Watching for Rhinos

nonfiction by Kimberly Schaye 

Samantha sits next to me in the tall grass, her tiny denim-clad legs outstretched, a dandelion poised at her puckered lips. “I will make a rhinoceros wish,” my two-year-old announces before she blows. Samantha believes there are rhinoceroses living in a drainpipe under the dirt road that runs past our flower farm. She already knows at least one basic rule of wishing: A puff on this silvery seed head could bring her animal friends into view. I have not tried to dissuade her from this belief. After all, I once wished for something just as fantastic, or so it seemed. I wished that I would have a child.

I always knew I wanted someday to be a mother, but after I got married I never gave much thought to how it would happen. I assumed that once my husband and I decided to throw away those birth control pills, natureand a few well-placed wisheswould take care of the rest.

My own mother was the one who taught me all about wishing and good luck. She knew all the rules. When I was little we searched for dandelions in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, upturned pennies on Broadway and stars over the New Jersey skyline, smog notwithstanding. Our faith in the efficacy of these rituals was absolute.
I tried them all in the first year my husband and I attempted to conceive, and even came up with a few of my own. Having left a big-city journalism career for a farmer’s life in the country, I often passed a particular field in my local travels that belonged to a sheep farm. As I counted down the days until I could take a pregnancy test, I would look out for lambs peeking out from behind large, fleecy ewes. If I saw a baby lamb, I took it as a sign of hope. No lambs meant try again next month. But after more than a year of trying, my husband and I agreed it was time to seek help of a more scientific kind.

With the aid of our doctor, we started to study a different set of rulesone having to do with hormones and gametes and oviducts. My husband’s sperm was examined; my progesterone levels were measured and my fallopian tubes shot with dye and x-rayed to check for blockages. Nothing obvious was wrong, which should have made me feel wonderful. It didn’t. The longer I went without a diagnosis for whatever my problem was (and it was almost sure to be mine, since my husband’s sperm was normal), the worse I felt. After all, a condition with a name at least lets you focus on solving a specific problem. It also offers a bridge to others in the same situation. My “undiagnosed infertility” left me feeling defective and isolated. It was the loneliest I had ever been. Not only did I feel cut off from everybody I considered normal (even my own husband) but also from those I hoped would come after me, those who would perpetuate the family I treasured. Was I really going to be the end of the line?

My doctor suggested we begin treatments that could work for a variety of conditions. The first was artificial insemination. When I had thought about making a baby, I never envisioned the following scene: me lying on an examination table with a nurse and my husband at my side as a doctor pushed a sperm-filled catheter into my body. But as strange as it was, I would have been grateful if the four of us could have produced what just two of us had not. And the situation was not entirely devoid of human warmth. The tall, quiet nurse noticed I was scared and reached out to hold my hand.

Years ago, after graduating from college, I confided to a fellow graduate that I wanted desperately to write but felt completely paralyzed. My friend, being more religious than I, asked me the following question: “Do you think God would have given you the desire but not the ability?” I thought another way to ask this question was, Do you think life is fair? I couldn’t really answer that one, but felt buoyed by his certainty that it was. And indeed, I was eventually able to face down my stage fright and make a career out of writing. But there seemed much more to realizing my desire to bear a child. Now I had to conquer not just fear, but biology or maybe even destiny.

As the negative pregnancy test results continued to roll in, I became more and more discouraged. One day, standing by a vending machine in my office building, a co-worker walked up and asked me why I looked so down. “I’m not pregnant,” I told him. “Again.”

“We’re going to start trying, too” he replied. “How do you know when it’s the right time?”

“Wait here,” I said.

When I returned with my pocket calendar, I gave him a brief seminar on the reproductive cycle of the human female. He said he would ask his wife when her last period was. “Good luck,” I said. They didn’t need it. They conceived that very month.

Within the year, my friend would bring to the office a beautiful newborn boy. The baby was asleep in his swaddling, only his face visible. Though I could barely glance at a pregnant woman without bitterness, I felt only wonder and tenderness as I looked at the tiny blue veins coursing under this little one’s translucent skin. I understood how an adoptive mother could fall in love at first sight with a child to whom she hadn’t given birth. But I wasn’t ready to go that route.

After more months of unsuccessful inseminations, it was time to move on to more powerful, injectable fertility drugs. But my ovaries proved too sensitive to this medication and I had to stop taking it immediately. This reaction, however, finally yielded a clue as to what was causing my infertility: It appeared I had a particular ovulation disorder that prevented my eggs from maturing properly. The only practical course of treatment, my doctor said, would be in vitro fertilization. My eggs would have to be removed from my body and then fertilized with my husband’s sperm in a petri dish.

This process made inseminations look quaint. When I had gone through the latter procedure, it seemed the room was too crowded to conceive a child. This time it was too empty: My husband and I didn’t even get to be there. A doctor using an ultrasound-guided needle harvested my eggs and then a few days later, three that had been fertilized were put back inside me. Then it was two weeks of waiting for a pregnancy test.
Fortunately it was now late spring, the busiest time of year at our farm, and there was plenty of work to take my mind off the question of whether the procedure had worked. Hundreds of seedlings awaited transfer from their plastic trays in the greenhouse to our field. But as I knelt in the dirt and put the first tiny green shoots into the ground one by one, I found myself thinking about the transplants I was hoping would take root in my own body. And I finally realized something I should have known all along: It just wasn’t up to me. I could do everything I could think of to make sure both my seedlings and my embryos came to fruition. But, in the end, it would be forces much larger than myself that would decide. Having absolved myself of such an enormous responsibility, I felt all the tension in my muscles slip away. I had never experienced such a relaxed state in the midst of this two-year ordeal and wouldn’t again, but for that one moment I was completely at peace with whatever the outcome might be.

I didn’t get pregnant that time. But with additional fertilized embryos the doctor had cryopreserved after our first attempt at in vitro, we tried again. And two weeks after that, I took a blood test and a nurse said the words I had been waiting to hear for so long: You’re pregnant.

A short time later I found myself back in New York City on a steamy summer night, tipsy with joy as I zigzagged through crowded upper Lexington Avenue. I was surrounded by people but no one was looking at me. I couldn’t believe it. How could I not stand out? And all at once I knew that I had never wanted to be normal; I wanted to be extraordinary. Because holding a new life in your body is nothing short of that.

I understand the scientific underpinnings of my infertility as well as any layperson could; I know that certain physical and hormonal changes had to take place for me to produce eggs that could be fertilized. But in the end I don’t think that’s all it was about. The closest I can come to explaining what I mean is this: Perhaps, for reasons that aren’t ours to know, some of us are made to wish a little harder for the things we want most.

There is no place for loneliness in my life as a mother. My beloved little girl is always with me and we can often be found side by side in the grass on this breezy hill. Samantha watches her dandelion seeds fly by. But I think I’ll keep my eye on that drainpipe just in case.

Kimberly Schaye, now the mother of two, is the author of Stronger than Dirt: How One Urban Couple Grew a Business, a Family, and a new Way of Life from the Ground Up, now available as an e-book from amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and her own website, silverpetalsfarm.com.

An interview with Kimberly Schaye, “Infertility, Heartbreak, and the Ironies of Conception,” is now live at She Writes.

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