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
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 dramatic
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
* * *
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
“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
“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.”