It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In fact, it was supposed to be completely different. I glance a few feet from me to the Christmas tree, decked with ornaments my husband and I each brought from “another life,” and those we share as witnesses to a union that took us by surprise. Our first meeting in September 2009 led to a long-distance relationship of emailing, texting and phoning each day, and visiting in person every few weeks. From my desk I look at a photo ornament in the shape of a snow man and woman. The bottom reads “Our First Christmas,” and the heart in the center contains the smiling faces of Keith and me. I remember exactly when the photo was taken. It was in December, and I flew to Pittsburgh for the weekend. We’d only recently decided to give long distance a try, but that weekend it became clear that our experiment would be the last of its kind. We both knew the result it would yield, and the excitement of that discovery was thrilling, and a little scary. A picture captures a moment that opened the door to a lifetime.
The couple staring back at me from the ornament, now nine years my junior and frozen in time, flush with the excitement (and naivete) of new love, had just discovered the potential inherent in it. They smile as they stand there, cheeks pressed together, looking as if they’d just learned a secret – one that the rest of the world wouldn’t share in for another year and a half when they married. This was the beginning, the point at which everything about the present was to be relished, and the future was close at hand and filled with possibility. At the end of that weekend, with my flight delayed for two hours, my newly-discovered prince returned to the airport, determined that I not wait alone. We sat in an airport bar, debriefing the weekend’s events, and planning our next rendezvous. Soon our conversation turned to family, and for the first time Keith told me that he looked forward to being a dad someday – and that he believed I’d make a wonderful mom. We tossed around baby names and shared our hopes for a family. Our individual wishes revealed themselves to be a shared hope that one day we’d have a baby of our own.
That is the way it was supposed to be; that was the plan, the prayer, the promise. Nine years have passed since that conversation, and seven since the crowns placed on our heads sealed our fates to each other. And no baby came. As I stare at the couple in the ornament on a tree that symbolizes new life – the new life promised in the coming-to-be of a little baby and paid for in His blood on the Cross – I long to tell them…what? I don’t know. If only I could prepare them somehow. But there is no preparing for this, no comprehension that marriage will be anything but fruitful. Nothing can prepare you for the realization that you are…that I am, infertile. Though the sadness has its ebbs and flows, nothing will ever take it completely away.
This morning I saw a family member’s pregnancy announcement on social media. The new mother glowed as her hand caressed her swollen belly. I “liked” the photo and moved on, putting down my phone and getting ready for my day. An hour later I walked into a chapel I’d never been in before for Mass, and when I knelt down to pray I saw in front of me the tabernacle, and above it a beautiful icon of the Theotokos of the Sign. There was Mary, looking at me, her hands outstretched in prayer. In the center of the icon – the center of Mary’s body – is Jesus. He is the Sign of new life, of salvation, of mercy and redemption. He is the “sign of contradiction.”(Lk 2:34) He knows the contradiction inside me now, the conflicting emotions, the second-guessing and sheer incredulity that what seemed to me a reasonable expectation (to marry and have children) was no sure thing at all. In my heart (if not in my body) I try to mimic Mary’s stance of openness in prayer, a stance of surrender and receptivity; giving and receiving. It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t.
I sit here typing these words, glancing over at the smiling couple, and tears fill my eyes. My husband walks through the door, and seeing my face embraces me, holding me tightly. Now we are close to each other, our cheeks touching, but this time they are not stained red from wine and the glow of an early December firelight. This time our cheeks are tear-stained, one more sign of the shape love takes when our expectations are turned upside-down. And I am reminded again, shaken from my complacency and my selfishness, that I haven’t talked to God about this lingering pain, the jealousy, anger, and sadness in a very long time. Too long. Pregnancy announcements, babies in our family that are due any day, and the ever-present question from strangers – Do you have any children? – sit in my gut like a poison slowly consuming me from the inside. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. It isn’t supposed to be this way, and not because I am supposed to have a baby. I need to get back to Him; I saw it in the Sign, in His eyes, in Mary’s prayerful posture. I must bring all of this to Him. The woman in the photo on the Christmas tree smiles back at me, her eyes filled with expectation…anticipation. And I, sitting here? I pray, Lord, let the empty space under by heart be filled by You. It is supposed to be You. Let it always be You.