The Other Happy Ending
I write for pleasure, most of the time. Give me a good pen, a nice sheet of paper, ample time and away I go.
This post, however, is a little more than that.
What follows are excerpts from the journey that Chris and I took in our quest to become parents. Why such a post as we enter the joyous Christmas season, you may ask? First, because there are others out there for whom Christmas is challenging, people who are walking the same path as we did right now. Second, because there is joy in our story, too.
I apologize for the length! Put the kettle on... and please share with anyone who this post may help...
Our lives are comprised of stories, a series of narratives linked together as colorufully and intricately as long strings of Christmas lights coiled around an evergreen. Year by year, decade by decade, these stories are woven together until they tell the tale of who we are and the experiences that have shaped us.
And this is indeed a time for stories. As the rich melancholy of Winter approaches, we are drove inward; these long evenings prodding us to contemplate and reflect. As the years fade, what moments stand out, having etched themselves into our sense of self? As I ask myself these questions, curled up in a room full of windows facing the sea, hot cup of tea in hand, I think of our story, the story of Chris and I and our crusade to become parents.
This is the story of Jack.
Jack had jet black hair that reflected the evening sun as he rambled through the clifftop meadow that stands as the centerpiece of our seaside home. Carried by chunky toddler legs and an unquenchable curiosity, his dark eyes both mirrored his hair and reflected his Kazakh heritage. He was beautiful.
This is how we imagined Jack. We never did get to meet him. He was what we now know be a child who was born only in our hearts without making it into our everyday lives.
In 2012. Chris and I began the long, complex, exciting, torturous, hopeful process of international adoption. We had, like many before us, engaged in many creative attempts to become parents. Married in 2001, our innocent hearts believed that we would just have a baby. Simple.
We moved home to Branch from St. John’s in 2003 and two years later, we built a house fully equipped to act as both a bed and breakfast and home to a big crowd of young ones.
We prepared for imminent parenthood. It didn’t happen. We thought, “We’ll just relax about this. Meditate. Have a bath. Smile. We relaxed. I meditated. We smiled. It still didn’t happen. I once considered following the advice of a lady who instructed women in our predicament to lie in a bog-at a crossroads under a full moon. What if I lay in the mash at the Top of the Cross? I didn’t. But I thought about it.
Determined and committed, we hesitantly sought advice from specialists who assessed us as being a healthy and enthusiastic couple in the very early days of their 30s who would be ideal candidates for fertility treatments. I’d rather be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize or a hot dog eating contest. But off we went on the fertility treatment adventure.
Those days are now thankfully blurry in our memories. Yet some remain strong, edged.
In an effort to protect our families from the fact such a long journey lay ahead, we kept the fertility visits from our families for a short time. However, early on, we became acutely aware of how taxing this process would be on us physically and mentally. We shared the news with them, asking for their most fervent prayers.
Months passed and then a year. Still no baby. I can still vividly remember the Winter mornings, rising before first light, excited and fearful as we waited, our fate held by that little white test stick. We would watch the lines form hesitantly, the warm glow from our bedside lamp illuminating what felt like a response from the universe. Chris would hold the Infant Jesus of Prague prayer card while I held my breath for what was only ever a negative result.
Chris and I had what I now recognize as the grace of God to decide that this part of our journey would not be unending. We would not be on this road forever. There would be a beginning and an ending but we would not put ourselves through this cycle of disappointment continuously. We created a set of emotional checks and balances to ensure that we knew how we were feeling and processing this at all times. I can still see us walking into that clinic for the last time, whispering quietly but confidently to each other, affirming the terms of the contract. This is it. This is the last time we try. Our bodies, our minds, and most importantly our spirits, seemed to nod in agreement.
And that was the last time we walked out of that fertility clinic.
After allowing ourselves some time to heal, we decided to start the adoption process. The regular old methods of conception had not worked even with the expert guidance of the medical world. There just had to be another way.
Knowing that adoptions in Newfoundland and Labrador were beyond lengthy, we decided to take the international route. When we were asked to choose a country, for some reason, we were just drawn to Kazakhstan. The gritty, resilient, central Asian country that managed to tear itself away from the iron rule of the Soviet Union felt right. The Kazakhs seemed revolutionary, strong-willed. Just like the Branch crowd, we thought! From the moment we met with our social worker, we felt confident that the child we had been trying to magically conjure into being was waiting for us in that far away land.
For anyone who has been involved in an international adoption, you know that the process is as convoluted as building a spaceship with floss, wet wool and scrunchions. It’s tangly, intrusive and uncertain. Over a five-year period, we checked the regular adoption tick boxes, pleasantly engaging in regular home visits. There were Interpol checks, electronic fingerprinting, the creation of an extensive dossier translated into Russian, not to mention riding the uncertain wave of Kazakh adoption policy changes.
We did all of this while trying to walk a very fine line within the narrow confines of being approved. As a social worker myself, I can confidently say that it’s a process that needs to be reviewed with a view towards less bureaucracy and more progressive approaches. Infertility, childlessness. This is a language of deficit when we need a language of abundance.
We sent pictures of our families to Kazakhstan and researched what it would be like to live there for three months. We gratefully received five years’ worth of Christmas gifts for the soon to be baby from our family and friends. In the fall of 2011, confident that the following year would see us bringing Jack home to Branch, we decorated his room, lovingly installing a crib, rocking chair and orange door bedazzled with JACK in rainbow lettering.
But it was not to be.
On January 28, 2012, at 3 PM, my phone rang at work. Our adoption agency was calling. They never called. In a short burst of enthusiasm I answered the phone, hopeful that there would be good news in the other end.
The news was not what we had hoped for. Over the course of about three sentences, the adoption representative explained that Kazakhstan was no longer allowing Canadian adoption agencies to operate in their country without at least eight years of a proven track record. Our agency didn’t fit the bill.
And with that it was over.
Brokenhearted, I drove home along the ribbon of the Cape Shore road on a wintry evening. As I shared the news with Chris, we both felt like we had hit another roadblock, almost as if a neon sign had been erected on the edge of parenthood that said to us “No Trespassing.”
We carefully and delicately navigated our emotions in the days and weeks that followed, allowing ourselves room to mourn and feel our loss. We shared the news with our family and friends who acted as much needed cushions of support and love.
The Winter passed and without us noticing, the brightness of Spring started to emerge. We needed to heal. To start again. We decided to take a trip, somewhere simple, somewhere pleasant.
So off we went that April to Cuba, just for a week. Our time away was restorative and reflective, we ate and drank and danced and for the first time since our wedding day, we were not “Chris and Priscilla - parents in waiting” but simply “Chris and Priscilla.” It was as if we were characters in a story where the plot line was off just a little and we finally had been given the right storyline, the storyline meant for us.
During that trip, we planned another, a trip we had dreamed about since the early days of our marriage. As many people do, we had dreamed of backpacking in Europe, of bumming around from city to city, armed with nothing but a map and our bags. Later that year, in October, we packed up our 20 tonne backpacks and booked a ticket that saw us landing in Germany and coming home from Dublin. The only visits planned in between- a visit to dear Fr. Peter for much needed comfort.
The in between of that trip was wide open with nothing booked. That whimsical trip saw us walking on the edge of the North Sea at sunset, arriving in Paris on a midnight train being entertained by a fabulous French man with an accordion, traversing the battlefields of Beaumont Hamel, eating pine nuts at Piccadilly Circus in London and crossingthe Irish Sea to Rosslare.
I can still feel the thrill of Chris and I walking along a train platform in Frankfurt, Germany at morning rush hour, not having the clue where to go. We had gone astray. It was beautiful to feel a new feeling, to be lost and to feel happy about it.
At this juncture, you could reasonably ask how a backpacking trip could accelerate our healing? In essence, it allowed us to begin the process of consciously freeing our hearts from the ballast of loss and disappointment that had weighed us down.
We didn’t forget Jack. We still mourned him. I remember someone once sharing with me that she didn't want children. Completely respecting her feelings, I shared Jack with her, ensuring that I would never forsake him.
For so many years, all aspects of our being had been focused on the "how to" of becoming parents. From the mundane tasks of organizing home visits and preparing files and visiting doctors to the emotional heartbreak and disappointment at every turn, we knew there had to be a new and better reality on the other side of all of this.
We were tired. We were lonesome. We were uncertain. But we knew that we had to manage our own healing.
We could have allowed time to take over, to hope that as the years passed, we would somehow find peace and contentment in our new role as a couple without children. But that’s not who we are.
I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the role that faith has played in our journey. Through our fertility setbacks and through the adoption that didn’t happen, our belief that God was at our side holding our hands through every single step saved us on many days.
Combining all of this with the knowledge that we just had to move on somehow landed us in that airport in October 2012.
Does everyone who has ever dealt with fertility challenges or an unfinished adoption need to backpack through Europe as a means of therapy? Definitely not. We can choose how we heal. For some, it may mean a journey within to consciously explore their loss. For others, it might be a journey around the block each evening after supper. For us that journey did mean a trip to the fair to the fair content of Europe.
There are many who say that life doesn’t really start until you become parents. For us, life didn’t start until we accepted that we couldn’t. In an effort to find Jack, we somehow found ourselves instead.
So for those of you out there walking these steps, there is hope. There is healing. We are proof of that. Now in our mid forties, we are living a joyful and blessed life, just the two of us. We are Chris and Priscilla. We live in Branch. We love Branch. We're a bit foolish. We love sweets. We love the chesterfield. We love each other. And...we love Christmas morning (we get up at 5 AM!).
Yes, many of these stories end with children and for those who have that ending, we are so happy for you. But there is another happy ending and we are proof of that.
Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy, Blessed New Year to everyone!