Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Meaning of Just

adjective - guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness.
adverb -  only or merely.
The word "just" keeps coming up.

It was one of those words that grated against us as we were trying to conceive. 

"Just'll happen!" 

"Just stop'll get pregnant in no time!"

"Just put your trust in the Lord and it will be fine."

"Just." As if it is simple, as if it is effortless. The easiest thing in the world for others.
It has been a struggle for us since day one. And it has not been a mystery for us. We know why we can't have kids.  Coming by this knowledge wasn't simple or effortless either. Lots and lots of tests. Operations. Meds. "Speculation" shares a root with "speculum."

Nothing about this process at any point could be described as "just" doing anything.

And there is the other meaning of the word.

If nothing about this process has been simple, then even less has been fair.

I used to pay lip service to the idea that the world is cold and arbitrary, that any meaning in it is the meaning we impose upon it. I thought I believed it. But being unable to conceive and losing the children we were able to have, and watching that tragedy burn a swath through my life...

I used to believe it, but now I know it.  There is nothing just about what happened to us.

Maybe I'm surrendering. Not to the despair, but to the idea that struggle is not enough. Ironic, since the idea that hard work isn't enough is something I've had to explain to my students over and over again. Finally learning my own lesson, I guess. So I've internalized it, this idea that just wanting it and working hard for it is no guarantee. I've surrendered to the idea that the world does not care about my problems. People do, but the world at large does not. The world moves on whether I grieve or not. And it is not going to wait for me. 

S has been struggling a lot with the sheer unfairness of all of this. So much effort, so much money, time, life lost to it, all for something other people can even do by accident. There's even a TV show, "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant." Struggling with the cold, hard slap of the world. A world that moves on, that does not wait, that watches our grief with a lightless, unblinking eye.

A world that just is, and is not just.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


S and I took a big step today. We got out of bed (before noon - that would have been a big step two years ago), did some housecleaning, and then did some more housecleaning.

Specifically, we gathered up all of the leftover drugs and medical paraphernalia from our fertility treatments so we could get rid of it. Deep breath, the thing hanging over our head as we ate lunch. Want to do it but don't want to do it. Hurts facing it but hurts to have it looming over our heads. Little reminders in every corner of the house. Time to get rid of it.

So we went through every room, pulled together all of the various and sundry bags of medication bought and donated to the cause. Found all the sharps containers (including the one we kept in the liquor cabinet along with the Ativan - our one-stop vice cabinet, it was - and gathered everything together on the living room floor. Where we sat, sorting. This has expired, this hasn't, these are still usable, these aren't. Box up the stuff that's still good, gather the containers, separate regular garbage from garbage with expired drugs in it (probably not a good idea to pour hormones and blood thinners into the water supply) and go, go throw it away, get rid of it.

For S it felt like another failure. Years of trying, hope, and heartbreak, reduced to a few boxes and plastic bags.

For me, it felt like something between the removal of a tumor and an exorcism. Something offending yanked and tugged out. The hole is open and raw, but fresh air is getting in.

The day is gray like slate, hot and humid. An oppressive day, not a day for joy.  It's quiet. We've indulged in some comfort food - potato chips for her, beer for me, ice cream for us both.  As we pick it out, my mind returns to the days after we lost the boys, the thought "why am I buying junk food? Fuck you, dead babies." That was the mantra, the war cry after the boys died. "Fuck you, dead babies."

I'm thinking more in terms of war with regard to our experience lately. In a recent post I referred to people who haven't struggled with child loss and/or infertility as "civilians." And today, as we were disposing of the expired drugs, I thought of all of the vials crushed, and it reminded me of some dialogue from The Wire, a/k/a "one of the best pieces of television ever created and probably the best cop show of all time"...

Detective Leandor Sydnor is preparing to go undercover to do drug buys. He and the other officers solicit the opinion of one of their informants, a longtime addict nicknamed "Bubbles." Bubbles comments on the relatively clean soles of Sydnor's shoes...
"You walking down them alleys of the projects...
you stepping on the dead soldiers."  

"Dead soldiers?" 
"Yeah, empty vials. You can't walk down a Baltimore street without them cracking underneath your feet. You want to know if a fiend is for real...check the bottom of his shoes."
So I'm thinking about all the dead soldiers. All the vials, all the needles. The ruin left in the wake of all our attempts. Every war has casualties, every military operation (huh, "operation") does collateral damage. The veterans who return (and it occurs to me that S used to read a forum for people doing IVF called "the veterans board") have memories they won't share with anyone else - the blood, the screaming, the loss. One minute they're alive, the next they're dead.  You make life and death decisions, and the deaths happen in front of you and there's nothing you can do but keep them from suffering. We make horrible jokes, cruel jokes, and find it hard to be sympathetic or sensitive to the problems of others.

We have come home from a war, but we brought the war with us.

An old joke:
Q: Why did the Vietnam veteran cross the road?
A: You wouldn't know, man! You weren't there!
I don't know that it's a hard and fast line, but in my head I've divided up our friends into "the ones who get it" and "the ones who don't get it." They're all still my friends, but some...know. They've had their own losses or their own struggles conceiving, or they were there for us when it happened. They get it. Others don't, and I don't tell them stuff, it's not for them to know. Just like fathers and grandfathers don't like to talk about what they did in the war. I still love them, I still enjoy their company, and our loss doesn't define me, but there are some places in my head and heart that are mine and mine alone.

Maybe the anger is my desire to survive, to keep this from winning, as it were. To try and rise above the trauma and live well. Today felt like a step in that direction.  Coming home from the wars.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bliss, Ignorance, and Myth

So let's talk about privilege.

It's one of the trickier things I have to teach - trying to get across the idea that privilege (in a social sense) doesn't mean getting extra favors or benefits. It means that the social system actually works for you the way it ostensibly works for everybody. Social privilege is a very subtle thing for the recipient, an invisible pair of hands opening doors, smoothing the path, cushioning you when you fall. It's a very different view from the outside, where those invisible hands are at best absent, at worst giving you the finger or punching you in the face every day.

S and I both deal with the idea of privilege in our respective fields - white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, the multiple ways groups of people go through life without being aware of what awaits on the other side of the wall.

So I'm beginning to think in terms of fertile privilege.

Babies are everywhere. Not only are babies everywhere, but everywhere you go they are celebrated. Which is understandable, because making more little versions of us is pretty much Job One of any species. Babies are assumed - if you're an adult, you're going to have kids. It's just a matter of time. Don't want them? You'll change your mind. Having trouble having them? Just relax - it'll happen when you least expect it. Babies are defended - I have seen otherwise rational people make ridiculous decisions around their children and justify it as "mothers' intuition" or knowing better than any expert what their child needs. Sometimes I feel like there's something around the act of conception and parenthood that makes it easy to be thoughtless and rude, because children trump pretty much everything else. I'm not saying they shouldn't, but as someone who has been denied this privilege, I feel like I'm becoming more and more aware of the blind spot many people have around our situation.

I recognize that S and I are in a unique place - infertility, child loss, secondary infertility. We're the triple threat. Our chances aren't good, but the only people who really seem to get that are the people who have been down that road. The incomprehension and discomfort that surround any awareness of our struggle or our loss are palpable. It's like infertility and child loss are catching. We might infect other mothers with our dead baby germs. We're walking reminders of the one thing they're trying to forget - that children die, and something can always go wrong.

It's an uncomfortable truth. We don't have the luxury of denying it, but others do. If you've been raised to believe that you can have a child whenever you're ready and it will happen pretty much right away, and it will be beautiful and perfect and it will be hard but it will all be worth it in the end, then dealing with the idea that it might be a struggle to conceive, it might take years, there will be risks, there might be death, and the whole process might leave you permanently changed, even cost you your marriage and friends and job, and you can still have nothing to show for it in the end? Yeah, that's not happening.

We all know the cliches: "God has a plan." "Everything happens for a reason." "It will happen for you someday." They're meant to be comforting to us (even though they aren't), but they're also comforting for them.

Alongside the idea of privilege, I also teach the idea of the legitimizing myth - the stories a culture tells itself to explain inequality or injustice. Myths like the Protestant Work Ethic (hard work is rewarded), or the Just World Belief (everything happens for a reason). In the absence of these explanations, the world is cold, uncaring, and arbitrary. These stories are torches against the dark. Without these mantras, we are adrift. All bets are off. Bad things happen to good people, and happen to them for no goddamned reason whatsoever.  I don't blame people for not wanting to believe this, but their blithe dismissal hurts. To my many other jobs and roles, I can add cautionary tale. Not sure how I feel about that just yet.