(Originally published March 1st, 2010)
A Difficult Question
A sharp pain, focused on the right side of my neck, spreading to my head and halfway down my back woke me up. I was cuddled beside my beautiful wife, under a Hudson Bay trapper blanket and down comforter, topped with a quilt my grandmother made as a child. We were at our second home, a small condo nestled in the woods at 9300 ft in Summit County, Colorado. The fire in the front room had gone out and it was cold. I told myself, “I’ll just go back to sleep, all I need is rest and this awful headache will go away. It didn’t work. Sitting up, I felt the cold rush over my naked chest. I cocked my head to the side, praying to hear that wonderful pain-relieving crack. I stretched from one side to the other, again, no luck. It felt as if I had only made the vice on my neck tighter. I decided to try the chemical, hot shower and positive thinking approach. It was 4:23 in the morning. I was 37-years-old and I knew this entire headache was a result of my own self-induced stress.
Twenty-nine days ago, while sitting on the big leather sofa watching the Sunday political shows, I waited for my wife to return from our final diagnostic test at the fertility clinic. The extensive barrage of tests had all come back positive, meaning it just wasn’t our time yet to have a baby. As I watched the spin-doctors work their magic on the morning talk show, my wife came home, opened the door and bursts into tears. “I’m killing your sperm.” We hugged each other and I just wanted to comfort her. It killed me to see my wife in pain. We talked and I tried to listen, not fix, not finish sentences, just listen. As we cuddled on the couch and I watched the woman I loved in such pain, I learned that I am not to be a father. At first it didn’t really hit me. I was focused on my wife’s tears. Her pain. I could not begin to understand how she must have felt. Every strand of her being had been programmed from before her own birth to reproduce, nurture, and defend. In essence, to become a mother. This wasn’t to suggest that I was like an old Grizzly bear–fulfill my physical needs, move on and then if we should meet again, I might eat the little ones. I simply realized that I could not comprehend what my wife was feeling.
That Sunday was a long day.
Warm sun hit our tear-filled faces as we walked through Washington Park in Denver. Health nuts were in abundance, running, skating, spinning, just one more lap at light speed, on their bicycles. Families and lovers filled the gardens, playing and looking at one another with caring eyes. The little ones explored with absolute fascination, squirrels, flowers, rocks and even the grass. Smiling, I envied their curiosity in something as simple as grass. We continued walking hand in hand, doing our best to just be. A fog of disbelief followed us with “what should we do’s?” and the “why us?” questions.
During a period of simply walking and being consumed in our own thoughts, I reflected back to a brief time I spent in a Buddhist monastery in Katmandu, Nepal. At the time I wasn’t on some spiritual quest or some new-age trend, circumstance had just placed me there as an adventure while traveling. Thinking back to some of the friends I had made there, I remembered the basic premise of “Life isn’t fair, get over it.” Many of the monks I had met there had experienced negative acts I could only dream of. Now, hearing the fall leaves rustle and feeling the breeze on my face, I realized that life really isn’t fair. I was so fortunate to be walking hand-in-hand with my soul mate. Not only had we found each other, but we were enjoying a beautiful sun-filled day. We had reasonably large brains that allow us to chase our desires. We lived in a country where we could pursue our dreams and speak our minds. I was self-employed and master of my own destiny. I was not worried about where my next meal would come from. I lived the life of a king compared to many in the world. Yes, life isn’t fair; I am among the fortunate few. I expressed this revelation to my wife and she agreed.
The fog cleared and we walked with confidence. Ten steps later the fog was back. We both knew we would make the right decisions and would get through this new information about our fertility. However, first the fog of disbelief will have to turn to the fog of anger and then info the fog of pain and eventually into the clear light of “life is not fair” and yes, we are among of the fortunate. Realizing we were only beginning this path was a very decisive step. Even though we both knew the worst was yet to come, at least we knew together we were working through it.
The Baby Factory
Four days after receiving the initial test results from the nurse, indicating that we could not get pregnant, naturally we found ourselves sitting in the doctor’s office. The practice was considered to be the best fertility clinic in the state. This doctor’s office was obviously his inner sanctum; degrees covered the walls and every flat surface was covered with either files or visual aids of the female and male reproductive organs. Tentatively we sat together, clutching each other’s hand tightly. This was where we had sat a few months ago when we decided that after two years of trying naturally we should have some diagnostic testing to find out if everything was OK.
This was where I expressed my concerns about being on a slippery slope. My fears pertained to starting treatment with just a small step, and if that didn’t work then another small step, and before we knew it three years would have gone by, the emotional toll off the chart, my wife and I having spent all the money we had and still wouldn’t have a child. Neither one of us had anything ethical against fertility treatments for others. However, we had always said that if we could not have a baby naturally then it wasn’t meant to be. Sitting there, holding hands and looking at the doctor with his warm smile, surrounded by busyness, I feared what direction he may try and steer us.
The doctor began by going through all of our tests and explaining how everything was fine except the last test. There it was, proof that we could not have a child naturally. He smiled and said this was good news. I looked in disbelief and reiterated my slippery slope concerns. This man was obviously in the baby making business and from his point of view this was good news. He explained what the next step would be, artificial insemination. I asked what the procedure entailed and he explained. He felt that because it was my stuff and my wife’s egg that it was still natural.
I thought about this and couldn’t see how obtaining my specimen, while in a small room at the clinic, then having this sample washed and a select few sperm chosen by a lab technician, having these lab-tech-chosen-few placed into a syringe, attached to a long, thin tube, bypassing the area of chemical acidity, injecting these washed, selected few into my wife after she had peed on a stick that showed two lines, was anything but natural. The doctor suggested that we should try this four or five times and we could see if it worked. If it didn’t, well, we could try the next step, which could possibly involve surgery, and if that didn’t work we could always try invitro fertilization, conception in a petri dish, still natural by his standards.
I began to feel the ice form under my feet and see the steep descent in front of me. Looking at my wife, her eyes showed a glimmer of hope, a possibility. The doctor had completely ignored our opinion, placed Pandora’s box, unlocked and with a big easy-opening handle, on our laps. This was what I had feared. He had made it so easy for us to just take that next simple step. He had even supplied us with the rationalization of it being natural. I knew this is his business, and evidently most people came in wanting a child at any cost, and that was what he supplied. I was sure he was very good at it. However, in our case he didn’t–or at least didn’t want to–listen.
Never being one to not at least review all options, I asked what the cost would be associated with this procedure. He laughed and said that he got in trouble with his office manager if he discussed costs. He was under strict rules not to do so. We departed his office with the usual pleasantries, the doctor excited at taking the next step, my wife–with Pandora’s box under her arm–saddened by confirmation of what we had feared yet grasping that there might be hope, and me, distraught by the confirmation of what we already knew and pissed off because the doctor hadn’t listened.
We were ushered back into the nondescript front waiting room to wait for the office manager. A strong selection of baby magazines intermixed with Time and News Week graced the magazine rack. This front office could have easily been interchanged with any of a thousand different doctor or dentist offices in the country, with one exception. Sitting on the table was a brochure for financing. Yes, with good credit, one could finance fertility treatments. Welcome to America, where you can get anything on credit; cars, washing machines, big screen TV’s, and now the hope of having a child–not a guarantee but the hope, the possibility. I felt my feet begin to slip and my stomach began to rumble. We were called up to see the office manager.
Her desk was cluttered. The office was very small and pictures of dogs and babies covered the walls. I don’t remember seeing any degrees on the walls and she had no windows. She came across as very tough. I noticed a picture of a new Hummer 2 taped next to her computer. I had the feeling of being in the office of a finance manager at a car dealership. She reviewed the doctor’s recommendations and began to explain when we could be scheduled and how the logistics of it would work. A sheet of paper appeared and she began to break down the costs for our first step on the slippery slope. $1600.00 for the first attempt at “Natural” artificial insemination. I asked if there are any other fees. Yes, after some discussions it looked like about $2,200.00 per attempt.
I asked her about fees for future treatments if this didn’t work. This seemed to throw her off stride. Another paper was presented and my brain began to calculate. The rumors of couples spending $50,000 to $100,000 dollars trying to get pregnant over a period of one to two years seemed to be accurate. My brain had now officially hit overload. My wife and I told the office manager that we needed to discuss it, picked up Pandora’s box, took our sheets of papers with cost breakdowns and financing options, walked down the hall out of the nondescript waiting room and stood in front of the elevator door, dazed and emotional wrecks.
A roller coaster of emotions was to follow. Tremendous swings between logic and feelings, desire and reality. On the one hand we had Pandora’s box sitting on our lap, ready to open. We could try it just once or maybe twice. We could afford it and after all, it was my sperm and her egg.
That’s natural, right?
The retort. How is that natural?
We had said we would not go any further, it would be natural or not at all. Then the true mind bender of why we really wanted a child and if we moved forward why were we going against nature to create a life? We could still have a tremendously positive impact on the existing kids around us; nieces, nephews, God’s kids and friend’s kids. We could have the energy to spend time with these children in ways that we could not if we had children of our own. And yet, if we felt that we should only have children naturally and that the gods must have something else planned for us, why were we trying to tell ourselves we should have kids? Why couldn’t we just accept that we couldn’t?
Then we debated the question, what is natural? If the gods created man and a man has figured out how to create a child in a non-traditional way, but this process was still considered by some as “natural,” why not? If man figured it out then in some respect it was natural. If I had a deep cut I went to the hospital and had it stitched up. Stitched up with man-made fibers, a man-made needle, in a sterile man-made environment. I had no ethical dilemma about that. Why was this such a challenge? I found myself continuing to lean to the side of, “just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” We struggled even with this. Had I set too rigid a standard, “it happens naturally or not at all?” Was I being too literal with the word natural? Had I set myself up to be so fearful of my own definition of “the slippery slope?” Why didn’t I trust us? Maybe we could simply give it a try once or twice. After all, we could stop whenever we want. (Now I sounded like an alcoholic.)
This seemed to be the process that flowed for two weeks. One afternoon, talking with a friend about the question of fertility treatment and the higher chances for birth defects, I did some research. I had asked our fertility doctor the question, if there was a higher chance of birth defects when using fertility treatments. He had danced around the question and seemed to suggest that it was about the same as regular conception. However, an article I found in the New England School of Medicine Journal suggested differently. The results reflected in this article, unfortunately, answered my questions and sealed the deal.
A True Quandary
As a person who has a challenge living in the present moment, I began to plan as I always did. Growing up in Nebraska, my father had taught me not to be afraid of making huge goals. Both parents had always told me, “you can do anything.”
(Aside–In 1989 I sold a business and traveled around the world, to all seven continents and 27 countries. This was an experience that changed my life. I met my English-born wife on a snowy freighter in Patagonia, Chili. We courted through South America and fell in love on a ship to Antarctica. We discovered the true joy of a simple life. All we possessed we carried with us in small backpacks. We were forced into a slower time. We had no cell phones and South American public transportation operates on some mystic schedule that only the 2nd and 3rd world could understand. Even though we lived a very simple existence, we often had more than the locals around us. Yet often we saw a happiness and contentment in their eyes that was rarely seen in the western world.
Reka, my wife, is from London, and a former accountant for a venture capital firm. She somehow escaped the material gerbil wheel most people get caught up on in the western world. Reka’s desire was for experiences and a simple life. I too thought of these things. I had recently read a quote from Einstein, “A chair, a table, a violin. What else does a man really need?” and pondered these words greatly. I was beginning to realize that since my return to the United States and marriage to my wife, affectionately known as TROUBLE, I had been doing what I thought I was supposed to do and not necessarily what I was built to do.
I think we are often programmed–in a good way–to follow a certain path. This programming comes from our family experiences, as well as from societal influences. I am not suggesting in any way that this programming is bad. I do feel that these influences had affected the way I had been living my life for the last few years. I had expected to have a family. When I did, my material want list went from very little to over the top. These material requirements included a private school for my children, a positive environment–meaning a good expensive neighborhood–financial security for my family in case I died early, easy travel and time, meaning yearly visits to all family both in the US and abroad. In short, I wanted to be a responsible parent raising a well-rounded kid. After my trip around the world and meeting my wife, these material items were beginning to vanish from my “needs” list.
As a mortgage broker I often see the unfortunate results of our advertising, consumer society and poor financial discipline. Most of the folks I see who are in trouble have wound up there because they thought they deserved something; the TV said so. This isn’t to say that I am not a consumer. I simply am trying to take a chapter from my wife’s life in that when it comes to something of a material want, make sure you really want or need it. If so, then go buy the very best and enjoy it for a long time. I have found when I do this I actually enjoy my purchase much more.)
Pondering all of this, it crept into my brain that what I really enjoyed was experiences. I had only rarely had the same job for more than 2 years in a row and then moved on, even though I have been quite successful at most of what I had tried. When I had time off–truly my time–my favorite thing to do was to go and explore the corners of the 3rd world. I realized that the happiest I had ever been were the times when I had all the possessions I needed on me, dirty and in a small backpack, sitting on a hard bench seat on a bus with chickens and a cornucopia of smells, destined for a town I have never been to, having no idea where I would spend the night. After writing this I can see it might sound crazy, but it is definitely the truth.
I began to see that the crossroads of life have a mythical quality. From blues singers in the Mississippi Delta making deals with the devil to where I now stood in my life. I was not trying to make a deal with the devil, but there was a certain degree of apprehension of which road to go down.
As the brainstormer and planner I am, I began to set down on paper the options:
- Open Pandora’s box. Medically try for a baby and live a quality of life as most, (this had been already decided against.)
2. Lead a quality of life as most in the same job, building an asset base. (This felt like being a cog in the Wheel…not bad but not for me.)
3. Live a life full of fun, happiness and adventure. (Similar to Hemingway, only I would be a better husba
Ok, I thought, if this is really the road I am considering, the conservative planner in me needs to be able to wrap my brain around some type of plan. I reminded myself to dream huge. I like most of the world. My wife has very little material wants and is extremely durable. Once Reka is a citizen we can leave and move to England, do my paperwork and then have the option to live and work legally anywhere in Europe we……
Crap! I suddenly realized that I’d unknowingly just opened another one of Pandora’s little boxes. I saw that the world really was our oyster. I felt like a little kid standing in the biggest toy store and candy shop in the world, with a fairy Godmother standing there saying you can have whatever you want and as much as you want, but you can only have one thing at a time. Then I considered the overload a poor kid in that situation must have been feeling. Now I knew his pain. There were too many possibilities! With the life experiences I had been exposed to I began to open my mind and dream huge; Did I want to study for a Master Seaman license and captain sailboats around the world? Or become a chef in Milan, an exporter in Hong Kong, or maybe I could become a professional hunter in Alaska or South Africa?
I know it sounds like a little kid saying I want to be a racecar driver or a fireman, but I asked myself, why not? We live in a free society, have reasonably big brains, few material wants, and fiscal responsibility. I began to freak myself out. It was all out there, all I had to do was choose.
The cross roads of life are not highways with on ramps, more like trails in the woods that branch and dead end, connect back up, and constantly change directions.
November 2, 2004–Election Day
I awake at our usual time, 6:00 am. The annoying blare of the alarm continued until Reka reached over to shut it off and then flopped back onto the bed. I felt a bit cold and we had our usual playful discussion about her stealing the covers or was it really me getting hot and pushing them all on her. She leaned over and gave me a quick peck on the cheek and hopped out of bed. My body clock was not yet aware of Daylight Savings Time. It still needed time to reset itself. Usually I woke up two or three minutes before the alarm.
Our day started in typical fashion. I asked what type of eggs the Atkins’ lover in the house wanted for breakfast. “Poached” was the response. I liked to think that I was not spoiling my wife but supporting her. Never once had she requested that I get up and make her breakfast. I choose to do so because Reka got up every morning and went to a job that is OK. She did this to ensure a consistency of income while I created a new business for our transition to living full-time in the mountains. I did not take this fact for granted.
Reka jumped off to shower and I made breakfast. As is my usual practice I turned the news on. I had actually been anticipating some kind of terrorist attack before the election and yet somehow, here we were on Election Day. There have been no attacks here at home. For the first time I realized that my weeklong headache seemed to be gone. Happy days were here again. Eating breakfast in the front room, watching the TV, was a rare event for us. Typically it was together time at the kitchen table. However, today was election day and I was trying to soak up all that the spin doctors had to offer. Like the candidates or hate them, at least this election had spurred people on to become involved–to vote. (I truly feel that as citizens of this great country it is not our right to vote, but our civil obligation.)
Watching the TV, I noticed the little box with the temperature at the corner of the screen, 14 degrees (About –5c). That was cold for November 2nd. I decided to have my morning smoke and Sophie, the yellow lab, and I ventured out. I could feel the cold as I breathed through my nostrils and crystals of ice cracked under my feet. Sophie did the excited dance of, hey I’m outside and so are you!
It was dark, yet the sky held the beautiful pre-dawn colors of what promised to be a chilly but beautiful day. Reka’s jeep started without a problem. I then turned, stared down and swaggered to the old Mercedes diesel like a gun fighter. This 14-degree day would be a true test to see if the work the new mechanic had done was successful. If not, it may be time to car shop.
I stepped up to the door and inserted the key–well, I tried to insert the key. The lock was frozen. I felt like a gunfighter who didn’t even get his gun out of his holster. I laughed at myself a bit and found a different door lock more receptive to the key. Finally in, sitting behind the wheel in the crystal-covered car, I impatiently waited to see the little glow plug light on the dash turn off, signaling it was time to try and turn the engine over. The light went out and I turned the key. The big diesel belched to life, spit and sputtered a bit, but continued to run. The old boat must have known what I was thinking so she started on the first try. I guessed I would keep her.
You may be wondering how a simple morning routine applies to this story. I’ll tell you.
While warming up cold cars and playing with the dog I realized three simple ideas:
- Reka and I were one hell of a team.
- Life will always do the unexpected. Fourteen degrees on November 2nd and we couldn’t get pregnant. That’s life. Deal with it.
- Why worry about terrorist attacks? I can’t prevent them, nor pregnancies that won’t occur. Especially when I get excited about making breakfast for my bride and the glow plug turning off, allowing the engine to roar to life.
I talk about a simple life, and even try to live it through a desire for fewer material wants. Yet for some reason I still didn’t get it. I was getting closer and I was truly trying to appreciate the path. I firmly believed that the gods had something else in mind for us. I also believed that the gods were playing a joke on me because we hadn’t seen the path yet. If I could plan and know where I was going I would have no problems with a long arduous path. What drove me nuts was not knowing what the plan was. I could hear the gods laughing in my head, (metaphorically, I didn’t really hear voices.) They laughed because I desired to know what the plan was–where I was going. The gods must have enjoyed watching me squirm as I learned to appreciate the life’s path and relax a bit, while allowing life to unfold the way it wanted to and on its time frame, not mine.
As we sat in the Tattered Cover bookstore, we searched for advice on how to proceed. A gracious clerk had helped us to find books on international careers and guidebooks on identifying how to find what career you really love. We had also asked if there was anything out there on getting through tough times when you find out you can’t get pregnant. Our helpful clerk disappeared on a quest to find what we were looking for. As I sat with my recently-operated-on knee, elevated, looking through a list of foreign employers, she returned. There were no books that addressed our needs in the no-baby arena. Again I could hear the gods laughing. I guessed that this is one we would have to figure out for ourselves.
My headache was gone and the self-induced stress was beginning to decrease. We were still mourning the children we wouldn’t have, but truly appreciating each other. We looked to the future with our eyes filled with pinwheels of excitement, confusion and wonder. We knew our pain would diminish but never really disappear. Life wasn’t fair, we knew this and realized we were on the fortunate end of the spectrum. Where it would take us who knows, but it sure would a lot fun getting there.