By Laura MauldinAugust 7, 2022
THE FERTILITY CENTER’S classroom was a faux wood–paneled boardroom with a big square table and wide leather chairs. Several couples were already sitting there, looking rather professional. They all appeared to be hetero, and I didn’t know what they thought of me. I clomped in wearing a tank top, keychain dangling from my belt loop, sweaty after pedaling in on my bike from Brooklyn. My required class about freezing my eggs was about to start. I was a misfit in a weird human-tissue factory, but I apparently had an assigned seat. I plopped down in one of the wide leather chairs, my toes barely reaching the floor. A thick stack of paperwork in color-coded folders with my name printed on white labels sat in front of me.
A few days earlier, I had sat in the park with a friend, agonizing. “It’s a lot of money,” I said. “Look at it as an insurance policy you’re taking out for yourself,” she said. She was not going to indulge my questioning. She had a point. I was going to blow my savings, but in exchange, perhaps I would have a fail-safe if I couldn’t have a child before my fertility went kaput. Fail to plan, plan to fail. Still, this choice to freeze my eggs wasn’t entirely about infertility, but redemption. It was about repairing the brutality that unfolded in the wake of a very different choice I’d made years earlier. But there was no way to avoid the fact that I had been backed into a corner, disoriented by the loss of years of my life, and the clock was ticking.
On a cement-baking August afternoon, I squinted at the sun and sat sweating on the steps of Madison Square Garden waiting for some friends. I was 27 years old and had just moved to New York. I was meeting up with some folks so we could watch a WNBA game. One of those friends had invited her friend, J. And when J. strutted up the steps wearing yellow Nike high-tops, her hair piled high in a men’s style pompadour, I practically fell in love before she reached the top. I spent the whole game making conversation with her. I yammered on about a salad dressing I liked to make when she told me she was a chef. I fell all over myself. After we all left together, I kept talking to her on the subway, too. When I exited the train, she casually waved goodbye as I stepped onto the platform.
I ran into her again at a lesbian bar in December. The dance floor was a dimly lit mesh of bodies, faceless and drifting past, but I saw her. My breath caught — the signature pompadour, the black jacket, the oozing confidence. I tried to seem casual. We both smiled and waved. Suddenly we were moving in sync, as if caught in each other’s gravity. Later that night, she kissed me as though there was no one else in the room. My embarrassment floated away with the sheer lightning she sent through me. In the following days, the force between us grew stronger. We started writing letters to each other, even though we both lived in Brooklyn. My decision to love her was instant.
A couple of months later, she left town for a few days, and, deep in my infatuation, I felt crushed under the weight of her absence. The day she returned was a bitterly cold Valentine’s Day. I made my way across Williamsburg to her apartment, giddy as an adolescent. In the cold shade of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, cars whirring above me on the arc of the overpass, I thought of her body. Maybe it was something I had heard in her voice when she’d called to ask me over, but as the wind kicked up, I was troubled by a diffuse sorrow. I dismissed it as the stark contrast of the bleak winter cityscape and the heat of my anticipation. I furrowed my brow and pushed the feeling away.
When I arrived at her apartment, I stripped off my coat and breathlessly told her how much I missed her. We sat down to face each other on her living room floor. Lit by the warm glow of a single lamp, her large brown eyes stared into mine. She said she had something to tell me but that she was afraid. I reached for her trembling hand, telling her sweetly, naïvely, that it would be okay, whatever it was, that we would be okay. She said she’d had leukemia and had thought it was in remission, but it was back. A bone marrow transplant was the only option if she was to be cured. Both of her parents were dead. And here we were, new lovers, and she was facing death again, alone. Except, now, she had me, and though I had planned to give my heart to her piece by piece, I would instead open myself as wide as I could. It was simple; I had already decided to love her. I squeezed her hands and told her, “We will get through it.”
Ten days later, she entered the hospital to begin months of chemotherapy, radiation, and high doses of steroids. My feelings for her grew as her hair fell out on my pillow. I was utterly smitten and she was a doting partner, even as the treatments twisted her body into that of a stranger. She brought me homemade granola, took me to her favorite restaurants, some nestled so deep in Brooklyn that I wondered if she was the only outsider in the world who had found them. She sent me love letters, even as the prednisone she was taking sent her into fits of rage. Bit by bit, my naïveté about her illness was replaced by my will to master what we were up against. I memorized the 20-plus pills she had to take every day. I accompanied her to her appointments with the transplant team. We made out in the consulting room, stopping when the knock on the door signaled a physician’s entrance.
For months, chemotherapy and radiation ravaged her body, but this was merely a prelude. In June, she was admitted to the transplant floor at Memorial Sloan Kettering and began a regimen of far more intense treatments. She got a catheter and a port embedded in her chest and an IV pump with a tangle of lines going in. For weeks she was so sick she could not stand. I held her while she cried with her head in my lap. Nearly every day, on the hour-long subway ride from my apartment in Brooklyn to the hospital on 68th Street, I wrote in a journal, addressing every entry to her. One recounted that night at the bar when she first kissed me, this memory a trinket I pulled out for us whenever our capacity to believe we could carry on wavered.
She stayed in isolation in her hospital room for months. Anyone who entered had to wear a gown, gloves, and a mask. “You can have all the paper kisses you want,” I told her. And in an ode to our penchant for reading Gertrude Stein to each other, days later, at her bedside, my journal entry said just, “Precious pine nut sleeps. Ladybug loves her.” When a transplant patient down the hall died, I watched the family gather. As the nurses rolled the body away, I stood in horror, one hand over my mouth. I read the statistics; I knew nearly half of all transplant patients didn’t make it. I hurried to the family breakroom down the hall and cried. I never told her what I saw.
It was August, again, when I got to take her back to her apartment. The sun streamed in through tall kitchen windows and onto the bright blue linoleum tiles in the kitchen, with its one yellow square tile that stood out. J. had plants in her windows, but she couldn’t touch them because she no longer had an immune system. She couldn’t touch anything that might have mold, mess with taking out the garbage, or go outside without a mask and gloves. We were told to disinfect the tops of canned food so that the can opener wouldn’t spin a weird germ into her food and land her back in the hospital.
A couple of days later, we ventured outside. From the kitchen, we heard vibrating echoes of an outdoor concert in the park at the end of her block. It was Sonic Youth. We were two women in our twenties who desperately wanted to join in. Not having the strength for stairs, J. leaned on me, and we danced our way down the three steps in front of her building. She walked gingerly, swaying and unsure, as though she did not know her feet were connected to her body. Once at the park’s edge, she leaned on the wrought-iron fence, gripping it tightly with latex gloves. In the distance, people bobbed their heads. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and her lashless eyes peered out at me above her mask. She was so vulnerable leaning on that fence, head cocked, winded. After a few moments, dirt blew into her eye. I helped her back home and sat her down on a small wooden chair in her kitchen. Cradling her neck in my hand, I used the sunlight to find the offending speck and swab it out with a Q-tip.
After the egg-freezing class, I underwent a variety of tests so my protocol could be tailored for me. It was a slog; so much of healthcare was just a lot of what J. and I called “hurry up and wait.” It took weeks to get medical clearance and a lot of coordination with nurses and specialized pharmacies to obtain the medications. These were injectables, some of which I stored in the refrigerator, along with pills. On the second day of meds, I wrote in my journal about holding my belly in anticipation. By day four, I wrote that I was easily overwhelmed, couldn’t focus, and was utterly fatigued and bloated. “I feel full of eggs,” I wrote. I journaled about being cared for by my friends, who knew why I had to do this. On day five, a group of us lesbians gathered to do an egg ritual; my friends sang songs as they sat around me in a circle. I wrote to my eggs that they were being created by a long history of love and chosen family. “Whatever happens to you in the future, know that you were born in love,” I proclaimed to them. By day eight I wrote, “I want to kill somebody,” and that I was extremely tired, unfocused, and “CAN’T WAIT FOR THIS TO END!”
On retrieval day, they collected an astonishing 37 eggs, 28 of which were deemed mature and frozen. At the beginning, the doctor had told me I could expect six to eight, so I was elated. I wrote in my journal that I was “all set” and my reproductive future secured.
One morning, J. and I were having breakfast together in our apartment, and she was trying to drink water out of a cup. She was increasingly weak from the extreme effects of congestive heart failure and graft-versus-host disease (or GVHD, a condition where the transplanted immune system attacks the host body). Despite ongoing issues over the more than four years posttransplant, we kept on. We got a first, second, and third apartment together, finally landing in an elevator building when she became a wheelchair user. She made it through multiple major issues, including a colon resection when a tumor was found, ongoing GVHD, cardiac events, and psychotic episodes from the effects of all that prednisone.
She tentatively propped her cup between her rigid fingers and brought it carefully to her mouth. The GVHD had sclerosed her hands so much that her fingers were stuck rigidly straight, her palms permanently collapsed. But she tipped her head just a little too far back. And, what is the word? What is the sound of a head flopping back, collapsing at the top of the spine? Her head hung heavy the wrong direction, her neck splayed back, overstretched, the skin pulling. I jumped up as soon as I saw it. Her gaze was forced to the ceiling and she emitted a weak, shaking croak, “Laura, help.” She did not have the strength to lift her head back. I ran to put my hands on the back of her head, gently raising it.
It had been more than four years since that afternoon in the park listening to the concert, when I’d first cradled her head in my hands to swab her eye. And though our relationship had hallmarks typical of a romance — getting an apartment together, making sweets for the holidays, and eating our way through New York — over the years it became increasingly punctuated by harrowing visits to the ER, IV drips, falls, incapacitating pain, and endless piles of pills. Without knowing it and without really ever having consented, I was demoted over time from lover to life-support system. My demotion began that very night after the concert all those years ago, when she developed a stomachache and fever. I helped her from her bed to the bathroom. She was so shockingly thin. After helping her onto the toilet, I went to call the hospital because a fever meant going to the emergency room. But then she was moaning.
When I peered into the bathroom, I saw her, bald, emaciated, slumped. The port at the top of her skull, used to deliver chemo directly into her central nervous system, protruded under her scalp like a cyclops eye. Her torso leaned slightly to her right, towards the tiled wall; she was unable to hold herself in an upright position. And there was blood everywhere. It had filled the toilet and spattered onto the floor, the seat, and the wall. It was a jarring visual, blood snaking into the grout of the white tiles. The intense color. The spatter, the smell. Eventually, she was bleeding out and sliding down, slithering onto the bathroom floor as I tried to catch her. My heart beat furiously, instinctively, and foolishly, thinking it could pump enough blood for the both of us.
I tried to conceal my panic. I picked her up and held her as we made our way back to bed. But a minute later, she was back in the bathroom again shitting copious amounts of blood. I wiped it up, put clothes on her. I was panicked but cooed at her that everything would be okay, that I would get her to the hospital. We did our “dance” down the three steps outside the front door. I tried to keep using my calming voice, even though I was walking urgently, holding her frail body up in an attempt to carry as much of her 90-something pounds of weight as I could. I wrangled her into the front seat, and we sped northward towards the Queensboro Bridge, rhythmically clicking ourselves over the grating, hurling ourselves across the East River to the Upper East Side. She was immediately admitted, given two units of blood, and sedated.
Not long after the day at breakfast when her head snapped, she begged me to kill her. It wasn’t the first time. She was propped on the couch and suddenly hysterically ordering me to open the brand new full bottle of Ativan so she could take them all. I tore the bottle from her hands and wrapped myself around her flailing sobs, her voice shaking and tears soaking my clothes. I held her as hard as I could, trying to calm the urge in her. Even now I can only recall these moments with a frozen kind of shock: Did I say the right things? Could I somehow have done more, just cared enough, to make it all stop?
My years-long grief and trauma began to morph into something dark, perverse. I felt terrified by our past with its horrors and setbacks, but also hollowed out by the grayed-out nothingness of our future. Antidepressants got me out of bed, sleeping pills got me back in, and in between, anxiety meds made sure the panic attacks weren’t incapacitating. If I went out, I skipped the elevator when I returned to stand on the stairwell landing and cry silently at the window, trying to avoid walking through that door. I got lost in my own neighborhood. I wandered into traffic often enough that it no longer seemed accidental. I felt nothing anymore.
And then J. told me how badly she wanted to take me with her when she died, that she wanted to wrap herself around me and cling to me as she drifted into the ether. I recoiled. I could only hear this as her wanting to pull me under too, to make everything break me more until I was as dead as I felt inside. I collapsed in tears and said, “I don’t have anything left to give you.” Her face hardened, “Dig deeper, Laura.” Her ferocity and ire at dying was building to a crescendo. “What are you going to do to stop this?” she’d scream. What I heard from her was that I had to continue to annihilate myself for her to have a chance to live, that only by digging my own grave could I somehow make it so she could survive. So I dissociated. The effects of the slow splintering from my long-unaddressed trauma plunged me across some divide, finally shattering my mind.
I began to operate on some alternative plane, carving out a secret life, going on internet dates just to narrate who I was out loud to strangers, never mentioning J. I did this over and over again, in some flailing attempt to remind myself of who I was. Casting shadows of some distant, unrealized self in the light of strangers at a bar became my only escape. It was deeply shameful. I further slid away from myself, disgusted at my grief, what I felt I had to do to survive. Even so, these respites felt like a drug, like the only thing sustaining me so I could keep walking through our apartment door.
But there was no escape. She grew more volatile and violent; she would get confused and sink into a rage, her body never letting her thrash as hard as she was inside. I drifted somewhere, increasingly emotionally absent in my life, and hers. We hurt each other more and more, both of us going somewhere the other couldn’t. Every day, I awoke to her bluish-gray feet sticking out from under the covers, her circulation so compromised that they looked like the feet of a corpse. Every morning, I slowly brought my eyes up from her feet toward her chest, my heart fiercely pumping, wondering if I would know, just from its stillness, that she was dead, hoping never to have to see her like that.
With 28 eggs in storage, my infertility panic was largely contained. But my self-blame remained. I berated myself for missing my fertile years, blamed myself for what happened to J. After she died, I continued to be on the outside of my own life, struggling for years with PTSD, which took the shape of hypervigilance, insomnia, and profound anxiety. I underwent therapy to reclaim my nervous system because it had been recalibrated to adapt to constant stress. I worked to reorient myself to what I guess some might call “normal life.” Once again, I narrated my way into it. My inner monologue, which I used to ground myself in the present, to avoid sinking into the quicksand of my past, went something like this: I am walking down the hallway to my apartment. J. is gone. Look at the red tiles on the hallway floor. There is a key in my hand. I am walking down this hallway. I am going to put this key in the apartment door. I am going to walk inside the apartment. There is going to be no one there for me to tend to; there is only me.
After EMDR and continued therapy, I eventually got off all the medications I had needed. But nearly five years after her death, at the age of 37, I was single and had no partner to have children with. I dated, but it was tricky. In bed with a woman I really liked, I discovered she had a big scar at nearly the same spot as J.’s chest port. I bolted in a blur of anxiety. I eventually decided that I wouldn’t get what I wanted in terms of having a partner. Not wanting to miss my chance to parent, I committed to having a baby on my own. Like lots of queer folks do, I asked a gay friend to have a baby with me (a “gayby,” as it were). We drew up contracts with lawyers to make his sperm donation “official.” This felt good.
Then a random and final conversation on a dating website took a turn. I had checked “queer” as my identification on the site, which meant anyone of any gender could see me. Though I had dated men in the past, it was not historically my preference. But this man started writing me messages that compelled me to write back. I didn’t tell him about the gayby. Instead I said, I am getting off this site and “email me if you want a pen pal.” I closed my account and packed for my road trip. I had already planned a trip to see a friend from grad school who now lived in the mountains in western North Carolina. I was going to drive from Brooklyn to spend a week with her and then drive to the ocean. I wanted clarity, a last hurrah, alone.
I did not take this man, who indeed started emailing me, seriously. Yet I kept writing back. And then we started having long meandering phone calls. Even stranger, he lived in Durham and said, “We could meet for dinner when you pass through town on your trip if you want.” I appreciated the casualness of this, and thought it was just too weird that he lived between my friend in the mountains and the beach. He must have thought it weird that I had a trip planned and he was the halfway point.
As soon as I saw him in the restaurant on a hot, July afternoon, I knew he was my person. I saw him, from behind, tall and thin, with a loose button-up, light blue shirt, and cuffed jeans. Before he turned around, I knew it was him and sensed in that instant that it was all going to be different now. He was affable and kind, self-deprecating to just the right degree, curious about the world, respectful of my queerness, and not at all a man who took up too much room. I saw a whole person who had struggled, but who had wisdom from it and the capacity to be forthright about himself. After hours of conversation, we dared to make out.
But I felt a pull: a deep commitment to my gayby plan and a distrust that something could actually be happening for me. There’s no time to take risks, I thought. Besides, aren’t I damaged? Isn’t meeting some man on the internet just ridiculous? And aren’t you a giant lesbian, Laura? So, I kept driving. I arrived at the ocean, parked the car, set up my umbrella. I watched the waves come ashore and thought, I have it all sorted out. I was making my life work, despite all the lost time. I was going to have a gayby. But something in me grabbed my phone and, without thinking, I texted him: “I have a problem. I don’t know why I’m here.” He answered simply, “Come back.” And I did.
A couple of years later, after we started trying in earnest for a child, I miscarried and could not get pregnant again. The loss of the pregnancy was the loss of J., the loss of those years all over again. While my friends had been meeting partners they would have children with, mine had been dying. I spiraled into self-blame, and he insisted, “You don’t need to do this to yourself anymore. Let’s use the eggs.” I was flooded with gratitude for his care. "Yes," I said. This was the moment I had prepared for. I had planted that seed and now it would grow. In January 2018, at the age of 40, I gave birth to our daughter. Gratitude flowed, for having spent my savings on egg-freezing, for my partner, for this child.
Walking down 68th Street, heading east from the Lexington Avenue station, the rhythm of the blocks is the same. I’d made this walk hundreds of times on my way to the hospital to see J., but this is the first time in more than a decade. As I approach First Avenue, Memorial Sloan Kettering rises from the street, and I’m overcome by its familiarity. I know which entrance is best if you’re getting a PET scan, for going to the ER, for the blood cancer clinic. I know about the garage door on the south side of the building where the bodies are taken away.
I am going to a consultation at what is now my third fertility clinic, this one just a block from MSK. Since having our daughter in 2018, I underwent more IVF and miscarried several more times. But ecstatic to have survived everything, to have pieced my mind back together again, to have found love and had a child, I desperately want to keep going. I want another baby, to cultivate its fragile aliveness. I can also feel myself seduced by the fantasy that if I can have another child, I will finally somehow heal all the loss I carry.
Here is what I can admit: I live in a constant battle against a spiral of weaponized regret. I dissect past moments when I could have done something differently. Grief tricks you into searching for ways to undo loss, to find an escape. It can make even the most treacherous and unlikely way out seem worth pursuing. My mind, molded now by trauma, searches tirelessly for an escape, whispering to me that giving up on a second baby is acquiescing to my brokenness, to my failures. I search my motives. Am I just forcing my aging body to perform some final miracle of fertility as a way of fending off the terrible suspicion that there is no repair?
Inside the fertility clinic, a nurse calls my name. I hear the familiar rustle of the paper on the examination table, brace for the ultrasound. Repetition compulsion drives you to relive your worst experiences or to put yourself back into potentially traumatic situations, to gain control over them by getting a different outcome, an outcome that doesn’t break your heart. Am I just recreating another set of doomed circumstances to prove that it wasn’t me who couldn’t dig deeper? Because I am still so full of desire, as if I am still that naïve 27-year-old, sitting on the floor in the glow of that lamp, wanting so much just to love, even in the face of facts telling me it is all going to turn out otherwise.
The sky is dark when I arrive home. I make my way up to our apartment, slide off my shoes. At the end of the long, dark hallway is our kitchen, lit in a warm glow. There are faint sounds of my partner preparing dinner, and the radio. I quietly open the door to our daughter’s room and look down at her, now three years old, sleeping splayed out on her back, arms flung open as wide as they’ll go, as though she’s waiting to be picked up and held. I suddenly have an urge to keep a journal with entries written all to her — just like I had done for J. — recounting all the moments we shared. I have traveled so far from that deep valley I was once in, climbed my way back from trauma and learned to understand my grief. A voice in my head — a remnant of my shattering — tells me that I could keep trying for another baby — just once more — to heal these wounds. Or maybe I can rest and relish the fact that in surviving, in clawing my way up from the depths, I made this child, and I am loved.
Laura Mauldin is an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and author of Made to Hear (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). She’s currently writing a general-audience nonfiction book on spousal caregiving that weaves together memoir, reportage, and cultural commentary.
Featured image: “Prednisone 20 MG Oral Tablet."
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