By Cheryl Klein.
1. Sunday Story
A couple of weeks ago, I said to AK, “Can we talk about The Hospital List again?”
She said no. I’d just had minor surgery, and she felt like we needed to deal with that first. I felt like she was making excuses, blaming me and my difficult body. More about that in a minute.
This morning, one of the hottest this summer, we went for a hike in the foothills of Los Angeles. I was excited because most Sunday mornings, she goes hiking with her therapist buddies and leaves me behind. Today I had her undivided attention and I didn’t want to squander it, although I knew from past experience that Hospital List conversations were risky. She might prefer to discuss Attachment Theory with her colleagues than act out real early-childhood issues with me.
There was a time, in the early part of our eight years together, when I treated difficult conversations the way I treated salad as a kid: Just choke it down fast, eat till it’s over, don’t bother with dressing. Now I know a little dressing goes a long way. As we headed up the dusty road leading to slightly less dusty chaparral, we chatted about the heat, our friends, the house.
“Maybe we should just start getting the office ready for a kid,” I said. “I mean, I have all these mental blocks about it too, but it would be nice to have it ready to go.”
“I’d rather think of it as getting the whole house ready,” she said.
Why was the idea of getting a baby’s room ready less appealing than getting the whole bottom floor of a duplex ready? This is another thing our four-years-and-counting of trying to have a kid has taught me: We are like two very different, very mysterious bird’s nests, each composed of sticks and yarn, spiky things and sharp things. We each make our own kind of illogical logic.
“So, uh, speaking of—” I played up the awkwardness of my clunky transition with robotic hand gestures. “What. Do. You. Think. About. The. Hospital. List.”
The Hospital List: Four years ago, AK and I started trying to get pregnant. Although I never imagined myself as “the kind of person who would do IVF,” a few turkey baster fails and a really good health insurance plan made it attractive. I did it. I got knocked up with identical twins. I was a nervous, hormonal wreck.
And then I lost them and I was more nervous, more of a wreck. I had a slow-motion, high-functioning breakdown. I went to work every day, but I screamed in my car all the way home. Sometimes it seemed like the walls were moving. I hated my body for not saving them. But because of the highly medicalized process I’d just endured, I also knew that it wasn’t my fault—there had been a neural tube defect, despite all the folic acid I took. It was nothing genetic, nothing behavioral (not that those causes would have necessarily been my fault either).
So I turned on myself and my body in the most logical illogical way possible, diagnosing myself with all sorts of diseases, from MS and lupus to cancers both rare and common. Was neck cancer even a thing? If it was, I was pretty sure I had it. And what were those bumps on the back of my tongue?
Meanwhile, I charged ahead with adoption. Maybe I would never be one of those earth-goddess pregnant women, but I could write an essay to a perspective birthmother like the A student I’d always been. I seized upon adoption like a new religion, blogging for our agency’s website, posting happy pictures with exclamatory captions to our online profile.
AK felt smaller and smaller; she was interested in getting pregnant, but scared I would hate her for it. I was too busy being alternately manic and grief-stricken to notice.
Then she asked for a separation. That got my attention.
We only spent eight weeks apart, during which time we continued to go to couples’ therapy and meet once a week for a sad kind of date night, but they were the longest eight weeks of my life, the only time I’ve literally watched each hour tick by and crossed off each day with a big Sharpie X on a calendar.
During that time, I learned to listen to her for the simple and unglamorous reason that my life depended on it. We reunited, scarred and cautious, cleaner and stronger.
A few months later I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. If I were the mystical type, I might claim I sensed something was amiss during my hypochondria meltdown. But I’m trying to avoid that kind of thinking.
I’m trying to avoid telling myself the story of my own certain doom, which is what hypochondria is. Not a failure of the imagination in the usual sense, but a spectacular flame-out of the imagination, a cosmic explosion followed by a collapse into dark matter.
I’m trying to make this backstory—the baby-marriage-cancer story, which feels like another bird’s nest woven tight and sticky—as short as I can. I’ve told it so many times, to anyone who will listen and some who’ve tried very hard not to. Someday maybe it will feel faraway, but for now it is My Story. It feels obvious and therapized and tired. Heavy and self-centered. Also powerful and ferocious. For better or worse, it keeps rearing its head, as it did this morning in Eaton Canyon.
When we dusted off our adoption profile after a year on hold—while I went through cancer treatment and AK tried, unsuccessfully, to get pregnant—we became eligible for The Hospital List. Our agency offers any family that has been waiting longer than a year the option to be on a short list of people they call when a woman gives birth and decides, in the hospital, that she wants to place her baby for adoption. The “normal” process requires a birthmom with a tad more forethought to choose her baby’s adoptive parents before the birth. The earliest “match” I’d heard about occurred when the birthmom—a highly organized grad student—was six weeks along. But most happen somewhere around the five- or six-month mark, when the baby starts asserting its physical self, and denial and inaction are no longer options.
3. Story to Match a Body, or Not
This morning in Eaton Canyon, AK said the same thing she said when we first discussed the possibility of an insta-baby a year ago: “I’m really not into The Hospital List.”
Her reasoning varied—last time it was because she wanted time to “process” her maternity leave with her patients. Now she said, “I feel like I really want us to have time to prepare as a couple. Just a month ago, we were fighting a lot about adoption stuff. And if we suddenly had a baby, would be so much more stressful than if we had at least a month to get used to the idea.”
I refrained from screaming, We’ve had four years to get used to the idea!
The story I told myself, the story created somewhere deep in my subconscious and reinforced by my mom’s death a decade ago, my miscarriage and my bilateral mastectomy, was that there was something fundamentally toxic about me. My body rejected motherhood like a donor organ, even though my need for a kid also seemed to have originated in my body.
Families streamed past us on the trail, which wound through a drought-dry creek bed toward a trickle of a waterfall. A little boy waved a stick around dangerously. Babies rode in backpacks and front packs. Long strings of drool splashed from dogs’ mouths onto the rocks.
I had new reasoning too: “Well, I’ve been thinking about how you’ve felt really frustrated dealing with birthmoms lately,” I said. Make it about her. Don’t go into a long list of why you’re so hardworking and deserving of a baby. She never takes that bait.
4. Catfish Story
Throughout the month of July, we talked almost every day to a birthmom named Harmony, pregnant with twin girls in Dallas. Slowly, her story became suspicious and her correspondence erratic. She said she wanted to place her babies with us, but she never seemed to be able to send her paperwork to our agency. Meanwhile, our agency reported, she was talking to other adoptive parents while claiming otherwise. When Harmony started talking about dating an NFL player who showered her with jewels and lent her his chauffeur, we had to admit we weren’t dealing with a stable person, even by birthmom standards.
I guess I don’t know for sure that a Dallas Cowboy wouldn’tbe interested in a pregnant nursing student in her thirties. But that was the problem—I had no idea what was real anymore. Was Harmony a lonely pregnant woman creating a fantasy life for herself and relishing attention from susceptible adoptive couples? Was she even pregnant at all?
Had I really been a mom for a minute, or were those babies just my own lonely-woman fantasy?
Finding a birthmom is a lot like being in an unending episode of Catfish. I prefer it to the hopelessness of an empty inbox, but AK bristles at the indignity of the process, not to mention my waterworks every time a situation doesn’t work out. I mentioned this to her as we made our way among graffiti-splattered boulders.
“That’s true,” she said, “but I still think having a baby all of a sudden would be even more stressful.”
“So other couples can handle a baby, but we still haven’t earned one, and I have to wait patiently till I deserve a baby,” I pouted. It’s nothing short of my greatest fear: that I’m not good enough for love, and the universe already knows it.
Self-loathing can be strangely appealing, but I knew there a kinder, more difficult way to hear what she said: “But I guess you’re saying that you really value our relationship.”
“Other couples have nine months,” AK pointed out.
I wished she would say, That’s exactly right, baby. I love you and us so deeply that I want to do this in the best way possible. But I wasn’t writing her script. Lord knows I’ve tried.
I don’t know why I believe that a baby is a prize to be earned. I work at an organization where, every day, I see pregnant women who are un-partnered, unprepared, broke and recently out of prison. All of them are working hard to do right by their future kids, but it’s pretty obvious that their “blessings” are the result of sloppy birth control or ill-advised life planning, not divine justice. If there were divine justice, they wouldn’t have had the shitty childhoods that landed them in poverty and prison in the first place.
Nevertheless, my parents—who never told me Santa was real—led me to believe the merit system was alive and well in America.
On the side of Cheryl Is Fundamentally Flawed And Will Never Get A Baby, there is infertility, miscarriage, cancer and at least a dozen birthmoms who have dangled baby carrots and then faded away. On the side of Cheryl Is Human And That’s Okay And Will Get A Baby Eventually, there is…what? My own imagination? A shitload of therapy?
It seems like an uphill battle.
5. Story of Something Adjacent to Faith
Actually, those aren’t the only things on the side of hope. There is also AK. When we were separated, I thought about how, if we broke up, it would reinforce my sense of doom. If we got back together, I would start to believe that maybe I could be flawed and selfish and still deserving of love.
At their best, relationships help you rewrite the bad stories you once fell for. You’re drawn to each other’s wounds—this is why “opposites attract” and “women love bad boys”—but if you’re brave enough and the wounds aren’t mortal, you can also heal each other.
“I can see I’m not going to win this one,” I said when we got to the waterfall. I was crying openly, grateful for the scratched sunglasses I’d borrowed from AK. “So I’m going to be emotional. It’s my consolation prize.”
AK let me cry it out. Her tendency to run isn’t as strong as it used to be. We will keep waiting, despite the churning urgency inside me, despite my pervasive, doom-laden fear that the cancer will come back and I’ll die before I get to reproduce, even by proxy.
A trio of girls asked us to take their picture, calf-deep in a pool of water that used to be waist-deep. Then we moved to some shaded rocks.
I frequently lament—in a spoiled, foot-stomping way—that my hard work yields nothing. I want a gold star, dammit. AK hates this kind of thinking. It’s all about credit with you, she says.
There is no gold star. The prize is the opportunity to stay in the game. Because I didn’t let the disappointment of Harmony tear me down, it didn’t tear up our relationship. And we are still here, still trying to adopt.
“I’m glad you’re avoiding The Hospital List because you care about our relationship,” I said again, more to myself than AK. “Maybe we can try to celebrate us more, as a reminder?”
This led into another tired, if lower stakes, argument, about how we each define “celebrate” differently. She likes to party, I want—as she put it—“mournful acknowledgements of all the adversity we’ve been through.”
It sounds lame when you put it that way, but is it really so wrong? I want to find poetry and noble beauty in our story. I want to believe suffering isn’t for nothing. It might not “earn” us a baby, but can’t I at least have this: that it might make us better people?
AK calmed down. “Okay, I hear you—you were trying to end our Hospital List conversation on a positive note, and I made it into another thing.”
It was gratifying to hear her say that, but I kept crying until we reached the trailhead. I was overheated and under-hydrated—all the water having left my body as sweat and tears—and I kind of wanted to puke. For the sake of drama as much as anything.
I didn’t. I said: “Can we talk about this again in another four months?”
“Sure,” she said, and she barely even sounded reluctant.
That will be January of 2015, by which time I will have passed another cancer check-up with flying colors, or not. By which time we will have adopted a baby the “regular” way, or not. I don’t know which story will turn out to be true. I don’t trust the shifting feelings in my bones. I’ve joked that I’m going to emerge from these years an experimental poet, always questioning narrative.
But I trust AK. I trust that we are in it for the long haul. I don’t trust that things will work out, but I’m willing to allow that they might. I trust for lack of better ideas, which is the deep cold truth of faith.
AK’s story, meanwhile, is hers, and there’s a loneliness in knowing I will never understand it completely, and she will never understand mine completely. But we’re still on the road, together.
Cheryl Klein is the author of Lilac Mines(Manic D Press) and The Commuters(City Works Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in The Normal School, Literature for Life, Mutha Magazine and several anthologies. She’s currently working on a couple of book projects and a baby project. She blogs at breadandbread.blogspot.com. By day she works for Homeboy Industries, an organization devoted to helping former gang members become contributing members of the community.
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