by Wanda Kiernan
On the eight month anniversary of her latest scar, Madeleine inventoried her healed scars, remembering the story behind most of them. Like the small “kitchen-knife” cut looking like a closed eyelid on her left index finger. The kitchen knife always found that spot whenever it slipped while she chopped carrots, or radishes, or onions.
Or the “triplet” scars born on the same day when she was a 12
year old tomboy flying downhill on her new Schwinn 10 speed, losing control,
and spilling onto the blacktop. She gashed her knee, and deeply scraped both
palms trying to stop the forward momentum.
Finally her eyes rested on the most recent addition, the
eight month old scar, 10 years in the making. It was a bikini cut. That’s what
the doctor called it. It was just above her Mons.
It was still bright pink and looked like a wave, the kind
children draw when they’re drawing the ocean. Maybe, she thought smiling,
she’ll get a rowboat tattoo to bob on the wave. A little guitar playing sailor
could be sitting inside.
The scar was a relief. After 10 years of trying to get
pregnant, scores of negative tests, the feelings of failure and guilt, the scar
proved that the problem was with her plumbing, and not in her head. But, there
was still the matter of her heart.
When she married Chris, the love of her life, the plan was to
have kids. Besides loving Madeleine’s cooking, and the way friends and family
gravitated towards her, Chris loved her maternal side best. “We’ll have five
kids,” he’d shout when the conversation came up. Madeleine would chime in “a
quintet.” They were both music teachers, and fantasized about their brood
playing instruments and singing, like the Von Trapps or the Partridge Family.
During their first two years of marriage, they lived in a
small one bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village, with barely enough room for
the two of them. Madeleine called it their love shack. Yet despite all the
healthy “love shack” activities, Madeleine wasn’t getting pregnant. They
weren’t too worried. They were newlyweds and having fun.
But a move to a 3 bedroom, 2 bath house in the suburbs made
the issue more serious. The plan was to fill the house with kids. Wasn’t that
why they moved to a bigger place? Wasn’t that why they left their love shack
and newlywed life behind?
So after one more year, and still no pregnancy, they decided
to get tested. Chris was fine. His copious boys were swimming
well. So the problem had to be Madeleine’s. And so began the numerous, and
often painful additional infertility tests.
All the tests came back negative, so why no babies?
“Maybe I’m too old? I’m already 33.” She wondered.
“My mom was 40 when she had me and 43 when she had Carol.”
Chris answered, intending to be supportive. Only Madeleine felt the failure
Friends and family chimed in, too. “It’s stress,” they’d say,
and prescribe wine and relaxation. “Don’t think about it. It’ll happen,” others
offered. And the ever popular, “Try adopting. A friend visited an adoption
agency and got pregnant two days later.”
They meant well, but Madeleine never obsessed over doctor
appointments and procedures. No matter how hard she tried to stay away from it,
conversations inevitably turned to baby-making. If she talked about a favorite
book, someone would recommend “this great book on getting pregnant”. Talk of a London vacation was pooh-poohed, and Fiji prescribed. “It’s so romantic. As
soon as you land you’ll get pregnant.”
During those years she wished she had the courage to say,
“I’m tired of talking about this. Let’s change the subject.” Or “This doesn’t
define me. Really, I’m not all that devastated.” The what-would-people-think
syndrome had something to do with that. She felt a subtle, unspoken consensus
among her women friends that a barren future would be devastating. It wasn’t,
it isn’t, and she still couldn’t say it out loud.
In the shower, hot water streaming, she passed the soapy
sponge over the wave. The skin around the scar, numb to the touch, made her
feel queasy. Over the past 10 years, the tests, the procedures, the treatments,
often left her numb and queasy.
Like the passion numbing, romance draining act of tracking
her menstrual cycle and basal temperature. In a 28 day cycle only six were ideal
“get pregnant days”. She’d mark them on the calendar with an ‘s’.
In the mood or not, that little ‘s’ screamed, “We have to have sex, and make a baby today!”
After twelve months of “little s’s” and no little one, came
the laparoscopy. The scope inserted through her belly button showed a nest
ready for chicks. The bad news, the procedure made her an “innie”. She still
mourned the loss of her cute outie belly button, and resented the sacrifice to
the infertility gods. But she got the okay to proceed with the hormone therapy,
and artificial insemination.
Hormone therapy brought with it Madeleine’s ultimate
queasiness factor – needles. For as long as she could remember, needles made
her squeamish. Blood draws during physicals or Novocain during root canals
were borderline pass-out moments for her. Even the short, subcutaneous needles
used for the hormone therapy looked like harpoons.
The first artificial insemination was unexpectedly painful.
For some reason Madeleine thought it would feel closer to nature. As close to
nature as a catheter with washed sperm being inserted directly into her uterus
could feel. But as the sperm was injected she screamed in agony, “Why does it
hurt so much?” The OB/GYN explained “it’s a side effect of the procedure.” All
Madeleine could think was, “This better work.”
When her period was two weeks late, there was a glimmer of
hope that something finally worked. That a new phase of their lives was
beginning. No more injections, pinching, and prodding. Each day that passed
without bleeding added to a quiet, unspoken joy between her and Chris.
But then the bleeding started. They were crushed. Considering
her “it-is-what-it-is” attitude throughout the past several years, Madeleine
was surprised that she felt as disappointed as she did. Those two weeks of
thinking a baby was growing inside of her were unexpectedly happy weeks.
The disappointment lingered, putting a strain on their
marriage. They became distant, spending time in separate rooms of their 3
bedroom home, like hurt animals going off to lick their wounds. The failure
tested their relationship, what they needed from each other, and for
themselves. Slowly they came together, scarred but intact, and both agreed to
But a week before Madeleine was scheduled to start the second
round of hormone therapy she experienced a gut wrenching pain. She bent over
holding her stomach and ran to the bathroom. Was it last night’s greasy fish
and chips from Sonny’s Canal House wreaking havoc in her bowels? After 10
minutes, the pain kept getting stronger with no relief in sight.
“I think we have to go to the emergency room.” She yelled
down to Chris who was in the kitchen scrambling eggs for breakfast.
“What did you say?”
“I’m in a lot of pain.” Madeleine made her way slowly
downstairs. “I don’t know what it is. It’s not going away.”
“Okay.” he said grabbing her by the arm and helping her to
In the ER Madeleine rocked and held her stomach while she
answered the intake questions: “Level of pain from 1 – 10?” “10.” “When did the
pain start?” “This morning.” “Is the pain on the left or the right side?”
“Left.” “Did you have this pain before?” “No.”
Madeleine’s blood pressure clocked in at 144/90, and her
heart was palpitating.
The ER doctor did a quick external exam, pressed her stomach
and abdomen, tapped her right side then left, and asked each time, “Does this
hurt?” “No, not when you touch it.”
He gave her two ibuprofens, took some blood, and sent her for
internal and external sonograms.
After 30 minutes the pain subsided, and after two hours the
ER doctor came in with a chart and said, “A cyst on your ovary popped. The
draining fluid caused the pain. You should follow-up with your gynecologist.”
And so she did. Madeleine’s ovaries had developed complex
cysts, a possible precursor to cancer. The recommendation was to have a
hysterectomy. Now they were both scared. After a second opinion, Madeleine went
through with the hysterectomy.
The following three months were about healing, about getting
used to a new normal, an acceptable truth they could both live with. They
wouldn’t be like the Von Trapps or the Partridge Family, after all.
She toweled herself dry. Eight months to the day, and the
scar was healing nicely. She no longer worried about her plumbing working or
not. Through those years, as the prospect of a quintet faded, even that of a
trio, in her heart of hearts, she was glad they were a happy duet.