By Matt Gordon
I recall that Easter more than most because it was the day my wife agreed to have a child. As weird as it is, fatherhood had become a dream of mine since childhood, and while my wife was all for growing our family, she insisted on being a married five years first. So I did what any self-respecting adult male does when he doesn’t get his way—I strategically pestered her about it until she caved.
We had the conversation, and then knocked out the practicalities, thinking we’d be pregnant by evening. That is sort of the picture they paint for you in sex-ed classes. I recall learning about the male and female reproductive systems, giggling with the other boys each time Mrs. Smith said, well, almost anything really—it was like on the old show PeeWee’s Playhouse, but everything was the magic word, mainly because every word was “penis,” “vagina,” or some such sinister, bodily thing. But after the anatomical rundown was complete, things got really serious. We were told about the dangers of sex and the absolute certainty that we would all be deadbeat fathers by the time we were sixteen. It was like Candyman, who would appear if his name was said five times. If we even thought sexual thoughts with enough intensity or frequency, we’d surely end up with crib full of screaming babies to kiss, while we kissed our futures goodbye. It was a cheery, upbeat way to look at procreation, and the memory of that fateful lesson assured my wife and me a lush fertility born by mind alone.
Turns out it is around the one-year mark that many doctors begin officially using the term “infertility,” at least that is the messy message a physician told us in his similarly messy office. It went against everything sex-ed class had ever taught us, and it was truly pretty crummy. Of course, infertility itself is crummy, certainly. But it is also the backdoor way it operates that is the real dig. Usually experience leads to promotion. A person is assistant manager for a year, does a great job, and, BOOM!, is promoted to manager. That is how the world is supposed to work, right? But in this case, experience led to nothing. Worse than nothing, actually, it led to confusion, doubt, and futility.
But we hoped against the hopeless and pressed on.
Then, we reached the two-year mark. And that is when I gave up. I didn’t give up on my wife. I still trusted in our marriage, and many of the dreams we had for our lives. And I didn’t give up on intimacy—may it never be! I just gave up on the idea that that intimacy would ever lead to a little person who had my eyes or my wife’s button nose.
But this was good. I got okay with not being okay and found a new, alternate okay with which to live. Our story would just be different, I reasoned. And I knew that I had found peace when I began to get truly, effortlessly excited for all the people around us having children—and it seemed like pregnancies were spreading like the common cold. I looked on at social media baby announcements and I smiled, thankful that I had learned a lot, and I began contemplating what adoption might look like for us.
But my wife, always more stubborn than I, was not letting go.
She had us go see a specialist. First, let me just say how cool it would be to be a specialist. In anything. On the way to meet my wife at the specialist’s probably quite fancy office, I considered options for my own specialization. Trouble is, I’m not that great at anything. My discouragement led me back into the song on the radio, and I sang a few bars while waiting for the light to turn green. And then it hit me! This could have been an apt metaphor for infertility, but that wasn’t it. The epiphany was that I am really good at singing in the car without other people in traffic knowing I am singing in my car (because, seriously, who wants to be that guy?). I stared dead-eyed at the woman at the stoplight in the car beside me. She looked nonplussed at my gaze but seemingly unaware of the sweet falsetto emanating from my body via a fake yawn at that very moment! It was the only chance I had to specialize, and as the light turned green, I drove on committed to my new endeavor and euphoric at my discovery.
My mood shifted at the words from the real specialist and the tears they produced for my wife. “It all should be working,” he said with a miffed shrug. We had hoped there would be a breakthrough of some sort, a pill we could take—selfishly, I hoped there would be some awesome sexual prescription: “You all just need to engage in more daily intercourse in a tropical location.” But instead even this so-called specialist was puzzled. Fix the dream or kill the dream, but please don’t send the dream to purgatory indefinitely.
It was hard on us.
We hobbled along toward year three. Sex had become a bit daunting because waiting on each side of it would be a sense of impending or actualized failure, of rejection. We prayed about it, recognized that many people had it worse, and had some long talks. And there were waves of peace. But there was a pretty steady deluge of frustration too.
About a week away from the three-year anniversary of our first attempts at becoming parents, my wife approached me in our living room one night. “Think we could set up a meeting with Leigh Ann?” she asked. Leigh Ann was a friend who had adopted a sweet little girl, and this was my wife’s moment: she had finally become okay with not being okay.
It was just before Easter. I opened the garage door and pulled in after work, and ALAS! There was a murderer in my garage!!!
Okay, actually it was not a murderer or even an intruder. It was my wife . . . waiting for me. Forgive my confusion, but this was entirely new. You see, I do not have the kind of wife who waits for me to get home. I always thought I would. Not in any grandiose way, I just sort of thought the woman I married would treat my return home like a nation does a conquering hero. It wouldn’t be a huge deal or anything, just a light showering of kisses, and maybe some gifts and a foot massage. Baked good, certainly. Instead, I get home and it is a like a game of Marco Polo with a quiet kid. I hunt around our house trying to find my wife. Then, when I do, I usually get a look that says, “Oh, it’s you again. You’re back.” Sometimes I have to remind her I LIVE HERE TOO!
But on this day, she was here in the garage. And crying. Something was in her hand, and as she ran over to me, she placed it in my own hand. It was a pregnancy test with a little plus sign at the end of it.
She jumped in the car and didn’t need to say a word—I drove straight to Walgreens. There we bought forty-five more pregnancy tests. That night we listened to music, we laughed, we danced, and she peed on sticks as we thought about December 16th and when our hopes would come weeping into our long-awaiting arms. And then we laughed some more.
Pregnancy was pretty easy too. I barely noticed. Yes, I put on a bit of weight, but most of what I read happens to you was a non-factor for me. Hannah might tell you differently; she didn’t seem to adapt to the whole to-do quite as well as I did; she was tired a lot and gained a good deal of weight, poor thing. I guess I’m just stronger than I even thought.
The months ticked away without event, and when the leaves were falling in October, the reality of this whole thing also began to descend upon us. One night as we discussed all things nursery, my wife began to itch. This had been going on for about a week, and she finally decided she would call the doctor the next day, just to make sure nothing was amiss.
Something was amiss.
I knew as soon as I heard the sound of her voice, “Don’t worry,” she said, an obvious clue that it was time to worry. “I called the doctor and told her about my symptoms and they had me come straight in for testing. They may need to do an emergency delivery this afternoon.”
She may have said more, but for the pounding of my heart and feet, as I ran to my car, I could hear nothing else. Could the end have really come prior to even the beginning?
Ever drive in such a state—when it seems the pieces of your world are raining down like lava and you are speeding and swerving to avoid them? My wife was waiting at the doctor’s office for me to pick her up, and I was going, like, seventy in a twenty-mph zone, daring local law enforcement to try to stop me. But they wouldn’t. They know the look of desperation, of utter need—if anything they may attempt to assist a man in such a state. But I didn’t see them—I saw only the patch of road before me; anything beyond that had become suddenly unclear.
I skidded to a halt in front of the office, where my wife stood alone, crying. She got in my car and told me they were running tests. They told her to go get something to eat and come back around one o’clock.
It was no time to eat, at least for me, but she was over seven months pregnant, so not even anxiety or grief could stay her appetite, so we headed to Hell. Sorry, did I say Hell? Hahahahahaha. Silly me! What a strange mistake! Hahahaha! We actually headed to her favorite restaurant, a place that makes up for being overpriced with its obvious commitment to being terrible. I just don’t get it. Droves of people flock to this place for fancy sandwiches and soups, but everything they serve is awful. And it is all $13. Order a half sandwich and a soup—a guarantee to be hungry the rest of the day, mind you, “That would be $13, sir!” Of course, it would be. Order an extra cracker for your watered down, carrot-laden soup, “That would be $13, sir!” I’m already stressed and upset, and here I am at this dump ordering a ham and cheese sandwich and duping myself into thinking, Surely, they can’t screw that up.
We got our food and my wife started sobbing. “It’s okay, honey, my sandwich is gross too,” I consoled. But that wasn’t what she was crying about.
It was a weird lunch, and to those around us had to look like a really uncomfortable break-up: her there crying, me trying not to look at her, or at anything else directly either. My fear was that if I looked at her, I would cry. I wasn’t scared to cry, but I knew she needed strength at that time. I also knew that talking about my workday would never sound as trivial and stupid as it would in that moment, so that was out. Hard time to bring up baseball or the flightiness of this darn fall weather. So I ended up just staring at this monstrosity in my hand, this supposed “ham and cheese.” First of all, why not use bread? They claim this is bread, but this is the cardboard that you ship bags of bread in. Second, this cheese is not from a cow. I doubt it is from a goat either. Somehow they had come up with a new animal to use to contract this pasty mess. And, goodness sakes, did this thing drip. My sandwich had sprung a leak. This was no longer a ham sandwich, but a handheld ham soup. I was growing angrier with each soggy bite.
The good news is that we got to leave. We headed back to the doctor’s office, where we were reassured to learn that we would not have to deliver that day. We wouldn’t actually know when we would be delivering—we would just be taking it day-by-day. They shot the baby up with some steroids, which is a bummer because I was really hoping he would be a professional athlete someday—now that’s out. We were advised to keep track of the baby’s movement the best we could and to check his heartbeat often—if either stalled, we needed to head to the ER immediately. If things stayed on track, we would have the baby a few weeks early, and he would have all likelihood of being healthy. If things went wrong, we’d deal with it all together. We left with spinning heads, still-empty stomachs, and hearts full of gratitude.
This was not the journey—not precisely—that I would have picked. But what I learned through the entire four-year process is that my gratitude doesn’t have to be tied to outcomes. I was thankful, for instance, to find out I was having a son. But I would have been grateful with a precious little daughter too. I’m thankful, looking back, for three years of infertility because my wife and I got a taste of hard together. We had conversations—even fights—that we never would have had otherwise. And, through those hard conversations, we explored and found truths we easily might have missed. I’m thankful for that. I’m even thankful for that terrifying drive to the doctor that October day. I had to come to the dire terms with the possibility of losing this little being I had come to love. In the shortness of that drive, the fullness of the lesson was that life can be hard, cruel, and mean, and yet I drove on into the storm anyway—I went to get my wife. I recall thinking on that drive, This is the day I’ve been given, what now?
During our pregnancy, I kept hearing the cliché, “It takes a village to raise a child.” People kept saying it. The hardness of the journey made me look at this village, at the emails and texts they sent me, at the meals they brought us. I had one guy swing by my office after hearing we were having some strange complications. He is not a touchy-feely guy—quite the opposite, in fact. If I were to find out that he had never touched another human being by choice, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. But he came in and through his burly beard he said, “You look like a guy who likes Mountain Dew.” Then he set a Mountain Dew on my desk. “I know you are having some stressful times. If you need anything, just holler.” Then he backed out of my office, as one would leave a murder scene. And you know what? I do like Mountain Dew, and I drank that thing then and there, so hard.
You see, the village is there all along. You don’t hire them out when everything starts to plummet: they are there for the rosy patches; they are there to patch you up post-thorns. I hoped to hold my first son in my arms at some point, but through difficulty I came to realize that my village would continue to hold me, come what may.
Gratitude was possible in our infertility, and in our conceiving a child, and in our complications. It had been born long ago in our lives.
There is an ancient song that I would sing in my car without you knowing it that says this: “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.” It doesn’t say this “good” day or this “bad” day. It just says This. This day, whatever it brings, is what we have—it is the only day I get. What I do with it is up to me.