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We have many pictures together, my husband and I. Hiking Mount St. Helens, riding the Ferris wheel at the New York state fair, kissing in a Chicago bar's photo booth, posing at Niagara Falls. In the early years of our marriage Tom and I became masters of the self-portrait, arms extended as we held the camera before us, blinding ourselves with the flash.
We traveled less and took fewer and fewer photographs during the three-plus years we were trying to have a baby. Tom and I had thought it would be easy for us to add children to the picture. It wasn't.
Back then we spent a lot of time hunkered down at home, watching movies. Sweatpants and takeout, though comforting, aren't particularly photogenic. We were facing infertility, each month bringing a new onslaught of grief when pregnancy tests turned up negative. Tom and I scheduled our lives around tests and appointments, procedures, and surgeries. A what-if hopefulness mingled with a maybe-never dread. We pasted on crooked smiles when friends and relatives announced their pregnancies -- in two cases, by driving up in new station wagons.
Tom and I were running out of options to have a biological child. I had always said that I would never consider undergoing in-vitro fertilization. It was too invasive and, at about $10,000 per cycle, much too expensive. But we started talking about it anyway. If the treatment worked, the expense would justify itself, we rationalized. And if it didn't? We weren't ready to picture that.
At the fertility clinic Tom and I had to sign a stack of release forms that seemed almost as thick as our mortgage refinance. The two of us had spent months preparing for that arduous journey. Here's the highly condensed version of IVF's grueling process: daily hormone injections and regular ultrasounds to monitor the progress of the eggs, and eventually a retrieval procedure, which happens under anesthesia. Sperm sample provided, lab work commenced and an attempt to connect as-of-yet-unconnected DNA. Waiting again until the embryos turned from single-cells to multi-cells, then an agreed-upon number of embryos are transferred back to the uterus. Easy, huh?
The day of the embryo transfer, Tom took me to get acupuncture; we'd heard it could improve a woman's chances of conceiving. It was Father's Day. Maybe that's a sign, the acupuncturist said, and Tom and I exchanged dreamy smiles. My pregnancy test was scheduled on our eighth wedding anniversary. But when the nurse called with the lab results, I knew immediately from her voice. Negative. I wasn't pregnant.
What Tom and I did next hardly spoke to the massive devastation we felt -- we took a picture. We'd been planning on commemorating our anniversary with a self-portrait, and even though we didn't feel like grinning, we went ahead with it anyway: the two of us side by side in our vegetable garden, me in overalls holding a broom, Tom in a suit jacket with a rake à la American Gothic. Our friends and family raved about the snapshot, though they may not have looked too closely at my swollen eyes.
At our anniversary dinner that night, Tom reached across the table for my hand. "If I have to go through this," he said, "I'm so glad it's with you."
This kind of love dilutes stress, and our marriage was facing plenty. Yes, we felt hopeless and powerless. We felt angry and sad. We felt emotions that were difficult to name. But at least we were feeling it together.
We hadn't even ordered dessert before we brought up the idea of trying IVF again. No, we decided. Too soon. Emotionally, I felt like I'd been tackled by a linebacker. Tom was hurting too, but he took care of me. He brought me french fries or wheat beer or both, depending on my mood, checking in often enough to recognize when I needed to be alone. We stayed close but gave each other space. Like two planets orbiting the same sun.
This kind of love, I was learning, was about adjusting. Giving each other what we needed, when we needed it. Tom and I discussed adoption but we knew that would take much longer than IVF. We'd also underestimated the pull of biology. Maybe we would adopt in the future, but with the clock ticking -- I was 34 -- we still wanted to try for a child of our own. After a few months, we looked at the calendar and began making plans.An Accidental Sign
Two days before Christmas, on the way to my appointment to begin the process of my second IVF cycle, I was in a car accident. An 89-year-old man ran a stop sign and smashed into me.
Maybe it was the shock of the accident, but it seemed like Tom arrived at my side in minutes, despite driving miles. We watched the wrecker lift my car onto the flatbed. It was, the insurance claims adjuster would tell me later with a dramatic pause, a total loss.
We knew loss. This car wasn't it.
The doctor still saw me that afternoon. Before I could begin taking fertility medication, he had to conduct a baseline ultrasound to examine my ovaries and uterus. Tom grinned at the screen, looking nearly as proud of my eggs as he would a baby. "They've got a good shape," he said, sounding official, and the nurse agreed and cheered us on. The doctor approved; all systems were go.
Later, I took a closer look at the accident report. The man who hit my car was named Francis. That was Tom's father's name, though he didn't answer to it. Everyone called him Frank, and on a snowy day back in the early 1970s, that's how his wife, Kathryn, got his attention with some important news. "Frank, I crashed the car," she'd said. "And there's more. I'm pregnant."
It was a story I'd heard many times from Tom, his sisters, his aunts and uncles -- family lore so familiar I felt like it was my own.
I showed the report to Tom. "Frank, I crashed the car!" I said gleefully.
It could be a sign, we allowed. Maybe I'd get to deliver the news of a pregnancy, too. I never met Tom's parents, who died when he was young, but I feel like I know them from stories and pictures. We often said we felt they were looking out for us in life.
Tom drove us to my parents' on Christmas day. We hadn't told anyone that we were attempting IVF again. There'd be fewer people to un-tell, we rationalized. We were still hoping for the best but we knew the chance we'd conceive was about 40 percent -- or possibly worse after a failed cycle.
"Do you really think the accident was a sign?" I asked him.
Tom smiled but kept his eyes on the road, knowing how nervous I was to be back in the car. "I think it means something else," he said. "Nothing's going to stop us."
My heart grew larger. This is joy: loving someone who isn't afraid to hurtle alongside you, driving life's potholed roads. Experiencing pain when the other does, but figuring out how to heal. To grow not just old together, but whole together.
A few weeks after I'd told Tom, "Frank, I crashed the car," I finished the sentence: I was pregnant. When our ninth anniversary rolled around the following summer, we posed for another American Gothic picture. I can see everything we'd been through in our eyes. The baby inside me stretches against my dress, like he can't wait to get out and join us. And there he is in our tenth anniversary photo: 8-month-old Trevor, holding a little red plastic hammer.
This love. Does our baby feel it as strongly as we do? Tom and I look straight into the camera and grin, with everything in the world between us. Once again, we are like two planets orbiting the same sun. Or son. The shutter clicks. This is us, still smiling.
Sarah Layden is happy to report that another son, Brendan, now 7 months, joined the family portrait last August. She teaches writing at Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis, and Marian University.