Okay, one more infertility thing and then I'll move on, at least until the next time I feel inclined to set the Wayback Machine for half-past Oh My God Things Just Keep Sucking. I don't think I mentioned here that we did the March of Dimes' March for Babies, but we did. Five miles on a soft, sunny morning, from the high school to the pool and back. We'll call it 10,000 steps.
Ben was okay in the stroller for approximately 50 steps. Then he'd decide to scream a little. Paul would pick him up and put Ben on his shoulders, which would be good for another 100 steps. Then we'd let Charlie take a break and ride in the stroller for a bit, and that was fine until Ben noticed. "Miiiiine!" he would shriek, twisting his whole body downward toward the pavement, wrenching Paul's neck in his attempt to dive back into the stroller he had abandoned not two minutes earlier. If I had to estimate, I'd say Ben spent approximately a quarter of a mile in the stroller, four miles on Paul's shoulders, and the rest of it hovering somewhere above the ground, howling, levitated by the force of purest rage.
Charlie was a trouper, though. I'd told him about the walk ahead of time and asked him if he wanted to go, and initially he said no. But I talked with him some more, explaining just what the March of Dimes does, and just how our family had been helped, and his initial resistance turned to good-natured willingness. On the walk he complained very little, fortified by an unending flow of granola bars, milk in a box, and promises of a reward at the end. ("And for you, intrepid child, a polio vaccine, thanks to the March of Dimes!" "Oh, boy! Straight limbs! This is better than a pony!") I can't find words to describe how proud I was. But then it was kind of an emotional day for me.
Even so, I only cried twice. It was a small walk with maybe 30 families; just one group wore T-shirts that read, "In Loving Memory." But one was enough; it had the predictable effect on me. The other time was when Charlie, blithely assuming everyone's prematurity story ends as happily as ours did, looked at the photos of babies in isolettes and said, "If the March of Dimes didn't help families bring early babies home" — the line I'd used to explain it all — "those kids would live in the hospital forever!" And at that precise moment — what are the odds? — something landed in my eye, possibly a touch of fetal surgery to correct life-threatening birth defects, or maybe a splash of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects, and it took a few tears to wash it out. Because you know, kid, plenty of parents would joyfully take that instead of what they got.
But it was mostly an upbeat day. I feel a daily gratitude for every improbable indulgence we've been granted by the universe. To have these two kids at all, to have had them in ways that might have been challenging but could have been so much more so — I think about it all the time. I think about it more in situations like this, when the local ambassador family is there hugging their seven-year-old, saying, "...And we asked the doctor what her chances were..."
And that day it occurred to me that in all the time Charlie was hospitalized, we never once asked what his chances were. It was a funny thing. In the first few days after his birth, everyone behaved as if we'd asked, but by then I think we knew better. By then, because of infertility, we already knew that statistical speculation, not much better than a guess, was worthless. The only thing that mattered was the follicles, or the embryos, or the hCG value, or the embryonic heart rate in front of you. The sick early baby in front of you. (The vodka bottle in front of you. The box of Kleenex in front of you.) It was as if the script went on without us, with a doctor soberly telling me, "We don't have a crystal ball," when I hadn't dared to ask about the future, only about the now.
This isn't a new observation, that adversity has an up side, but consider it begrudgingly acknowledged. Infertility bestows a whole raft of gifts. Oh, it's not exactly a raft you're happy to see bobbing gaily into your harbor — think Viking funeral ship, ablaze and stacked with corpses — but it's loaded. One of the gifts it keeps on giving me is a greater ability, still imperfect but better, to observe and appreciate what's in front of us, without looking too far forward, maybe glancing back occasionally, but in reflection and not regret.
And I was thinking about all this during the walk. I was looking around at the other families, most there with one or more children. I was thinking about how intricately, distressingly, prematurity is tied to infertility and treatment. I knew that even among our small group that day there were possibly others like us. And I hoped they had gotten what they needed: a family, some of the same humbled joy I felt. Some insight, if it'd help them. Some sense to be made out of the whole experience. A living child, one who yelled the whole way or one who stepped along cheerfully, balloon in tow — either one.
Any other walkers out there? And what got in your eye? A drop of establishing a direct link between alcohol consumption in pregnancy and specific, preventable birth defects? An unexpected spray of promising developments in gene therapy? A blast of life-saving surfactant? I bet it was the surfactant. That stuff stings like a bitch.