(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)
Like a roller in the ocean, life is motion, move on.
With six IUIs and two and a half IVFs behind us, M and I needed to decide which direction to go in next…
I consider myself to be an extremely lucky person. I must admit to being more than a little pissed off at having drawn the infertility short straw (one in six couples, as it turns out, will experience infertility in one way or another), but I’m completely aware that my circumstances could be a whole lot worse. While some couples have to work two or three jobs or re-mortgage their homes to fund their fertility treatments, I’ve been fortunate enough to focus fulltime on baby-making while living in a lovely house in the French countryside. M and I have, of course, watched with wide-eyed concern as M’s life savings have been decimated (the “college fund” was long ago rebranded as a “conception fund”), but I’m really not about to start playing tiny violins in any sort of woe-is-me self-pity fest.
OK, maybe I did feel a little sorry for myself after the second IVF failed. But the fact that we were able to use M’s Easter break to drive down to the south of France and stare at the sea as we contemplated our next move went some way towards softening the blow. The ironies of Easter’s symbolism were not lost on us – what are Easter eggs if not a symbol of the fertility and rebirth that was proving to be beyond our grasp? – but I tried not to think about that as we washed them down with a bottle of Champagne that my sister Luli had bought for us before she’d flown back to Australia a few days before.
The day after our arrival on the French Riviera we took a drive up the coast to the medieval hilltop village of Èze. Before we began the ascent through the cobbled streets of the village to the Eagle’s Nest restaurant where we were to have lunch, we stopped at the Fragonard perfume shop at the bottom of the hill. I think I thought that a new fragrance might be the start of the development of a new me – I wasn’t best enamoured with the old me, infertile creature that she’d turned out to be – and so purchased a bottle of Fragonard’s finest. I didn’t know then that the Rêve Indien (Indian Dream) that I bought that day would always make me feel a little nauseous, so strong were its associations with that difficult time.
It was there in Èze, as we watched the sun struggle to burn through the mist that was eclipsing our view of the ocean below, that M and I started to talk about the fertility options still open to us. As there was no obvious reason for me not to have conceived after all these attempts, one conclusion that we were forced to draw was that perhaps my ageing eggs were just not up to the task of developing into real-life, baby-sized Mini-Mes. Perhaps we’d have to consider clutching at the next straw extended to us by those in the know – using another woman’s eggs.
When we got back to Geneva and had the post-failure follow-up consultation with Dr Pyramid, he looked somewhat dejected as he went through our file, speculated on the probable reasons for the failure and talked through possible new drug protocols for our next attempt. When I interjected and told him that we were considering the possibility of using donor eggs, his whole demeanour was transformed. He closed the file, sat up straight in his chair, smiled at me and said, “If you do that you will be pregnant within a year.” In fact, just for emphasis, he actually said that twice.
I don’t know what he was basing his optimism on – the fact is that even with donor eggs, the chances of success for a woman of my age are still not that great – but his enthusiasm was certainly infectious. I put aside my reservations about using another woman’s DNA to make our baby, and replaced them with the thought that it would be my blood that would flow through the baby’s veins. I tried not to think about the fact that I’d never be able to look at our child and see my own brown eyes or feint traces of my Mum or Dad or my much-loved siblings, and instead reminded myself that at least M’s features would be in the mix, and it would be my body that would bring our baby into the world. Egg donation is not legal in Switzerland, so we left Dr P’s office with a list of Spanish clinics that we could contact in our own time. Of course I was going to contact them. I’d been assured (twice) that I’d be pregnant within a year.
Another decision that we made around that time was that we wouldn’t tell anyone about this next attempt at IVF. This was an easy decision for M – his quiet reserve and stoic self-reliance make him less than likely to chat about any troubles in his life – but I grew up as one of six kids, five of us girls, and that gave me a solid grounding in the benefits of talking things through. The trouble with that approach to this problem, however, had been that there was a weight of hope and expectation during each cycle that I couldn’t carry any more. It was so beautiful knowing that there were people out there who cared and were thinking of us, but having to break the bad news when things didn’t work out required more strength than my diminished reserves now contained. So when the Spanish clinic found us a donor whose physical and mental well-being and apparent resemblance to me made her a perfect match for us, we told everyone we were taking a summer holiday and took off to Logrono, Spain.
After a brief Monday-morning visit to the clinic, during which M made his contribution and the doctor checked that the drugs I’d been taking had sufficiently prepped my body for the imminent embryo transfer, we were in fact free to enjoy a few days off. It was so bizarre to think, as we visited the mountains and monasteries and fantastic modern architecture of northern Spain and indulged in the gorgeous tapas for which Logrono is famous, that an anonymous young woman was at that moment going through potentially life-changing surgery on our behalf. For weeks she’d been injecting herself with hormones, and on the morning of our brief consultation, she was under a general anaesthetic having her eggs “harvested”. For us. We couldn’t stop thinking about her, and for the ten days that we stayed in Spain we looked at every young woman and wondered if maybe she was the one who’d done this extraordinary thing for us. We wanted to thank her. In Spain, however, unlike in England, egg donation is anonymous, so the best we could do was exude a general air of heartfelt thanks to any woman who would consider doing such a thing for nothing more than the knowledge that she’d given the most amazing of gifts to a less than perfect stranger.
Two weeks later, we were set to learn whether this extraordinary young woman’s eggs were as good as her intentions. My Dad had been staying with us for a week on the day that I had the pregnancy test, and had been subject to the symptoms of my stress, without, poor thing, having any idea of the causes. He knew I had a doctor’s appointment that morning but he didn’t know what for, and neither did my lovely friend with whom we had lunch in the park several hours later. It was she who took this picture of me and Dad that day; the evidence of my earlier blood test is still showing on my arm.
The call from the clinic came while we were all still soaking up the sun as we chatted in the Parc des Bastions, our backs to the statues and bas-reliefs of the Reformation Wall. When my mobile rang I separated myself off from the others. I took the call – “Je suis desolée, madame, mais le test est négatif” – and sobbed as I phoned M to convey the news to him. Then in my best impersonation of Emma Thompson in the only great scene in the awful Love Actually, I wiped away my tears and went back to chat with the others. I could almost hear Joni Mitchell singing Both Sides Now.
Between the amazing young woman’s excellent eggs and M’s Superman sperm, we’d actually managed to create five embryos while we were in Spain, and only three of them had been implanted. So we still had two left, cryogenically suspended. So last month I went back to Logrono to try my luck with these last embryos. (In case anyone’s wondering… Yes, that was the trip that I was on when I recently wrote about travelling solo.)
Over our years of treatments, I’ve had to be the bearer of bad news rather than babies too many times. I wasn’t sure that I could make that call to M again. So on the day of the last blood test, two weeks after I’d got back to Geneva, M took a proper lunch break and we met up in a busy restaurant in Geneva so we could be together when we got the call from the clinic. While we ate and waited, we allowed ourselves the most gorgeous half-hour of happiness.
If it’s a girl, M said, I’m going to buy her loads of Scalextrics.
And if it’s a boy? I asked.
Still loads of Scalextrics, M replied. And all of her toys will be made of wood.
Simultaneously: Apart from the Scalextrics…
I’m so glad we allowed ourselves that.
The call didn’t come through until after M had gone back to the office, so I was alone again when I took it, but I was somehow buoyed up by having had that conversation. At least we’d been happy for half an hour. I didn’t even cry when I phoned M and told him this time.
Instead, I surveyed the scene at the Botanical Gardens from the park bench where I sat. It was a fairly grey and overcast day, so I had the park pretty much to myself, sharing only with the peacock that was strutting its stuff in front of the flowerbed just near my bench. The beautiful merry-go-round at the Lake Geneva end of the park had been closed down for the winter, but it stilled retained an air of all the fun kids had had on it earlier in the year. A man wearing silly running shorts over baggy jogging bottoms went past doing that sideways dance step that footballers indulge in during training sessions. And a waft of coffee came down the hill from the almost abandoned but still open café. Life, it seemed, was still beautiful.
Get up off this bench, I told myself, and get on with the rest of your childless life.
And so I did.
Now that I’ve got to the end of telling my sorry tale, I realise that I still have more to say on this subject. I thank you so much for your patience in reading on this far and warn you that, alas, there will be a postscript…
Still (but not for very much longer) to be continued…