Final Trip Update From a Secret Journey

November, 1997: My cleaning guy, Mike, was here yesterday. I hired him last month as a present to myself and my marriage in honor of my new fifty-hour-a-week-plus-commute job. It's very strange to give my key and alarm code to someone I've never met and to pay him to become intimate with me through my house. He scrapes the dried spaghetti sauce and creamed corn and hot chocolate out of the microwave, sponges hair off the bathroom floor, and dusts my nightstand. We are learning each other's boundaries. He doesn't touch the acculumalating array of books under the bed or disturb the bills and receipts on my desk. Still, I walked through the house at dusk admiring his work with one eye, and with the other, seeing my house as he might. What would it reveal?

My religion and culture would be unmistakable; my living room is overrun with Hebrew books and art. Mike must know, as well, what my family looks like, what I wore on my wedding day, that I like Mozart, Nancy Griffith, and James Taylor, and that I mixed Crispix and Corn Bran for breakfast and drank only half my orange juice. Yesterday morning, I did something I swore I'd never do: I cleaned up for the cleaning guy. I buried my bank statement under a pile of junk mail, slammed my diary into a dresser drawer, and tossed out a handful of filters for my electronic thermometer.

The bank bottom line and the diary would scream personal information. The filters would whisper. Scattered at my bedside, they might seem to be random, unidentifiable objects, perhaps dropped by a careless alien. But to a knowledgeable observer, they would reveal my most intimate secret. I am not ready yet to use the word infertile. It sounds too final, too mournful. It is a word for the very end of a dead-end road. Our road is different. I see my husband and me bumping along in a small car on a dark, twisted lane. We have been driving a long time, wondering how far it is through the woods, wondering if this road even goes all the way to the other side. I wish there were a good word to describe our drive. "Trying," people say. Or, "having trouble."

When we began "trying," we had a simple pact. Tell no one. We--and I, especially--wanted our journey to be a secret, revealed only in a flurry of glorious phone calls: "Good news! We're pregnant!"

It didn't work that way. Our series of haphazard and partial revelations began when my closest friend confided that she was thinking of going off birth control. Reciprocal disclosure seemed only fitting. Then a colleague overheard my conversation with my gynecologist. The department secretary pressed me on why I asked her for Tylenol instead of Advil. One friend called at a particularly difficult moment; another wanted to know why we bought a Subaru wagon. I called yet another friend to ask for a medical opinion. My husband told his best friend, and in an unusually intimate moment, confided in his sister. Friends who "know" now outnumber those who don't. But each person "in the know" has actually received a very different snapshot of our trip, depending on when and what she asked, how we felt at the moment, and what we wanted to share. Only a few have asked for travel updates. There are other, closer friends and family who know nothing because they have been too polite to inquire.

In the past year, sharing our secret has become an important part of our monthly mourning and healing. And grieving comes easier if I divide it into small doses. In a normal month (there are few of those) I begin taking ovulation tests on Day 12; around Day 14, they turn positive. This month, on Day 12, I grieved for the ovulation test that seemed to read positive too early. We weren't ready! We had perhaps missed our chances already for an entire month! That night, double checking the instructions, I found I had misread the test. So I mourned the ovulation that hadn't yet happened.

I am a psychologist; searching for clues in data is second nature to me. But fifteen months of temperature charts have given me few clues. Left to their own devices, my ovaries release eggs irregularly, and slack off the job for months at a time. My gynecologist called them "free-spirited." But my morning temperatures scatter markedly, revealing little about ovulations past or pending. A $115 blood test on Day 19 told me that I did, in fact, ovulate this month. And thus began my round of "Symptom Search." A stitch in my left side: muscle spasm or implantation? A migraine: a stressful day or hormonal swings? Breast tenderness: a harbinger of an oncoming period or a developing life?

On Day 25, I took my first pregnancy test. Negative. All of the kits say you must wait until you miss your period, but I, unfortunately, read in some book somewhere that pregnancy hormones can be detected earlier than that. Each month I try to wait until Day 30 to begin testing, but I never make it. I think this is part of breaking up the mourning. Early negative test results pierce hope but do not shred it; the probability of a false negative is high. Still, with each test, I pause. I begin to envision my next period, my next baseline ultrasound, my next round of treatment. I try to hold that vision a few moments, then I let it go, and hope flutters back.

On Day 29, I tested negative again. I stared at the stick for a long time, turning it different ways in the light to detect any hint of pink stripe. I huddled under a blanket on my sofa that morning, drinking peppermint tea. But my pregnant sister-in-law was visiting, telling me not to worry. She had had several false negative results. A few threads of hope remained. On Day 30, I began spotting. In the gray light before dawn, I showered and dressed, ate Cheerios mixed with granola, and drank half my orange juice. Then I got in the car, dropped my sister-in-law at the airport, and kissed my sleepy nephew good-bye. My morning drive is exaclty thirty miles east, a straight shot down Highway 36. Against the sunrise, I cried all the way to work. It was my thirtieth birthday.

November, 1998: I cleaned out the linen closet yesterday. I should have straightened out the living room or scrubbed down the kitchen counters. My cleaning guy quit a couple of months ago and I haven't found a new person yet, so the house is beginning to look pretty shabby. But my domestic instincts have always run toward special projects rather than routine maintenence. It was with relish that I refolded and stacked the towels, and corralled random bits of hardware. I tossed out an electric cord from a razor that broke years ago, half-empty bottles of Marriott Courtyard conditioner, expired medicines, rock-hard nail polishes, scented soaps from Christmases past, unused syringes and diluent, and boxes from ovulation predictor kits and pregnancy tests.

The reorganization and purging yielded two empty shelves. I admired them for a minute and lovingly wiped them down with a damp sponge. Then I opened the two lawn-size bags that Neil brought home from Target last weekend. Diapers and wipes and ointments, hooded towels and washcloths and receiving blankets, pacifiers and bottles and nursing pads swifly gobbled the space.

The dark and twisted road we took last year did lead to the other side of the woods. But when we got there, we found more forest. We lurched past disbelief about pregnancy, plowed through justified fears for fetal health, and crept uphill for three months of bedrest and hospitalizations to bring our twins to term.

Last year, Neil and I journeyed alone, providing trip updates only for family and friends as they politely inquired. This year, the whole crew has bounced along in the backseat. Books, CDs, Nintendo, maternity clothes, a five-foot pillow and an egg-crate mattress--all borrowed--have sustained my mind and body. Phone calls, visits, and emails with encouraging words and updates from the outside world have staved off frustration and loneliness. And we've never turned down food.

At thirty-five weeks, we have reached a quiet plateau--a chance to stretch our legs and enjoy an unusually mild autumn before forging into the next forest. Bedrest is behind us, and we have been taking little outings--dinner downtown, a picnic by the river, a drive to an apple orchard. Our Subaru now has two empty car seats waiting in the back. The babies lie more quietly, with little room to kick and squirm. I think they are waiting, too. My doctor says that if they don't come of their own accord, she will induce labor and delivery by the end of Week 38. That would be my thirty-first birthday.


Susan Moses Zirkes is a school psychologist living in Minneapolis. Her son and daughter were born on November 12, 1998.

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