests had revealed she was infertile, too. Our donor was infertile? How could they advertise and expect a $10K payment for an infertile donor? Turns out there are no laws regulating that industry either. It was a crapshoot with the donors as much as it was with my own eggs. Our second donor came highly recommended until the day the doctor called and told us that of the dozen eggs they had retrieved, none had fertilized in the Petri dish.
“We wouldn’t recommend using this donor again,” he told us. “There is obviously something wrong with her. She should have produced at least two or three-dozen eggs given the potent drugs she took. I’m very sorry.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone as we realized that this $50K gamble had really been a house of cards. It had never dawned on us that the donors would not be screened by the agency or the clinic prior to the emotional and dollar price being paid.
I was beginning to get cold. My t-shirt and thin sweater did nothing to keep the night air from climbing up beneath the waistband of my coat, floating along my belly like the cold fingertips of a lover. Not wanting to risk hypothermia I finally called Michael on my cell.
“Where are you?” he asked in his I-love-you-why-are-we-fighting-again-voice.
“I’m on the road you speeded down after I got out of the car.”
“Oh, God. I’m miles away. I turned around right away and drove in the direction I thought you went.”
“Well, when you didn’t pull over I decided I should follow you. Doesn’t that make sense?”
“Nothing makes sense,” he said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I clicked my phone off feeling badly that I hadn’t the wherewithal to apologize right then and there. I was still angry that while our world and our bliss continued to erode Michael was still able to muster a calmness that I could not. I was prickly and mad and couldn’t keep it inside. He was sad and lonely and couldn’t let it out. And so we clashed. He tried to keep my pain at bay by asking me not to talk about it quite so boldly. I reacted to his censorship as though it was the Politburo clamping down on my right to free speech.
I was tired of feeling pressured to bounce back to the way life was before fertility treatments because never in my life did I feel so unable to bounce back. I was like a tennis ball that had lost its air. Once I hit the ground I just sat there like a fat sphere of felt. It isn’t so much the absence of a child that hurts me. I know I will become a mother through adoption and I know I will love that child. It is the absence of my old optimism and faith that hurts me. I now look at the world with a lens of skepticism that did not exist before.
The phone rang again. I was shivering when I answered.
“Where are you?” he asked, almost in tears. “I can’t find you. I’ve driven up and down the street.”
“I’m on the right side of the road, near a white wooden church gleaming bright, bright white in the moonlight.”
“Stop walking,” Michael said. “Stay still. I’ll drive back that way again. Didn’t you see me before?”
“No,” I said dreamily. “I didn’t. But I’ll wait right here.”
I couldn’t move then, not just because Michael asked me not to but because I realized how much I loved him, even though there were days recently when I didn’t recognize him. In the process of becoming Fertility Refugees we had both shed skins and donned new colors and our constant quibbling was the give and take of our new learning curves with each other. I instinctively know that we have reached a crucial point in our marriage: we are standing at an evolutionary crossroad. There are so many options and while I stood there waiting for him I couldn’t help but think about hiding in the bushes so that when he did drive by he would not see. I could just disappear. I could vanish in a flash and hitchhike out to New Mexico and camp in the desert. I could join a commune and smoke pot everyday and forget about miscarriages and the scars it leaves behind.
These are options that I know really aren’t options. They are illusions. But what isn’t an illusion? You create your own reality. Wasn’t that Michael’s point to begin with? “Make your life good again,” was what he was trying to say to me when I decided to jump out of the car. It’s just that he said it with such frustrated irritation I couldn’t hear it. I heard that I wasn’t good enough; I heard that I wasn’t trying. Didn’t he know that getting through the day with a half smile on my face was hard enough at the moment? I wanted to be patted on the back for my miniscule efforts to function, not reprimanded for not having reached the summit in six hours. I was in that tricky no-mans-land of wanting to be left alone and simultaneously smothered with love. I needed Michael’s enthusiasm for life at the same time I tried to smear it, like an artist smearing reds and yellows to make a sun. I needed his joy in my veins. I needed the heat of his cheek on mine. I needed his eyes so that I could see and understand his view of a world still filled with optimism and goodness.
Finally I took out my phone and dialed his number.
“Where are you now?” I asked. My voice had softened.
“I see the church steeple,” Michael said. “I’m almost there.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I know. Me too.”
“I love you.”
“I see you.”
Miriam Zoll is an award-winning writer, and a researcher, teacher and public speaker with more than 20 years experience in the public policy and international development arena. She has worked with such global institutions as the United Nations, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the Coalition on Children Affected by AIDS, Planned Parenthood, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Harvard University and the International Women’s Health Coalition. A certified yoga instructor, Miriam is the founding co-producer of the Ms. Foundation for Women’s annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day.