A Year Later: How Can the Heart Describe?

This is something that I wrote back in February…

February 23, 2018

It’s hard letting go – more than I thought.

And if the truth be told, I’m a pillar of salt.

I’m a pillar of salt for every time that it took another fleeting glance,

another long last look.

How can the mind transcend, how can the heart describe?

We light a candle every day.

I ask the question even when the why seems hollow

and breathe the silence in that usually follows.

I am the cup, mended and washed.

I am the true container for all that I’ve lost.

And all that I’ve lost and gathered again

is only what hangs in the air when the music ends.

How can the mind transcend, how can the heart describe?

We light a candle every day.

I ask the question even when the why seems hollow

and breathe the silence in that usually follows.

And now and then are visitations.

To have and hold for hard but true.

How many times I had to ask the thing that I already knew.

He said “my horizon is getting closer to me.

I need you to look beyond and tell me what you see”

Here’s what I see but I need what you know.”

Out on the curve of the earth there’s a hope that won’t let go.

How can the mind transcend, how can the heart describe?

We light a candle every day.

I ask the question even when the why seems hollow

and breathe the silence in that usually follows.

–Carrie Newcomer, “Visitation” (listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9lqUqjyIIg)

It’s been nearly a year since we stopped our efforts at fertility treatments, hoping to grow our family, longing to fill a hole that has been redefined over and over these past years as we have had to adjust our hopes and, let’s face it, our assumptions about how family would unfold for us. For the past year or more I’ve tried to figure out how to describe my heart, to put into words deep emotion, lingering pain, grief, guilt all mixed with hope and doubt, anger and disappointment. How can the heart describe? Perhaps only in fumbling, incomplete ways that change day to day—that, ever so slowly, by some grace way beyond oneself, shape a way forward—the lighting of a candle everyday.

I’m learning to live in the silence that follows the question “Why?”. What a useless, inevitable question, the question why. It comes unbidden and screams out for an answer that just doesn’t come, at least not in the way of certainty. Usually the only answer that I’ve heard and hung onto in the darkest points in this journey has been “why not?”. Why should I not be one of the 10% of women who suffer from infertility, one of the 3 million women in this country who know secondary infertility (infertility that happens after having experienced pregnancy and birth prior)? There are millions of individuals and couples who are unable to conceive a child and sometimes there are medical/physical reasons that can be pointed to, but often there is no clear reason (which has been our case). This lack of something concrete to point to has often left me scouring my life and my marriage relationship for all the reasons why we, all physical aspects aside, might be blocked from pregnancy. Maybe there’s too much stress in our lives, not enough emotional intimacy. Maybe it’s been too long since we’ve gone on a vacation. Someone suggested that maybe we ought to cut out gluten in order to get pregnant. Other well-meaning folk have joked that the moment we stop fertility treatments, probably we’ll get pregnant then (like we just need to relax about it all or something). Or maybe my eggs are just at their expiry date…We long for reasons, we long for answers, for some sense of control amidst forces that can’t be pinned down by the best of science or the strongest of faiths. Useless and inevitable process the quest for why in this all. So I’m learning to exist in the silence and it is even becoming something of a friend, an unexpected result of sitting in the quiet of the dark.

Facing infertility can be a very lonely place. It’s so private, intimate, vulnerable. Not only is it cloaked with a kind of shame in the inability of one’s body to do a very normal, physical thing that every woman/couple around you seems capable of achieving (hell, even I was capable of achieving once), but I felt cloaked in guilt for wanting this so badly even though I am already a mom, even though I already have this beautiful little family, this amazing son who has my heart. Sitting in the waiting room of the fertility clinic I could, on some level, feel the pain of the couples/individuals around me who longed to be parents—and, on another level, I couldn’t. The emotional burden of infertility was coupled with financial and physical strain, all of which I am (we are) still working at coming back from. It’s all hard to talk about and when I did, it was hard for me to convey just how all-consuming and heart-breaking this struggle was. Even all this time later it remains hard for me to talk about the experience without a lot of tears (and a big vulnerability hang-over to follow) even as I don’t feel closed to talking about it–indeed it can be a certain relief to talk about it. There were a handful of people who really accompanied us through it all who (thank God) were there at the drop of a hat to sit with me in my pain or, for example,to give words of humor or encouragement as I stood helplessly in front of the injections I needed to work up the courage to plunge into my body day after day.

It took about a year and a half into this whole fertility journey to have the strength to name to my faith community what my family has been facing and to ask for support and prayers as we entered what was to be our last round of in vitro fertilization (IVF). At some point it felt important to name the journey more widely than we had (if, for no other reason, to at least get people to stop asking when we might have another child…). I received a lot of love that day from my church community—hugs and shared tears and best wishes. A couple of women felt freed to share with me about their own journeys with infertility and pregnancy loss. Many said they would pray for us and I felt so thankful to be loved in this way. Others, well-meaning as they were,said things that fed the ache I was living with—like sharing stories of answered prayer where pregnancy resulted because of God’s faithfulness. Or someone assuring me that she believed with all her heart that I would have another biological child, as if hope or belief or prayer could be enough.

This is where I struggle, y’all. Is it a lack of faith on my part that I don’t believe that prayer circles will result in a healthy baby 9 months later? It’s confusing enough, as a person of faith, to wrestle a path through grief and unmet hopes without adding to it the need for prayer to be effective in a certain, assumed direction. It can’t work that way. I refuse to accept the notion that if I would just pray harder, or pray together with others in a certain way, God will give me whatever my heart desires. It can’t work that way. If it did, there would not be thousands of people wishing so deeply for a child, putting themselves through hell (and fertility treatments are a certain kind of hell) in the hopes that they might conceive. Maybe if they prayed more? Does this mean that those who do manage to conceive have the ear of God in a more faithful or less blocked way than the rest of us? This kind of theology is so potentially damaging that I cannot accept it.

I wrestle with prayer that assumes a particular end. Not that we shouldn’t pray for what our deepest desires point to. Of course we should name these things to the God who planted those desires in us in the first place. But I couldn’t bring myself, when the invitation came, to join together in prayer with those who believed their prayers could result in my pregnancy (well-meaning and soaked in love as this all is). Perhaps that’s a lack of faith on my part—if so, I’m prepared to accept that—but it felt like my own personal preservation in the midst of the pain I was living. I have seen a lot of unanswered prayers in the face of devastating life situations and so I have to believe that God might work in a different way. I believe somehow She comes alongside, working in and through us and the hells we face not as some detached, arbitrary dispenser of blessing to some (if we ask) and not others (if we don’t), but as one who understands the deep darkness and wishes to vigil us through the night. And God, as much as we might want her to, does not simply whisk us out and away, but gently nudges (ok, sometimes thrusts) us into the dark places—not to be abandoned, but to be shaped and transformed in ways beyond our imagining so that if/when we do emerge we are changed, with a deeper appreciation for the mystery in this all as the answers we’ve clung to in the past have been stripped away to reveal how little we really know, how little we can actually control, and a faith that says this is ok. For the record, I’m not saying that God causes the bad things in our lives to happen—the thrusting into the darkness just simply is. Not because God wants or wills bad things to happen to us but because they do. And God knows, so much better than we, that the darkness has to be traversed, felt, known, maybe even befriended on some level, in order for it to teach us something about who we are, who God is and how God is with us; in order to open us for a very different path than we were able to imagine.

I don’t fully know what to believe about prayer or how to approach it, especially in dark times. Maybe that’s when the Spirit prays for us (those deep sighs and all). I love these friends whose desire was to hold me in prayer—a beautiful desire that we should all offer to one another. Prayer for me these days is more like silence, sometimes a wrenching, and the deep recognition that I don’t know what it is or what it is doing in my life as I watch, open-eyed in the darkness.

After hearing what a struggle the past year had been, a group of women offered to come together and provide space for me to share my story and they’d simply listen and sit in the pain with me. No attempts to answer the question why for/with me, but an offer to hold the question and its lack of answer. This felt true and honest and became the first act of healing that I’ve experienced on this heart-breaking journey. We did pray together—not for God to grant pregnancy, but for God to be near us in our hardest days and light a way forward, even if the way forward does not have room for all that we most desire and hope. This is the messy, confusing, sometimes infuriating faith that I claim, sometimes only tentatively, sometimes with all my desperate might. Faith in a God who knows life to be messy and frightening, but also blesses space where people come together to sit in the darkness holding one another’s hands. Because sometimes that’s all there is (and that’s beauty enough). And so I’ve been thankful for what Carrie Newcomer (above) calls visitations—the holding of the hard and true together.

This past year has been marked with a growing acceptance that my body will not again hold developing life in my womb. I will not again be able to track the growth and development of this mysterious child as it grows from a sesame seed to kidney bean to kiwi and eventually near watermelon-sized gift pushing at all my internal organs, so known and loved before we even lay our eyes on him/her. This has been a hard acceptance and most days I’m not yet there.

And so I’ve been trying (when I speak in first person, of course this journey is not mine alone by any means – the “I” I speak of is often really “we” as Wendell and I have undergone this process together—and the process has even included Ira as he has had to accompany me to some appointments and has asked his questions and voiced his hopes for a brother or sister. But the reality of fertility treatments is that it all happens in the woman’s body—a regimen of pills and shots and unstable emotions, frequent uterine ultrasounds and other invasive testing that makes this journey feel different for the one undergoing it all than for her partner—so I speak in first person because it is, to a large extent, my story to share. But Wendell’s story is also marked by its own grief and struggle along the way—his story, woven with mine, is his to tell or not. I am beyond thankful for this weaving of our story because I can’t imagine how any of this process would have been or would continue to be possible without Wendell with me, me with him). And so I’ve been trying to reimagine our lives as a family of 3. It’s definitely a paradigm shift as I’ve always dreamed of having many children. As I’ve grown older the number has decreased in my mind because of, well, sleep, but I still have recently hoped for 3 kids, often willing myself to try not to hope that fertility treatments might result in the conception of twins as happens for others sometimes. When I used to imagine myself as an adult, the first and strongest reality that would come to mind/heart was “mom”. I didn’t grow up with great aspirations to any particular career. My hope was to be a mom and career would work itself out beyond that.

So this is where we are. As I’ve entered my 42nd time around the sun, my horizon gets closer (yes, I know, to all you over-50 year olds who think 41 is still super young, it is decidedly not young in coming to terms with infertility). I am trying to adopt a practice of looking forward, looking beyond while also looking at the joy in my life right in front of me now and naming what I see. I believe, with all my heart (except in those moments when I don’t…), that out on the curve of the earth there’s a hope that won’t let go. It’s a hope born out of the darkness, marked by struggle to be sure, bathed in mystery, but it’s hope. As Newcomer sings in another song, “from the muddy ground comes a green volunteer. In a place we thought barren new life appears. Morning will come whistling some comforting tune for you. You can do this hard thing. It’s not easy I know, but I believe that it’s so. You can do this hard thing.” We are cups, mended and washed, gathering up what’s been lost and watching for the moments, often unexpected, where life and light come again and again to the barren places. We are wired and equipped to do hard things, to live through the darkness, to live with unanswered questions, to be ok.

I was going to get a tattoo (and I still might though as I process my grief, the need to mark my body in this way has lessened some)–a beautiful image created by my amazing niece of a tree of life growing up from the muddy ground, the word “hope” woven into its trunk with budding leaves, still unfurling from its branches. The horizon is marked by hope and the daily practice is to look and see and grasp some piece of it (even just a small sprout) in the present moment—to let our hearts fumble to describe. Because often this is enough.

4 Replies to “A Year Later: How Can the Heart Describe?”

  1. Hey Rachel. This is really beautiful and encouraging… and it makes me miss you a whole lot. Thank you for sharing so honestly. Sending you love.

  2. Dear Rachel–just now taking the time to check out your blog. Thanks for sharing with such vulnerability, ache and longing. I can feel the weight of it in my gut–and I grieve with you as you release all this good and beautiful dreams. So hard to release such dearly held hopes. I pray you will know God’s presence in this letting go–in all the thrashing, anger, sadness that goes with it. Sending you love through the electronic miles today,
    Paula

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