The Helpers

In 1997, just after my 4th anniversary, I made a plan. It was a plan with solid foundations. It was such a good plan, that I categorized it as God’s plan and pretty much counted it as done before I had even gotten started.

I was going to lose 20 pounds, pay off my credit card, and go to Italy. Right after that trip to Italy, I’d dip my foot in the “Let’s Have a Baby Pond” and 9 months later I’d be sending out my announcements. That’s how I roll. I get things done.

I did lose 20 pounds. I looked and felt good.
I did pay off that credit card and then tore it up and threw it away.
And we did go to Italy. It was a magical trip.

But that last item.
That one took a good bit more time and concentration. And it caused a whole lot more suffering than my days on the treadmill. My plan was good. It made sense in my mind. It made sense on paper. It made sense financially. The problem was that some of it was out of my control.

During those days, I had a lot of things. I had plenty of friends and no shortage of activity. I had money, because we were both working. I had family. I had a strong network of support. And of course, I had my plan.

The one thing I didn’t have was a baby.

And you know what you get when you’ve been married awhile and you don’t have that baby? You get people emerging from the woodwork with questions, suggestions, and advice. There’s a grace period of at least a year. You may get 2 years if your crow’s feet aren’t too defined on your wedding day. But on Day 731, all bets are off and the world is allowed to walk up and ask you where YOUR baby is.

The Questioners. This first group tried to baste their questions in innocence, sweet-grandma style, or humor. I really didn’t prefer one style over another. I mean, I already had a grandma with her own set of questions. And the humor I didn’t find funny. One friend approached me at the end of church one night, deep into our infertility struggles, and fired off some funnies. What’s the matter? he asked. Todd shooting blanks? I think I almost passed out. I was hoping I could pick up a pew bible and knock him out before I hit the ground myself. At the moment he asked, I didn’t know the fertility problem was mine, not that it matters. Because really, no matter who the problem had landed on, it was our problem. Not mine. Not his. Ours. Just in case you are recovering from a head injury or from being raised by wolves, this question is never, ever, ever appropriate. Ever. That was for free.

The Suggestors. Since this isn’t a word, I didn’t know whether to go with an “er” spelling or “or.” Ultimately, “or” seems a little more refined. This group seemed to think I hadn’t yet come up with a family plan on my own. They were just helping out in case I was just living the good life and enjoying a lavish, dual-income-no-kids lifestyle without even the thought of settling down. You two kids have been married awhile. You should get on that.

The Advisers. This one can be spelled either way and comes with all kinds of advice. Some of the advice came from people close enough to us that we were obligated by relationship to listen. Some of it came from people that were just a notch above a stranger but we felt obligated to listen out of sheer politeness. Some of it came from professionals who were claiming to help us with our problem. None of it came from anyone who knew what it was like to be us. What it was like to be me. The girl with a problem. The girl who could not get the thing she wanted most in the world.

My plan, along with the advice and the questions, unraveled down to a single line: “Unexplained Infertility.” After a major surgery to remove a grapefruit-sized fibroid tumor from the walls of my uterus (I was declared cured right then), a year and a half of lesser fertility drugs, 6 months of harder core fertility drugs, a miscarriage, and then a train-wreck of an attempt at in vitro, it came down to “Unexplained Infertility,” which was written in blue scrawl in my chart.

“I have no idea why you aren’t pregnant,” Dr. Tarantino said. “You should be pregnant.”

But I wasn’t.

There were a staggering number of opinions on why I wasn’t and how I could be.

You kids just need to relax. Go home, pour a couple of glasses of champagne, and see what happens.

What’s the matter? Someone shooting blanks?

Come on, Missy. Your parents aren’t getting any younger. I think they are plumb ready to be grandparents.

Listen, just stand on your head. Stand on your head and it’ll happen.

Have you tracked your cycles? Like taken your temperature and stuff? Maybe you just aren’t in touch with your cycles.

Oh, well-meaning fertility experts:

I don’t drink. At all.
And I didn’t need to relax. Sometimes I’m so relaxed people walk by and check for a pulse.
We had real bullets.
And I knew my parents were almost 60.
I had definitely, definitely tracked every last temperature spike, read every book on the topic, and knew at least as much as the first doctor who thought a lack of alcohol was my problem.

And no, mother. No on the standing on head routine. Back off, because now your voice in my head is another barrier between us and this baby we can’t have.

My days went by from hope to hope. When there was a procedure to try, I was hopeful. When it was time to either be pregnant or not, I prayed like a possessed woman. And when it became apparent that this month was another no, I fell apart at the seams. I grieved for the lost family member I hadn’t yet met. I grieved for the life I wasn’t being allowed to grasp. Sometimes I retreated. Into a public bathroom stall where I sobbed until my story was swollen all over my face for the duration of the afternoon. Or into my room for an entire weekend. Sometimes I escaped. Into extreme biking or a new college class.

It was a period of my life I can only describe as dark. There’s something about razor-sharp focus on an unachievable goal that can throw a black shroud around everything else good. There were days when no light got in. Looking back, I feel deeply sorry for Todd. He tried everything he knew to help me. But I was helpless.

Finally, I realized that the kind of help I wanted–the get-me-a-baby-kind–I couldn’t get. So I went for the only kind of help I could think of. I went to a therapist. No one could fix my broken body. I needed someone to fix my broken heart.

Through 2 sessions a week over the course of more than a year, I sat with a guy who had no idea what it felt like to be infertile. But he knew how to help me adjust my expectations. And he taught me how not to be led around by emotions that were tied to things I couldn’t control. He showed me the path to peace. How exactly he did that will get its own post.

One afternoon, in the middle of this phase of my life, I was sitting in Dr. Tarantino’s office, wearing a wafer-thin paper gown and staring at a metal set of stirrups in a room full of pamphlets about things that should not have full-color pamphlets. And I sat straight up and said out loud to no one,

“I’m done.”

That was it. No more procedures. No more pills or thermometers or breakdowns. Five minutes later, the doctor came in and asked me how I was.

“I’m good,” I answered. “But I’m done. I’m done with all of this.” He raised his eyebrows. After all, I was there to explore more options. I was wearing a paper dress. But he sat down on his swivel stool and allowed me to finish. “We’re going to adopt.”

This was my own announcement. Todd wasn’t even present for this particular appointment. There were so many of them that he only came to the important ones. Until this moment, this appointment had not been one of the important ones.

My doctor folded his hands in his lap, looked me in my eyes, and replied with kindness.

“I think that’s a great idea. If I can help you any further, you know where to find me.”

I did know where to find him, and I would eventually see him again. But at that point, he was not who I needed to find. Our answer to the “what now” question was about to take a hard right turn.

This one keeps me up at night.

What Now?

Yesterday, while trying to fit laundry into a piano lesson I forgot about, a meeting with a decorator, 2 pick-ups, and the 4th dental appointment of the week, the question of fertility–and infertility–came up to me. Out of the blue. Twice.

That was oddly coincidental. Or not. Because as severely as I struggled with this issue, those struggles are so far in my rearview mirror now that I almost can’t make out shape or color anymore.

But I remember. Oh, I remember. A person doesn’t forget a thing like that.

One person asked me if I had ever written about my struggles. I actually had to search my blog to see if I had. I searched on “infert” to cover all forms of the word and came up with 3 or 4 posts that were Mother’s Day related. All of them were good for me to read again. All of them began at infertility and ended at adoption. None of them really talked about what we’d been through. And it occurred to me that people don’t really talk about it enough.

There were a few people I talked to about everything and a few reasons I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone else.

  • Everyone’s a critic. Even people who don’t mean to be sometimes are. Every single treatment I pursued was something that I first grappled with inside my mind. Todd and I both agonized over the expense and the decisions. We didn’t need a panel of self-proclaimed experts pointing out our mistakes as they saw them.
  • Everyone’s got an opinion. I heard most of them over the course of 4 years.
  • Everyone’s got a story. You may have been through some stuff, too. Maybe infertility. Maybe miscarriages. Maybe anxiety. But you have never been me and I have never been anyone else. Your story is your story. Mine is mine. We can understand each other, but we are not the same. I try to remember this as I go forward also. I’ve been through a LOT in my journey to my family. But I can’t know exactly what you are facing in yours. And I can’t tell you what you should do with yours or what’s right for you. Only you can do that. I certainly can’t tell you to do as I did.

I think what bothered me the most during those years was not knowing how my story would end. I didn’t want or need to hear “Your day is coming. Things are going to work out.” I knew that. But how were they going to work out? And more desperately critical, when? When?

But the one question I asked that was harder than the how or the when and 100% unanswerable was why? Why was the woman at the edge of my neighborhood who was strung out on drugs 8 months pregnant, but I wasn’t? Why were there girls sitting in waiting rooms considering abortions for a pregnancy they didn’t want but I could not find my way to one I desperately wanted? Why were there couples getting pregnant after 5 minutes of marriage and I couldn’t manage it after 5 years?

The why question is unanswerable. Always. Why is there cancer? Or autoimmune disorders? Or mental illness? Or accidents? These things just are. And sometimes they fall on us.

Over the course of 4 years, I transitioned from a girl who cried in bathroom stalls when my monthly cycle ended another few weeks of hoping to a girl who was ready to ask the real question:

What now?

It isn’t why or when. It simply is what now.

Anyone can do the what now. Anyone.

So since I’ve been asked, and since I’ve been around the block 78 times, and since I’ve emerged on the other side with 4 children, and since I’ve done therapy, and surgeries, and IVF, and medicines, and adoption, and pregnancy, and C-sections, I’m going to write it all down. Maybe it will help someone. Maybe it will only help me as my oldest boy prepares for his senior year of high school and I prepare to watch him leave.

It has been a journey. And it was often a dark and difficult one. But I wouldn’t change a second of it. Not one second. I wouldn’t reverse the tears or the breakdowns or even the months and months upon years and years of waiting. Because those things prepared me to be a mom. And those things brought me here.

Right here.

And right here feels pretty good.

Small Things

Small things are cute. The smaller they are, the cuter they appear. There are plenty of unattractive adults that were adorable as babies. A slimy wriggly puppy, who will grow up into a smash-faced dog breed, is worth cooing over as a puppy. And a super fat baby thigh, enlarged and placed on an adult, aged 25-80, is the grossest thing ever. But we squish and croon about fat baby thighs.

As a kid, I was obsessed with small things. Tiny stuffed animals. Little action figures. And miniature 1970s wooden Christmas ornaments. When I was 8 years old, while decorating our Christmas tree, I found my best friend. It was a 2″ wooden angel, tossed into my mom’s collection of non-special ornaments. Because it was nothing special. To anyone else. But when I picked it up and made eye-contact with her black dots, she became special to me immediately.

“Can I keep this one?” I asked my mom. she agreed dismissively. Nobody cared that I was keeping her. I named her Baby. And she became my baby.

I carried Baby with me everywhere. Literally everywhere. To school. To church. On vacations. To my parents’ office. Down the street to play with my human friends. Everywhere. When she wasn’t in my hand or set up in some elaborate diorama, she was in the pocket of my jeans. There is one picture in some album somewhere that I took of Baby. It is only her right half, because I was shooting with a 110 point and shoot camera that is worse than drawing a picture with Crayons. I can’t locate the picture right now.

When the unfortunate fire of 1981 happened, we scrambled to pack our things and move out. Our insurance company sprung for a Howard Johnson’s in a bad section of town. My parents were not that excited about the hotel or our location in town; our new residence backed up to the parking lot of a honkytonk bar. I thought it was the most exciting place ever. All I had to do to enter a foreign world was to slide up in my bed ever so slightly and part the linen curtains behind my bed. The music went on all night.

One night, a couple of weeks into our stay at the HoJo, when I had seen enough and couldn’t seem to settle into sleep, I realized I didn’t have Baby. I looked for her in my covers and then in the drawers where I was keeping my clothes. She wasn’t there. In a panic, I called to my Dad.

“Dad,” I said. “I don’t have Baby.”

“It’s ok. We’ll find her in the morning,” he replied. Unlike me, he was settled in for the night. Now that I’m firmly entrenched in middle age and parenting, I get it. There’s nothing a parent wants to do less than to hike to the car for a forgotten item when you are already wearing your PJs.

“Dad, that won’t work,” I whispered across the dark hotel room. “I need her to sleep.” I paused. “And she needs me.” Now I was Grade A Crazy, but I didn’t care.

My dad swung his legs over the side of the bed and I sucked a breath of hope into my lungs. He was going to get Baby! But instead, I watched him fumble across the room to his stuff that was laying over a vinyl chair and reach into his pants pocket. Did he have Baby? He then found his way over to me and knelt beside my bed.

“Here,” he said. “Sleep with this.” I opened my hand hopefully and in it he placed a penny. A penny. Like a 1 cent dirty piece of copper. I closed my fingers over the penny as I narrowed my eyes in disgust and rolled over. The edges of the penny dug into my palm as I tried to pretend it was Baby. With my hand under my chin, I could smell the metal. This was not going to work.

“Dad,” I whispered again. “I can’t do this. I have to have Baby. Could you please go down to the car and get her?” I think people at the bar next door could hear him sigh as he stood up to face his mission. He threw on a pair of real pants and quietly slipped out of the room, along the outdoor corridor, and down the stairs to our car. A few minutes later, the door opened, letting a long shard of light into the room before it all went dark again. He padded over to my bed and placed the familiar shape of Baby into my palm. I smiled and hugged her to me and we sunk into a slumber on the faint notes of an Alabama lullaby that was drifting out from the doors of the bar behind me.

Within a couple of years, I lost Baby. I looked for her everywhere and was heartbroken when I couldn’t find her. I wondered what she was doing in her spare time. Was she missing me as much as I missed her? Had she found new friends? Would she ever show up again?

I never saw her after 1983, but there’s this lovely site called eBay, where a person who is a little off in the head can reconnect with their past in off-in-the-head kinds of ways. eBay is where I found the beach curtains of my childhood. And while it’s not where I found THE BABY, I did find A Baby. And I bought her. There is a familiar sweetness in her black dotted eyes and little round mouth that reminds me of a faithful friend I once had. A friend I like to imagine on a honkytonk stage somewhere, listening to our songs, and nestled into the palm of a kid who loves her.

the night of the tiny turtles

There’s a strong case to be made for wearing pants, at all times and in some form, whether it be leggings or jeans or pajama pants or even something as cringy as Daisy Dukes. But nobody ever makes that case, because it seems to be a superfluous argument. The world is largely on board with the pants-wearing tradition. I’m on board, too, most of the time. But a couple of nights ago, I decided to live on the edge. It was hot. I was the only one awake in a shared bedroom with my 11-year-old daughter. I needed to take my core temperature down and I wasn’t going to need the pants.

So I thought.

I got fully settled about midnight but was only in and out of a fitful sleep when a light came through the slats of the vertical blinds that separated my bedroom from the coastline. It was enough light to make me wonder what was causing it, so I got up to check. From a thin space between slats, I saw a police SUV driving along the beach out front. I knew what he was there for. He was there to confiscate property left behind by lazy sunbathers. He was mostly there for the canopies. He pulled up to one and got out of his truck when my eye was drawn to two women just below me on the pavement. They had flashlights and were moving with purpose. I didn’t understand what that purpose could be, because by now it was past 1 a.m. but they appeared to be mildly frantic. One of the women immediately took off toward the cop on the beach.

Ah, it’s her canopy. She wants to talk him out of taking the canopy. That made sense in my mind but didn’t explain the lateness of the hour or the other woman wielding a flashlight. After a few seconds of imagined conversation about the canopy, the woman jogged back toward the paved parking area in front of our condo and the cop hopped into his vehicle and moved it closer to the women.
Then they all started scrambling.

I watched the chaotic dance of the flashlights with confused fascination. At this point, I was fully awake, fully out on my balcony in the dark, and fully aware that I was mostly pantsless. I was safe in my lack of pants because it was so dark and because, with a cop and two women running willy nilly on the beach below, no one was going to be looking at me. I pressed myself up against the balcony railing, forgetting the pants entirely, and followed the flashlight beams with my eyes. Something was all over the ground. The ground was practically moving because of it. It was crabs. These were crabs. Wait a second. Those aren’t crabs. Crabs are faster than that and no one cares about crabs. Dozens of little darkened shapes were flopping around on the sand and crossing under the fence into the parking lot.

I gasped as I figured out what it was. It was a group of little hatchlings from a nearby turtle nest. These were baby sea turtles. And they were lost. Going away from the ocean instead of into it. I watched as the cop and the women scooped up turtle after turtle, turning on their heels and then running with them to the water’s edge. But the numbers were against them, so they grabbed an empty trashcan and began to set the turtle escapees into the can, one after the next.

I wish I could help them, I thought. But I’m not wearing pants. I ran back inside the condo for a moment and noticed the lights on in Brady’s and Lucy’s room. They were both still awake. So I ran down the hall to grab them out.

“Hey, come with me. I have something to show you.” They followed me back to the balcony and were just as intrigued as I was with the process going on down below. On my way back through the family room, I grabbed a blanket to serve the role of the pants. It did its job as well as it could.

Over the next half hour, we witnessed a small group of beach combers saving a larger group of tiny, helpless turtles. If the women hadn’t been out there with lights–which still baffles me because of the lateness–and the cop hadn’t showed up to take someone’s canopy, there would have been a crop of dead turtles in a parking lot the next morning.

“That cop was on the night shift, working the canopy confiscation beat. I bet this is a much more exciting night than he had planned,” I said to the kids, resting my chin on the railing as the activity began to wane.

“You know what they say,” Brady replied. “Not all heroes wear capes.” Lucy began chuckling at that and they started a whole routine as if they were turtle wrangling cops. At noon the next day, none of it would have been funny. But at 2 a.m. it doesn’t take a lot to get a punchy reaction.

I’ve been at this beach in this condo every summer for 20 years now. I’ve seen a lot of turtle nests get roped off. I’ve even seen some turtle tracks. But until Monday night, I had never seen the actual turtles. It was pretty spectacular. I do wonder how much more spectacular it might have been if I’d been wearing pants and had run down to join the rescue operation with the flashlight I had brought from home. This might have been a much different post.

Not all heroes wear capes.
But they do all wear pants.