After circling down into the hospital car park, I was now in its very depths. Turning off the ignition, I stared through the windscreen. A tangle of pipes hung suspended overhead, each with a purpose – water, gas, septics. A labyrinth I could not hope to fathom, no matter how I tried. Fitting, I suppose, for little did I know I was about to witness another wonder.
I met my friend at the ground floor lobby. The wards had been magnanimously planned: Maternity at the end of one wing; IVF suites at the other end. After a brief hug, deliberately ignoring the pink and blue helium balloons of the gift shop, we turned left.
Five years. Five long years to get to here: past the confusion, impatience, and later desperation. Past unsympathetic doctoring and pointless homeopathy. Beyond shouting to the moon and sobbing with the dog on a thundery night.
“Can she come in?” my friend asked at the desk. “My husband is overseas with work.”
The receptionist nodded, put aside the pile of invoices she was shuffling, and showed us through to a waiting room. On the wall hung a painting of abstract curved shapes, contorted in such a way as to remind me of the pipeworks downstairs. It was an ugly, masculine print, but at least it wasn’t an Anne Geddes. That would be too cruel.
My friend and I talked, creating sentences we forgot moments after speaking them: really we watched other couples return from their own procedures, wondering how they fared. Then it was our turn to enter.
“We got eight eggs, as you know,” said the fertility specialist, then quickly going on to add, “Now, four fertilised – that’s an improvement on last time, remember – but only one was quality enough to transfer.”
My friend, shivering naked under a hospital gown, sucked in her breath; her eyes sought the heavens, welling up with tears. Four thousand dollars – no, seven if you included the failed cycle. It wasn’t the money she cared about. There were no freezable embryos. This was it.
To temper the shock, the prize: the ready embryo was flashed up on a television monitor, waiting in its jellied Petri dish. Four cells perfectly divided; a promising start, aglobe of promise.
This miracle was two days old. Where was I when mine (conceived the old-fashioned way) achieved this status? Asleep in my bed? Brushing my teeth? Chopping onions? I know it was hidden, at least. This life was already used to electric lighting and human probing.
For implantation the embryologist brings in our hope at the end of a catheter, long and curved. I turned my head at the critical moment, giving my friend a moment’s privacy. Ironic, considering she is now more used to stirrups and speculums than I ever could be. Once done, it was hard to believe this spec would be on its own to contest the chemical lottery of survival.
I wanted to lean in and whisper through my friend’s belly-button:
Your mother and I were children together.
She has wanted you since I can remember.
She has cried for your breath and your pulse.
She winces at the sounds of my own children’s laughter
(she thinks she hides it)
and gives them the presents long secreted for her own imagined children;
flaying the skin of her dreams. The loss is an ever-raw wound.
I cannot even begin to imagine what her life’s been like,
but I can imagine yours.
Live, little one.
Afterwards, we were told to see the nurse. “Not nice, is it?” she asked casually, but nicely, flicking through a file. “Here you go.” She handed over a pamphlet on Listeria. “Please eat now as if you were pregnant. Got your cream?”
My friend nodded.
“Keep inserting it for the next two weeks. See you then for your next lot of blood work. Goodbye.”
Where was the ‘…and good luck?” Goodbye. All done. The next couple were summoned.
When I commented on the swift procession of couples moving through these same steps, my friend nodded. “Rather like a factory, isn’t it?” An industry poised on the tip of suppressed grief and resignation. I felt so lost in the hallways of this drama I felt like vomiting. How did people do this?
My friend accompanied me back to my car and our goodbyes were tinged with hot impatience.
“How will you get through these next two weeks?” I asked.
She shrugged. “About as well as I have through this whole process.”
Clicked in, ready to drive home, the pipe rigging now dripped water onto my windscreen. Safe within my aluminium placenta, I hoped the other would be as well protected in its softer home; by hormones, by the womb, by love.
It was not enough.
Ten days later, I got the call.
“I’m bleeding. It’s over.”
Mother creators...God’s helpers...Nature’s architects.
Once pregnant, it is easy to thank those who orchestrated the impossible. But who does one turn to when there is failure? Who is the patron saint of Maybe Next Time, Next Cycle? Aren’t they getting appeased? Not enough prayers?
Bar mine. For I will keep praying and wishing. Hope has no expiry.
“The days are long but the years are short.”*
How true these wise words are. How well they encapsulate that, simultaneously, a day alone with children can feel as if it will never end, or as if you are marooned in Motherland with only a glimpse of your former life on the horizon – and then you look up into the eyes of your child and suddenly they are a grumpy teen staring petulantly back at you. This is how our lives are lived, in the daily minutiae that transforms into years and even decades.
* A quote from ‘Becoming a mother’ this edition’s book review