Orange, she says. I am standing next to a punch bowl talking to my husband’s boss. We have told too many people we are trying to have a baby and now, more than six months in, I am met with stares querying my slim belly, and unwanted advice. Orange underwear. Orange art. Buy orange flowers for your bedroom. Eat orange food. Orange warms the womb. The root chakra.
I am not worried. Yet. In our garden, I make a rock sanctuary for new life, arranging rose quartz, turquoise, seeds, marbled turtles, marigolds. I compose a list of every woman I know right now who is trying to get pregnant. There are fourteen names. I roll up the list and tuck it under the quartz. The Japanese maple sheds its purple stars. Autumn. I want to draw every storm-rustle and wing in. I want to be filled with the making.
We buy new koi for our pond, which has long been empty. Release five orange fish for five little fingers, five toes. Most weekends, I take my not-orange womb to friends’ baby showers. I keep returning to that eco-friendly baby boutique to buy another organic cotton sleeper. My body is beginning to seem a lock for which I just need to find the right key. Month by month, I try them all. I measure my days with a basal thermometer; attend yin yoga classes designed to release “stagnant” energy; drink Chinese herbs that boil down to a syrup of root and mud; go to weekly acupuncture; add in new supplements; buy carnelian stones, supposedly good for fertility, and place them in my pitcher to “charge” the water so that I might ingest their healing energies; depart from fourteen years of vegetarianism and begin eating organ meat. There is no end to my quest for the missing ingredient.
A friend invites me over for dinner and serves moussed liver. She got pregnant while on the pill and referred to the baby as a parasite until she began to want it in the sixth month. I hold the baby while my friend arranges the liver on my plate, and the baby cries. Later, she sends me home with liver in Tupperware, and it tastes like grief.
The koi are dying. We keep returning to Petco. We replace them, find them belly up again and again; we test the water, change it, treat it, scrub the black rubber walls of the pond’s womb. I go to the doctor for hormone tests, antral follicle counts, ultrasounds. Everything seems tethered to our one desire. If we can get the fish to live, then. That word becomes a hinge on which the future leans.
Another six months. I remove my decomposing and leaf-stained list from the altar. Nearly everyone on the list is simultaneously pregnant. A family history of premature ovarian failure begins to clarify, menopause as early as 35. We meet with a reproductive endocrinologist, but we have to act fast. I am 34. I never thought I would need fertility drugs and now I have the disbelief of a Clomid prescription in my hand.
I go to community yoga classes every week. Since departing from a life in dance, this has become home base for me. I have always felt that one’s “body-wisdom” was something of a sixth sense, a somatic place of knowing and intuiting the world, and it is hard not to feel betrayed by the infertility diagnosis when I have felt so tapped into cultivating the life force. As I progress into the medically-assisted realm of conception, practicing public yoga becomes unbearably vulnerable. Poses render me sobbing in the corner, and the chanting – the sound of my own voice coming from the depths of my center, which has grown so unsure – breaks me open. I tearfully leave the studio one night, yoga mat bundled in my arms, and a man on Mission Street confronts me. Let me see your baby, lady! Show me your baby! he screams over and over, finally gesturing forcefully to the mat. I let it unroll at my feet.
After the IUI, a procedure that places the strongest sperm directly in the uterus, my husband steadies my crampy body, helps me out of the exam room. We are trying to preserve our privacy about this despite the team of people we have now involved. We walk slowly, tenderly. All the details are amplified. A nurse’s garish, flippant laugh. Dig of keys in my coat pocket.
The silver doors of the industrial Kaiser elevator open to reveal two women. One is a mother about our parents’ age. She is holding her daughter, who is about our age. The daughter clutches a radiology envelope. She is very thin, her face hollowed with endurance, and she is crying and clinging to the whole world in that envelope. The mother holds her up as one needs to hold what cannot go on, what is giving out. It is being realized. Whatever fight has been fought, whatever prayer has been prayed, this is the moment of their dark answer, and it fills the elevator. We carry that air home. We are not dying.
Two weeks since the IUI, and I feel oddly slow, like I’m moving through water. I chalk it up to the stimulating drugs, but hope flirts. I go in for a blood test, and the lab calls on Christmas to report a very low register of pregnancy hormone, just a chemical pregnancy, the kind most women never know they have had. Heavy, painful bleeding begins later that day. The bright side: at least there seems to have been a fertilized egg. Perhaps we are close. I also want to tell the bright side to piss off.
During the fourth and final Clomid cycle, I make an appointment to see an Ayurvedic healer visiting Berkeley from Nepal for one week. Referred to as “the rose mother,” she is known for her work with fertility and women’s reproductive health. I am sure divine intervention has brought her twenty miles from my house and secured me one of her few appointments. I am even surer that she will unearth the answer. I am waiting to test in another few days and scavenging my body for something out of the ordinary – thicker hair, vivid dream, the coffee smells stronger?
I want to be pregnant, but I also want to be released from this cycle of hope and despair that seems to have eclipsed everything. As I navigate the thick arteries of traffic across the Bay Bridge, I fantasize that she will feel a rolling “pregnancy pulse” on my inner wrists and we will laugh because I do not need her help after all. I am led to an empty room with nothing in it at all except for the rose mother. She is sitting in a meditation pose. Like Dorothy approaching Oz, I sit nervously in front of her. She keeps her eyes closed for a long time, and when she finally opens them, she takes my wrists and feels for the pulses and shakes her head. She looks at my irises, my tongue, my feet, scanning, listening. I need more than these apocryphal noises and silences, so I tell her everything all at once. When I am done, she says, You aren’t pregnant. You’re not even close.
Some friends lap me twice. We are still two, and they have become four. Standing at the bottom of the terraced garden, I look up to the sea of fog rolling toward our house low and gray, and hear the answer. Leave. What you want is barely attainable but through a needle’s eye. Not here.
My husband’s job has become tenuous. He decides to pursue a doctorate in Michigan. We put our townhouse up for sale, give up on the fish, placing plastic koi in the pond to stage the serenity for open houses. I watch other families explore our garden. I thought it would be my children growing up in this secret world filled with trumpet flowers, ginger lilies, lemon trees.
Do you wonder what kind of past life stuff led up to this? a friend asks. Have you thought about adoption? everyone asks. What I cannot explain is that I can feel my child, his energy, in this present and tangible way inside my body. At street crossings, in the middle of the night, I reach into the sea for this small hand. I believe he’s there, on the brink, waiting, and I cannot think of anything but getting him to me.
The house is empty. The trucks have pulled away. I go down to the pond before we leave. After months of not sprinkling in any food, there are two real koi flickering. Somehow. They are surfacing.
We search for a rental house in a historic district of Kalamazoo, a mix of restored Victorians and trashed undergraduate party houses. We find slanted floors, missing doors, torched carpet, smells that drive us out to the humid street where an ice cream truck circles the same block over and over, playing Pop Goes the Weasel with increasing speed as if the song has taken a junkie’s hit. We find a house with two bats in the bedroom and a dismantled piano on the front porch, and sign the contract on the spot.
Up to this point I have been an open book, have said too much, but in Michigan, I seal up like a vault.
Out the window, I watch the makeshift hedonism of my twenty-year-old neighbors, the sexy Friday night outfits parading into beat-up cars, kegs unloading from trunks, the lawns littered with SOLO cups and smashed Bud bottles. I see guys pee on the side of our house and guys jumping off their roofs at 2am. I see four roommates shave each other’s heads on their front porch, a garage go up in thirty-foot flames across the street, and a man off his meds fiddling with our front door in the middle of the night. I see the ice cream truck on stoned autoloop. I see the sophomore women and imagine thousands of viable eggs lit up in their pelvises like cities on maps.
I am watching all of it, and I am watching myself through this distant window too, my life on both sides like a slid shadow.
I go to the farmer’s market and buy in bushel. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, apples. I want to buy giant baskets of everything and haul it all down to the damp basement dark. Returned to autumn, we drive out to the orchard. In Ida-gold light, a fiddle player sings When I die, won’t you bury me in the town where I was born ‘cause most of my life I’ve been wanderin’ and when I die I wanna come back home. We fall asleep to the sound of bats flapping inside the walls. Michigan feels like a lucky shipwreck.
When I pick up the Bravelle from the pharmacy, the pharmacist is sympathetic, fatherly. There is a whole dialogue in the way he hands the vials of medicine over to me with the giant accompanying bag of needles, which I will use to inject the liquid into my stomach and thighs. The hormone-inducing medicine is derived from the purified urine of postmenopausal nuns. Postmenopausal women produce too much FSH, or follicle stimulating hormone, and when fertility drugs were created in the 1960s, physicians concluded that convents were the ideal place to find large numbers of postmenopausal women. Specifically, convents in the Italian countryside; perhaps I am summoning from my ancestors.
I fish out the gold cross and Mary medallion from the jewelry box, light candles, and arrange a shrine in the bathroom in honor of these nuns who have never borne children. I say out loud that I welcome the nun pee into my body, that I receive it with gratitude, but I cannot ease the needle in. I count down, recite a Hail Mary, yell do it do it do it! but nothing happens. The only way I gain courage is to turn up heavy metal and let the thrash embolden me, gathering the flesh of my inner thigh, shoving the inch of needle in and breathlessly draining the vial. With each dose, I have to find new patches of stomach and thighs, each site becoming bruised and sore. It never gets easier. Metal and shrine become ritual for three failed cycles in November, December, and January.
Up the road is a training center where people who are in the process of losing their eyesight come to be coached into their impending blindness. Every day I watch groups wearing blackout masks learn the dark streets. At a time when I am talking to few people, seeing them when I’m driving to the grocery store or the fertility clinic becomes a kind of ongoing query. I keep seeing them not-seeing, the work of decline and its lack of options starkly displayed. I’m not supposed to mix up our pity, not supposed to make it mean anything to me because this is no dialogue, but they remain in the forefront of my days, sensing forward in the gray winter.
The phlebotomist’s name is Sue, which she announces in so lilting a way it is a musical interlude in the waiting room. She looks at my chart and chirps Another Scor-pio! We have the same birth-day! I willingly present my inner arm. In all of Michigan, my husband and Sue are the only ones who know.
Every time I go in, she offers the same introduction – My name is Sue! – and the same revelation –Another Scor-pio! We have the same birth-day! – when I sit in the white chair. And in return, I always act surprised. We never meet beyond the script of our first meeting; we maintain both my secret and this pact in anonymity, and I look forward to hearing her say it. At odd moments, like walking the far reaches of the super supermarket, I hear My name is Sue! in my head.
Spring is coming and floes of ice dislodge from our roof and smash to the ground. It takes only a brief early sun to nudge the crocuses up. Then we rush to cover them in packing plastic when the snow returns. My body is responding well to the shockwave of hormones that IVF requires. We watch the progress daily on ultrasound, the snowy ovaries like baskets carrying over ten eggs, all ripening at once. Swollen, achy, blurry with hope, my womb is this temporary pulsing factory, and I direct all my energy into it. I cannot help but feel proud of my body for going along with this Herculean act and trying so hard to work for me.
When I take my two dozen eggs out for a slow walk, I am greeted with peepers, bunnies, and birdsong. How can I help but feel that somewhere inside me is the beginning of our daughter or son, swimming in a sea of lost siblings? It is impossible to be measured, impossible not to be drawn into magic, not to give in to sentiment and croon with the symbols swirling around me. I find nests, dream of orange fish and antlers and the moon. Our embryo retrieval is auspiciously synched to the spring equinox, and fingers crossed, there will be a transfer on Easter Sunday.
They retrieve seven eggs, most of which are too immature. The egg quality reports two of them “B” grade and the rest “C” or lower. These disappointing seven will be monitored by an embryologist for the next two days as they grow and divide or die outside my body. They have left me. I cannot do any more. The next day only one remains. One is what we need, the doctor says. Our one makes it to the next day. We transfer it and again, a gulleywash of hope.
I go in for bloodwork many times afterward to monitor progesterone, and will have a pregnancy test 12 days after transfer, but when the day comes, I know it is negative. I know whatever brief life was returned to me is no longer growing. I know it and still hope I am wrong about everything. When I hear My name is Sue! my eyes flood, and when I hear the bit about us being Scor-pios! it unravels me. The needle is so raw, my body so bruised. It’s beyond logical that I would inflict all this on myself, and I do not know where to turn next. I have never felt emptier. To continue to say yes signifies more possession than hope because I cannot muster the alternative, a final echoing no. When I stand up, I am sobbing, and Sue shelves the tube of blood and gives me a long hug.
Even though this has all been phrased in terms of “fighting against time” and “not having much time left,” my husband and I decide to take a six-month break. I need to regain some footing as a person who is not being marionetted by a constant hormone cocktail. We will try one more time at the end of summer and then begin our exit strategy from this cycle of hope and despair. We make plans to spend July in Prague at a summer writing intensive. My second poetry book is scheduled to arrive from the press soon after we’ll return. I have been drowning in less than, less than, and I need to remember that I am enough as is, and that I am more than I know.
I stay away from the fertility clinic but find another acupuncturist, a former “barefoot doctor” – a farmer trained in basic medicine who served rural areas under a government-sponsored program in the People’s Republic of China – from the Chinese countryside displaced in Grand Rapids. She is a little more like my imagined rose mother, gentle and sympathetic. The heart governs the uterus. You need “Happy.” She sets thin needles along my spine and has me lay back on them as if on a bed of nails. I leave with two bottles of Happy, a powdered Chinese herb formula.
I wander museums, orchards, monasteries, manicured gardens flocked with white peacocks, graveyards submerged in ivy. Along Prague’s cobbled canal, I walk for hours. The feeling of being alone in a faraway place is medicinal. It reminds me of the large strange world and my tiny place in it. I want to shrink the hugeness of this longing into something I can fold up and forget about.
Male statues fountain water from penises that spell out famous Kafka lines. I watch a black and white film of a golden retriever, projected on an antique perfume bottle to a Billie Holiday score. I sit in the monastery’s pear orchard in a thunderstorm, pay admission to see a library of books made from bark, and take a train out to the countryside to an ossuary: a church made entirely from bones recovered from a mass grave. But even in this city the effigy is present, and I catch myself looking for the other, wandering among Cerny’s giant faceless baby statues.
The theme of the writing program this year is “fertility,” little wonder, and the lecturers discuss it only in literal terms: babies, motherhood, as intrinsic to women. They show the film Little Otik, about a woman who cannot bear a child but is so desperate she finds a mandrake root that looks like a child and swaddles it in bunting cloth, takes it out for buggy rides, publicly coos and takes her place in the tribe of new mothers. It seems like hyperbole, like a woman gone crazy, but while others laugh, I feel the weight of kinship. Eventually, Otik does come to life, but he is an insatiable being who savagely consumes everything he comes in contact with until his mother has to destroy him. He is the longing grown out of proportion, the longing embodied that ravages all. My husband and I leave the theater and are quiet for a long time. We have reached our crossroad.
Listening, lecture after lecture, my life suddenly requires some revisionist history. I have accessed my fertility since puberty; so much action was in response to the assumption that I would or could bear children. Only now do I realize how much that assumption has been part of my narrative. I have queried it, suppressed it, harnessed it through other creative means, and what was IT after all? A vacant idea? A presence that faded without announcement? What was this monthly rehearsal?
Surely feeling the tidal pull on my body and its sweep of hormones each month has granted me inclusion into some essence of the maternal world, a deep knowledge of my own generative energies. I am not referring here to a mere transference of creativity from womb to mind – as when countless people have tried to assuage me by telling me that my books were my babies, a well-meaning but overly simplistic trade-off I found irksome and reductive – but something much broader. I have felt as a potential superpower the force that enables a woman to grow, support, birth, and raise a human life. This distinctive presence — part intelligence, part biological inheritance from the mother-line, and wholly of my woman-self – has been within me whether I ever bear children or not.
I realize now how I have called upon these energies in moments of doubt, belittlement, and fear my whole life. Every time I thought I was starkly alone, I was in communication with a larger force. I assumed it was God, but I see now how it was something else: the connection to my mother and grandmother and all the mothers linking back through time, as well as the little potentials that ready each month. This purposeful feeling of lineage, of possession of the thinnest beginnings of life, held in the ancient design of my body, has given me a sense of inclusion I reach towards even in my darkest hour. I see now that I have always had access to that strength and belonging and that it is, at root, a power source capable of being realized independent of actual childbearing.
Who I will be if this does not happen? I will have to remake my sense of self, I will have to destroy my Otik. If the mother-line that I am connected to ends with me, then I will be the keeper of it, the bearer, who will listen into it until it becomes my own distinct language. So many doctors, nurses, instruments, vials, needles. So many bright metal things brought into the shrine of possibility. I have said yes to it all because I felt the hand of a child who was not there, who did not need to come from me, but who came from me even if only in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I wake up and wonder if this has all been an illusion. Certainly, it has been a spell, and when it is over, it will be a ritual or a crisis or something I do not know how to name, for soon, either way, this life of trying, this assisted hope, will be over. We are careening toward the end.
I sit on a stone wall staring across the Vltava River, and decide I do not need any more symbols. I am a symbol of fertility. If I do not succeed in getting pregnant, that feeling of access to the power source of motherhood will remain true. My life has always been about the making.
When we return home, I find out my poetry book has won an unexpected award, and my small press immediately goes into the next reprint before I’ve seen a copy of the first. My acupuncturist reports that my meridians seem happier, and though I have many hopeful signs from the world to keep on, I fight against a nagging anxiety about our last IVF attempt.
Late August. Cicadas. Peaches. Thunderstorms. Quiet neighborhood before the undergraduates descend upon us. The night before I am to begin the injections again, I pour over technical analyses of fertility drugs and bells start going off. When I go into the clinic to pick up my cache of drugs and needles and do the base bloodwork, I say I need to see the doctor. He is only there on Tuesdays. It is Tuesday. I tell him I want to change the way we time and dose the injections, that everything stimulates too fast and my body cannot mature the eggs, and I know there is a good egg waiting in there that has never had the chance. He says my reasoning is sound, and we set a new course. Unlike nearly every other decision in my life, I make this one on the spot and do not look back.
We retrieve nine eggs. Five are mature enough to survive for two days outside of my body. We freeze two and return three, and briefly, I am the mother of triplets. When I go into acupuncture seven days after transfer, the acupuncturist cautiously says she detects a pregnancy pulse. When I test on the twelfth day, the faintest line shows up; again, caution. When I go in for a blood pregnancy test and it is positive, I hold out for the follow-up test to determine if the numbers are doubling. After they have doubled, we wait for a five-week heartbeat. It is there. One heartbeat.
We drive out to Lake Michigan for the weekend. I am beginning to curl away from the smell of bananas and tomatoes, beginning to feel a nauseous sway in my body, to sense a slow hot air at my back. It is happening. I go back to this moment every day, one two three four five years after. How we laid in bed under heavy quilts in the empty cabin and listened to the sound of the lake washing ashore and back in the original darkness.