Step, Step

We take everything one day at a time these days.  I’ve heard that as advice a lot over the years (and mostly ignored it), but now it’s all but impossible to do anything else.  It’s strange to see our normally bustling calendar stripped bare of notations, just the date in each square. We’ve been listening to the Frozen 2 soundtrack in our house and one of the songs, titled “The Next Right Thing” has a resonance it’s impossible to miss right now:

Take a step, step again

It is all that I can do

The next right thing.

In a moment I’ve been dreading since the news broke about the Life Care home in Seattle back in February and I more fully began to understand what we were dealing with, my grandfather passed away last week, Covid-19 the most likely cause of death.  The staff at his nursing home took great care of him and for him and I am grateful for them and their good work.  We grieve our private loss, but I know we are also grieving in a community that extends from Italy to Spain to China, across the United States, around the entire world as the virus grimly marches forward.  Friends have lost family members or had relatives seriously ill.  Others are laid off or furloughed and worried.  Still others are parted from living loved ones that they desperately miss.  So many unique losses for so many people, so much collective sadness.  I haven’t decorated the plain wreath I hung on our door at the start of Lent or put up flowers to replace the bare branches in my vases.  No matter what the church calendar may say, the light has not burst forth yet in this season.

And with the dawn, what comes then?

When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again…

Yesterday morning, when Arthur got ready to leave for work, the car refused to start.  This was not a total surprise as we knew the battery’s getting old and we’re trying not to do too much with it since we know we’re going to most likely be buying a new vehicle in the fall.  With no time to try to jump it right then, we hustled everyone into the other car and I drove Arthur to work.

It was the most novel, lovely thing, just going out and driving an essential 30-minute round-trip.

The route to Arthur’s work is fairly scenic, which helps.  There was a heron wading in the marsh and the sun shining across the waters.  After weeks of not leaving the house for days at a time other than work and picking up groceries every once in a while, though, it was such a strange, pleasant feeling to drive further than my extremely short commute.

It’s funny how these little events that I barely would have noticed in The Time Before are taking on such significance now.  Sitting on the porch swing as the weather gets nicer has become a welcome break from indoors.  Having a conversation with a neighbor across the yard and safely socially-distant is wonderful.  We watch the birds at our feeders, mostly goldfinches now.  There are also some events that never would have happened in The Time Before: we got to watch our local Air Force wing take the fighter planes for a flyover to salute the hospitals and all the healthcare workers.

We are – like so many others – okay and also not okay.

We stay home.  Go to essential jobs.  So far, all healthy.  Wait.

But break it down to this next breath

This next step

This next choice is one that I can make…

The next right thing.

 

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.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

After the FET didn’t take, Arthur and I had the usual picking up of the pieces and trying to reformulate them into something that resembles a whole.  As always, this involves a fair number of discussions.  Most of the time, even when we’ve disagreed on specifics or details, we’ve generally come to a compromise that both of us are reasonably okay with going forward.  If we’re not on the same page, we’re usually in the same book, as it were.

This time, it turned out, we were decidedly in different books.

We both were in wholehearted agreement that we’re done with ART, but beyond that was where things broke down quickly.  I was on team “let’s see where the chips fall for at least a few months and then move on if nothing happens”.  Arthur surprised me by declaring that he was on team “Done.”

Well, there’s really no compromise possible on something like that – either we’re open to the possibility of another child or we’re not.  The odds would not be in our favor on conceiving and/or carrying to live birth at this point, but it’s possible.

After a several skirmishes leading to outright arguments, the short story is the only realistic conclusion for us has been reached: we’re done.

~*~

I’m not going to pretend that I’m at peace with the whole thing or deny that a part of me is still harboring a small hope that Arthur might change his mind in the next month or so, but I also can’t say I don’t see Arthur’s point in this whole mess.  It’s been a long 7+ years and honestly, we’re both exhausted, physically and emotionally.  ART demands an amazing amount of energy.  Beyond that, I’ve been doing what amounts to a rotating shift for 4+ years now which messes up my sleep cycle (2 consecutive night shifts at work, then up during the day the rest of the week) and while 37 is by no means old, it’s also not the same as being in my 20s.  Arthur and I are often like ships passing in the night since he works a more traditional 5-day a week 8-5 job.  E goes to kindergarten in the fall of 2020, heralding a new phase in life.  M will probably start another day in preschool at that point.

Some of it, though, I think, is the narrative of “try harder” still echoes in my head.  Part of me feels like I’m giving up.  Like if I just kept pushing, trying, hoping, I could somehow still the voice that tells me that it’s possible and I have to do just this one more thing.  It’s the d*mn shadow that I’ve battled throughout the whole process – the one that urges scorched earth tactics, that says that until everything is completely destroyed, it’s not enough.

It’s a liar.

I know that.  I know that.  I’ve spilled volumes of word processor “ink” on this myth myself and read plenty of other essays/blog posts/books that urge the setting of boundaries and the importance of maintaining mental, physical, and relationship health.  It would have been enough no matter how the whole thing ended or at what point we stopped.

And yet, it’s surprisingly hard to push back from the table and say “no longer”.

~*~

I can’t change the facts, but I have been working on re-framing the story I tell myself.

In the last few weeks, the story in my head has gone something like this: I could try harder.  We could achieve this, even in spite of my history.  We could overcome the hardships of possible miscarriage, a geriatric pregnancy, and a failed FET cycle if I was tough enough to keep going.

Instead, I’m trying this on for size: Infertility sucks.  We fought incredibly hard to the absolute best of our ability.  We are beyond fortunate in so many ways.  Setting boundaries and respecting limits are good things.  Time to heal the wounds and move forward enjoying life.

I’ve written about this before, but I keep coming back to author Bill Bryson’s ending to A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  Near the end, Bryson has a conversation with his companion Katz.  Bryson is a bit disappointed that they didn’t make it as far hiking as he envisioned.  Katz, on the other hand, has an entirely different perspective:

‘“Anyway, we did it,” Katz said at last, looking up. He noted my quizzical expression.
“Hiked Maine, I mean.”
I looked at him. “Stephen, we didn’t even see Mount Katahdin.”
He dismissed this as a petty quibble. “Another mountain,” he said. “How many do you need to see, Bryson?”
I snorted a small laugh. “Well, that’s one way of looking at it.”
“It’s the only way of looking at it,” Katz went on and quite earnestly. “As far as I’m concerned, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I hiked it in snow and I hiked it in heat. I hiked it in the South and I hiked in the North. I hiked it till my feet bled. I hiked the Appalachian Trail, Bryson.”
“We missed out a lot of it, you know.”
“Details,” Katz sniffed.’

 

We hiked the darned trail through infertility.  We hiked it through snow and heat (especially not fun when a cycle demanded being at the RE’s office, then an hour away over icy roads).  We hiked it through cancelled cycles and miscarriages and negative pregnancy tests.  We hiked it through bills and insurance fights.  We hiked it through joy and devastation.  We hiked it through an allergic reaction and Lupron and injection after injection.  We hiked it through ER visits and SCHs and c-sections and a long hospital stay and NICU.  We were enough all along, both seven years ago and now, no matter how this thing ended.

That’s the story I’m going to work to keep telling.

 

Baking

Flour.  Salt.  Yeast.  Water.

I found myself pulling out the big stoneware bowl today.  Measuring, stirring, watching as all of it blends into crumbs and then into something more cohesive.  Turning the dough onto the counter, sprinkling it with dusting more of flour, starting to work it, pressing my fingers deep into the sticky lump.

Knead.  Fold.  Turn.  Repeat.

It’s a sort of miracle how the dough stretches and becomes elastic, fragrant with the yeast and the rosemary I added for flavor.  Kneading is a soothing rhythm, something I’ve done since childhood when I first learned the secrets of baking.

I suspect there’s a reason so many cultural and religious traditions center around food.

My father-in-law called yesterday to let us know that Arthur’s grandmother passed away.  We saw her at the beginning of October.  Even at 101, she was steady, sharp, and engaged.  It was a gorgeous day, we all went for a walk around the swan pond, she gave the kids ice cream, candy, and cookies, and we had a lovely visit.  The day before, I’d had my start-cycle appointment.  The day was bright with literal sunshine and a lot of hope.

One of the things I’ve grown to detest about the early stages of grief is the howling numbness, the void where something once belonged.  The holes, as it gets further away, don’t disappear, but there’s something around them, substance that grows into something steadier.

I can’t do anything particularly practical other than basic adulting right now, because it’s not mine to do, it’s already done, I’m physically exhausted, or I just don’t want to today.  We wait for word on the funeral arrangements.  I think about the pile of baby stuff in the basement.

So, I’m baking bread.  Because it’s what I can do.

I anoint the dough with oil.  Throw it back in the bowl, cover it, put it in a warm spot.

Rest.

Rise.

‘Bittersweet’ Isn’t Quite The Right Word, But It’s The Closest Thing I’ve Got

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We had a marvelous trip for a family wedding recently to New Mexico.  The whole thing went remarkably smoothly, the airline staff was lovely, and seeing all my aunts/uncles/cousins was a great deal of fun.

One of my cousins has a strange sort of resemblance to my brother.  I say “strange” because my cousin and my brother have/had completely different coloring (one’s a blue-eyed strawberry blonde, the other dark hair/eyes) and completely different heights.  However, there’s something, because I’m not the first to notice it.  My grandmother used to mix them up at times and multiple family members have remarked on the resemblance over the years.

At the reception, my cousin was dancing with my younger daughter, who was just loving it.  Watching him swing her around as she giggled loudly and yelled “more” was incredibly precious and absolutely wonderful.  He’s really good with kids as well as a lovely person and it was fantastic – I’m truly glad to have him (as well as my other cousins) in the family.  As the oldest by a decent margin, it’s great fun to watch as they grow, find careers, get married, and embark on their adult lives.

I also had this incredible stab of sadness.  Just for a split second, my brain played a trick and saw my brother there.  The memories that I usually keep firmly stowed came flying out so fast that I had to look away for a second, take that deep breath.

I know I’m not the only one with these moments – the ones that are so very wonderful that you’d never give them up, that you’re so grateful to have, but that also pierce you right to the core because they’re such powerful reminders of what you’ve lost.

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