One year ago I bought this shirt. I was at a thrift store in phoenix, in the throes of some of the most tumultuous times I’d had thus far. It’s strange thinking back, thinking of what was yet ahead of me, thinking of all I would endure and all I would come through. All in a year. Thinking of the terror that would grip me suddenly in the ensuing months, the grief, the uncertainty, the nights of acute OCD – panic thoughts assailing me just as I was falling asleep; just when my guard was down.
Last February we were in the thick of fertility investigations. Over a year in to trying for a third child, somehow I was unable to get pregnant again. The waves of grief that rolled over me monthly were astonishing and at times breathtaking in their severity, all this despite the fact that I sought to guard my mind, sought to keep hope from dragging me along like a “hook in the mouth” (I think I read that phrase pertaining to hope being like a hook in the mouth in “State of Wonder”), and yes, despite the fact that I have 2 children already. Secondary infertility is a bag of suffering all of its own. Test upon test showed us nothing of note, and a hysteroscopy – a relatively routine day surgery which, for me, resulted in intractable nausea and days of it – revealed that my beautiful uterus could “be in a textbook.” Little use if I couldn’t somehow fill it with a child.
Near the end of February I got a call from my OB-Gyn telling me that an investigative trans-vaginal ultrasound had revealed some pretty sizable cysts on my ovaries, and between that and the fact that my CA-125 (Cancer Antigen 125) levels were rather high (high enough to raise a red flag and put me in “this is serious” zone), I was given a rushed MRI, with the hope of ruling out Ovarian Cancer.
WHAT?! Cancer? Was that a word we were actually using now? About ME?
It was gutting. Despite our hope to the contrary I was, unfortunately, one of those for whom the MRI revealed little that was useful in ruling anything in or out. I might have ovarian cancer, or I might have advanced endometriosis.
I remember standing in the foyer in my parents place in AZ, on the phone with my OB, hearing her say that they were referring me on to Cancer Care immediately and that I needed to be prepared for the possibility of surgery, to be prepared to possibly lose my reproductive capacity altogether if it meant staying alive. How did we just go from her confidently assuring me, “we’ll get you pregnant” to, never-mind a new baby, “you need to stay alive for the children you have”? She kept saying that to me and it bounced around the echo chamber of my mind for months: “You need to stay alive for your children!” Like, when was me DYING on the table?! And yet it was. Suddenly. Because this could be something as brutal-but-non-fatal as Endometriosis but it could also be advanced Ovarian Cancer and take me with it.
How did we just go from her confidently assuring me, “we’ll get you pregnant” to, never-mind a new baby, “you need to stay alive for the children you have.”
I was reeling. My family was reeling. Marcus was strong and encouraging and deeply upset but keeping it together somehow. All my siblings were beside themselves — most of them are doctors, as is my dad, and they were all doing all the things they could do: reading my charts, researching options, weighing in with care and wisdom. My mom was like a wild mama bear and making all kinds of phone calls I was too stressed and emotional to make, doing everything she could to forge a path for me in what amounted to – in my mind – impassable terrain. It was then, in Arizona, that I penned a prayer of blessing for my body. I could not afford to feel antagonistic toward it, it required my tenderness. And most of all, it was God’s good gift; a beautiful thing. And I wrestled and I prayed and I kept bringing it under his authority over and over, “O God, as you hovered over the chaos of old, come hover over me; bring order to the chaos, put all my cells in right order…”.
There were so many ways goodness came to me. I can’t count them. I had the eyes to see some of them then, and more of them now, but never all of them. The support of community was like the knitting together of tens of hands into a net to hold me up. I’ll never forget that, the way they kept being Christ to me. And honestly, I saw that in snippets but I was also so mad and so bereft and I had so many moments just wondering where God was at in all of this, as I reached and cried out and wondered at the futility of things, wondered at the mind-bending possibility of my life being suddenly snuffed out when I had SO MUCH OF IT.
And how could I do this to my children? O God, how could I leave them? This was where my mind went. And I kept trying to haul it back but my my mortality was brought so startlingly near and it was ever so hard to look away. I thought I was stronger than that, somehow, but I wasn’t. (Which, it turns out, is ok.)
My big brother was in Arizona with us, and one evening he and I were talking about the blessing I had written and he made this obvious-but-not-obvious point that I couldn’t properly bless myself; but that blessings were meant to come from without. And he arranged for a family meeting and my mom pulled out those vulnerable and prophetic words I had written and spoke them over me through tears, and it become one of so many words-given that were to fortify me, that were to make me more substantial somehow and carry me, carry me, carry me.
We flew back to Manitoba in time for a terrifying 2 hour appointment with an Oncologist where I was assessed at moderate risk for cancer, but treated dismissively because she sees people with diagnosed cancer and actual death sentences all day and my confusion and abject terror were lost on her, somehow. The long and the short of it was that if I wanted to be sure it wasn’t cancer, the “gold standard” for diagnosis would be put put me in surgery and cut out my ovaries and chop them up and send them off to pathology. Then we’d know for sure. If they could tell visually that it was probably endometriosis they’d just take one ovary and chop that one up to come up with a *fairly certain* diagnosis. In that optimistic event, they’d leave the endometriosis on the other ovary and I’d still be effectively infertile. In other words, keeping me alive was their only concern, and while it was a noble one, there was no sense in which they intended to treat the whole person; what I really needed was to find a specialist who wanted to help preserve my life AND my fertility. After more ultrasounds and MRIs and bloodwork over the next few months, I managed to – by probable miracle – get in with an incredible fertility specialist who expedited my surgery so that I could, by August, expect to know with fair certainty if I was riddled with cancer or endometriosis. Of course, all this time the pandemic was waxing and waning and waxing again and the possibility that the surgery would suddenly be cancelled plagued me. I took multiple happy selfies while sitting in my sexy hospital gown in pre-op, palpably relieved that I had made it this far.
The ending of the story is mostly happy. Relatively happy. Surgery revealed advanced stage 3 or 4 endometriosis, which was weirdly good news compared to the alternative. I have my life. And even though I now get to “stay alive for my children,” I can’t help but quiver inside every time those words come to mind, so traumatized by them do I remain.
The hard part was that the thing that originally felt “most difficult” in my life – the secondary infertility – while temporarily made so much less consequential, remains a struggle and a grief. I have a lot to say about it and probably someday will share more. I’m still not pregnant and that part of the story may come to a difficult close in the near future. It may be that my body was just too damaged by the endometriosis. It may be that God is giving us a good answer to the question of whether we should have a third child. It doesn’t feel good. I don’t know what it’s all about. I don’t know what suffering’s all about. And I don’t need to. Which, as I type it, I realize is one of the many gifts that have come to me in all of this pain. Because for me, the wrestle with God went on and on and I asked some hard questions, and I saved some of the most vulnerable honesty for my safest people, and I looked over what felt like a dark abyss, and I think, like Jacob, I have perhaps come out of this wrestle with a new name.