When we made the Great Migration from our loft apartment in Greenwich Village to a two bed / two bath in Brooklyn, the movers were very direct with us. At least one of them one was – they were both Eastern European, but the younger barely spoke. The older shared his opinion frankly and irrespective of its relevance to the task we’d hired him for.
Our first error was living in Greenwich Village in the first place. It was, apparently, nearly impossible to find parking. The next neighbourhood, he said, should have better parking options or we would have to pay for all the time they wasted. I didn’t know how to remedy either their morning parking problems or how I could ensure better parking in our new neighbourhood. I told him gingerly that I thought there was at least a driveway near our next place that they could probably block temporarily. He looked at me with the mild contempt he clearly reserved for those who knew nothing about moving or driving – let alone parking – a very large truck.
Later, he told me “I’m going to have to retape this filing cabinet.” I told him that was OK, wrongly assuming he was worried about the tape ruining the cheap finish. “No, it’s not OK. The way you have taped it, the drawers would have fallen out and injured us as soon as we picked it up.” I apologised, again conscious of my obvious failure to display even the most basic competence required to move apartments.
I busied myself with moving as much furniture as possible from our loft area down the stairs, trying to compensate for my incompetence with a large expenditure of energy. Perhaps his contempt was somewhat allayed because his next communication was almost friendly.
“You are planning to have babies?” I suspect he was tipped off by our decision to move to Brooklyn, abandoning our prime Village location overlooking the comedy clubs and dive bars of Bleecker Street. At the time, I was simultaneously offended by his question and perplexed by his ability to pin down our intentions when we hadn’t even told our closest friends.
Yes, we were moving to have babies. After two and a half years of marriage, we were – I was – ready(ish) to try for a family. Before even having babies, I understood Cory Taylor’s observation that to “become a mother is to die oneself in some essential way.” Matt had been ready sooner, but I was taking longer to adjust to the idea of motherhood. I had already experienced a radical loss of identity in moving to New York from Sydney to marry him – giving up my career, my country, my network, my status as a happy bachelorette. That loss of identity had felt like a death of self, and motherhood, it seemed “would be its own kind of death” as Cory Taylor described in “On Dying: A Memoir”.
So my readiness manifested in bite sized chunks that I felt I could measure out. I had my IUD removed first. I still wasn’t “ready” and so we followed that up by combining two largely fallible methods of contraception – the rhythm method and the pull out method – with the knowledge that we might fall pregnant. Then, I’d decided it was necessary for us to find the right apartment before I even got pregnant. It needed an elevator (for prams, and organic groceries for home-made baby food). An in-apartment washer and dryer was essential (an unaffordable luxury in most of Manhattan, but needed to deal with the every-day avalanche of poop, vomit, and poop and vomit covered baby clothes). A bathtub. A storage room if possible (for car seats, the pram, and storage of dangerous items like Matt’s ski collection).
The Brooklyn apartment met all my requirements. But, according to the mover, we were eminently unprepared to start a family. Our chipped particle board side table would shed fibres that I would breathe in to the detriment of my health and that of our unborn baby. The glass shelving in our bookcase would be pulled down by a climbing toddler and fatally shatter on top of them. We were, in his view, obviously far too ignorant of the dangers of the world to be good parents.
Nonetheless, everything else was in place. My IUD was gone. The apartment was perfect. Well, not quite perfect. For the first three months, we slept in the second bed room – the baby room – in our old bed next to the probably fatal chipped particle board side table. The master bedroom remained empty as we waited for the delivery of our new bed. I’d picked the design – a soft wing-back inspired king bed, for reading and for breast-feeding babies (of course I would breast feed) and big enough to share with a horizontally sleeping toddler.
Our new bed arrived in the same month as my first symptoms – a bright red stream of blood at the end of my urine stream. It would, of course, be a UTI. Except that it wasn’t. There was nothing obvious on the CT scan. For absolute certainty, a urologist would look directly into my bladder – but there was no urgency, I wasn’t a candidate for anything so serious, so I waited weeks for an appointment.
In the meantime, we talked a lot about turning the baby room into an office. We could sell our old bed. It would be easy, and we could change it back as soon as I got pregnant. But I chafed at repurposing the room – even temporarily. Instead, we left it with our old bed and the chipped bed-side table. I bought a vintage table cloth to cover the chips, so that we didn’t compromise the health of our guests. We would maintain the status quo until I got a clean bill of health, got pregnant, and turned it into our baby’s room.
Then we discovered I was an anomaly. The urologist who looked inside my bladder saw a tumour, bulbous and vascular. She had said on the previous appointment that there was a 99.9% chance that “it was nothing”, but apparently I was in the 0.1% for whom it was something. My first surgeon – cold and uncommunicative – relayed the news that it was high grade but contained in the bladder. I had a 30% chance that it would never come back, a 30% chance that it would come back, and a 30% chance that it would progress. He didn’t seem to care about the math or my feelings to a particularly high degree.
The two thirds chance it would come back or progress froze the second room, temporarily, into its guest room status. Friends and family came to visit for my operations and the six instillations of immunotherapeutic BCG into my bladder. It was good to be able to offer them a place to stay, and in the meantime Matt and I didn’t know what to think about when – if – we should resume the plan to get me pregnant.
Six months later, we discovered I was an even greater anomaly. The cancer had slipped out of my bladder and into my lungs and skin and lymph nodes. I was suddenly a Stage IV patient, with a historical long term survival rate of 5%. My parents booked a flight from Sydney straight away, and stayed in our second room while Matt gave me hormone injections so I could freeze my eggs before chemo started. I recoiled from every shot, sobbing with grief and anger because it felt like too much to plan four our first baby together when the average lifespan of someone with Stage IV bladder cancer was 18 months.
My fertility doctor was delighted that we obtained 24 eggs out of the process. But, in the meantime, the second room became more firmly frozen into a guest room. Friends began to stay there when they came to visit New York, and sometimes they’d say “that’s a beautiful guest room” and something would pinch inside my chest as I smiled and agreed with them.
Then we started having positive scans, as my body started responding positively to the chemo. We started to let hope (hope is a thing with talons) back in. It was still a guest room – but maybe it wouldn’t be forever. We started researching surrogacy, and our fertility doctor told us about an agency that sounded appealing. We met with them over lunch at Matt’s work. The food was average but they seemed caring and professional. They sent us through the paper work, and the outline explaining the fees. It was going to be expensive – much more expensive than the treatment of my cancer – but it felt like the kind of thing for which expense shouldn’t be a key factor.
We were ready to sign the contract when I started feeling sick again. I was exhausted, spending every day in bed. Even though I had finished the chemotherapy, the treatment was still eating away at my healthy cells and my bone marrow. My haemoglobin dropped to dangerously low levels (I had Stage Four anemia. Stage Five was death.)
We paused our plans again, reluctantly realizing that we needed more time for my body to recover from seven months of chemotherapy. We started the process again of making plans to plan: there would be another scan in December, confirming I was still tumour free. We’d contact them in January, which would give me plenty of time to physically recover. We could sign the paperwork with even more confidence that we were ready and all was well.
Then, in January, I vomited on the way to work. I started getting headaches and I struggled to get out of bed. I told Matt it was a virus. But he was worried, again, and we called my oncologist. In Urgent Care they scanned my brain and a doctor told me, with exceptional bedside manner “We found a lesion in your brain. It’s not curable.”
The guest room would stay a guest room. Matt talked about making it a home office, but all I could see for its future was a place for my family and Australian friends to stay as my illness became more severe and my identity slowly faded. I saw it as a room for a hospital bed, when I needed 24 hour care. The plaster board would stay, a fibrous menace. The vintage blue and orange tablecloth would stay. The beige ribbons that I borrowed from, I think, a gift of flowers would remain to tie the blue curtains back.
My eggs would stay frozen quietly waiting for a future that would not be coming.
I had been scared of motherhood when Matt first started talking seriously about Children. I was scared of its impact on our relationship. I was frightened of us losing our intimacy, of my resentment as I took on the physical and mental burden of raising our children. I was even more frightened of its impact on me – another death of my identity after I had worked so hard to re-establish it in the impersonal surrounds of New York. I was worried about losing the things that I valued more highly than anything else – time to read, time to get bored, time to eat out spontaneously.
Yet the more I talked about it with Matt, the more I realized that my fears were not as big as my desire to have this experience with Matt and my unborn child. I wanted to know what it was to love them and to love them as a family with Matt.
Through my first year of treatment, I tried to hold on to the hope that we could still build a family together, that all our guests would need to find a hotel room. Holding onto that hope hurt, but I kept it anyway, right up until the moment that the CT results came back and the doctor with his unique bedside banner told me that my brain lesions were “not curable”.
I held onto that hope for a short while even after that. I wanted a family with Matt. I wanted Matt to have a family of his own. I hoped if we moved quickly, maybe we wouldn’t have to forego this experience together just because his wife – his wife who should be young and healthy – was unfortuitously, impossibly ill.
But Matt made it clear: he didn’t want to have a baby without me. He wanted me to be there with him as a mother.
I was twice depriving Matt: of the children he wanted and of the partner he wanted them with. I know, of course, that any number of things can derail our expectations: infertility, other illnesses, job loss, a car accident. But I see his friends raising children and I do not understand why he is the exception.
I see our friends growing families and sharing the life of their children: teaching them to ski, recording their obsession with diggers and tractors, playing in the shallow water with gum trees overhead. I do not know why my guest room remains empty. I have story books I want to read our children, values I want to teach them, loves I want to share with them. I want to face the confused hatred of a thirteen year old, and want to experience my own hurt the day they tell me not to hold their hand anymore.
I don’t have a word for this feeling. It isn’t resentment or jealousy. I love my friends who are mothers. I love them with their messy bathrooms and unbrushed hair and fear that they are doing it all wrong. I wonder if they have anxiously replaced all the fractured particle board furniture and their glass shelving. I watch them love with fierce intensity and I am grateful that I am a witness to their motherhood. I love that they share with me the tenderness and chaos of their lives, that they honestly share their confusion and exhaustion and hope with me.
Some days, I am good at distracting myself. Matt and I eat out, or watch TV with our bodies wrapped around one another’s on the couch. But the days let myself feel all the grief of my diagnosis and the constancy of the love he still has for me – not for any role I can fulfil, or for any of my component parts – then all of my insides rise up with the unbearable power of the connection and the chaos, the joy and the suffering, that we somehow find a way to live with.