Good Bread

One of my absolute favorite things in life is excellent bread.  I have a particular affinity for the chewy, crusty, open-structured artisan loaves that have proliferated in recent years – to the point where they’re easily available in most grocery stores.  Over the last few years, I often asked Arthur to grab one on his lunch to bring home for dinner that night.

Obviously, the pandemic changed that.

I’ve been baking since I was small, but artisan loaves have always eluded me.  Commercial bakeries have steam-injected ovens that help immensely with the crust texture and while I’ve tried most of the suggestions for home bakers (ice cubes to the bottom of the oven, small pan of water, throwing water onto a hot baking sheet underneath the bread), I’ve never gotten the combination of chewy/crunchy that comes so easily from the grocery store.

Since dropping by the grocery store isn’t the usual quick stop now and when I’ve tried to order artisan loaves the store hasn’t had any, I decided to tackle the project.  Armed with baker’s tools amassed over nearly fifteen years of adult life and cooking and fortifying myself with some of the bread episodes from The Great British Baking Show, I pulled out the flour, yeast, salt, and water that was supposed to turn into excellence.

I started with French baguettes following this recipe.  While my rise times were slightly longer than the recipe indicated, a cast-iron skillet preheated in the oven with boiling water poured over to create the steam was a revelation.  I don’t know how, exactly, it’s different than the other methods of making steam, but it worked better than anything I’ve tried before.  I suspect it has something to do with the way the skillet holds and diffuses the heat in the oven.  Leaving the baguettes in the cooling oven with the door cracked a couple of inches also helped the crust texture – much better than putting them on a rack on the counter.  I cut the number of loaves to two (I like a slightly thicker loaf) and while it’s not quite commercial bakery perfection, it’s also pretty darned good.

Ciabatta for sandwiches came yesterday (recipe here).  With my trusty stand mixer to knead the incredibly wet dough and a baking stone, I was amazed at how easy this particular bread turned out.  It also was every bit as good as anything I buy in the store, making me wonder why I’ve been paying $2.50 – $3.50 a loaf for years.  The crust was perfect, the open texture fully present.

The irony, of course, is now I have no dinner parties to plan, no people to host, and no small groups for places like church to throw open the doors.  Bread feels like it should be baked for people.

There’s a lot of clashing think-pieces generated by the pandemic and quarantine: chance to learn a new skill!  Collective trauma!  Optimize your life!  It’s okay to not be productive!  We can figure this out!  We’re all sitting in the corner with no attention span!  Learning to bake these loaves seems to fall under all of the above for me.  It feels like the kind of thing that I could post to social media as proof that I am doing great under quarantine, but that belies the quiet desperation and anxiety that’s somewhat soothed by shaping dough, the crash that comes after the picture of the pretty loaves: what’s next?

I don’t know.  Nobody knows.

It reminds me a bit of when I was pregnant with the pregnancy that turned out to be ectopic, that rollercoaster of hope dashing into unpleasant realities.  Desperately clinging to any good sign, cognizant of the many bad ones, hoping for the best, all with an underlying suspicion that this is not going to turn out well.  One of the qualities of trauma that the TV shows tend to elide is the long stretches of waiting and boredom and worry.  The bad news is preceded by hours, days, weeks of build-up.  It’s sitting with a book in my hands, unable to focus more than a few minutes, counting the time before the next lab result, the next ultrasound, when the doctor arrives, the phone call (then) or the next news report, the next zoom gathering, the next phone call (now).  Trying to find ways to fill the time.  It could be better.  It could be worse.

I miss people.  It’s a weird thing for an introvert to admit.  I miss running into acquaintances at the zoo or the grocery and chatting, small talk that I usually feel awkward making and used to dread a bit but now feels like a lifeline.  I miss my parents visiting, miss hosting two of my SILs for dinner periodically, miss visiting with BIL/SIL and niece and nephew, having my MIL and FIL come over.  I miss choir and church and the collective responses: Peace be with you!  And also with you.  And also with you.  And also with you.  The absolution, the communion, and then the other communion of doughnuts and institutional coffee and talk.

Perfecting recipes feels like faith.  Faith that someday there will be dinner parties and small groups and people to bake for again.

At least there’s good bread to eat while I wait.

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The ciabatta loaves.

A Slow Burn

One of my more visceral memories from childhood comes from when I had chickenpox.  Age-wise, I’m among the oldest Millenials and I got it before the vaccine was widely given.  Mostly, what I remember is the incredible itching.  I had gotten a full-blown case, spots everywhere with fever, but no major complications.  “Don’t scratch,” my dad told me.

“But it ITCHES!” I wailed.

“You don’t want to get infections and scars, especially on your face.”

“I DON’T CARE IF I GET SCARS!”

“You will when you’re 16.”

As I grew up, though, I read more about diseases like polio (author Peg Kehret’s Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio is a well-written, YA-level account) and mumps and measles.  I shivered at the horrific accounts of the Spanish Flu and did high school reports on the Black Plague.  I was glad that I never had to experience them, and even as my belief that medical science could conquer almost anything faded quickly, I felt fairly secure.  I rejoiced when the girls got their chickenpox vaccines, that they wouldn’t have to know even a week’s itchy misery, let alone the more serious complications.

~*~

After E got home from the NICU, we were under quarantine for a year.  I was allowed to take her to medical appointments and occasional shopping expeditions (where I kept her covered in her car seat and sanitized virtually everything we touched).  Arthur went to work and did everything he could to stay away from illness, as did I.  I had an elaborate routine post-shift of changing at work, washing any exposed skin from my shift, my scrubs sealed in bags and washed separately with the washer bleached afterwards.  E and I didn’t go to church, and after his second job ended in the early fall (before cold/flu season), Arthur didn’t either.  We didn’t go to gatherings (with the exception of my brother’s memorial service, where the worry E would catch something added to the general awfulness of the situation).  I used to take E for walks in the fresh air when it was nice, social-distancing ourselves by at least 3 feet from other people before the term entered the lexicon.  We had hand sanitizer stationed all around the house and my hands were often dry and cracked from washing.

All this to say, these precautions aren’t totally new to me.  The fear isn’t new.  The isolation isn’t new.

It’s a deep breath and the slow burn of anxiety as we wait in ways I never thought we’d have to do again.

~*~

In my house, we are all low-risk as possible for the serious complications and doing everything we can to be responsible citizens to prevent the virus spreading/complying with social distancing.  I know the virus can be severe in younger people as well and we are not by any means taking that potential lightly.  Strangely, I’m less anxious about working in health care than I would have thought – but, then, I’ve known since long before going to nursing school that communicable diseases were a risk I had to assume if I chose this field.  Obviously will be following all guidance closely and extremely careful complying with all personal protective equipment/isolation requirements (as always).

I am definitely worried about my parents, friends, my last surviving grandparent, all the elderly/immunocompromised and what happens next.  Reading about Italy’s current situation is almost overwhelming in its awfulness and the decisions that I suspect we will shortly face in many other places.

I know that experts have long modeled and predicted pandemic scenarios, but in day-to-day life, it’s felt easy to rest secure.  There are so many things to worry about just in a normal course of existence.  This one really didn’t make the cut in my head.

Yet here we are.  I gave blood on Monday – one tangible thing I could do as someone who’s eligible, currently healthy, and has a blood type in high demand.  Now we take the precautions recommended by the experts, comply with public health recommendations, check in with people by internet/phone, and wait.

Waiting, as I think we all have experienced in various ways, is far tougher than most people give it credit.

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.

Nope

The beta was negative.

It’s one of those sort of, well, moments, if you know what I mean – it’s by no means the end of the world or even up there among the cruelest moments infertility has dealt to me over the years, but it also just plain sucks.  Maybe because it’s such a reminder of the real cruelty of infertility, the part where you get your hopes up over and over and over again, only to have them dashed into the reality of a cancelled cycle or your period or blood at the wrong time or a negative beta or the scan that shows that the embryo is in the wrong place, doesn’t have a heartbeat, or is an empty sac.  It’s not so much the individual cr*ppy moment, it’s the compendium of varying degrees of cr*ppy, exhausting, or outright tragic days that make up a torturous drip that wears, bit by bit.

It’s also, a little, the pervasive sense of being a sucker who somehow allowed myself to go back to the glittery high-stakes roulette table that is fertility treatments and roll like I was going to win.  I know what those odds look like, and yet, somehow, allowed myself to get my hopes up.  Adding a bit of insult to injury, the RE that has – in the past – been fairly compassionate couldn’t be bothered to call with the beta results.  The nurse told me he wanted to “make sure I got the results earlier” (reality – it took around 7.5 hours from my blood draw to get the call and I had told them that I already knew it was negative as I’d taken a home pregnancy test beforehand) had a “full schedule” and would be “happy to offer us a post-cycle consult” but he knows that this was the end for us.  There’s no reason to go to the hassle of having my husband take off work and putting the kids in daycare.  We talked about it extensively at the pre-cycle consult. It stings that in the end, I didn’t merit even a five-minute phone call with tough news.

It’s the reminder that infertility still has a sting in its tail, long past the point I thought it could really wound me this deeply.

I don’t know what happens now.  We’re done with IVF and fertility treatments.  We don’t know whether or not to see if something breaks loose without medical assistance.  Or if that ship has just…sailed.  We’re lucky and exhausted and sad and grateful and angry all at the same time right now.  I guess mostly we now just sit with all the myriad emotions and live.

Allergic to IVF

In all the scenarios I ran in my mind over the years relating to my infertility misadventures, I can honestly say I never pictured one in which I added an Epi-pen to the running tab of my various fertility medications and procedures.

~*~

The whole thing started Tuesday afternoon.  I was sitting on the couch reading and reached up to scratch an itchy spot at the back of my head.  I found a small, raised lump, much like an insect bite, rolled my eyes (mosquitos in October?  In the house?  What else could have bitten me?) and thought not much more of it – until about 30 minutes later when I found another, and then another.

A bit alarmed now, I wondered what kind of insect problem we might have with this many bites.  My ear had started to itch as well, but then a couple of things distracted me: it was dinner, and Arthur called with bad news.  Staff at the home where his 101-year-old grandmother lives found her unresponsive and sent her to the hospital where imaging revealed a large brain tumor and a brain bleed.  The only thing to do was send her back to her apartment with hospice, which was arranged.  Arthur needed to make the 2-hour drive to say good-byes, so he came home, gave me my progesterone-in-oil (PIO) shot, and headed out.  The next several hours were a blur of making dinner, refereeing various fights between the girls, and getting kids ready for bed.

I didn’t really think much more of the mysterious itching – which was getting worse – until I sat down around 8pm to scroll through Net.flix and relax.  I quickly discovered itchy, red bumps on my arms, my torso, and suddenly, my right eye felt as though it wasn’t opening quite fully.  I hurried to the mirror.  My face had small, red blotches everywhere and my eye did look mildly swollen.  Oh, I’m having some sort of allergic reaction.  I watched a show, took some bena.dryl, rinsed myself in the shower with cool water and swapped out my towel/sheets/pjs for ones I knew had been washed in unscented detergent, and went to bed.  Woke up briefly when Arthur got home late, but thanks to the meds, largely slept through until morning.

The next morning, my eyes felt stiff and hard to open.  Hives ran red over my torso.  My scalp – covered in what I now knew were hives – felt like it was on fire.  My ears were swollen and itched.  Arthur – home because of his grandmother’s situation – stared in horror.  I put in a call to the RE’s office as soon as they opened and talked to the nurse, who promised to get hold of Dr. E and call me back.  At that moment, all I could think was am I allergic to the prednisone?  I’d taken all the other meds in other cycles and never had a reaction.  I’d even opted for the PIO in ethyl oleate rather than the PIO in sesame oil since sesame oil has a higher chance of allergic reactions.

My eyes grew more swollen.  I watched in horrified fascination as I could actually see the red progressing in places on my abdomen.  More ominously, two hives had formed near my bottom lip and were spreading quickly.

About an hour and a half later with no return call yet, I called the office back and explained that I was going to the ER.  My mouth had started to tingle and itch on the inside.  I was breathing okay, still able to swallow, but with the hives now up to my bottom lip and this new symptom, I knew it was time for the ER as quickly as possible.  I tossed down a bena.dryl to hopefully buy me a little extra time and threw on my shoes.  As I was walking out the door, the nurse called and said Dr. E suspected that it was the PIO that I was reacting to, he’d call in a steroid dose pack, and that they were calling the local compounding pharmacy to switch me to a vaginal progesterone.

I arrived at the ER, was promptly ushered back to a room, and the nurse practitioner (NP) was checking in within minutes.  I explained the situation.  The NP said he’d call Dr. E to confer, but he planned on a large dose of IV steroids, more bena.dryl, a prophylactic albuterol breathing treatment and an epinephrine shot.  Dr. E agreed and the ER nurse came in, started my IV, hooked me up to a heart monitor (epinephrine can cause tachycardia, so I needed monitoring for a minimum of an hour after the shot) and gave all the meds.  It was the weirdest sensation.  The bena.dryl made me sleepy, but the albuterol and epi both made me feel like I’d drunk 12 cups of coffee jittery.  Somehow these were not mutually exclusive and happening simultaneously.

After a bit, the NP let me go with prescriptions for a steroid dose pack and an epi pen.  As the NP put it, the PIO was going to be in my system longer than the meds they’d given to combat the reaction, so while he was okay releasing me, he wanted to make sure I had access to epinephrine in an emergency.  He gave strict instructions to come back to the ER if I started reacting severely again or had to use the epi pen.  I was just glad to get released.

We went back out to see Arthur’s grandmother – it’s only a matter of time at this point – and be with the family after we’d picked up prescriptions.  I figured I could be puffy and feel cruddy in the car as well as on the couch at home, and Arthur’s grandmother is just an amazing person who I also wanted to get this last chance to see.  That turned out to be a good decision.

This morning, my eyes are still puffy and the hives are still a mild pink, but it’s infinitely better.  It’s a little hard not to feel a teeny bit bitter (because I don’t think this cycle worked, though it’s too early to get a definitive result, sigh) but I’m also a bit grateful this is happening at the end of my fertility treatments.  If it had happened on the first cycle out, it would have been incredibly difficult to work around for subsequent cycles.  As it is, it’s a very good thing we aren’t doing more treatments.

Because apparently, I’m officially allergic.