Thursday, March 7, 2019

No Real Advice (Reflections on Infertility)

You think you’re over it, but then you’re not.

That, in a nutshell, is how I would describe life as an infertile woman.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as Tom and I prepare to speak to a group of couples who will be attending an infertility retreat.  What can I possibly say that will give them hope?  Infertility is filled with days and days of feeling hopeless and abandoned, fearful and anxious.  Dare I tell them that even if they become a parent, either through a miracle baby, or by adoption or fostering, or all three, they may never really be over it?  For me, it is always there, lurking in the background, waiting for a trigger. In spite of having three children now, in spite of being pre-menopausal, I am coming to understand that my scars of infertility will last a lifetime.

Perhaps it is worse the longer you are childless.  I don’t know.  My primary infertility lasted almost nine years before I finally became a parent. That’s a helluva long time, especially because infertility is measured more by months than years.  Secondary infertility has continued for me since then.  Throw in three miscarriages, one successful pregnancy that was marred by a devastating fetal diagnosis, and six agonizing years of being in the waiting pool to adopt, and I suppose it’s not surprising that I still have a few triggers.

I found another one of those triggers this past week.  I was lying in a dark room, and the ultrasound technician was shaking a bottle of gel.  “This should be warm,” she said as she applied it.  I suppose that was meant to be comforting, but the words took me back to another day, another ultrasound.  It was an ultrasound to see if my baby, the one I’d been praying for for so long, my miracle, was going to be a boy or a girl.  We were so excited, so filled with joy and anticipation.  But the joy was quickly gone as we realized there was more to that ultrasound than just gender identification.  My baby had borderline ventriculomegaly.  It was to be the first of many ultrasounds that I would undergo in the next three months, each used for diagnostic purposes, each wrought with fear and concern over what would be found next.  All told, I’ve had dozens of ultrasounds now, and only a handful of them ever brought good news.  Too many of them revealed a weak baby, or a dead baby, or a very sick baby or a flawed body that couldn’t produce a baby.  

I tried to breathe through that ultrasound this past week. I glanced at the technician’s screen, and then at her face, and then back at the screen.  I know now that most of the techs are very good at not showing emotions, not disclosing anything before the doctor walks in.  And I prayed.  Please Lord, help me accept whatever the results may be.  It was over in just a few minutes, the technician left to show the results to the radiologist, and then returned almost as quickly.  This time, she smiled and said, “It looks like just a small cyst and nothing to worry about, but come back in 6 months and we’ll double check just to make sure.”

And just like that, it was over.  Everything was okay again. It wasn’t breast cancer.  Just a cyst.  A stupid, annoying, stop-your-heart cyst in the wrong place.   I texted my husband with the good news, and he replied, “I guess the rosary worked,” to which I replied, “Yeah, I guess.”

But I know better, and so does he.  The infertility road has taught us nothing, if not that prayer does not always give us the results we want.  It certainly isn’t magic yet so often, I still think of it that way.  When things work out, God is good.  When things go south, where is God?  I didn’t pray hard enough versus I prayed so hard.  This must not be part of God’s plan versus God has a plan.  None of the clich├ęs satisfy.  None of them answer the greatest question that haunts mankind, the question of why things happen the way they do.

As I drove to the hospital that afternoon, I thought about all the scenarios that could play out if I didn’t get the good news that I was so desperately hoping for. None of them were pretty.  I told myself that I didn’t have any of the risk factors that seemed to come with breast cancer, so of course, the odds were that the news would be good.  But then I thought about my friend whose husband died of lung cancer, even though he’d never smoked.  And my friend who’d just lost her father to premature heart failure even though he’d always been a vegetarian and athletic.  I thought about my co-worker, who is a single mom and only few years younger than I, and who went through surgery for breast cancer last month. I thought about all the people who have been dealt a hand that just seems unfair.  Completely, unexplainably, unfair.  Infertility is like that.  It is one of the most unfair things a woman can go through, as she faces head-on a body the defies her very being and what she believes she has been created for.

And there’s the rub.  There’s the crux of it all.  What we have been created for is the delusion.  I like to think that I was created to be many things.  Daughter, sister, wife, mother, biologist, friend, advocate. I like to think that God will keep me around just a little longer because he has important work for me to do.  And maybe he will and does.  Or maybe not.  Maybe I am being delusional.  Maybe that is not why he created me.  Maybe I’m not here to do a job.  Maybe I’m here to do only one thing, and to hopefully do it well.  Maybe that one thing is to simply be faithful.

I don’t know exactly what I’ll say this week when I look face-to-face at other couples who are carrying a pain that I know so well.  Having been in their shoes, I know there’s not much I can say.  I avoided people in those days of primary infertility when they said with a big smile that they had kids.  I scorned people who tried to convince me that it was all part of God’s plan. I questioned people who said I just needed to pray harder.  Nobody could say much of anything to me during that time, and I didn’t want their advice.  I only wanted their empathy. I wanted their compassion. I wanted to know how I could possibly remain faithful to a God who I felt had abandoned me. I wanted to know why I had been created, because the reasons certainly didn’t seem obvious.

I don’t have cancer, at least not yet, and I am going to try to do as much as I can to try and prevent it. But someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe today, maybe years from now, I will once again face something that seems completely, unexplainably unfair.  And I will question God.  I will pray and my prayer will not be answered in the way I want.  Or perhaps it won’t be me this next time. Perhaps it will be my child, or my niece, or a dear friend, or even a stranger. Perhaps I will find myself standing beside someone who has all the same questions that I have.  I won’t have the answers.  Nobody does.  But I can tell them someone else went through the same thing.  He did nothing wrong, he was faithful, he prayed, he led a good life, and in the end, he was shamed, tortured, murdered.  His life taken from him against his will.  And at the time, it all seemed completely, unexplainably unfair, because it was.  

I’ll think about that during these upcoming days of Lent.  If nothing else, Lent reminds me that this world is cruel, and that life is mostly a trial, just as Jesus’ was.  I’ll be thinking of that at the infertility retreat.  The pain that those couples and I have experienced will always be there.  But so will He.  So will He.  We need only be faithful, and to remember that we are in good company.  Beyond that, I have no real advice.