When I said goodbye to my mother-in-law in her hospice suite, I chose my words carefully. “Despite everything through the years, you are the mother of the man I love,” I whispered while I stroked her damp, flushed forehead. “And for that, I love you, too. You know I will take good care of your son.” I started to cry. “And one day, we will finally have a baby, and I promise we will name that baby after you.”
She tried to say something but wasn’t able to speak. I moved my hand to cover hers and we sat for a moment, hands clasped, breathing together in silence.
My husband and I were in the midst of our eleventh round of IVF when I said goodbye to my mother-in-law. We had made a conscious decision to follow through with our fertility treatment even though we knew her death was imminent. We saw the circle of life inherent in our choice.
I had given my husband the option to postpone or to cancel the cycle altogether. “We have so much going on. I won’t be upset if you want to pause this cycle,” I promised him. I held his gaze across the linoleum booth of a take-out sandwich shop two miles from the hospice center where his mother was dying.
“It’s not too late. We can call it off,” I said.
My husband and I were in the midst of our eleventh round of IVF when I said goodbye to my mother-in-law… We saw the circle of life inherent in our choice. He shook his head no. “Hol, we aren’t calling off the transfer. What’s going on with my mom doesn’t change our plans. It just doesn’t.” His lower lip trembled. Not calling off the transfer was his way of showing me that I was still his priority. Yet…I had feared that while grieving the loss of his mother, he might not really be there for me in all the ways I needed him to be during my treatment and its likely failure. It was a matter of days, not weeks until his mother would pass, the hospice staff told us.
That evening, we ate Chinese food from takeout containers at his mother’s kitchen table, then numbed my bloated stomach with a bag of frozen raspberries before injecting a syringe of Ganirilex into my fatty abdominal tissue. The Ganirilex would shut down my ovaries so I wouldn’t ovulate naturally. An embryo made of our own genetic material would instead be transferred into my uterus four days later.
We weren’t optimistic about the eleventh cycle. When it, too, failed we intended to transfer our genetic embryos into a gestational carrier.
One month before my mother-in-law died, we had already met with a surrogacy agency. “We’ve already done more cycles than most people ever try. Our story ends with a surrogate. I’ve made my peace with that,” I asserted in the car on our way there.
To say I had made my peace with a surrogate isn’t entirely true. I had made peace with my body being done. I couldn’t take more rounds of injections, weight gain, crazy-making hormones. I hadn’t made peace with feeling like a biological failure.
We had held hands when we sat across from a lawyer who guided us on pursuing a gestational carrier. We filled out the paperwork for the agency, which included questions about our preferences in a surrogate, how many embryos we wanted to transfer, if we would want to reduce the pregnancy if she became pregnant with multiples, and if there were circumstances under which we would want to terminate the pregnancy. We enclosed two photos—one of us hugging with wide, sloppy smiles at a friend’s wedding, another eating pastries with our dog at the farmers’ market—so the potential surrogate could see the couple who would pay her twenty-five thousand dollars to carry their baby or babies to term.
To say I made my peace with a surrogate isn’t entirely true. I had made my peace with my body being done. I couldn’t take more rounds of injections, weight gain, crazy-making hormones.I had found myself brainstorming out loud in the shower, making decisions without consulting my husband. We would transfer multiple embryos into the surrogate; we would schedule weekly FaceTime sessions with her and we would travel to her for the milestone ultrasounds; I would rent an apartment where she lived and spend her third trimester living nearby; we would not disclose to anyone that we were using a surrogate until after the baby or babies arrived. I crafted the email we’d send to our friends and family upon the birth of our surrogate children: “We know this may come as a surprise to many of you, and we hope you can understand our need for privacy. We are excited for you to meet our girls…” In my fantasy, the babies carried by the surrogate were twin girls named Audrey Rae and Beatrice Mae, our alphabetical miracles.
In the hospice, as we listened to my mother-in-law’s labored breaths, I kept a hand on my husband’s arm as he cried. I felt guilty and ashamed to admit that I had hope that our life together would improve when the immediacy of her death passed. I believed, bearing witness to his pain, that if we had a baby while she was alive, my husband would have been forced to choose between his mother and his child just as he was often forced to choose between his mother and his wife.
Less than one week after my mother-in-law died, my blood levels confirmed that I was pregnant with our baby. “Congratulations!” the nurse squealed when she called me with the results. I didn’t respond for a few moments. I had had positive results four previous times and then miscarried those pregnancies.
But this time was different—exactly thirty-eight weeks after my mother-in-law died, I delivered a healthy baby girl.
We had followed through with our eleventh try because we had to, we felt compelled to. I believe now, as a mother myself, that some sort of energy in the universe also understood the ways it would have been too complicated for my husband to simultaneously navigate the demands of parenthood and the demands of being an only child to a single, sick mother.
Our daughter is now nine months old. She is named after my mother-in-law. She also inherited her grandmother’s long, slender fingers and toes, though the rest of her is round and chubby. She smiles with her whole body, and my husband smiles back at her with tears in his wide blue eyes full of pride and love and happiness merely because she exists.
If forced to choose, his smile makes clear, he will always choose her.
Holly Schechter is an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. She also serves on the editorial staff of Intima: Journal of Narrative Medicine.
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