There is beauty and terror in every aspect of life worth pursuing, says Emily Rapp.
this would cost you anything,
never imagining the sound of my voice
as anything but part of you—
you won’t hear it in the other world,
not clearly again,
not in birdcall or human cry,
not the clear sound, only
in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye-
the one continuous line
that binds us to each other.
—from “End of Winter” by Louise Gluck
In July I will turn 40. If all goes well (something that isn’t easy to say and even more difficult to fully believe), my daughter, due in March at the end of winter, will be just over four months old. If her brother Ronan had lived, he would have turned four years old just a few weeks after her birth.
These time markers mean nothing and everything. Like the change in seasons, these facts cross my mind inevitably and cyclically, impenetrable facts moving across meaningless borders that can still land me in a fit of tears, sometimes rage or confusion, or a stunning combination of the two.
Age also means nothing and everything, in some respect. My fiancé and I were focused and persistent about getting pregnant, as many couples are. Although we are older than the “average” couple, age is also an inaccurate measure of ease in fertility. Walk into any fertility clinic and this is immediately evident. Talk to any couple and you’ll learn about their route to parenthood or their decision not to pursue it.
After my son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a terminal illness that would claim his life before the age of 3, I immediately wanted another child. With the exception of other mothers with terminally ill children, everyone advised me against this, but the need was powerful and pressing. For the next two years I explored almost every available option: IVF with advanced pre-genetic testing with my then-husband; single motherhood (IVF and IUI) with donor sperm from a 19-year-old Cuban student studying engineering; egg freezing (“You’re running out of time,” the fertility doctors were always careful to tell me).
Everyone and everything was running out of time: Each month brought a new stage in Ronan’s decline; I would lie next to him at night and imagine my reproductive organs wrinkling and aging as I stared at his beautiful face—two losses at once. It felt wholly unbearable.
The fertility doctor I got to know the best was utterly patient; every month or so I would step into his office with a new plan and burst into tears. He would listen, speak to me about my options in his thick Texas accent, and then take me to the person who could explain those options in detail. I would drive home from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on I-25, the land brown all around, and feel like I was driving off into the world. What kind of world I could hardly imagine.
A year after Ronan’s diagnosis, after my marriage to his father was over, I sat on the couch and watched the DVD I’d been given by the fertility clinic about how to administer the hormone shots for IVF. I opened a bottle of wine, put on The Cure (in retrospect, not the best choice), and cued up the DVD. The baby monitor next to me hummed and crackled as Ronan moved and shifted in his sleep. The nurse on the DVD was patient and blond and possessed of a slow-motion voice. She carefully showed the syringe, how and when to administer the medication. I slammed the computer shut and wept. I never wanted to be a single parent, and I realized I could not go through the intensity of a fertility treatment on my own while caring for Ronan. My plans were tabled, and I assumed that my desire to be a mother again would remain unfulfilled.
Many of my friends had children in their 20s and 30s. I wasn’t ready until I was 34, and even then, motherhood—its intense sacrifices, long nights, and total commitment—wasn’t an easy adjustment. I don’t consider myself someone who falls in love with every baby I see; I don’t consider myself a “maternal” person in general, although this description seems to be erroneously associated with gooey sentiments and women who want to get in the face of every child they meet. Mothers are fierce and practical; that was what I began to understand about my own identity as a mother, which developed as Ronan declined. I loved my child from the moment I met him, and it is also true that I did not fully appreciate the force of that love until I knew that I would lose him. A hard lesson to learn, and a very human one.
Since the moment I got pregnant with my second child I have been nervous, excited, disbelieving, joyous, ecstatic, worried, grief-stricken, crazy-feeling, and thrilled, sometimes all at once. I’ve listened to doctors tell me various things, all of which seem to have a coded message behind them. “You waited too long.” (Translation: How dare you think you can have it all – career, adventure, and motherhood. See how biology has put you in your place!) “You’re really brave to be doing this again after what happened to you the first time.” (Translation: You’re cursed and possibly deranged.).“Now that you are advanced maternal age, a lot more can go wrong.” (Translation: Again, with the waiting! Bad girl!) What I’ve felt behind all of these statements were these questions, partly shaming and partly accusatory: What were you thinking, geriatric mom? Who do you think you are?
I know exactly what I was thinking during the years when I did not have or want children. I was thinking about how to be a person, a writer, a woman, a human being. I was thinking about how to square my artistic ambitions with the realities of being a woman. I was thinking about how to be healthy instead of weight and food obsessed. I was figuring out how to be a friend, how to love my body, what sex and relationships were about when the ego wasn’t playing such a leading role. I didn’t find any easy answers to those questions, but I have no regrets about the ways in which I chose to explore them.
Did I make the wisest choices in every case? Absolutely not. But the thing about “wisdom” is that like “luck,” it is entirely retrospective. It is not the truth; it’s a gloss, an interpretation, a vision, a perspective. It means nothing and everything. A term for one kind of border, but hardly a definitive statement about what it means to cross from one place to the next.
I know exactly who I am. I am a woman who has found love I never imagined would exist for me, a companionship that feeds my intellect, my body, my mind, my soul. I am someone who grieves a little boy every day and will for the rest of her life. I am a childless mother who is ready to be a mother again, even though there are no guarantees, no set-in-stone promises that my life will suddenly look like a Subaru commercial and I’ll be successful and loving and loved and never get another zit and always have the energy to pick up the nursery every night even though I’ve risen at 5am to go for a run before working on my award-winning novel.
I am a mother who, when she hears her little girl cry for the first time, will also remember the cry of her brother, and how each child was and is singular and only and precious to me. I will imagine the ways in which we are all connected through the simple hello and goodbye of our chance and temporary meetings—as friends, children, parents, spouses. There is beauty and terror in that imagining, as there is beauty and terror in every aspect of life worth pursuing. If what I’ve learned as a result of reaching advanced maternal age is that no loss is without an attendant and unexpected rebirth, and that no joy brings with it unadulterated happiness, that instead we’re all of us always on the brink of saying goodbye to everything and everyone we love, then I will own it.
Role Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp, is a professor in the University of Cailfornia-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.