Infertility [From The Print]
by Yael Neeman / translated by Jessica Cohen
We couldn’t have children.
If you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t find it here.
The minute we started down this medical track, we knew we were going to lose. That was our problem. We were defeatists. The fight wasn’t in us.
The doctor whose office we left at 4:40 pm, the one we later came to think of as our “truth doctor,” was the fifth one. Just like with the others, we had come to him after cross-checking references that unanimously attested that he was not only a professor and a department chair, but someone who genuinely cared about his patients. And perhaps most importantly—because he was not a therapist, and although empathy is necessary, results are what matters—he had impressive results. “As long as you’re not seeing him, you’re wasting precious time,” we were decisively informed by people with first- and second-hand knowledge.
Fertility doctors’ successes were not charted or graphed, but passed through the grapevine like folktales. But there was also evidence, humbly immortalized on waiting room walls in the form of dozens, even hundreds, of babies. Boys and girls, in tailored designer pants and matching shirts or dresses, smiling or staring at the camera with their babyish thoughts, sitting next to puppies or teddy bears of various colors and sizes, with red ribbons around their necks. The photos were framed or carefully taped, never creased. Sometimes the picture was taken when the baby was a newborn, other times (perhaps to ward off the evil eye) a few months later. There was always an inscription addressed to the doctor, without whom the child would not have been born. On the surface, the inscriptions were identical, yet each parent found a unique way of expressing their heartfelt sentiments to the doctor who had helped make the couple’s dream come true. Sometimes they mentioned the clinic staff, to which the couple was tied with bonds of gratitude.
We viewed these babies with hostility from the start. They were children not born to us, and deep inside we knew they never would be. Sometimes, to assuage our hatred—or perhaps it was jealousy, or apprehension, or guilt—we hypothesized that these were not real children but stock décor used by fertility clinics. Perhaps all the doctors had decided, in unison, to buy these photos at a store that was going out of business. But no. Unmistakable inscriptions were written and dated. There were other identifying marks, too: the doctor’s name, the parents’ names, and the name of the charming baby who would not have been there were it not for the doctor.
People always said “our doctor,” but the relationship was not mutual: we belonged to the doctor, yet he belonged to many other patients as well. That’s how it is with A-list doctors.
In the waiting rooms there were magazines, aquariums, an attractive receptionist to pass the men’s time pleasantly, and a flat plasma screen where patients could watch the news, or if they wanted to distance themselves from the troubling affairs of the day, a nature channel where zebras loped through yellow savannas and giant turtles laid eggs on remote beaches alongside turquoise waters. But none of these resembled the baby pictures. The pictures seemed to soften the patients’ hearts, because their hatred was usually reserved not for the babies but for one another—for the other couples.
An invisible battle was constantly taking place in those rooms. Ostensibly, one pregnancy did not come at the expense of another. Quite the contrary: the joy of one was supposed to bring hope to the other. Still, there was the matter of statistics. Doctors, books and information gleaned from the internet continuously hurled percentages at us, and so it was only natural that each of us should look around and realize that all these other people certainly did come at our expense. It was simple mathematics.
Many other couples waited their turns when we visited the doctors’ offices. Not angrily, but with resignation: good things are worth waiting for. As though the anticipation were part of the scenery, just like the aquarium. We spent entire evenings there, and although the other couples did not seem to like one another, they were quite friendly to us. This was a suspicious omen, of course, except that at first we denied the omens. We didn’t understand. After a few long evenings of waiting, we understood things better. In all these clinics we were surrounded by winners, each of whom would bring a child into the world and then thank the clinic team joyfully, bestow the customary gift, and eventually send a baby picture.
As we sat waiting our turn, we learned to detect which of the couples would be successful on the first treatment, and which had it in them to persevere through a seventh round. These were the two parameters for success, and they were equally important: the first was being a winner—an elusive and somewhat obscure quality for which the doctors substituted terms like “positive attitude” (whoever possessed this would succeed in the first or second round). The second was perseverance and determination (couples endowed with this trait would persist through the seventh round and even beyond—whatever was necessary). Perseverance and determination were one and the same with these fertility doctors. One quality hatched from a single egg and split into two. A binding collocation in which one word could not exist without being cuffed to the other. It was an extraordinarily apt definition, because at issue was not passive perseverance, but determination in the face of obstacles.
In all these qualities we were at a disadvantage. Everyone else left us in the dust. We met them in other hallways, at other doctors’ offices, in other departments. While we languished in our tentative, barren treatments, they were on their way to measure their hCG levels and undergo ultrasounds. As the months and years of treatments (or avoiding treatments) went by, we scanned the photographs in each new clinic we visited, trying to see if any of the couples we’d met before had babies now. Sometimes, for a fleeting moment, we’d look at the picture of a new set of twins or triplets and see the spitting image of a couple we’d seen in the first or second doctor’s waiting room.
This is the time to confess: what few attempts we did make were themselves infertile. Clumsy. Ungainly.
The winners would walk out of the office looking encouraged; some exchanged kisses with the doctor, even called him by his first name. Then it would be our turn. That was how it happened with all the doctors, and that was how it happened the first time we met our truth doctor. Like his four predecessors, he opened up a book to illustrate everything for us—a sort of atlas of the human body. This was a benefit of paying to see the doctor privately rather than at the health-fund clinic. No one would rush us here—it was a place to talk about facts and get answers to our questions, both the ones we asked and the ones we did not yet know how to articulate. After all, these doctors could see far beyond what we were able to grasp, and yet they found it within themselves to enlighten us with a measure of their transcendent knowledge of what lay ahead.
Our fifth doctor was indisputably very experienced, but we were no neophytes ourselves by then. We each played our part. I presented him with my inquisitive look, a look that appeared attentive, and moreover, understanding; a look behind which my thoughts roamed to other regions, contemplating the doctor’s strange beard and his literary taste, to the extent that it could be surmised by the volumes I spotted in the mahogany bookcase behind him: Yitzhak Rabin’s autobiography, Eshkol Nevo’s latest best-seller, and of course Amos Oz’s memoir. Clearly a man with broad horizons, both a literate reader and a professor of medicine—unless these books were gifts from couples whose future had depended on him.
I don’t understand the human body. The images of fallopian tubes, ovaries and sperm ducts in the atlas he turned towards us, so that we could see better, frightened me. I’m not convinced they aren’t making up those internal organs, perhaps as part of a curriculum, or just as a conversation topic. I did not want to get into a conflict over truth and fiction (assuming it was fiction), or to instigate yet another anatomy lesson (assuming it was true). I preferred not to disclose my suspicions. My husband, however, enjoyed those atlas illustrations. Maybe they reminded him of boyhood encyclopedias. Like a child listening to a fairytale, he liked to hear over and over again how the egg descends from wherever it descends during ovulation, then surrenders to the single winning sperm that has defeated tens of millions of others, and how, together, they attach to wherever it is they attach.
In that first conversation with our fifth doctor, after the anatomy lecture, he interviewed us about our families’ medical histories and our history with fertility treatments, and then asked about our occupations. After all, he explained, it’s not just the body that is important. You have to get to know your patient, for he is first and foremost a human being, and only a small part of him is a patient.
At this point it never mattered how experienced we were. We always became a little emotional, hoping this particular doctor—the second, the third, the fourth, and in this case, the fifth—would be different. They always nodded very slightly when they heard their predecessors’ treatment plans, and a cloud passed over their faces. They never disparaged their colleagues, but led us to believe that they would have preferred to act quite differently (or at least that was how we interpreted the nod and the cloud). Either way, their responses were enough to wipe away our wealth of experience, and we chose to interpret them as signs that everything was about to change dramatically. What we had known before was unlike anything that would happen from now on.
And yet this new doctor proceeded to order a battery of tests identical to the previous ones. We had taken them all before, and they always expired and became obsolete. “We’ll have to redo them,” the doctors always pronounced. This doctor allowed us to skip the painful hysterosalpingogram for now. As it had before, that tiny moment of faith—the faith that things could be different—shattered as soon as the tests were prescribed.
I should clarify: fertility treatments are all identical, with minimal variations. Still, a doctor gains fame and glory thanks to a talent that is difficult to plot on a simple graph, though it does yield results: fertility (or in our case, infertility), the capacity to create something out of nothing. Like storks, these doctors glided above our heads, occasionally swooping down with the beginning of a baby in their bills.
The doctor prescribed the tests and said our chances were excellent. We had to maintain a positive outlook, keep trying, come back with the results as soon as possible, and resume treatments. “Everyone who perseveres is successful,” he said. And: “Do you know anyone who tried and did not succeed?”
The seemingly rhetorical question aroused in both of us the need to turn ourselves in and confess: “Us. We didn’t succeed, and we’re not going to.” But we hid our gaze in the atlas, the bookcase, the desk. We did not answer out loud. He was our fifth, and we knew that our defeatist talk irritated them.
At the beginning, we always fell into the same trap at this point: we got confused. We went too far, or rather too sideways. We weren’t experienced enough. With the second doctor, the apparent familiarity of his tone had dizzied us, and perhaps it was hyperventilation that had made me boldly say: “I’d like to ask you, Doctor, why you demand positivity from us, when in your files your diagnosis is ‘secondary infertility?’”
He was trapped by his vow to treat new couples personably and favorably, or at least understandingly. “It’s because you were pregnant before,” he said, looking at us both.
“I was. And it was ectopic.”
“Yes, but it was from your husband. Even though there are problems with the sperm count and a missing fallopian tube, you did get pregnant. That is why it is secondary infertility.”
“But that’s exactly what I mean,” I replied. “Why call it secondary infertility if it’s positivity you’re after? It would be much nicer to say something like ‘secondary fertility.’ After all, we were pregnant, as you yourself said.”
“We had a few happy weeks,” my husband told the doctor. “The pregnancy was as natural as clear water, as rain, as a tree. Everything was so simple. We agreed not to say anything until it was definite, but I told everyone. I was overjoyed. I even told our grocer. I don’t know why I did that.”
“And it wasn’t a false pregnancy,” I added, swept up by my husband’s portrayal. “We went to the doctor after the home test, which admittedly wasn’t dark blue, but it was definitely positive. And the doctor confirmed, unequivocally. And they took blood counts, and hCG levels, and the results were there. That one doctor even saw the amniotic sac!”
“He thought he saw the sac,” my husband said bitterly.
“But no pulse,” I added.
The doctor interrupted our monologues. He realized they were going nowhere—or backwards. “We’re not here to dwell on the past. Perhaps you have a point about secondary infertility and secondary fertility. It’s certainly something for us to consider.”
He asked us to listen carefully and exclaimed: “There are so many ways to have a child these days that you could say we have eradicated infertility. We are fortunate to live in this era, and in a country that invests so many resources in children. Did you know that Israel is first in the world for IVF treatments?” (‘Like we care. We’re about to bring down your success rate anyway,’ we each thought.) My husband could not resist answering out loud rather than silently, as we had accustomed ourselves, or trained ourselves, to do. We had trained ourselves not to say anything superfluous, not to annoy the doctors, not to get worked up needlessly and then regret having spoken. But my husband said: “Since we’re on the topic of statistics and countries, maybe it would be better if this country invested a little more in the people who are already alive instead of in labs.”
The doctor gracefully ignored the comment, as if nothing had been said. “You are entering the treatment phase, and because you have been pregnant before, your chances are excellent. You’re still young, only thirty-five. Countless women get pregnant at much older.” He looked straight at me, temporarily detaching me from the plural language he had employed up until then, as if to imply that I were the single link disrupting the chain. “You could say that in your situation, there is no such thing as infertility. There is only not trying hard enough.” Then he returned to the plural: “If you both persevere, there is no doubt you’ll succeed. But you must be positive. Come back to me with the tests and we’ll take it from there.”
It would be wrong to claim that we displayed the proper perseverance. On the contrary. We were always straggling at the back of the line, always hesitant. Once I even defected from the morning ultrasound line at the second doctor’s hospital. Or perhaps it was the third.
Each morning there was a long line of women who had to come every other day to monitor the coveted developments in their bodies. In the evenings my husband injected me with hormones and in the mornings I appeared at the hospital. The first stop was the nurses’ room, where they pricked my arm and drew blood to test my hormone levels. Then we all moved obediently to another room, where the doctor waited to insert an ultrasound wand into our vaginas to check the progress of the follicles in our ovaries. For efficiency’s sake, the childless women were asked to remove their underwear after the blood test and stand there wearing only tops. This saved precious time at the vaginal ultrasound.
I knew very well that it was not right to make a fuss of standing in line without my underwear on; being inexperienced, I had not worn a long t-shirt like all the others. After all, we were all women, and we all wanted to have a child. We had all imposed the laws of that anatomical atlas upon ourselves with no apparent difficulty, as though we had naturally stepped out of its pages. At sunset we would put on evening clothes, and at dawn we would roll up our sleeves and take off our underwear. It was nothing personal against us. Quite the opposite—it was for us. Still, I felt out of place in that long line. So I defected. With a motion that was involuntary and excessively sharp, I turned and walked back to the room where we’d left our underwear. I got dressed and fled.
We lost that round. We lost the doctor and the department. We lost other rounds because of difficulties that were not considered difficulties. The receptionist who always made a sour face when we came to pick up our Form 17 and said there was a signature missing, then another signature, and sent us to get the right signature and come back. Or the pharmacist who said he was out of Pergonal but there was a pharmacy at the shopping center in Kiriyat Ono where they might still have some. “We need it today,” we said. “If you go right now you’ll get there in time, it’s not a problem,” he replied. “It may not be a problem for you,” we said silently, or sometimes out loud. And then we’d give up. Retreat.
All the things that other people saw as technical hurdles—the kind you skip over, or if a skip is not enough, daringly leap over—served merely to expose our athletic weakness. This was precisely where perseverance and determination came into play. But we stopped at these hurdles, both large and small, as though they were electric fences. We lacked the necessary spring.
We only managed twice to get through a complete round of treatments, and even then we looked like we were losing the race. Sweaty, breathless, patently uncool, we made it to the finish line in last place, with unimpressive results. The sperm count was several million lower than the optimal number, and my follicle count, which in other women easily reached seven, eight, or ten, was a measly two or one and a half. It was not just quantitative, but also a question of size. If the follicles were too small, there was no point in retrieving them.
They did retrieve them (they fought for every follicle that might become an egg, and then an egg fertilized by a seed, meaning an embryo, and then a baby; they put their money where their mouths were in their war for positivity). They fertilized them outside my body, despite the low chances. They even used the follicle that was considered only half a follicle. They washed the sperm, they mixed, sprouted, and managed to fertilize the egg, but after very carefully transferring both the large embryo and its weaker sibling, the semi-follicle, nothing grew inside me. Nothing attached.
Those languid attempts were what led to that afternoon review with our truth doctor. The meeting was not meant as a punishment, but ensued from the results and the critical time that had passed during our five years of faltering. Our truth doctor saw nothing to be gained by accusations. Fertility doctors did not see themselves as historians, nor as historiographers or paleologists. They simply did not believe in the past (or, incidentally, in the future, which was merely a fanciful cousin of the past, another unknown; they were doctors, not fortune-tellers).
“There is no point in trying any longer,” the doctor said pointedly. This was the moment of truth.
He had not been late, the way busy doctors usually were. We had the impression that he’d reviewed our case carefully. He remembered us (or was reminded), and perhaps thought back to the human anatomy lesson he had given us, or perhaps not. He looked straight at us when he talked. We looked him in the eye too, but I was seeing other things through him.
The doctor said that in this type of situation he believed in stating the truth: there was no point continuing our treatments. We would not be able to have our own children. Some people mistakenly believed that these days a woman could have a child in any condition and at any age, but I was 40 and I’d had one ectopic pregnancy and many other problems, which he then enumerated. In this situation the risks outweighed the odds. There was no point in continuing.
I’m not sure I remember what he said after that. Conversations with doctors require a particular breed of mental coordination. They demand concentration and matter-of-factness, alongside restraint. One has to listen all the way to the end, without silently cursing this stranger discussing such intimate things. Without suspecting his motives. And so I cannot report everything accurately.
Words the doctor used in what he called “a review, but most certainly not the end of the line” would later float up (or were they sinking down?) in conversations that ebbed and flowed between me and my husband.
The doctor said there were numerous other options, which was what he meant by “not the end of the line.” He gave us one example—one of many, he stressed: the next day he was travelling to Cypress to meet with a couple who were getting an egg donation from a Romanian woman and a sperm donation from Israel. And if that didn’t work, there was always adoption, an equally fine choice. Admittedly, these routes were no longer the department’s concern, but still, he viewed it as part of his role as a doctor, as a human being, and as a father, to share with us again the ways in which children can come into the world, even if we do not give birth to them ourselves. He had conducted this exact same conversation, in this room, with many other couples. Several of them had decided to adopt, and today they were happy. Theirs were the most successful children. And there was another possibility, a far more complicated one, but still worth considering: surrogacy. Perhaps with a donated egg, perhaps not—it would depend on the circumstances, and there was no point putting the cart before the horse. But that was our own decision to make, and he recommended taking time to think about it.
Something in the way he put the truth on the table and shooed us out of the department blindsided us. There was an undeniable beauty in it. The truth had a glow that derived from its intrinsic aesthetics, although in fact the aesthetics were not related to the truth but rather to the yes or no of it. To be even more precise, it was primarily the no. Because the yes, after all, meant continuing down the same endless path, while the no meant stopping. In that solitary moment, we felt that the no embodied truth.
When the ten-minute conversation was over, we thanked the doctor politely but sincerely.
There was a soft winter light when we walked into our doctor’s office at four thirty in the afternoon, and there was a soft winter light when we left ten minutes later. It was a dark light. A darkness still lit.
We shut the door behind us and for the last time, walked down the hallway that in the mornings was always humming with women and couples waiting for answers about follicles, or embryos, or chances. The light came in through the windows, just as it had before, but the hallways and rooms were deserted.
These were not the morning hours meant for blood tests and ultrasounds, nor the midday hours dedicated to retrieving or transferring eggs.
It was four forty in the afternoon, the time for truth.
At four forty-two, just before we reached the end of the desolate hallway, we saw our fifth former doctor’s back next to the elevator. Our review meeting must have been the end of his workday at the hospital, and now he was on the way to the clinic adjacent to his home, to meet with private patients who would, at the end of a long but fruitful process, bring more and more children into the world. Or perhaps this was his day off. We couldn’t remember which was his day off at the clinic. But we knew that he always went home after his hospital shift to eat soup (he told us this once in a moment of goodwill), and probably to play Twenty Questions with his children or help them with their homework. My husband said, “Wait for him to go down. I don’t want to get stuck with him in the elevator now. Let’s go look at the commemorative wall.” That was what we called the display of pictures of the babies we would not have.
The truth doctor, like his predecessors, had many babies, and the babies on the department wall were not the same ones that were on the wall at his private clinic. And of course they had nothing to do with the three biological children waiting for him at home.
Perhaps we wanted to say a final goodbye to the hobby we had developed during our five years of feeble attempts: looking hatefully at the babies and criticizing the way they were dressed and posed for the camera. At first it felt as if we were just standing there like people do for the moment of silence on Remembrance Day, with that same awkward emptiness, looking at pictures of fallen soldiers.
Except that my husband was seized by a malevolent, and very practical, urge. He shouted and cursed at the pictures and the doctor: “Not so fast, you little angels! Let me tell you something about your parents, and about the coldness – the unbelievable, freezing coldness in those test tubes when you were tiny little fertilized embryos. You may have different mothers, but you all have the same father—the doctor, or the orderly, who the hell knows what they do with that sperm over there!”
He grabbed two permanent markers from the nurses’ desk, where they sat in a chrome holder (a gift from a happy couple). First he focused on the twins and the triplets, then moved on to the singletons. He scribbled red moustaches on the girls and black braids on the boys. But he wanted to eradicate them completely. He wanted them gone. He smashed the glass with the emergency hammer that hung next to the window. A black marker darkened the boys’ baby-blue clothes and the girls’ pink ones, blackened the white dresses, destroyed the drapes sewn especially for the new nurseries.
I didn’t try to stop him and didn’t want to. He handed me the red marker: “Don’t feel sorry for anyone in this department. People who can’t have children will be parents of dead children their whole lives. That’s the reality. It’s us you should feel sorry for.” I didn’t answer. Not because I disagreed—I didn’t—but my thoughts were numbed, as if they too had been scribbled on with a black or red marker. Still, I worked with him, in total synchrony. He used black, I used red.
We separated all the twins and triplets, unraveled the pink ribbons, dirtied the party clothes, destroyed the teddy bears and the puppies. Then my husband moved on to the babies’ eyes, stabbing them with the marker’s tip. He didn’t scribble, he didn’t color. He pierced, perforated, and gouged the eyes out from their sockets.
We did not leave a single picture intact. We massacred them all.
The green wall-to-wall carpeting and the nurses’ desk were covered with shattered glass and torn pictures of babies with moustaches, missing limbs, empty eye sockets, broken noses, and various mutations my husband had inflicted. I thought we should leave, because the cleaners might arrive any minute, or a doctor or technician. I had a feeling we’d made a lot of noise.
But he didn’t stop. Not at all. He moved on to the fish tanks. The truth doctor had tanks in his private clinic and at the hospital. Big ones and small ones. Giant aquariums with aquatic plants, and one with a Betta fish. There was a goldfish tank, and a small aquarium-planter that brilliantly incorporated fish and plants: the fish swimming in the translucent planter fed off the plants.
During our many hours of waiting, we had always wondered whether aquariums were not simply a different type of photograph—a calming, moving picture, a habitat for creatures in their silent intermediary stage, like a fetus swimming in amniotic fluid.
We started on the little aquarium with the lone Betta fish.
My husband shoved the tank and shattered it on the desk. The loud smash rolled like thunder and copious glass shards covered the green carpeting and the shredded baby pictures. The Betta swam around the pictures.
Then we moved on to the biggest aquarium. Fifty-two gallons. There was plenty of glass, but it was unbreakable. Our huge umbrella barely scratched the surface, the emergency hammer wasn’t much better, and neither were the chairs my husband slammed as hard as he could. His furious momentum was blocked by the impassive glass every time. We used all our strength to tip the heavy tank over. Some of the water splashed on us. If it had been blood, it would have been incriminating. But it was water. Just water. Lots of water.
Shards of glass were everywhere, glistening in the spilled water like diamonds. Little green shrubs bobbed around, fish flopped in a rainbow of colors. Maybe they thought they’d been freed and were sailing downriver back home. Maybe they were fluttering with joy. But no, their fates were sealed: they would die. Even if they flapped around for a few more minutes, they would eventually become one with the dead pictures that floated on the water like broken rafts.
The flooded carpeting added surprising beauty to the clinic. The nature channel had leapt off the screen. Water flowing over the green pasture of carpet announced the deaths of the goldfish, the lone Betta, and the largest tank’s residents—the bleeding heart Tetras, who were always suspended in mid-water, motionless, their mouths turned up. It wiped out the happy pairs of red rainbow fish; the bronze corydoras, who spent his life digging in the gravel, which we could not understand until he suddenly paused and lay face-up on the leaves; the cleaner fish that diligently scrubbed the tank walls; the pair of striking honey gourami, yellow with spots and long moustaches. They just nibbled on the plants. They couldn’t care less.
We had created an artificial Ganges in the ward. Out of nothing. Or out of something.
But the aquarium-planter, the bonsai of fish and plants—that, my husband left intact. A monument.
He took a piece of cardstock from the nurses’ desk, cut out a triangle, attached a stick—the kind the doctors used to fertilize eggs in the women’s uterus with their husbands’ sperm (a polite and elegant stage we had all gone through before the in-vitro fertilizations), and stuck the flag in the dwarf aquarium-planter. He wrote a caption in block letters with the black marker: “Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden hath yet to be wrought by Satan…” But he expounded upon the national poet’s verse with his own lines: “But who will avenge the death of children unborn, and who will avenge the pain of men who have not fathered, and the emptiness of women who shall not give birth? May this be an ever-silent monument to infertility!”
“Our work is done,” my husband said with strange equanimity—the equanimity of the battlefield, probably. He stood looking at our handiwork for a while longer.
I wanted to run. I was afraid we’d get caught. I shook him out of it and hurried him away. We walked to the elevator, went down to the parking lot, and drove home through the busy streets.
We stayed inside, frightened. We didn’t know what to expect. Would the police bang on our door? Would someone phone? Perhaps it was the flag with the inscription that would give us away. They may have investigated cases like this before.
We laid our wet clothes out on the radiator.
We couldn’t fall asleep. We were surprised by what we had done, but not sorry. We expressed no remorse.
We suddenly had an insatiable appetite, like ravenous workmen, and we scarfed down food all night long.
At eight in the morning the phone rang. It was the head nurse.
“I’d like to speak with both of you,” she told my husband when he answered the phone. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and whispered: “Pick up the other phone. They’re onto us.”
Our hearts pounded.
But no. She just wanted to say goodbye personally. Using the same confident tone of voice that our former truth doctor had favored, she also said this was not the end of the line. She strongly recommended that we meet with the social worker for a series of conversations, which we should regard as the next stage of our treatment, a review of the past, and above all a window to a different future. These things have to be processed (or maybe she said “digested”). Then she discretely lowered her voice to explain that something very strange had happened the night before. They still had no leads, and everyone was very upset. In the morning they’d found that someone had destroyed the baby pictures and smashed the doctor’s beloved fish tanks.
“We were going to call the police,” she said, “but the professor didn’t want to. He said it was an opportunity to make room for new pictures, and that it’s not good to dwell on the past. He might be right about that, you know, because every so often we do repaint and make room for new pictures, and no one needs to know what happened. But he was very sad about the fish. It really is awful. Maybe someone was angry about not having a baby. We certainly have our suspicions about who that might be—there was this crazy couple we agreed to treat, and they gave us endless trouble—but why did they have to destroy the tanks? What did the fish do to them?”
My husband asked: “Who do you suspect? Who could it be?”
“Well, you know the department pretty well. I’m sure you noticed that not everyone comes from our sort of background. We try to treat everyone equally, without discriminating. We had a patient who was serving a life sentence for murder, or robbery, I’m not exactly sure, and he was allowed a conjugal visit with his wife, but they couldn’t get pregnant. Our country is too kind, I’m telling you. These are people who are incapable of taking responsibility for their failures.” Perhaps she remembered our own failure then, because she corrected herself: “It’s not a question of failure, but of perseverance, or…I don’t know. Responsibility…It starts with being on welfare and ends up with smashing whatever you feel like.”
“Yes,” I said, “it takes all kinds.” I just wanted the conversation to be over.
“Well, keep in touch,” she said, as if she’d called from the local community center.
“Of course,” we both said, and for a moment we almost meant it, probably because we were so relieved that she didn’t suspect us—us, the couple that was defeatist but polite and courteous and had proper jobs. That’s how they saw us.
“So you’re sure you have our lovely social worker’s card?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Of course,” I said, “we have a few, to hand out to other people.”
For the first few months after the massacre we felt very calm. Winter changed to spring, and spring brought the welcome quietude of a brave decision, of yes or no. Of no. We didn’t have to try anything anymore.
We’d long ago used up the business cards, rolled them up for filters or jotted notes on them. We’d moved on.
But when summer arrived, after it seemed we’d completely made peace with never having children and had even begun to see the advantages, the idea of adoption began to make its way into our conversations. At first it was cast elusively, like shadow and light through our window blinds, like a leaf fallen from the gutter onto the balcony. But after a while it came up every day—usually at dinner. Perhaps the salad and baguette and the way our little family, our pair, sat at the green table, aroused in us something we had thought was gone. We were dangling from the ceiling like a mobile, our feet not touching the floor. We wanted to be connected to life. What had begun as an aside spilled from the dining table into the living room and the bedroom and pervaded our home.
Once the adoption idea had taken over, once we had adopted our adopted child into our thoughts, we began to feel afraid. We feared that any child plucked out of a foreign country, taken from someone else’s hands, after being hugged, or not hugged, would not understand us and that we would not understand him. He would spend his whole life looking for his parents, and what he found when he looked back would be us. Only us. His parents would always remain imaginary (either very good or very bad) but present, glimmering in their absence. His spirit would color them in thousands of shades and tones.
When he drew a mom and a dad with a child in between them, and a house behind them, with a sun or a cloud above them, we wouldn’t know if the parents in the picture were us or his dream parents. We wouldn’t know if the sun was Israeli or perhaps Ukrainian or Romanian, seared forever in the margins of his little childhood during the months when, scientists say, the brain absorbs everything. We wouldn’t know what was hiding behind the shuttered green blinds and the brown door without a handle in his drawings. We wouldn’t know him and he wouldn’t know his parents.
A deep, wide, black river of questions would always come between us and him, and we would row our boat back and forth between the banks, from our side to his, trying wordlessly to convince him that the baskets laden with delicacies that we’d worked so hard to provide on the other bank of the river were richer than the home he did not have in his old country. But we would not be allowed to tell him that. And he would not be able to say to us: ‘I miss something but I don’t know what, or whom. I was, and shall remain, an orphan.’ That is how he would feel in his little heart, but the words would get stuck in his throat. Like that door in his drawings, he would clamp his mouth shut.
We were afraid of our already tenuous grasp on life, and of his little questions, whether stammered or surprisingly bold, which would grow larger as he did. Questions about his parents, about his origins, about there. We would gaze awkwardly over his head, and the more he asked, the deeper we would be sucked into the questions’ void. His questions would uproot us, and we would follow in his footsteps, which would be larger than mine by then, on a journey in search of his parents. As though afflicted with a mysterious disease, we would cling to his persistent search, unable to discern whether he had adopted us or us him. We would want to know these people, to be sure he was better off with us. Or we might hope—even if we could not admit it—to find a family large enough to take in all three of us, so that we could finally be at home.
As we continued to ponder, we were overcome by that same ungainliness from the treatment days, that same hesitancy that had become as present as our furniture. That same sterility. We saw our adopted child facing us, small, uprooted and lonely, and we crouched down to see his eyes up close, at his level. The lives of the three of us revolved around a balance of sheer kindness, but nocturnal monsters roamed undisturbed even in broad daylight.
After a few weeks we were exhausted, and we gave up again. Yet the sense of future, the sense of life that had been implanted in us during the short pregnancy, which had seemed to erase all our hesitations and apprehensions about having a child, did not let go. It is true that even that pregnancy had been implanted outside the womb, but still, remembering the joy of a near-pregnancy (what the doctors later called secondary infertility) kept muddling our decision. It was hard for us to give up.
We felt like childless parents.
And so, when autumn came, we started discussing the topic again, as though the change of seasons had brought a new frame of mind. My husband went back to that sentence, or word, or paragraph, which the doctor had used. About surrogacy. We couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said.
For three days and nights the idea of surrogacy seemed like our savior. It seemed feasible. A new path with green leaves had broken through our dark thoughts. We saw a child again in our mind’s eye. A tiny baby, a newborn—though not born from our bodies—who would bring great joy and energy to our lives.
But the thoughts turned black very quickly, like a green avocado that rots overnight. Our future (our lives, in fact), which had begun to go wrong back during the natural pregnancy, seemed to have unraveled a chain of natural disruptions, a disturbance of the life cycle, of the order of things in our home. When we thought about the surrogate mother rather than about the baby, we were struck by a paralyzing silence, thrown once again into the dungeon of our fears.
We darkly envied the young woman who would be chosen—the concubine, the dear girl whose womb would host our future baby. All night—the night that put an end to our days of thinking about her, the night that turned rotten at dawn—we spoke about the surrogate.
We knew very well that in the end she would want him. After nine months she would feel attached to him, and she would sue us, and they’d make a mini-series or a movie about her. She hadn’t known, she hadn’t thought it through. At first the country would be divided, but eventually we would have only a small minority on our side: who could withstand the pictures of a mother whose baby is taken from her? Everyone would ask (and rightly so—we, too, would ask ourselves) what the two of us had done for this baby whom she had brought into the world. We had paid money, but had we suffered? She had conceived him and carried him in her womb for nine months. She would be poor, of course. She’d be more beautiful than us, younger, photogenic. And of course we would feel bad, exploitative. It was worse than adoption. Much more frightening. It was abduction and adoption. Our child would not really be ours—there might be a donated egg, that wasn’t yet clear—and at the end of the process we would take him away, after she had bonded with him throughout the pregnancy.
Even if the case went to court and we employed a battery of lawyers and the judges eventually sided with us, they would still discuss the dilemma. They would put on their reading glasses and read from their lengthy decision in trembling voices, solemn prose peppered with heart-rending biblical quotes. They would explain that despite the verdict (in our favor), they felt obliged to read the dissenting opinion, which stated that “perhaps what we have here is not a legal matter, but rather moral dilemmas of the twenty-first century, dilemmas that plain law is currently ill-equipped to handle.” And we would immediately defect to the dissenting opinion, identifying with the judge’s arguments: this was not a matter for the courts. His words would tear at our hearts as though he had aimed them right at our core, not at our ears or our lawyers’.
Of course we would take pity on the woman and leave the child with her.
When morning came we tumbled like gravel in a rockslide down to the starting point, or rather, the middle point, or the zero point—namely, to the infertility, the point at which we were afraid to be uprooted from our already fragile grasp on life. Once again the winds of fear blew inside us, the fear of the questions our adopted or surrogate-born child would ask, the child we did not have the courage to adopt or to conceive through a different woman. (The child who might adopt us in his heart more than we were capable of adopting him, or in fact ourselves).
I cannot pinpoint the season when we stopped talking about a baby. Perhaps the sun was shining, perhaps there was hail. But we did stop talking about him. All new thoughts of him, if there were any, were miscarried before they could be fertilized and turned to speech. They scattered on the floor or flew up to the ceiling and out the window. Perhaps we had grown attached to our unborn baby, and loved him as though he were born. Perhaps we did not want to betray him with a real brother, or perhaps it was ourselves we did not want to betray. Either way, we spoke no more of the baby who was not and would not be, who had never existed, the lovely baby who would grow up to be a sweet little boy who would ask, or not ask. But those unasked questions would still rove like unfulfilled wishes, like nocturnal monsters in broad daylight.