The Art Of Conception
By Sarah Bousquet
After almost three years of trying to get pregnant, my husband and I find ourselves standing in a church called St. Lucy’s in Newark, New Jersey two hours from our home. My mother’s colleague has recommended the church, specifically the shrine to St. Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, where a relic, a prayer card, and possibly even a miracle can be obtained. This colleague received her own miracle, became pregnant after years of infertility, shortly after visiting the shrine. I may have rolled my eyes at my mother, who tells me not to be so “pinched,” to “stay open to the universe.” But my mother doesn’t know the way my blood courses with longing and sadness, frustration and jealousy, things that make a body constrict.
The odds were not against us, but we were approaching our mid-thirties, biologically shy on time. I had just turned thirty-four, my husband thirty-three, when we married on a sunny September day and then flew to Aruba to honeymoon, so quintessential, so predictable–surely, now that we’d found each other, life would continue to unfold this way. Adrift in the clear water, my arms encircling his neck, smiling into dark brown eyes, droplets of water suspended from thick lashes, I imagine our baby with the same brown eyes, his easy temperament.
On the beach, we watch a burrowing owl dig a nest in the sand. A lazy tourist walks up from the water and sinks her foot into the hole. I rush over, kneel down and gently clear the sand away, reveal the tunnel to the nest. Together my husband and I build a sandcastle wall around it, adorn the wall with sticks and sea shells and seaweed. Everyday we find the nearest palapa and keep our watch. It feels like a promise. Already, I am looking for signs.
We return from our honeymoon to muted northeastern skies, cool air, falling leaves, and the first negative pregnancy test. We think nothing of it and continue to float on anticipation. But after a few months, I consider being less casual. A friend recommends the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and it becomes my Bible. I chart my cycle, take my temperature every morning and record it with a tiny dot, connect the dots and watch the hormonal flow rise and dip, just as it should. My cycle is like clockwork, ovulation predictable. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Every month that fall, that winter, that spring, I take a pregnancy test. Every month, it is negative. The seasons undulate on waves of hope and disappointment.
There is nothing in my history, personal or familial, that hints I will have trouble conceiving. My mother birthed four children, my grandmother seven, my great-grandmother thirteen. But even beyond that, there is the simple and singular fact, the unequivocal knowing, that written on my heart, etched in my bones is mother.
A year and a half passes amidst a flurry of pregnancy announcements, those of friends and sisters-in-law, and I find myself repeating the word “congratulations.” I want to touch their happiness, want my smiles to feel less forced. Other lives flow forward while my own becomes snagged, suspended. Surrounded by excitement and burgeoning bellies, I shrink against the swell.
A family member recommends an acupuncturist for my migraines, and although I do suffer from migraines, I understand that we’re speaking in code. Once a week I drive an hour from my office to the acupuncturist, who is also a chiropractor and clairvoyant. She begins with an adjustment, heaves my leg over her shoulder and twists until my spine cracks. Next she cradles my neck gently before snapping it to one side, then the other. After all the cracking, she presses at my shoulders, my legs, my ankles.
She stands at my feet and becomes still. Inhales dramatically and closes her eyes. I lie in the dim, expectant. There’s a shuffle of feet in the hallway. A patient coughs, waiting in another room to be seen. The acupuncturist’s eyes flicker open, bright with a message from the other side. As she sticks long needles into my toes and ankles, she says, “I see you with a little boy.”
She crouches to get more needles and begins sticking my thighs, my belly, my hips. “You’re holding a boy. And he’s definitely yours.”
I want to ask questions, the air has gone out of my lungs.
“I can’t tell you how soon,” she says, “But he is yours. You will have a son.”
It is imminent. He exists. I stretch myself across the space-time continuum to meet him. An image forms. I am holding a small boy. And he is mine. Needles in my fingertips, needles in my chest. Needles behind my ears and in my forehead. She dims the lights and leaves the room. I lie in the dark, a still and hopeful porcupine.
Two years and one new job later, we luck upon health insurance that includes fertility coverage. Once a week, in the early morning hours before work, we drive to the endocrinologist, where we sit in a dark exam room watching the soft shapes of my ovaries bobbing on the black and white ultrasound screen. I can never make out what the doctor sees, those orbs of negative space he measures and records.
There is weekly blood work and a battery of tests with names so long and complicated, I jot them down in my notebook phonetically before the doctor offers the acronyms. He will flatly recite grim statistics, that after two years of trying, our chances of conceiving on our own are now between 1-2% percent, and that IVF, our best option, gives us a 35% chance. My handwriting slants into a scribble as I copy down the numbers.
We never make it to that best option, IVF. Our insurance coverage is exhausted on months and months of ultrasounds and tests. Tests that ultimately provide very few answers beyond the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.” The endocrinologist loses interest in us as our coverage bleeds out.
On my desk at work, I keep one framed picture, a snapshot of my husband and me taken one afternoon on a hike through the woods. We are young and rosy-cheeked in knit hats and scarves. I stare at the photo as if it’s not us and think, that nice couple is going to have a baby, of course they will. They look like they’ll have all the luck in the world.
I continue to research, change my diet to gluten-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free, sugar-free. Mix maca root and water like a magic potion. Nail a wishbone above our bedroom door. Pray Catholic novenas, Lakota blessings. Meditate. Wish on eyelashes and dandelions. Build cairns on the rocky shore. Omens arrive as great blue herons, roadside signs, changing weather. On a walk through a field of tall grass, I swear I hear my future self whisper, Everything is about to be beautiful.
We take the last bit of insurance money to a new doctor, who is friendly and more hopeful. He begins by running blood work, the same blood work I’d had seven months before with normal results. It feels familiar, no anxious anticipation, no heart-in-my-throat while I wait.
I’m at work when the doctor calls. “We received some unexpected results,” he says.
I walk from my office into the hallway and down the stairs as if perhaps I can outpace his news.
“Some of the numbers have changed. Your AMH levels are very low, which indicates a low ovarian reserve.” His tone is calm and measured as he gives me the exact number.
I press my hand against the cool hallway tiles to steady myself. Suddenly, I have almost no eggs left. Even if we had additional fertility coverage, I would not be an ideal candidate for IVF.
Inside the church, the lights are dim. Nuns in habits fill the first three pews. The priest is reaching the end of his homily. We move quietly along the side aisle, find the shrine in a separate room to the left of the altar. I stand and stare at the ornate tiles, the looming statue, not quite knowing what to do, twelve years of Catholic school deeply engrained and yet very far away. I know I am supposed to ask for the relic and the cloth and the prayer card, so I walk over to the only door and knock. An altar boy answers and I make my request. He returns and quietly hands me a white package, then disappears. I assume the items have already been blessed, are already imbued with the magic and luck that I need.
I lower myself to the kneeler before the statue and whisper prayers. I beg of the saint, I beg of my childhood religion, I beg of the universe. We stuff dollar bills in a gold box and light candles. Then I notice two small wooden staircases on either side of the statue. Are they meant to be climbed? Does proximity to St. Gerard’s face mean something? I’m not taking any chances. I ask my husband to climb one set of stairs and I’ll climb the other. He sighs and smiles but doesn’t protest. We climb the stairs and meet at the top. I reach for his hand. I make up my own prayer and I say it out loud. I ask St. Gerard to please bless us with a baby. My atheist husband says, amen.
It is a Tuesday morning, a regular day, and we’re getting ready for work. My cycle is seven days late. I feel like a fool as I tear open the foil wrapper on what feels like the millionth pregnancy test. My husband is in the shower, and I raise my voice above the noise of the water, “I’m taking the test!”
In the kitchen I pull a pan from the cabinet, start breakfast while I wait for the result. Hope, that irrepressible little drummer, thumps in my heart. I return to the bathroom to check the test, not wanting to look, wanting to suspend that tiny hopeful feeling and hold it a little longer. When I return to the bathroom and pick up the test, I blink at the pink plus sign. I scream and I jump and jump. Elation will send a body straight into the air. My husband pulls back the shower curtain with a smile and says, “I knew it.”
Author’s Note: As it turned out, we had a girl, born with the same brown eyes and easy temperament as her dad, just as I’d imagined years ago on the beach. This essay began as a poem, a whisper of the search. A search that altered my conception of self, of the world around me, and of faith, that elusive shape shifter. Just when I thought I’d lost faith, there it was again. The trick was to find it every time, and to follow it forward.
Sarah Bousquet is a freelance writer living in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.