I’ve always loved the sound of the words Fertile Delta. The liquidic sound of the vowels coupled with the l, the hard D of delta, Greek for change, speaks to the power of a seasonal, shape-shifting body. Fertile Crescent makes another lovely pair. Crescent, so soothing, this half-moon, this womanly way to describe the cradle of civilization. Fertile, crescent, cradle, delta.
The opposite of these words: barren.
* * *
When you give birth, you do it with others. When you miscarry, you do it alone. Even if doctors and nurses are present, numbing you, holding your hand, giving gentle instructions, they’re not with you, because what’s happening is both too awful, and too common, to be shared. Nobody wants co-ownership of the failed human. Many don’t even consider it human.
Even if your father is driving you to the hospital in his buttery yellow Lincoln, or even if your mother is riding in the ambulance with you, or even if you husband and sister are outside the procedure room waiting, you’re still alone. There was a person/being/cluster of cells that was alive inside you, and now it’s not. Times three. It happened when I was 31, 33, and 38.
And then I entered my childbearing years at 41, also affectionately know as geriatric pregnancies. I had two all-natural, old-fashioned conceptions; two all-natural, epidural-free deliveries; two healthy girls.
Sometimes I wave away those ten years of “trying” to get and stay pregnant with a cavalier flick of my hand. I’m old enough now to wave away an entire decade and still have years to spare. Nobody wants to hear about those dark-night-of-the- soul years; those years of despising other people’s Christmas cards; years of boycotting baby showers (as advised by my therapist); years of looking on the bright side (I can travel! Go out whenever I want; Get a master’s degree); years of feeling as if I were being punished.
* * *
Irish Slang: “Holy show”: to make an exhibition/spectacle of yourself. “You made a holy show of yourself last night.”
* * *
The same year that Irish women gained the right to vote, 1898, my O’Connell cousins built their two-story stone house in Milford, County Cork. One hundred years later, the family planned a party to celebrate the house. Although I was a broke graduate student, I scrounged the money to fly with my older brother Art to celebrate. My parents were also going, arriving on a separate flight. Martin had remained behind in Chicago, so that I could celebrate with my family and do research for a novel. It had been two years since my first miscarriage, and graduate school was a welcome distraction from the trying-to-get pregnant grind. To our surprise, I found myself to be six weeks pregnant by the second semester’s end. The ticket to Ireland already purchased, and assured that traveling during my first trimester was not a problem, I continued my plans.
For the few days before the party, we traveled up the southwest coast of Ireland. I had been to Ireland before—at 20, 30, but this was my first trip to that side of the country. The roads wound precariously around the coast. Water cascaded from cliffs, and shaggy rams stood on vertical hillsides, chewing grass methodically. Gulls vaulted from the ledges and glided down to the silvery blue sea. The few cottages were painted surprising colors: tomato red, lilac, teal, even pink. Along the murky ditches foxglove sprouted up beside lilies and daisies. A barking Border collie harassed a flock of blue-sided sheep. Rolling fields divided by dark hedgerows sloped into a golden beach, where the waves foamed and the water sparkled in the sunlight. I took notes, snapped photos, shifting as my stomach harbored a dull ache, which I attributed to pregnancy gas, or may constipation.
We stopped in Dingle for lunch and I went to the bathroom. When I pulled down my pants I saw it: a spot of blood. I reported it to my mother. My parents weren’t sure what to do. “We have to find an ER,” I told my bewildered father. We chased signs for hospitals around the town until we arrived. I was ushered in swiftly. One sweep of the ultrasound wand proved it. “The fetus stopped progressing,” the doctor said. She was soft-spoken, kind, sympathetic. “Probably around nine weeks.” Before I’d even left home.
It was Friday night, the night of the party, and we were late checking into the bed and breakfast, which meant that all the rooms with private baths had been taken. I headed to the party in a state of bewildered numbness. I hadn’t told any of my cousins that I was pregnant, so I didn’t have to tell them that I no longer was. I started drinking Guinness as soon as we got to the house. I bled more and more steadily, medicated the cramps with stout, and waited. I just wanted to get through the party. Everyone was taking turns singing. My cousin is the singer Maura O’Connell, and her sisters have equally beautiful voices, and they sang traditional Irish tunes, sometimes accompanied by the nieces and nephews playing fiddle or pennywhistle, or step dancing in time with the beat.
At five the next morning, I awoke to a stabbing sensation in my back, and then felt a flood of blood. That gush, I could tell, could not be accommodated by an ordinary Kotex.
I hobbled down the hallway to the shared bathroom, my pajamas drenched in blood. Kicking the door closed behind me, I ran for the toilet as blood gushed out. Clots like small soft pears. Like pitted plums. How could there be so much inside of me? I balled up my Kotex in a tight wad of toilet paper, shoved it in the basket, then wiped the toilet rim. Maybe that was it. Maybe I could miscarry here in the bathroom and be done with it and nobody would know. I had no idea how long it would last. Maybe it would be over soon. I splashed cold water on my face—my skin whiter than porcelain with a tinge of pale green. You’re green around the gills, my mother always said when I had the flu. I was thirty-three years old.
It was early, but I was worried. Someone would need to use the toilet soon. I shouldn’t monopolize a shared bathroom like this. I stood up to leave, hoping the last big clot had been it, but then the stabbing started in my back again and I rushed back to the toilet. Blood gushed out, more tiny purple plums. Was one of them the baby? I dragged a piece of paper around the toilet seat to wipe up the blood. Blood splattered the rim of the toilet. The sight made me weak. Heat flooded my whole body, and I started to sweat everywhere. My vision blurred and I slid off the toilet and crawled across the floor, pressing my forehead to the cold tile.
If this had started later, I wouldn’t hesitate to wake my mom. But I was hoping to spare them, hoping this would be it. And I knew that if Martin were here, I wouldn’t have to suffer alone like this. My stomach lay on a tiny rug—peach shag—and I didn’t want to leak on it. Then the stabbing in my back started again and I felt the rush of blood. I grabbed the rim of the toilet and pulled myself up, then sat with my arms hanging between my knees. There was a tiny dot of blood on the rug. I licked a piece of toilet paper and reached to rub out the stain, but dropping my head was the wrong thing to do, and I felt a blast of steam through my skull, started to sweat and shiver at the same time, as blood gushed from me. A loud hum started in my head. I had to reach the toilet chain, had to send the blackened water from sight, and as I stood up the room turned a circle, and as the chain swung back and forth, and the water swished down the drain, I dropped to my knees and crawled across the floor.
This may be the moment when I lost my faith. I had to lie down very very slowly or I’d pass out. While I was negotiating the nausea and easing myself to the floor to keep from fainting, another part of my brain thought this was bullshit and way way worse than anything I could deserve. One of my long black hairs lay on the white tile beside my nose. I should pick it up. I was burning hot, burning, and there was no air. I needed a husband, only a husband could bear this, could carry me, but he was an ocean away, and I had to take my punishment for whatever it was I’d done wrong. I was like James Duffy in Joyce’s “A Painful Case”—I’d been “outcast from life’s feast.”
Finally, the wave passed, and I crawled to my feet and knocked on my mother’s door. I told her I was in trouble. She came in the bathroom with me. I curled on the floor, dizzy, close to passing out. But then the contraction came, a stab in the back followed by a great force hurtling downward. I struggled to push myself off the tile floor and crawled up sit on the toilet. “I need an ambulance,” I said.
“We don’t want to lose you,” Mom said.
I heard the paramedics stomp up the stairs. They lifted me off the floor. They swaddled me in maxi pads stacked one on top of the other. Genius move. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I could unapologetically bleed into this Barbie-sized mattress. As they helped me down the stairs, the owner of the B & B lent me a nightgown, gave me a cracker. The paramedics strapped me on a gurney and buoyed me into the ambulance. My mother jumped in; the doors slammed, and I watched my father, grim faced, as we pulled away. In that rain-speckled square of window, I watched him shake his head, light sharp in the lens of his glasses. He ran a hand through his streaked with grey black hair. He was still in his pajamas, flannel pants, leather jacket over a white tee. Then he grew smaller and smaller, as the siren began its odd wailing.
I was so relieved to be lying flat, and yet, as I watched those green Irish hills roll by I felt again like a failure. My great-grandmother in Bandon had birthed ten children; my grandmother immigrated to Chicago and had ten children; my mother had nine children, and it seemed that I could not manage one. The moody gray clouds, the rocky walls, the abandoned castles, the herds of cows grazing in the lurid grass, I watched all of it through the oblong window. I felt an elemental kinship with the landscape, the souls of the famine dead haunting the ditches. The fertile Irish landscape that was keenly linked to starvation, to death, and to ludicrously high birthrates.
At the Limerick Maternity Hospital they wheeled me into an examining room, and an Indian doctor snapped on beige Latex gloves and pressed my abdomen. I gripped the bed rails. The doctor’s steel-rimmed glasses looked sharp. As she prodded, a nurse rushed in and said, “Dr. Ahmed. Mrs. Cleary rang. She’s having some contractions.”
“Tell her to come right in,” the doctor said.
“Now! I have to put my hand inside you.” She pushed my knees apart and glided a finger up me. I cried out, surprised, tears ran down my face.
“We have to determine how much is left. You’re a strong girl. Take a deep breath then. You have to relax.”
I inhaled and turned my head away, looking out the window at the Limerick chimneys breathing smoke, the distant trees shaking in the wind. The doctor’s hand went deeper inside me than I thought was possible. She was digging around as if she wished to pull it all out by hand. Her hand had to be covered in blood. “Pain, I need something for the pain,” I yelled.
“Almost done.” The doctor pulled out a handful of violet tissue, and threw it in a plastic bag. Tugging the fingers of her bloody rubber glove, “Have you eaten anything today?”
A nurse with coarse gray hair and wide blue eyes came over with a pile of pads, and I lifted my bum so she could belt them around me. She looked into my eyes with deep empathy, then glanced, glaring at the doctor. I adored her for it—to bleed and not fight it, not to worry about staining anything.
“I had a biscuit around nine o’clock.” Coming up with this sentence made me feel like a soldier. I had uttered a blatant, plain old fact. I could contribute to my treatment. I could, between staggered breaths, be a brave little soldier. That’s what my father used to say when he tilted my head under the bathtub faucet and rinsed the Prell from my hair. It had terrified me to go backwards, to be so close to the faucet’s sharp edge; sometimes the soap stung my eyes. Be a brave little soldier, he’d say. And I’d hold my breath and fall backward, into his hand, which held my whole head as if it were a newborn.
“Then we’ll have to wait to take you into theatre,” the doctor said.
They moved me out of triage, and as I passed, I saw my mother crying for the first time in my life. The sound of my cry when the doctor probed me had done her in. The nurses wrapped their arms around her and led her to a room where we’d wait. The kind nurse who’d swaddled me after the doctor’s exam came over with a needle. “This will help with the pain.” She lifted up my gown. “Now turn on your side.”
“I’ve never had a shot in my bum before,” I said.
“And didn’t you have to come all the way to Ireland to get one?”
Compared to the cramps, the needle prick was nothing, and soon I was floating, not quite asleep, but hearing everything. I rubbed the white sheets between my fingers, expecting them to be stiff and starched, but they were worn, soft, and cottony—like threadbare pajamas. Every nurse had the eyes of an angel. I’d never been touched with so much love, had women look so deeply in my eyes and say, “You’ve had a tough go, pet.” They called me pet. They called me love. “’Tis a terrible thing you’ve gone through.”
Two nurses sat waiting with my mom and me, gathered around the bed like next of kin. “On holiday is she? Where is the husband?” I was floating, floating on their soft voices. They thought I couldn’t hear. I just couldn’t speak. Just to lift my arm and wave, I’m here, I’m here, was too much. “She’s a lovely girl,” another said. I rubbed the sheets between my toes. They were all sweet angels; they had softened the ache and sopped up the blood and they’d wait by my bedside all day.
Hours later—it had to be hours, but it felt like thirty minutes—the face of the angel who’d given me the merciful shot floated in front of my face. I think I’d been sleeping. “Hello, pet. We’re going to take you into theatre now.”
Thank you, I tried to say to her pure blue eyes, her wide freckled cheeks, but all I could do was nod at her beautiful plump face and cool doughy hands.
“And isn’t your little baby up in heaven praying for you right now?” she said.
I wanted to ask her if I had to believe in heaven in order for that to be true? It was the sweetest thing anybody could possibly say, but I wanted to object.
The next thing I knew a triangular mask hovered over my mouth, gray and plastic. Two or three people moved around the steel table. Draped in pale green surgical gowns, they moved against a sky blue wall.
“Inhale,” somebody said, and I obeyed, at the same time thinking, I might never wake up. I could die here.
Then voices and a gentle touch on my shoulder. “It’s all over now, love.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
This was all so different than what I’d experienced in America. They were calling what I’d lost a baby, not a fetus.
The head of the hospital, a kind woman said, “We’ll keep you over night now, love. Your parents, they’re elderly. You’re better off with us.”
I didn’t know that my parents were elderly. I couldn’t imagine an overnight stay for a D & C in the U.S. No insurance company would cover it. I was in the maternity ward, babies wailed through the night.
A nurse came to my side. “I’m terribly sorry you have to hear the babies, dear.” She sat down by my bed and held my hand. “You have to grieve it,” she told me. “You have to go through the tears.”
* * *
I am treating a mother as a machine programmed to do everything in its power to propagate copies of the genes which ride inside it. –Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
* * *
On Christmas morning, 2014, sixteen years after Ireland, Alice is almost five. She runs into the kitchen, where my mom and I drink coffee, each of us wrapped up in one of my robes. Alice shoves a stuffed Disney character at my mom. It’s a snowman with a pointy carrot nose, buck teeth, a pear-shaped head. “Olaf!” Alice tells my mother.
“Isn’t that nice?”
Alice skips away.
“Skip, skip,” my mom says. “You’re very lucky.”
“I don’t even think of that bad time anymore.”
“Who wants to think of it?”
“Everything works out in the end,” she says. “God has a plan.”
* * *
You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock. –Deuteronomy 7:14
* * *
When you want to be a mother, and you can’t be a mother, other mothers possess the power (unbeknownst to them) to wound you sharply. When they roll their eyes at their children, you want to shake them for being cavalier. When they say, “my toddler’s such a pill! Oh, you’ll see someday!” You want to challenge them. “How do you know I’ll see someday? Who made you into a god who can predict the future?”
And there it is again. God. I could never shake the feeling that he was behind my infertility. He was up there, teaching me some lesson that I didn’t want to learn. Even if I didn’t believe in Him anymore, it didn’t mean He wasn’t up to something.
* * *
When I turned 40, I gave up all hope of becoming a mother. I took to heart the lessons I learned in a Buddhist book, to let go of desire, to quit grasping. I turned my back on my difficult 30s and embraced the new decade. I said to myself, That’s not for you, that motherhood business. I did this without a whiff of bitterness. I don’t know how I got to that point, only that I was deeply sick of focusing on something that wasn’t working.
I went on writing retreats, finished a novel, traveled to France. One day, my niece asked us to take in her little beagle puppy, Chloe, and we said yes. I would cradle Chloe in my lap and rub her belly, saying, “You’re the only baby I’m ever going to have,” and she’d hold my gaze with desperate love.
I wanted to get Chloe spayed, but Martin was against it. I’d been told that Responsible Pet Owners neutered their pets, but Martin said, “How could we block her fertility after everything we’ve been through?” I made the appointment at the Humane Society anyway. A few days before Chloe’s scheduled operation, I stopped in the pet store and spoke with Michelle, the dog groomer. When I told her of my conflict with Martin she said, “Ah, let the bitch have a few cycles. She’ll be nicer with children.” I went straight home and told Martin that I’d changed my mind. I canceled the spaying appointments and nine months later, almost to the day, Lucille was born.
* * *
I’m in Michigan, at a friend’s cottage when the call comes from Dr. Heller. I’m standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee. “Trisomy 16,” he says. “There was an extra chromosome on the 16th allele. Okay?”
I click off the phone and brush away a tear, looking out the dirt-streaked windows. A friend rubs my shoulder. “Trisomy 15,” I tell her. “It’s okay.”
I wanted to test the tissue, after miscarriage number three, because I never found out what went wrong with the other two. First-trimester miscarriage is so common, it’s not worth testing, so say the doctors. But this time I needed some science. I didn’t want to read any mystical, spiritual significance into the miscarriage. There was an extra chromosome. Trisomy is an error in cell division, affecting either sperm or egg, that is present at conception. You can’t pray for something that microscopic not to happen because you’re not even aware it’s happening. By the time your mother starts saying Hail Marys for you, say 6 weeks later when you realize you’re pregnant, it’s already too late. Even worse, that messed up cell was harbored in my husband’s sperm or my egg for years. You can’t eat some organic combination of herbs to stop it. You can’t get more rest, not lift something heavy, or avoid caffeine to thwart an extra chromosome. It’s utterly out of your control. What a relief.
* * *
When I had my first contraction with Lucille, I remembered the ones I’d had when I’d miscarried in Ireland. That I could have that sensation—stab in the back, then the seismic rumble through my body—without plum-sized clots pummeling onto the kitchen floor, this I could celebrate. This I could do. The wave would crash, hit the shore, then I could rest between. This was normal, this was something I thought I’d never get the chance to do.
Dori, my doula, came over around eight on Thanksgiving night. She told Martin to go get some sleep, while she massaged my back while I got on all fours to ride out a contraction. We found a rhythm—contraction, all fours, back rub, release. Nobody had told me that contractions ebbed and flowed. When people describe being in labor, I imagined it to be one protracted 24-hour festival of pain. It ebbed, it flowed. And in my case, that evening, it wasn’t really changing.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Doria said after we were back sitting on the couch after a contraction.
“I’m visualizing diving underneath a wave. You know how when you’re swimming in the ocean, and a big wave is about to crash, you dive under it, and you’re OK.”
“I hate to tell you this,” she said calmly. “But for your labor to progress, you’re going to have to stop diving under the wave. You have to let it hit you.”
It clicked. By diving under the pain in my mind, I was working against my body. I had to let go, I had to trust that my body knew what to do. Women had to be programmed to do this. So I took a deep breath and let it happen, let my muscles go into freefall. A force shot up from below and split through me. It felt like a tree branch sprouted underneath my house, pierced the first floor apartment, shot up though my oak floor and Persian rug, and drove right into my body. Dilation. Dori later told me that she’d never seen anybody turn labor around so quickly. Soon the contractions were rapid, and I started making what felt like a sacrilegious take on a Buddhist chant—a low-range purr, a mix of delicious self-pity and fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it—which doesn’t sound particularly mindful but was absolutely vital to sustain my mind-body groove.
After a span of time, which could have been thirty minutes or three hours, Dori said, “I think you’re ready to go to the hospital now.” She called to Martin. She told me to eat and to pee. Somehow I made it to the car. It might have been 11 o’clock. I crawled across the backseat and got on all fours. As we raced down Lake Shore Drive, I kept up my steady growl-chant, while Martin laid on the gas.
When we arrived at Prentice Hospital the triage nurse said I was dilated to 9 cm, and we headed toward the elevator. For a self-conscious cat like me, labor rocked because all my usual modesty fell away. “Take that!” I yelled when my water finally broke in the elevator on the way to delivery. Later, Martin explained that it wasn’t “water” but plasma. “It was a hazmat situation in that elevator, Eileen.” Good! Too bad! Because it felt to me that nobody on God’s green earth could ever do anything more powerful than what I was doing. Giving birth! Finally. Moaning at a low, uncensored, selfish pitch felt heavenly. Take that!
My labor had progressed so quickly after my water broke that the on-call doctor had to be paged in the cafeteria, and she hadn’t reached the delivery room. “I wanna push!” I yelled, hearkening back to my junior high cheerleader days. The desire to push is uncanny. It feels like this squiggly feeling, not an itch precisely, but it made me cranky. Dori had warned me that the hospital nurses would tell me not to push unless the doctor was there, but that I shouldn’t listen. I shouldn’t subvert the urge. “I wanna push!”
“Wait for the doctor,” the nurse said.
I locked eyes with Dori, her long brown braid, threaded with grey, hung over her shoulder, and she gave me a nod. I bore down on that squiggly feeling and pushed.
The doctor came in, stuffing the corner of a sandwich in her mouth as she reached for Latex gloves. She stood at the foot of the table and pointed at my silver gym shoes. “Do you want to keep these on?”
“I wanna push!” I yelled.
“A woman last week wanted to deliver in her cowboy boots.”
I kept pushing, pretty good pushes, so I thought. You have this feeling, though, that if you push too hard you’ll hurt your baby, make it shoot out in some rocket-propelled injurious way. You just feel like something might explode—in a bad way. So again, I stayed within a comfort zone, until Dori came around to the top of the bed and said, calmly. “I hate to tell you this, but you need to push harder.”
“Oh!” so I raised my head, did an abdominal half-crunch, and pushed like I had no fear of explosions, and three pushes later, out came Lucille.
* * *
Between my second and third miscarriages, my oldest brother Eddie died of prostate cancer. He was 48, and the disease progressed swiftly, from his prostate to his bones. Tumors swelled in his hips and back, and watching his stiff but stoic movements from La-Z-Boy to walker, the pain seemed to exist like an alien life-form inside him. But he never made a holy show of it. Eddie was a PE teacher at a Milwaukee high school, where he also coached the girls’ basketball team. Lean and athletic, he was a man of few words. “I had a good life,” he said. “I did what I wanted to do.”
He told me, during an afternoon visit when I’d spin records from his huge jazz collection, that he’d been disillusioned by the racist hypocrites at our childhood parish. He never went to church anymore, and he and his wife Janey had been married in a neighborhood park. Still, he was willing to have a Catholic funeral and be buried in a Catholic cemetery. “Whatever Janey and Mom want,” he said. My mother arranged for a priest, a friend of the family, come and hear his confession before he died. He was also cool with that. After Fr. Mike visited, I asked him, “How’d it go?”
“I had some things to say,” he said.
His wake transformed my view of mourning. I’d always thought I’d want to be buried, that our open-casket tradition was a worthy one. But when I saw him lying there, I turned away. The body meant nothing without the soul, and I couldn’t wait for the lid to go down on his lifeless body. Tucked into the casket was a Ziploc full of dirt from the softball field where he played weekly games every summer. One of his buddies from the Uptowner sad, “Who put the bag of weed in there?”
Although I’d attended many funerals over the years, Eddie’s funeral was the first time I was at the center of a truly deep and public mourning. It was OK to stick close to my sisters, to cry, to get drunk at the luncheon that followed. That, I realized, was what I’d never gotten after my miscarriages—formal acknowledgment that I’d lost something. My therapist had told me that sometimes the hardest losses to bear are the silent ones—the ones that nobody sees. Nine months after Eddie died, I had another miscarriage, and Martin and I decided, with the help of our therapist, that we needed to commemorate our loss.
We were both baptized Catholic, but were also both lapsed doubters. We went to see our pastor, Fr. Bill, who had also been a priest in my childhood parish. Fr. Bill had had an affair with a parishioner, after which he was disrobed for a year, sent to Rome to make penance, and then shunted off to this city parish, Queen of Angels. Martin felt comfortable with him for this. It was easier for us to speak with a priest who’d made some mistakes, rather than to someone who’d always abided by the often inhumane demands of the Church.
Father Bill welcomed us into his office, and I jumped right in.
“My whole life the Church kept beating us over the head that life begins at conception. But then when we lose a baby through miscarriage, there’s nothing for us.”
“Actually there is a Mass. It’s called the Mass of the Angels. It’s a Mass for all the babies who die in the womb or during childbirth.”
So we had a Mass of the Angels. We made a holy show of it. Still plum around the middle, I walked down the aisle holding three roses and wearing my grad school graduation dress. My aunts and friends filled up six rows in the large church. I looked up at the angels painted on the ceiling between the roofbeams. At the homily, Father Bill talked about what we’d lost, how we needed to share this with our people. My friend called it The Festival of Pain. We sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and everybody was crying. Afterward, we stepped out into the sunshine, went home and ate quiche, got drunk, and planted an apple tree in our backyard.
* * *
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. —Charles Darwin
* * *
When I nursed my infant daughter in the first few days of her life, it was a sort of terror, the body. Just don’t let me kill her, is what you think. Lucille nursed with ferocity, staring at me intently with those dark newborn eyes. She nursed for hours, while I sat in the plush rocker, listening to lullabies. One night, my beagle and I stared as a baby mouse poked its nose from beneath the stove. My dog would always dash at the mouse a few seconds after it had skittered back under the stove. I felt sorry for the young, slow mouse and wondered where its mother was. Later, when my husband awoke, he chased the mouse with a cast-iron skillet (the calm new father at his best) and fared no better than the dog.
Me, I was trapped underneath the insatiable infant, wishing I had telekinetic powers, to move objects with my mind. These were quotidian objects: load plates into dishwasher, pick up that towel on the floor. I had to learn how not to do things. How to sit there. Later, I learned to function one-handed, how to pick up stray socks with my toes, baby balanced in the crook of my arm, or saddling my hip when they got bigger. You’re not the same, nothing’s the same, ever again. And of course, it’s what you wanted.
* * *
When our oldest, Lucille, is seven, we tell her about the miscarriages. Martin’s not sure if we should, but I say that I don’t want her to find out from somebody else.
“Who’s going to tell her?”
“She might overhear us talking.”
A neighbor who miscarried had always told her son about it. She’s more religious than we are, and she believes the lost baby’s in heaven, and she knows it’s a girl, and she named her.
I say, “Remember how Yvonne had that baby girl who’s in heaven? We had three miscarriages too.”
“How old would they be now?” Lucille asks.
“Let me think…19, 17, and 12.”
She smiles a little dreamily. “I’d have a teenager for a sister.”
I don’t mention that if those teenagers were around, she probably wouldn’t be. I don’t tell her that she’s the one who was “meant to be.” But I’ve always called her My Dream Come True. And Alice has always been My Bonus Prize. (Though I’ve been admonished not to call her a Prize, but a Blessing, but I can’t do that. Because the opposite of Blessing is Curse, which implies that the childless are cursed and that’s the kind of rabbit hole I don’t want to go down again. And it’s not a rabbit hole I’d shove anybody else down either.)
A couple weeks later we see Lucille’s classmate walking to school with her older sisters. “I wish I had a teenager sister that I could walk to school with.”
Is she thinking about the lost ones? I can’t tell. Will they haunt her, these phantom siblings? Or is she just jealous because she’s stuck walking to school with her mom.
* * *
My third pregnancy happened through in vitro fertilization. After number two miscarriage in Ireland, I went four years without getting pregnant again. I was teaching the essay, “The Case Against Babies,” by Joy Williams. It’s a sharp-fanged attack on fertility drugs and overpopulation. I’d always read it as a persuasive essay that supported my own lack of desire to use drugs to get pregnant. I didn’t need them, I thought. I could get pregnant. I just couldn’t stay pregnant.
But then that year, my class for the first time argued against Williams. What’s so bad about using clomid? How is it any worse than taking insulin if you’re diabetic? Who gets to judge?
I thought about it. More than anything, I worried that I would regret not trying. So I went through a round of in vitro. And it worked—for a while. Then, it didn’t matter how much the endocrinologist loved me, how much the ultrasound technician loved me, the nurse either, Flavia at the reception desk, the parking lot attendant, they all loved me the way you love a friendly face when you’re on the job, and I have one, a friendly face,
a pleasant patient who doesn’t talk on a cell phone in the waiting room, or chastise the
plebotomist for bruising my inner elbow, even she loved me, everybody loved me, not the way Martin did, injecting my belly with hormones by flashlight in a tent by the Finger Lakes, but in that health-care professional way, but I’m saying that none of it mattered, even all that love couldn’t make a heart beat again.
* * *
Sometimes friends trot my story out as an example of hope for others struggling with infertility. They’ll tell others, “Just get a dog.” Or “My friend had three miscarriages and now she has two lovely children.” Or, “You just have to let go.” I don’t want to be an example of anything. Those stories didn’t comfort me, and every person’s struggle is an individual one, with different ideas about when life begins, about whether they want to use fertility drugs. Everyone has different feelings about adoption, about whether God has a role to play in their fate. My story isn’t an example of anything in particular, except what’s particular to me. For me, letting go of all hope was crucial. To actively not try to get pregnant worked so much better than timed sex followed by putting my legs up high against the wall. But sometimes that very method works for others. And to tell someone who’s deeply wounded or deeply invested at that moment in the treatment she seeks to “let go” always sounds like judgment.
Last Christmas, Alice, almost five, asked, “Mommy, if there’s only one Santa, how can he watch all the people?”
“I don’t know how he does it,” I say.
“That means it’s a good question,” she says. “If you don’t know what the answer is.”
Eileen Favorite's first novel The Heroines (Scribner, 2008) was named a Best Debut Novel by The Rocky Mountain News, and has been translated into Finnish, Italian, Russian, and Korean. The audio version was nominated for best recording by the American Library Association. A writer of both poetry and prose, she's twice received Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowships (prose, 2001; poetry 2005). Her work has appeared in many publications, including Triquarterly, Folio, Chicago Reader, Poetry East, and Diagram. She's been nominated for Pushcart Prize for fiction and nonfiction. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received her MFA in Writing and at the Graham School of Continuing Studies at the University of Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.