The Sisyphean Task of Bargaining

I was standing in the bathroom the Saturday evening before Christmas, getting ready for work, when Arthur appeared in the doorway.

“So, L called this afternoon,” he said slowly.  I inhaled sharply.  I knew the next words that would come out of his mouth.

“She’s pregnant.”

I stared at him miserably.  “How far?”

“Six weeks.”

“Oh,” I said.

~*~

It’s true that I would never wish the messiness I’ve been through on that quest on another person, and I stand by that sentiment.  I’m glad she’s not going through those things and I do hope all this works out well for her.

This happened to be the third pregnancy announcement of that week and I’d actually been pretty proud of myself for handling the others well.  I’d congratulated and been genuinely happy for them, even if there was a little achiness.  But the announcement of someone in the family (sister-in-law), someone I also happen to not get along with at all and have a whole ugly history concerning, felt like entirely too much.

~*~

The immediate effect was the utter destruction of the fragile détente Arthur and I had formed to get through the holidays and give ourselves a little bit more space about fertility and being done – or not.  It was one of the worst fights we’ve had in nearly 15 years of marriage, a conflict that encompassed weeks of silences, retreats, open clashes, sullen glares, smoldering irritation, and plenty of times when everything seemed fine on the surface as we worked together on the house, shuttled the kids around, or sat around together.  About the time we both figured we had to have exhausted the conflict, we found it hiding in the undone dishes, the mess in the bathroom, the recycling left on the kitchen counter.  Both of us wanted it to stop and neither of us could find a way to leave the trench we’d each dug.

My OB/GYN finally helped bring it to a more manageable level when I splattered infertility and failed IVF and jealousy all over the table by gently telling me that yes, with me at 37 and my history, we did not have time to wait forever.  “But you’re not doing more fertility treatments and three months is most likely not going to change your ability – or not – to get pregnant,” she said.  “Give it three months, breathe, then revisit how you and Arthur feel about this.”

~*~

None of this, of course, was truly about trying again.  With the permission to take that off the table and breathe, I could see that this was (again) about coming to terms with our fertility issues and the other things we’d put largely on hold in the thick of it.

I’ve wondered, for a while now, why I seemed to be stuck in the anger stage of grief.  L wounded me a couple of years ago and I just…haven’t been able to let it go.  Even though at some level, I’ve felt ready to do so for a long time now.  I was angry at Arthur for deciding he was done when it came to family building.  I was angry when the beta came back negative.

Ah, but grief is a tricky, slippery thing.  Because it turns out, I’m more in the bargaining stage of things.  It just doesn’t look like the examples I’ve seen given about bargaining, where people say things like “take me instead of my (fill in the blank)” or offer money or power.

For me, it looks much more like the famous myth of Sisyphus, rolling the rock up the hill every day, having it come tantalizingly near the top, only to have it roll back down.

If I can untangle the relationship with L, I can overcome the grief at being rejected by her as a sibling and also (not coincidentally) somehow cosmically make right the grief and loss of my brother’s death.  I will refuse to let this point of connection go – even if it takes the form of a horrible resentment that is incredibly unhealthy – because I can prove that I am worthy of this connection.  G-d knows I’m working hard enough at it. 

Roll, roll, roll…and it all comes crashing back down.

If I can persuade Arthur to try again, that is somehow going to make up for the miscarriages, the infertility, the disappointments, the bitterness. 

Up the hill goes the rock.  Down, down, down it comes again.

That’s bargaining.  The certainty that if I can succeed at these Sisyphean tasks, if I can get that d*mn rock to just stay put at the top, it will all be okay.

It is bitterly untrue.  Because a relationship with L, even if I theoretically could magically restore it to being BFFs and true sisters and all that (unlikely even under the best circumstances, we’re just very different people and there’s simply too much between us at this point), would never take the place of my brother.  Because trying on our own for a third child and/or the very real gratitude for my wonderful living children does not erase the miscarriages, add years back to my life/fertility, or put around $50,000 (preferably with interest) in my bank account.  Theoretically trying to have another child does not insulate us from the potential for loss in the future either.

I’m about a million years behind the times, but I was recently reading a Dear Sugar column by writer Cheryl Strayed, written in response to a woman who had experienced a devastating stillbirth.  “Nobody can intervene and make that right and nobody will. Nobody can take it back with silence or push it away with words. Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away,” Strayed wrote.  Her words hit me straight in the heart.

Nothing and nobody can bring Eric back.  Nothing and nobody can change the myriad number of small and large losses that encompass infertility/miscarriage.

It’s really easy at this point to start talking about how lucky I am (true) or how much privilege I have (a lot, also true).  It’s really tempting to slip back into the comfortable place that is denial, put up a nice wall in front of the rocks that are still sitting at the bottom of the hill.  While acknowledging and examining privilege is absolutely a worthy pursuit and feeling true gratitude is a marvelous thing, denial is neither of those.  It’s pretending that because other things have gone right, the grief isn’t there for the stuff that hasn’t.  Also tempting is kicking the rock in fury because, well, the thing should stay put at the top.

Whether it’s fair or not, those rocks aren’t staying at the top.

Recognizing that, and not forever taking fruitless runs at pushing them up – and ignoring people who tell me that surely one more run will do it or to please hide these unsightly boulders – is the challenge now.

The Odyssey

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Last year, Arthur and I left our long-time church denomination after the worldwide conference voted to make a decision we simply could not abide by.  After we took a couple months off entirely and spent Sundays making waffles, reading, and just being generally lazy in the best possible way, we knew we wanted to work on finding a new church more in line with our values.  Eventually, we landed and started putting down roots.  There’s plenty that churches and denominations have generally in common, and while this is a new tradition to us in many ways, it’s also very familiar.  There are still occasional moments, though.

Listening to the organ play the intro to one of the communion hymns yesterday, both Arthur and I recognized it immediately.  It’s a particular favorite of mine, to the extent that it’s the music I walked down the aisle to when we got married, but as I looked down at the words, I realized they were definitely not the old, familiar ones I know by heart.  The closing hymn was the reverse: I knew all the words, but they were not set to the music I know.  Both of us laughed afterwards – so close, and yet so far!

Such it is right now in this period of transition generally.

I think one of things that is alternately frustrating and comforting is that after everything (waves hand generally at the last seven or eight years) the building blocks of who I am are still the same.  I’m still introverted, stubborn, bookish, prone to wrath, able to laugh most days at the absurdity of life.  The bedrock is there.  The circumstances have changed fairly vastly, the worldview expanded, perspective changed, but I’m still, well, me.  Also, in some big ways, not.  The familiar sitting in such close company with all the new is a little disconcerting.

Perhaps one of the things I expected after the everything was a personality transformation into something entirely different.  Something that overcame my weaknesses.  Something that transfigured my strengths.  Something motivational.  Something fabulous.  And, perhaps, an ending, a there, a destination.

Instead, as one of the characters says to the protagonist in the novel (This Tender Land  by William Kent Krueger) I’ve been reading and re-reading, “You believe you’ve been looking for home, Odie.  This is where your belief has brought you.  That doesn’t mean it’s the end of your journey.”

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or join in, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

“And”

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Content note: pregnancy, children, loss – none recent

This weekend, we tore up some of the scrotty grass that’s never grown well next to our patio in the back and put in hostas.  I pulled out the dead hydrangeas from the back bed and planted shade loving coral bells.  We went to visit college friends and as we sat, I had one of those moments that might be called transcendent or even holy, where for just a second, everything was right with the world and good.

The new life, both literal and figurative, was all around us.

I came home, checked my calendar, and realized that it’s not all that much longer until my saline infusion sonogram for this final transfer.  And before I knew it, this morning I was ugly crying, the one that isn’t a couple of crystal tears decorously sliding down the cheeks, but the red-faced, sobbing, snotty Kleenex filled kind.

That’s life, though, isn’t it?  At least after a certain point?  Where the most extraordinary exists among the prosaic of every day and the deepest, darkest muck that can be dragged up?

I am so incredibly, amazingly thankful for my girls.  And I am so terribly sad that I never got to meet the three that died and were miscarried early, long before they truly lived.

I honor the truly ordinary, uneventful pregnancy I got the immense privilege of experiencing.  And I grieve the long weeks of waiting, of fertility treatments and IVF, of hope mingled with sadness, of ultimately having three others over far too early.

I get the loveliness of watching my older daughter survive and now thrive.  And I mourn that she lost the last weeks in pregnancy that she should have had, that she went through so many painful procedures, that we were separated by plexiglass walls and nights apart at the beginning of her life.

I can’t even express how much gratitude I have to see the girls treasuring each other and also fighting – as siblings do.  And I can feel my heart breaking again and again and again that my sibling is gone, that a person I held as he came into the world left it long before me in such a terrible, senseless way.

I hold my dear ones close, their precious selves tangible and messy and wonderful and alive.  And I cry remembering the unnatural coldness of my brother’s still face, the benediction of viewing him in death, the slight smear of blood that transferred to my hand when I put it on his cheek.

I am fiercely glad for my marriage and the love my husband and I get to share every day.  And I mourn the things we have both broken over the years, some of which are still being repaired.

I am grateful for the chance to complete this final cycle, to close out this particular road, to know that no matter the outcome, I am truly fortunate and ready to live this good life I have.  And I am anxious, struggling with the months of waiting in the lead-up, dreading some painful procedures, and worried about the potential for more hurt.

For the last several months, I’ve been veering back and forth between the extremes, saying how I’m fine (true) and FINE – F*cked Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical * – (also true).   It doesn’t sum up neatly, the pros and cons on the paper don’t cancel each other out.  They’re all true, all a part of what poet Mary Oliver termed “your one wild and precious life”.

I am, without a doubt, in today’s parlance, a hot mess these days.

And…it’s an absolutely beautiful mess as well.

*credit to Louise Penny

This post is a part of Microblog Monday.  If you want to read more or add your own, please head over to Stirrup Queens’ blog.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

The Space

If you have ever spent time in a hospital, you will detect a rhythm.  Under all the bustling of the doctors, the nurses, the respiratory therapists, the entire infrastructure of acronyms that keep the thing running, there is a quality of silence, stopped time as people wait.  Even in the direst moments when everything is moving at full speed, there are pauses – waiting for lab results, specialists, OR rooms to become available, 30 seconds here, a breath there.

I didn’t really understand that rhythm until I became a patient myself, an object of all the bustling as opposed to performing it.  Sitting in the space, waiting, is hard, especially when you know that the result, the consult, the surgery, could change everything.  I often filled the spaces with books and blog posts and articles.  It’s strange how book or words can become a sort of friend in those places, buoying my spirits or just holding the space with me and affirming the mixed emotions in those moments.

Waiting was what I was doing in spring of 2014 after an unexpected result from my FET.  Pregnant but with far too many worrisome signs for confidence, Arthur and I had to decide whether or not to go ahead with a long-planned trip to attend a writer’s festival at our alma mater.  Several authors I admired were on the schedule to speak, we’d shelled out the money for tickets, hotel, and time off.  My RE gave his blessing to go ahead since we’d only be a few hours away and I knew where to go if the symptoms became more concerning.  So we went, hoping for a distraction from the seemingly interminable wait.

It was definitely the right decision, as hard as it was to make at the time.  I listened to lectures by James McBride, Ann Lamott, and so many others.  I went to the English department reception where I smiled, listened, reconnected with people, and shared stories.  All while simultaneously gritting my teeth as I’d feel the blood seeping out and the panic rising, then be blessedly inspired and challenged by new words, new books to read.

That’s how I wound up in a session with an author named Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a blog (and books) on faith, Christianity, and wrestling with (and eventually leaving) evangelicalism – a process both Arthur and I were going through, though in different stages -as well as a heartfelt and surprisingly funny second book on the meaning of “biblical” womanhood.  Arthur and I had read the book and had some good discussions.  After the session, there was a meet and greet and I told her how much I had enjoyed the book and admired her openness writing about faith, life, and menstruation.  I came closer than I want to admit to bursting into tears and confessing that I was really excited to be here but also probably going through a miscarriage and that I was really grateful for some of her writing, that the presence of her and these other authors had made this waiting just a little better.  Thankfully, my sense of manners and decorum kicked in to save me from serious awkwardness and oversharing, but I also suspect she would have been very kind.  The moment ended, we moved on.

One of her books kept me company a year or so later in the NICU as I waited beside my daughter’s incubator.  Arthur and I read it aloud as we put our tiny baby on our chests, sleep deprived, and needing healing words.  Her words kept me company in the empty space when my brother died.  Her words again encouraged us when we walked away recently from the denomination that married us and baptized both our children and were there for us during infertility and the NICU after a decision made at the denominational level to further exclude our LGBTQIA+ brothers, sisters, and non-binary in faith that Arthur and I found cruel and wrong.

Rachel Held Evans died on Saturday, May 4 after a sudden illness that led to complications at the age of 37.  It is for the people who actually knew her in her real life to mourn her in that intimate, deep way that comes with relationship and they are the ones that are truly bereft in this moment.  My heart aches for them as they move forward without her daily presence and grieve her great loss.

As simply a reader of her books and not someone who knew her personally, I’m just grateful for her words and quite sad that the lovely and luminous person behind them is gone from this world.  Those words held my hands and abided with me in some awful spaces.  They are and were a source of presence and balm.

While the many articles and obituaries have quoted Rachel’s final blog post on Ash Wednesday that is unexpectedly apt and poignant in the wake of her passing, the words from her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again are ones I remember now and as a fellow reader they resonate deeply: “I know I can’t read my way out of this dilemma, but that won’t keep me from trying.”

#BecauseofRHE

Coffee-Mug Philosophy

In my offline life, I’m in the process of some new stuff at my job that changes my workflow and sort of upends my established routines there.  It’s fine, positive even, and it’s something expected/planned but it’s amazing how much energy goes into change and re-configuring my habits.

The other day, these words fell out of my mouth: “It will be fine!  All this upheaval and hard stuff is going to make us stronger, right?”

Ironic, because I really hate that particular cliché.

~*~

I heard it quite a bit throughout the infertility journey: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  I heard it when Arthur went through job losses.  I heard it in NICU.  I’m grateful no one said it too me after my brother died because suicide pretty much flies in the face of that kind of gritty positivity.  But that statement has hovered in the background of most of the big, tough moments of my life.

I think – as with most “sound bite” or “meme-ready” sorts of statements – the reality is much more complex.  I also think sometimes it’s employed as a quick conversation ender or a way to escape big feelings.

There are hard experiences that I feel have made me stronger, mostly those that are designed to break down before building up.  Nursing school sucked.  It was terribly long hours often (getting up at 4:15 am to drive two hours to a clinical site, being there for 8-10 hours, then going home), the studying was a full-time job, and I have never forgotten my first semester lab where everyone cried at least once except for the two students who had been in the military.  It was also truly worth it and the toughness was incredibly important when I got into real world and took my first assignment on a general medical-surgical/telemetry floor.

Some of the job losses for Arthur fall into this category as well.  It was sort of a surprise to me that after Arthur’s first job loss, the sky didn’t fall and we figured things out.  We were really privileged in many ways, but the experience helped me better hone savings plans and recognize that while it was 100% not optimal, it was survivable.

But as far as some of the infertility experiences go?  Being told there was no heartbeat?  Sitting in a hospital bed being told that I was ruptured and going to lose our very wanted baby?  Waiting in NICU for test results to come back to see if E had NEC?  Losing my brother?  No.

That sh*t broke me to the very core.

I mean, there’s a way in which all these experiences have given me a lot of perspective.  Going through all that reminds me on the days where all the little ridiculous stuff is piling up and it’s frustrating that I’ve survived so much worse.  That I will make it through that day.  I’m much better now at differentiating my small life stuff from what constitutes my bigger life stuff and reacting accordingly.  It’s also made me more able to take some forms of tension or frustration in stride, because, well, I can manage.  In that sense, the adage is correct.  Perspective is valuable in life, absolutely.

What the saying doesn’t reflect, however, is that there are some really ugly broken, jagged edges that are still in the process of being smoothed.  It doesn’t reflect the big ways in which these events changed the course, not always for the better.

I started out in elder care as a nursing assistant when I was 19 years old.  I loved it.  I always envisioned myself as a hospice nurse eventually.  I did some clinical time with hospice and felt confirmed in that calling.  Even when I started in the “real world”, I took assignments that would give me experience.

Then infertility hit and I was just so sad.  Conflicted.  Too many emotions running rampant to step back and be in a high-emotion field like hospice.  I put the dream on hold, mentally, and moved forward with a different path hoping to eventually move back that direction.  Then all the losses happened, NICU happened, and my brother died.

Now, I work in an area where I come in contact with the “hard stuff”, but in far more limited doses than a field like hospice.  It’s a good balance, I’m good at it, and I’m happy.

But I still mourn, a bit, that I had to admit that infertility, miscarriage, prematurity, and suicide loss limited me.  Maybe someday, but it will be years and a lot of therapy if hospice is ever back in my path.  I won’t do it unless I know my stuff is fully handled and integrated.

Empathy is another sort of mixed bag in life after everything.  On the one hand, I know these experiences have made me more empathetic in many ways.  I definitely can identify with people’s struggles and have a better ability to be present in those moments.

But it’s also made it far easier – especially when I’m tired, stressed, overwhelmed, or overstimulated – to fall into a pain Olympics sort of mentality or get really jealous.  I don’t think this is true for everyone by any means, but it’s definitely an issue for me.  I’m ashamed to admit that even while I was very happy for my BIL and SIL when they got pregnant, I was positively green with envy that they had gotten pregnant with twins on their first fertility treatment.  It threw me back mentally into every f*cking failed cycle and miscarrying twins on that first hopeful IVF.  I was happy for them but absolutely overwhelmed also at how sad and angry I was for my own losses.  This resolved with time and things are fine in that set of relationships at this point, but it’s not a great quality and one I’m on close guard against.

All the grief has also exposed the fault lines in some relationships and the Awful Things People Say.  After my brother died, it’s been a revelation how much stigma suicide really carries and also how uncomfortable some people are with grief and strong emotions.  Those secondary losses were really unexpected and the reshuffling of boundaries has been painful.

The fall-out also shows up with everything related to pregnancy or conception.  I’m afraid to embrace the idea of this final embryo transfer – even when I know, no matter how things fall out, I will be okay – because the whole thing activates all the panic responses and pushes me back to thinking on all the other memories.  When I was pregnant with M, my OB wound up allowing me to have appointments weekly through the first trimester, until both the risk of pregnancy loss had gone down and I could pick up the heartbeat on my home fetal doppler.  I was having panic attacks I couldn’t get under control, despite knowing I would manage no matter what the outcome.  It was awful and I’m really grateful that my OB was so kind.

And perhaps that’s one other little silver lining to the tough stuff: I’ve had the opportunity to see people step up to the plate as well.  People who have gone above and beyond and helped so much.  It gives me faith in humanity, in the idea that there is goodness out there.  It helps me better identify where I can be that goodness for others.

All this to say: it’s a mixed bag.  What doesn’t kill me has made me stronger and weaker…and panic attacks…and exposed my limitations along with my less than awesome qualities…and brought out some of my good ones.  But I guess that doesn’t fit as nicely on a coffee mug.

Meditations on Moving

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One of the few authors I’ll spring for straight up (instead of waiting at the library or until I find it on sale) is Louise Penny.  I’ve written a few (okay, okay, probably more than a few) times about how much I love Penny’s mystery novels here.  She’s one of the authors writing today that I really want to meet, though I’ll admit that I’m a little terrified that if I did, in fact, meet her, I’d just fan-girl all over the place and embarrass myself.

In any case, Penny’s latest, Kingdom of the Blind came out last week and I’ve spent the last few days reading.  Yet again, I’m struck by Penny’s ability to get to the heart of life, living, and human emotions.  One of my favorite parts of the books are the author’s note at the end, where Penny writes so evocatively about her own life and struggles.  For a number of years, Penny’s husband Michael suffered from dementia and died in 2016.  Penny has also been open about being a recovering alcoholic and the incredible loneliness, anger, and sadness she felt for so long as well as many wonderful things she values in her life now.

“A funny thing happened on my way to not writing this book,” Penny notes, “I started writing.”

“How could I go on when half of me was missing?  I could barely get out of bed.” She continues.  “But then, a few months later, I found myself sitting at the long pine dining table where I always wrote.  Laptop open.”

I relate to that in such a big way.  While I’ve never lost a spouse, I have lost loved ones, as well as other, less tangible bits and pieces along the way.

It’s hard, losing, whatever that loss comprises.  Especially at this time of the year, when everything seems suffused with traditions and the place at the table seems all the more empty than usual.  When it’s impossible not to remember and the commercials and pictures and expectations are designed to evoke emotions that often I’d rather leave in the background or unexamined.

Sometimes living, moving, feels a bit like a betrayal.  With an ache that has the sharpness of a gunshot echoing from 2015 and holes that rend the threads to keep weaving it all together, it feels impossible to tie the knots and work to keep creating.  To set the empty place and also hold the feast.

That’s been a struggle for me lately, even though my grief isn’t new.  I’ve reached that sort of half-mourning stage, where the sadness doesn’t seep into every moment or corner, but comes out at both expected and unexpected times with a startling strength.

I’m grateful to Penny for not denying the darkness, but also for the joy she takes in how moving forward encompasses her loss: “Far from leaving Michael behind, he became even more infused in the books.  All the things we had together came together in Three Pines.  Love, companionship, friendship.  His integrity.  His courage.  Laughter.”

In so many ways, that’s what I’m seeking.  Not to leave behind, but to hold the love and live.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, please head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Bangs Head On Desk

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(TW for pregnancy discussion – not mine)

A couple of my guilty pleasures include celebrity gossip and the British Royal Family (I actually took my pen name here from one of Henry VIII’s wives).  Needless to say, I’ve spent some time reading about Eugenie’s wedding (loved the tiara) over the last few days, and of course, the in-the-news-constantly right now Meghan Markle.

Until this morning, when I saw the headline.

Yup.  She’s pregnant.

OF COURSE.

It’s weird how trauma stuff comes out.  Most of the time, I’m fairly at peace with the infertility, IVF, miscarriage and such.  I just don’t react as strongly as when I was in the trenches.

Pregnancy is my kryptonite, though.  Pregnancy announcements still feel like being socked in the gut.  I generally don’t look at maternity photos.  Ultrasound scan photos actually can get me closer than I’d like to panic attacks (for a very long time, I got a lot of bad news in ultrasound rooms).  Seeing pregnant bellies still fills me with a sort of wistful, slightly jealous longing.  I don’t go to baby showers.  I don’t do pregnancy/labor/delivery stories because, let’s face it, no one wants to hear about infertility/miscarriage/severe pregnancy complications/premature birth.

It’s strange because I can hold newborns or look at baby/kid pictures without any issues the vast majority of the time.  I’m okay once the child is born.  But pregnancy stuff, for some reason, gets to me in a major way.

It’s weird coincidental timing, though, since today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day (in the US).

So I read about pregnancy.

And light the candles in memory of the ones I lost.

This post is part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.