When the Words Came

My friend Kim once said that running naked around the Internet saved her.

I’ll never forget the day she ran past my window naked, and I was all ME TOO, and then stripped down and ran out after her.

With words, I mean. On the blog—about serious things like infertility and pregnancy loss, and all the ways in which those experiences leave us vulnerable and stripped down and theologically confused. She used the word “suck” a lot, and I started using grown-up words like “ovary” and “egg” on what had been a previously silly and mindlessly entertaining blog space.

But this very public form of therapy connected us to each other, plus an entire world of others, and it was nourishing to be honest, to offer and accept support, to renegotiate perspective and narrate the experience on our own terms.

Also, sometimes it just felt real nice to stand there naked like, SO? THIS THING CAN’T SHAME ME.

And/or—

I’M VERY, VERY SAD. PLEASE SOMEBODY GO GET ME SOME CLOTHES.

///

It’s been nine months since I wrote anything. In fact, the last words typed onto this page were in the spring after we lost our first and only pregnancy a month before Mother’s Day, following our first round of IVF.

I’ve spent the last six months looking for the right words to replace those other (guttural) words hanging there naked on the page.

Somehow they needed to just breathe.

They needed to breathe even through a happy and grace-filled summer full of visitors. They needed to breathe through two more rounds of IVF.

And they’ve hung there still, breathing, through six months of pregnancy during which I had real trouble making coherent sense of anything or producing a vocabulary that included pregnancy words.

I just can’t believe it.

Right now a foot-long, pound-and-a-half baby is inside me. She is hearing sounds and trying to open her eyes and sucking her thumb and kicking my bladder.

///

Last weekend Jeff and I retreated to the north woods in Wisconsin to gather our thoughts and go outside. I willed myself to reflect and write, but the words wouldn’t come.

And then I read this:

Hiding is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light…

What is real is almost always to begin with, hidden, and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence

2015 © David Whyte

This was the sentiment that explained three-fourths of a year of Internet silence, the blog vacuum, half a year growing a baby. My mind could not make sense of what was happening, and words would only diminish its presence.

And by “it” I don’t mean the baby. By “it” I mean the pool of mercy I find myself swimming in every day.

The baby was never the thing. The thing was God’s presence revealed to me in a bottom-of-the-barrel moment that still has me asking, Why would He do this for me?

///

After the miscarriage in April, we did two more rounds of IVF treatment through the summer and into the fall.

(We were only able to do IVF, by the way, because we moved for Jeff’s job to a state that miraculously mandates fertility coverage by insurance companies- our heads are still spinning over that unplanned provision.)

Without slipping into all the medical jargon, round two produced dismal results—low egg quantity, maturity, fertilization rates and poor embryo quality, which we brushed off as a fluke.

But then round 3 produced the same results.

On the day of our last embryo transfer, we had 4 embryos that were supposed to have reached the 8 or 10-cell stage, but were all stuck at 4 and 5 cells—just like the round before. The doc suggested we go ahead and transfer three instead of one or two since the odds of success were below 1%. The 4th embryo arrested, as all the others had in rounds before. He patted us on the back with a “better luck next time” sentiment. It was a punch in the gut.

I made a list that night and every night of things that I knew would still be true and good when this test inevitably came back negative two weeks later:

Tacos are still tacos
Fall is still fall
Coffee is still coffee
Jeff—always Jeff
Travel
Fleece
Hoodies

These are the things that would save my life.

But the morning of the blood test, it seemed impossibly cruel to go through the motions of a blood draw knowing there was zero chance of a positive test, then waiting several hours for a nurse to call and tell me no, and then starting the whole process all over again with little hope of a different outcome.

Meanwhile people in my life were signing over rights to four-year-olds I adored and would give anything to care for, and people all over Facebook were like, WHOOPSIE! WE’RE HAVING OUR THIRD OR FOURTH OR FIFTH BABY ON ACCIDENT! or LOOK AT OUR MIRACLE BABY WE CONCEIVED NATURALLY ON THE FIRST TRY AND ALSO WE ALREADY HAVE ONE.

In fertility world, 85% of people get “miracles” and 15% never do. Is God selective? Or is the norm that our bodies are supposed to produce babies and the world is depraved in such a way that some people’s bodies are defective in the same way crime happens and cancer comes and earthquakes hit?

The word “miracle” feels like Christian magic sprinkled sparingly—you get one, he doesn’t. I became acutely aware of my use of the word when a college friend and I were exchanging stories about our families. My dad had cancer when I was young, was given 60 days to live, everyone prayed. He was healed and lived. A miracle! Her dad got cancer when she was young. Everyone prayed. He died.

What gives?!

All of life is a miracle, I guess. Flowers are miracles—they grow out of the ground, you know. Snow is a miracle— I mean, tiny ice crystals fall from the sky and don’t hurt us. It’s a miracle we don’t all kill ourselves every day on the interstate driving around in three-ton machines. It’s a miracle God gave us brains that have evolved to being able to harvest eggs and sperm and put them into the bodies of women who desperately want to carry what their bodies were designed to do in the first place. The presence of the baby is science. That a soul was breathed into that body is a miracle.

It’s just hard that in the context of fertility, for every eight people declaring their miracle, two people are left confused and unseen.

///

I cried on the bus to the clinic that morning, cried as they drew my blood, cried all the way home, cried as I got ready for work, cried all the way to work.

I stood on this precipice (or on the bedroom floor in my towel) of believing definitively: God doesn’t see me, and God doesn’t care about me. But I didn’t want to believe that, and I thought I should probably run that by my support counsel first.

So I called and texted Jeff and a few close friends and family to ask for help—something I had never done before, acutely. I prayed for two things: peace, and a sign that God saw me. I needed something clear and supernatural. This, I thought, could potentially mitigate the No that would be coming from the nurse around noon.

No thunder boomed.
No lights flickered.
But I was reminded of this poem by Denise Levertov:

I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted

At 10am, I sat in my office trying to figure out how to move forward, waiting for the peace to come. At 10:30 the nurse called.

The test was positive.

///

The next several days, and then several weeks were all Isaiah 55-

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

You guys, ALL THE TREES OF THE FIELD WERE CLAPPING THEIR HANDS.

Not only had God seen and heard me, but also a baby was in there.

Even at the appointment that confirmed the heartbeat, when the doc said this was just the first step and there were a million hoops to jump through between now and the next one—I didn’t even care.

 Every waking conscious thought was gratitude and peace.

“Joy is not made to be a crumb,” my friend Kim had said, “Eat up!” So I gobbled that joy right up in the first few weeks without reservation.

Jeff and I celebrated with each other and we told our families, which we had not done the first time out of fear, and then regretted it when the baby was gone.

In the strangest way, I equally never feared the loss of this baby and always thought it might die—because the baby was simply the thing God used to show me he had seen and heard me. I thought the baby might just be the symbol, and that even if the baby miscarried, I would always know God saw and heard me that day in my towel on the bedroom floor.

In fact, I recalled a blog Kim had written about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the “even if” part of faith-

They are Jews in exile in Babylon and when the king declares that everyone must worship an image of gold, they refuse, despite the king’s threats to burn them alive in a furnace. They respond like this to the king:

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18).

It’s the but even if he does not that haunts me. It’s one thing to believe that God can save us; it’s quite another kind of faith entirely to believe even if he does not. That’s the kind of belief that I knew that morning. It wasn’t intellectual assent. It wasn’t something I felt. I just knew in that moment, in my gut, in my bones, that I believed. That this was the Really Real.

Even if we lost the baby… I still believed.

(Though in full disclosure, I’m still terrified to type that. We pray incessantly for her protection, and I won’t tell you how many times I’ve been to Labor and Delivery because I thought something was wrong. Fine. Just the one time.)

///

At about the 8-week mark I started getting a little zonky.

I would come home bracing to lose the baby because I did something wrong that day. I lied, or I said SHIT two times, or did something I knew was selfish, or I ate blue cheese, and it would only be right for God to take the baby back.

I knew it was shaky theology, but the fear was creeping in.

Then I read this poem by Hafiz (sent by Kim, per usual. Please find yourself a Kim and add her to your support counsel):

The sandalwood tree shares its lovely scent with any who come near. God is like that.

Does the tree ever think to itself, I am not going to offer my fragrance to that man over there because of what he did last night,

or to that woman who neglected her child, or because of what we, we might have ever done?

It is not the way of God to hoard. He is simply just there, emanating freely what He is, if we wish to grab a handful or fill the basket in the eye.

Don’t hold back, have no reservations, take full advantage of His attributes, exploit His nature and that tender part of His soul.

YES, OKAY.

And this one by Denise Levertov:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so I would learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace

OKAYOKAYOKAY.

Nothing I did earned God’s presence. Nothing I did earned the baby. Nothing I do can take those things away.

///

Since that time, both hope and fear, each protective, have settled themselves into their right places in my heart (Kim again, and Elizabeth Gilbert ;)

So. Like I said above, I have basically been swimming around a giant pool of what feels like mercy. That God saw me the morning of my test in the most despairing place and gave me comfort was the miracle; the I see you message in the middle of pain and confusion was the miracle. The baby that followed is simply a merciful gift.

God owed us nothing, yet six months later, we’re still carrying this gift.

Tiny clothes are hanging in a closet on polka-dot baby hangers, and all these words are finally finding a way out of hiding…

Advertisements

Enough Grace for You and Me

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

—Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

This is the exact way the world moves forward:

How three weekends ago we were in Tampa—a trip booked the day we discovered our babe had no heartbeat and begrudgingly changed our pregnancy-announcement-to-dad weekend into a spring getaway with lots of booze.

How two weekends ago, we had planned to surprise my mom on her birthday with our 12-week announcement, but instead shopped and ate and celebrated with regular old birthday gifts.

How the week of Mother’s Day— during which I had planned to anticipate all the complex feels and process them in advance—a school I work at experienced the sudden death of a teacher and I spent the week scooping up wailing 6th graders, in addition to my own regular caseload.

How on Mother’s Day weekend we had planned to share the news with Jeff’s family, which would have been so precious on Mother’s Day, but instead carried out business as usual with birthday celebrations and brunch and stories around the table of our own moms.

How a handful of cards and two perfect ultrasounds are tucked into the top drawer of my jewelry box underneath a pile of bracelets and watches I’ve worn since then, underneath the laundry card and the Hartman Inn & Sweets sign we use for visitors—evidence of all the life that has happened since.

How I’ve walked back into the apartment every day since our loss to the same old prayer card sitting on the kitchen table from a dining out group we joined back in January during which each person wrote their prayer onto an index card and passed it to the person on the right. The card I recieved? “Prayer for my friend to get pregnant and have a healthy baby.” OK God, her baby.

How friends who have made it to their own 12 and 13 and 14-week marks are posting their baby announcements and belly pics online with my same due date, holding a mirror to our exact loss.

Life goes on, yes.
But death goes on, too.
A person who is dead is a long, long story (Elizabeth McCracken).

///

In four years of infertility, I’ve always been able to separate my life from other people’s lives, making sure my baggage didn’t make others feel uncomfortable. For me, other babies were other babies. Other moms were other moms. Nobody’s anything cost me mine.

Also, I have a pretty durable sense of humor.

Elizabeth McCracken writes in her memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”

Yes. So many cracks. So much humor. Enough grace to feel undeservedly happy about life 95% of the time.

Also, like her, I felt a strange responsibility to make sure everyone knew I was not going crazy with sorrow. NOTHING TO SEE HERE. EVERYTHING IS FINE.

My biggest fear (put into words by my friend Kim) has been the assumption that the heart is a zero-sum game, capable of holding only so much emotion—that if our hearts are split between happiness and grief, there must be less happiness. But it’s not true. It’s possible to hold both all the happiness for others and all the disappointment for ourselves in the exact same space. God grants us that gift, somehow.

Kim once wrote about “living in the tension” as sitting in the discomfort of two conflicting thoughts or feelings and refusing to try to rationalize one away or reconcile them dishonestly.

I manage almost all the tension almost all of the time. But on Mother’s Day this year, as McCracken put it, grief came unexpectedly knocking, compounded with interest. PAY UP, it said. I didn’t know what to do. The sadness actually got me by the throat.

It all came down to the one question I couldn’t definitively answer: Was I a mother or not? Did I count or not? Was this day for me or not?

On the one hand, I wanted to tell myself: Of course you’re a mother. These lives are never ours to make or keep. We are not in charge of whether we have them for days or weeks or months or years. In fact, when I first discovered we were pregnant, our odds were so precarious I thanked God for 3 days with that little embryo inside, and then 15 days, and then 25 days and 50 days, because I understood it could be gone at any moment. Even after the kid is born, nothing is guaranteed. Anyone with living children knows this fear.

One of the hardest things for me to accept is that while Jeff and I were laughing about the ridiculous things we’d name the baby and saying goodnight to it and trying to figure out how we’d fit another person into our 700 sq. ft. one-bedroom apartment, our baby was already dead, and our hearts were already broken. We just didn’t know it yet. I’ll never know what happened. The chromosomal analysis came back normal. “I just wish we had something to hang our hats on,” the doc had said.

Jeff once asked if I felt attached to that specific baby, and I said no. I never even knew that baby. But I miss that baby’s ghost. There’s a hole. It’s person-shaped and it follows me everywhere, to bed, to the dinner table, in the car (McCracken).

Maybe on November 4th, I’ll miss that exact baby. In November I’ll think about how everything in our life is supposed to be different. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, it will be me, Jeff and the baby that was never born.

On the other hand, I tell myself (word-for-word from McCracken’s painfully accurate memoir) I’m sorry, no, it’s tough luck, he died before you met him, people keep track of such things, and if we call you a mother, then where does it stop?

I never physically cared for the baby one could argue, not really- though every decision I made about what to eat or drink or exercise or sleep revolved around the protection of that life for a short time.

Sometimes I wonder if it was even real. If there was really life in those first ultrasounds. If I’d really puked and had heartburn and stopped eating bananas and coffee and chicken.

But then people in my life—many who have suffered their own losses, living babies, pre-term babies, husbands, parents—reached out on Mother’s Day and made it real, offering proof.

They said Happy Mother’s Day, and I’m thinking of you, and I’m so sorry—words that will always lift some of the weight. To know that other people were sad made our baby more real.

One friend right after the surgery, understanding the feeling that the whole world was spinning and I was just standing still said simply, “I am stopping right now with you.” The sentiment took my breath away. I imagined the two of us in two different cities standing still together.

This is why you need everyone you know after a disaster, because there is not one right response. It’s what paralyzes people around the grief-stricken, of course, the idea that there are right things to say and wrong things and that it’s better to say nothing than something clumsy (McCracken).

Saying nothing is the worst thing.

But even for that, there can only be grace. You would not believe how many times I’ve shied away from someone’s intense grief because I couldn’t understand it, I didn’t want to make it worse, and I had no idea what to say.

If that was you, I am so sorry.

///

Last night after a long break, I started back on meds in the hopes that we’ll try again at some point. Miscarriage after IVF is so complicated and exhausting. It took us four years just to reach this point.

I cried the entire time I was laying all the meds out because I am terrified. I am terrified the exact same thing will happen again. I am already right now afraid for next Mother’s Day.

And it’s in such stark contrast to the same journey’s beginning last December, when we felt excitement and hope and thrill. But as I’m going through the process with docs and nurses and techs like I have for the last several years, my history has changed. This time when they ask, will this be your first pregnancy? I’m like, No. I was pregnant once before.

McCracken writes, after the stillbirth of her son, “I want a separate waiting room for people like me, with different magazines. No Parenting or Pregnancy, no ads with pink or tawny or pearly smiling infants. I want Hold Your Horses magazine. Don’t Count Your Chickens for Women. Pregnant for the Time-Being Monthly.”

I get her.

My impulse here is to spare your feelings, the twelve of you who are reading this, by ending with a bright and hopeful redemptive point. Something more than The Hows and Whys of Losing One’s Shit on Mother’s Day.

But sometimes sharing our own story is the point.

*Much of what I reference in this post is from Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Her thoughts and sentiments after the stillborn death of her son put such accurate words to my own feelings and confusion, I’ve incorporated them into my own sense-making. Suffering can be so poetic when transcribed, and then the poetry so healing.

 

Ice Cream, God

It’s Friday and I feel almost normal.
The hormones will baseline in about a month, the doc told me.
But I’m smelling coffee for the first time in 3 weeks without the impulse to barf, and my heart opens up just a crack to peek outside.

In a few days I suspect bananas will come back, too, and chicken and Life cereal and eggs and all the other strange things that left.

Today instead of 8 weeks pregnant, we are 1 day post-loss.  A week ago we learned our fresh 7-weeker didn’t have a heartbeat. Continue reading Ice Cream, God

Three Bottles & a Fat Bastard

This was my first attempt at writing a fiction piece for Scribes, and the assignment was to write a story about wine. You will be temped to think these stories are about J and I, because you’re not used to a fictional voice in this space, but don’t do it. Although I weave parts of our own stories throughout, much was absorbed from the experiences of those around me, including friends, family, and the good ole ER.

~~~

Among the mess of gift bags, wrapping paper and brunch, under the last tent standing to shade them from the morning sun, with sleepy eyes and brand new rings, they came across the last wedding gift: a bag containing four bottles of wine with notes attached.

He lifted the first bottle from the bag—a 2009 Barefoot chardonnay. The note, tied to the neck with ribbon, on a tiny piece of green construction paper, read: Open this on your first anniversary. May you dance Barefoot and enjoy the great memories of your beach wedding.

She smiled, and selected the second bottle—Big House Red. She flipped over the little blue note, tied with a yellow ribbon. Enjoy this as you celebrate closing and moving into your first house together. What a wonderful adventure is ahead of you.

The third was a bottle of Little Penguin Pinot Grigio. He read the yellow note out loud: Celebrate and rejoice after the birth of your first child. What an awe-inspiring miracle. Many blessings to your new family.

The fourth was a bottle of Fat Bastard with a red note attached: Your first fight… don’t call her fat, don’t call him a bastard, or trouble is sure to follow. Enjoy this when you make up.

They passed the bottles back and forth in wonder, imagining how these events would unfold.

She pictured their anniversary on a beach in the Caribbean with 360-degree views of the island, a front porch hammock, and one—maybe two—weeks of R&R reflecting back over the last year and how much love had filled the space of it. It would be so romantic. They would open the bottle and dance on the beach, barefoot. She could hardly imagine what the year would hold—family Christmases and Thanksgivings, living in the same house, city, state, and country together. She looked at him and wondered how they’d appear to each other after a year had passed.

He, too, imagined their beachy first anniversary. They would kayak and sip wine. Dance under a full moon, in that top floor condo with the porch hammock and the rooftop hot tub. They would open those French doors to the beach each morning and have at least one amazing dinner at the expensive restaurant down the street. He would wake up early to snap pictures of the sunrise, and catch a glimpse of her sleeping softly in the morning haze. Or maybe they’d go back to the mountains like they did on their honeymoon. They’d returned home just a few days ago, in time for their stateside reception last night. Either option would be great. As long as they could get away and do something special.

Passing the Big House Red, she imagined the closing of their first house together—what the house would look like and how cozy they’d feel, how home they’d be.

Right now, they lived in a little one-bedroom apartment on a canal. It was adequate for the two of them, bright and spacious, but too small to host anyone else or invite friends over for dinner. They didn’t even have a kitchen table. In the table space sat a desk, which they’d clear off on those rare occasions they didn’t eat on the couch ottoman. Once, they’d had a dinner guest and he sat on an exercise ball because they only had two chairs. The entire place was new—the city, their jobs, the apartment. They weren’t sure how long they’d stay; they’d each only come here for jobs. But she thought they might end up in a big house near her family up north, or a trendy loft in Chicago, maybe. That would be the exact middle between their two families in Michigan and Wisconsin. They’d want to be in a good school system, not too far from the city, but not too close, either. They’d probably close on their first house when they had their first kid, or settled on long-term jobs, or were ready to be committed to a place. She didn’t care where it was, but she figured it wouldn’t be here.

He imagined by the time they were ready to close on their first house together, they’d already be back in Wisconsin on 10 acres of rolling hills in the country.  They’d have a kid or two, so they’d need to fix up and sell his old two-bedroom bachelor pad currently being rented by graduate students, and buy a bigger family house just outside city limits. Or maybe on the east side—it’s getting more trendy there. He thought she’d probably like the east side.

As he put the Big House Red back in the bag, she picked up the Little Penguin. She secretly couldn’t wait to uncork this bottle, signifying the birth of their first child. They would wait two years, probably. They’d spend time traveling and enjoying one another, get their lives and finances in order first, and then take the plunge. What would their first little baby look like, she wondered? It would be a girl—his eyes, her hair. A snapshot moment played in her mind, the two of them holding hands in the hospital as everyone passed around their new little baby, cooing and rocking and arguing over who she looked like most. The kid would be an athlete. And so perfect.

He imagined a boy, decked out in Brewers or Packers gear. They’d play baseball together, or, you know, whatever the kid wanted to do, he’d support it. He knew before he’d even met her he wanted to have kids. It would be tricky timing, though. He wanted stability, friends and travel first. On the flip side, he didn’t want to be an old dad, either. He was pushing 40, and friends had told him he would never feel entirely ready. He imagined about two years from now they’d be opening that bottle, excited and nervous and thrilled while the baby slept soundly next to them.

Smiling at the last bottle, she wondered what would do them in. What would cause the uncorking of the Fat Bastard? In her wildest imagination, she couldn’t even conjure up an image of the two of them fighting. The closest they’d come was after the earthquake in Haiti. He had an opportunity to respond with a medical team for six weeks right before their wedding, and she created a position or herself on the French-speaking team they both thought was brilliant. The team didn’t buy it. He had to decide whether to stay or go, and she supported either option. But here is how they dealt with stress: She needed to talk it out eight different ways, and he needed space to process internally. They stewed separately for four hours and met for dinner. Over soup, he verbalized intent not to go. She agreed. Done.

He thought it would be money, for sure. Spending habits would open the Fat Bastard. Either that, or the need for alone time. She was extroverted; He was introverted. Having never lived together, he wasn’t sure how it would all play out, but they took extra care in fleshing out these differences before the engagement. He was confident whatever the issue, they’d communicate their way through it straight to the make-up bottle of Fat Bastard.

 ~~~

A year later, they sat with 18 friends and family members around the kitchen table/desk in the one-bedroom apartment by the canal. Their one-year anniversary happened to fall on the day of a biking event in the city, and each of their family members from all sides and states came to participate. Everyone stayed with the two in their 900 square foot apartment. There was no barefoot beach dancing or wine-sipping; there were no French doors or 360-degree island views. There were no rooftop hot tubs or mountains of any kind.

Instead, there were bowls and bowls of veggie pasta, friends and family gathered on chairs and stools and milk crates on the deck. There were air mattresses piled floor to ceiling. There were breakfast spreads and popcorn parties, lots of grilling, laughter and story telling. They toasted their waters and beers and Gatorades high in the sky on the deck of the little apartment, under stars and twinkle lights, marveling over the rare gathering of almost the exact same group of people who had lined up on a beach for a wedding a year ago, wishing the two another great year, and reminiscing over stories the couple had never heard—stories about skinny dipping and champagne surfing after the ceremony.

Although not what they imagined, they uncorked the bottle of Barefoot chardonnay on a Monday night, after all the families had left and enjoyed a slice of freezer packed chocolate wedding cake. Their anniversary had been meaningful, if not tropical. A month later, they went to the mountains. Four months later, they went to the beach. The celebrated their anniversary 4 times that year, which was a different kind of better than they had imagined.

The following November, six months after their anniversary, they sat with friends, wrapped in blankets and flannel, in a lake house on the northern border. They had accidentally purchased a house. They weren’t looking, but a friend was selling who offered a good price in a neighborhood they loved, and the mortgage for a three-bedroom home would be less than the monthly rent of their one-bedroom apartment downtown. It was a no-brainer. No realtor, and the signing happened over a beer. The owner had given them access to the house before the closing to re-paint, tile the bathrooms, and replace the carpet with wood floors. On the day of closing, while He was at work, after they had signed and taken ownership, She flooded the house. That really happened. She was trying to figure out why the master bath only reached lukewarm temps, and somehow wrenched the entire fixture off the bathroom wall. The bathroom, bedroom and hallway were ankle-deep in lukewarm bath water in about six seconds. Her brother and the plumber directed her to the water shut-off, and each came over to pry up wood planks in an effort to save the floors.  But the floors were ruined—the floors her brother had installed two days earlier. She didn’t know what to do. She called Him at work, and He reassured her. They would call the insurance. Everything would be okay. This is why She loved Him. Everything was okay.

The next morning, they set up industrial sized fans in three places, grabbed the bottle of Big House Red and drove three hours north to meet a another couple for a weekend at the lake house. There, in the cozy glow of a fire and s’mores, they opened the bottle of Big House Red and toasted the closing of their first house together. This was not how they imagined it, but in the span of life and death and disaster and fulfillment—life was good. They were home. Just not right this very second. Right this very second, they were in a different home three hours away with the best of friends, wrapped in cozy blankets toasting the moment while their real home was drying out.

The flooded house would hold a thousand firsts: gardens and furniture, friends and kids, small groups and family Thanksgivings, job changes, bike routes, budget changes, lost rings, vacations, sick days, bonfires, grill outs, Christmas trees—it would hold the entire first chunk of their marriage, after the little apartment on the canal. They would outgrow it quickly, but hang on to it as long as possible: their little bungalow on Main.

~~~

Years later—three, to be exact—she could just cry thinking about the Little Penguin bottle, gulped down in some throw-her-arms-up battle through 18 months of infertility and a desperate need for a bottle of white because company was coming. She would immediately purchase another bottle of Little Penguin in the morning. The next day they would begin fertility treatment.

The treatment worked quickly, and they became pregnant within the first three months of injections and monitoring. They were ecstatic and began decorating a nursery in the little house on Main—forcing His office into the living room area. He didn’t mind. They would find out the gender next month and teased about which sport the child would play, and what the name would be. Every sign or menu item He saw, He would say: Hey! Let’s name the baby that. For example, Stromboli—Strom for short.  They each began making arrangements to shift work schedules to 30 hours per week in order to care for the baby equally without a sitter. He would work Mondays and Wednesdays, She would work Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they would alternate Fridays.

At 16 weeks, though, the worst of the worst happened.  She sobbed in the ER holding her 5-inch, 4 oz. baby with 10 fingers and 10 toes in a little pink kidney-shaped emesis basin. Everything had happened so fast—He was on his way to the ER from work. They had only told family they were pregnant three weeks earlier.  He sat next to her in the hospital bed, as they looked at their first child, genderless and nameless. They asked for a picture, but the nurse had no camera. They looked to the Social Worker and the Chaplain who had come into the room for support and resources, but nobody could do anything. The Social Worker called the Forensic Nurse, knowing she had access to a camera for evidence collection. But the Forensic Nurse would not permit the camera to be used in this way. She only wanted to document this, the birth of their first child. They were devastated.

When everyone else left the room, the Social Worker offered up her cell phone. “I could take a picture for you, right here, and send it to your phone or your email. I don’t know what the rules are for this, so we’d have to delete it right after it’s sent.”  They agreed, through tears, took the picture, and sent it to themselves at home. They deleted it from the Social Worker’s phone and said goodbye to the little baby.

They spent several days holding hands, but not talking or eating. They spent several more days watching TV and going on long, solitary bike rides. Sometime during the second week, they started eating snacks and taking walks. They went back to work. They took deep breaths and were very careful with each other. During the third week, He brought home a bottle of Little Penguin. They poured a glass and celebrated the brief life of their first child. He kissed every place the tears fell, and she again knew everything would be okay. Everything was okay.

The following spring, they gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Waiting for them at the house was a chilled bottle of Little Penguin and two glasses. They gave each other the longest hug ever in the world and toasted to their healthy little penguin.

Two years later, they gave birth to twins and immediately purchased an entire a bottle of gin.

~~~

On the 96th floor of the Hancock building in Chicago, several decades later, they sat at a corner table, surrounded by their kids and grandkids to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. After rounds of appetizers and meals and desserts, She pulled the bottle of Fat Bastard out of her giant purse. In 45 years, they could not bring themselves to open the Fat Bastard, which would have meant they’d had THE fight. The first one, the worst one, the one you had to make up over.

They’d had moments: stressful moves, budget veers on both sides, parenting struggles, a constant battle over who would let the dishes pile up the longest until someone broke and unloaded the dishwasher, and there was that one time he threw away her entire bag of dry cleaning because she’d put them in a black trash bag and he assumed it was trash. Whoops.

But they never opened the Fat Bastard until this very moment, in celebration of their 45 years together, having made it so far and so long. They opened the bottle, poured a glass for everyone, and drank until it was gone. They looked at each other, smiled and swallowed the last gulp hard. They’d consumed the worst, and they were okay.

What neither disclosed was that each had replaced the bottle an average of 3-4 times per year, having emptied it without the other knowing.