by Dr. D
This is my attempt at opening a conversation for my niece who is currently infertile.
|Some topics are like the SEP field in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, become Somebody Elses Problem and are ignored as they are uncomfortable. We as a society marginalize the women (and men) that cannot have children. Infertility is one of those things that we would not like to see or engage with. But what if you are one of those invisibles having a desire so strong yet it it just out of your grasp and wrenches your soul, how do you cope? The typical reaction of sympathy, the kind that is more like pity, which tries to minimize the feelings and give aphorisms of just deal with it, cause the person to withdraw further to a safer place yet it is so lonely. This is a story for my niece, who I love dearly, who has stepped out of the darkness and into the public light of her small community and bared her soul. I wrote this not because I understand or am wise, but as a way to start a conversation where I might be supportive.
The Violet Vase and Yellow Rose
The brisk November air coming out of Trader Joes on Boylston street caused me to pause a moment to button my coat. I had only purchased some cereal, a box of cookies and a small bottle of wine. So much of Boston was still foreign to me but Traders Joe’s felt so much like my Southern California home. Walking west I glanced in the windows as I passed Lir and the Pour House Bar and Grill but it was only around 11 in the morning and I wasn’t hungry. I frowned a moment, as with our budget my husband Franklin and I did not eat out much any way. As I continued I passed by Café 939 which reminded me where we did frivolously spend our meager funds- music. Last month we went here to the Red Room at Café 939 and heard the Seattle Band Polyrhymics. Their easy Jazz was fun and I remember laughing at the title of one of their songs “Mr. Wasabi rides again”. We were Looking forward later this month to come back here and hear the double header of the R&B/Funk of Harry Jay Smith & the Bling and Claudia Swope with her pop/neo-soul. Both originally from DC but now live here locally. I do love the local vibrant music scene in Boston. But even the good times here could not bring me out of my funk. This had been an especially bad week and I was out today just to distract myself. It only took a few more steps past Café 939 to bring my world crashing down.
I saw black couple quietly arguing over some family event and a baby carriage next to them. They looked in their mid 20’s and were fashionably casual. Her gym outfit of blue and gold held tightly to her and framed her beautiful brown ochre skin. He was wearing jeans and a patterned black and white sweater that seemed to meld into his nearly black brown tones that defined him. They both had that haughty, slightly arrogant look of many that walked this portion of town. I looked at the carriage and I knew that I should keep walking with all the things that had transpired this week. I was aware that I was not in a good place emotionally but I could not help but glance inside the carriage. The beautiful chocolate baby was covered by a blue blanket. Its skin, like sun drenched brown earth, had such a warmth that contrasted the cold my heart felt. The deep dark eyes seemed to reach out for me and I could only stand there and stare. I vaguely heard the woman shout “What’s wrong with you?” and the carriage with the amazing child was whisked away. I stood still for a moment more, barely breathing, then mindlessly continued walking the last few feet to Hereford St. I was in a panic, my breath started to come in short bursts and tears welled up in my in eyes. I turned north on Hereford and began to run and I ducked into the Alley 443. Why did they name their damn alleys with numbers? Where the brick facing on Hereford was clean, in the alley the brick and stone was dirty. My legs felt ready to buckle so I found a small alcove with a red back and sat down. I wasn’t noticing the iron walkways of the apartments across from me or the graffiti on grey washed brick or the orange Smoothie King van. My chest felt so constricted and I cried. Actually it was not exactly a cry but more like shuddering sobbing. I normally held it together but this week had been brutal for me. It started with a woman casually asking me if I had kids. A day later I got an invitation to a baby shower and just yesterday a woman caught me staring at her baby bump and just smiled at me and gently rubbed her stomach. Less than an hour ago I saw a women at Trader Joes with diapers in her cart. Why? Why me? Two men came out the red door next to me and one asked if I was OK, but as soon as I looked at them with my red puffy eyes with tears streaming down my face the other pulled his buddy away and said “She’s high on drugs”. I put my head back down and could not stop my short intakes of air as my body shuddered. My eyes seemed to flow rivers. The haunting tune of “Falling apart” by Monophonics reverberated through me and I mouthed the chorus “Somebody please will you help me cause I am falling apart”.
Just East of me down the alley I heard crashing noise and I hesitantly looked up and saw an old woman just standing there by a lone grey light post about 30 feet away. She looked homeless with a layered rag like outfit and a funny stained purple fuzzy hat with a yellow flower in it. I sat there sobbing still while I watched her for a moment and she eerily stared back. I put my head back down feeling restlessly sorry for myself and yelled out “Go away, I cannot not help you today, I can’t even help myself”.
Somehow I knew that she came near me and a hand touched my shoulder and the old woman said “You called me, I am here”.
Without looking up I spoke between my crying sobs “I told… you to .. go away. I don’t …even .. know you.”
“Well then, let me introduce myself: my name is Persimmon but you may call me Perry. What is your name?”
I did not want to say anything, I just wanted to be left alone but somehow I blurted “Iris”.
“Sounds very poetic” the rag lady replied.
I looked up quizzically at her. What made her say poetic? The curious part of it was that my name was poetic. My mom, a few years before she had me, wrote a poem that was published called “Ire has a name”. She once told my Dad that the title, if you put Ire-has together sounds like Irehas- a name and she told him that their first child should be named Irehas as a legacy. But when they actually put the name on a birth certificate she forgot the “a” and it became the unusual name Irehs which is why I go by Iris now.
She put her hand towards me and said “Let’s go to a quit place to talk.”
I did not want to go anywhere, especially not with a homeless woman but my hand involuntarily went up and she grasped it. The alley seemed to get darker and colder though there were no clouds I could see. She pulled gently and I was not going to move, but my body got up and followed her. We went down the alley past the spray painted 306 and across the broken asphalt to a black staircase on the snub of a brick building that jutted out from the apartments. A grey smokestack was contrasted to the mottled brick of the building with thick black wires and steel drain tubes adorning its side. We climbed the staircase to the first landing and stood before a black steel door. Perry whistled and the door opened to a misty interior. Everything in me screamed danger and not to go in but I was helpless as she lead me in and the door closed with a finality.
The mist cleared to reveal wooden walls and a sparse interior. It appeared to be only one room with a table and chairs to one side and a small bed on the other side and two plump chairs facing the stone fireplace. The fireplace was lit with a kettle hanging from a bar. Perry let go of my hand and went to the fireplace. She took a cloth and swung out the bar and took the steaming pot of it put it on the table. She went to a cupboard and pulled out two stone mugs. “Do you take sugar with your tea?” she asked without looking to me and I dumbly nodded. One wall had a sink and cupboards and a window above the sink. There appeared to be trees outside but I did not remember trees in the alley. I looked behind me to see a black wooden door, the only door in the room. I quickly went to the door and opened it only to see a large garden with a forest of trees behind it. I stepped out and to my left was a path that went down the hill to a dirt road which itself disappeared into the woods. Further down the valley I could see the forest stopped and neat fields traced checkerboards across rolling hills. I squeezed my eyes tightly as they must be lying to me, but if they were so also did my ears and nose. Gone were the typical city smells of old trash and car exhaust, pastrami and curry and whatever else the vendors created. The smells here were of pine and musty forest and the scent of flowers in bloom. My ears did not hear the cacophony of city noises like cars, horns, sirens , and people yelling and so many other clacks and clangs that one usually ignored but were now glaringly absent. Replaced were the sounds of birds and the cackle of a few chickens in the garden and the rustling of wind through the leaves. I was so tightly wound up inside that this set me off like steam in a kettle and I screamed.
“Are you alright deary? Come get your tea.” I turned and stood in the door glaring at the woman. She had taken off her purple hat and put it at the end of the table, the yellow flower still in it. Her hair looked grey but I could tell it was a mixture of white and black strands and it cascaded like a puff past her careworn face onto her shoulders. If looked like she had not brushed her hair in ages. Her gentle smile set me off. “I don’t know who you are or where I am but you had no right to kidnap me and bring me here. I demand that you return me.” I said loudly and angrily. Perry tilted her head with a questioningly look “I did not kidnap you. You asked me to help you. ”I stomped my foot in frustration and resoundedly said “I DID NOT ASK YOU, I NEVER SAID ANYTHING TO YOU!”
“Oh, I beg to differ with you. I clearly heard you say ‘Someone will you please help me cause I’m falling apart’, so here I am. Please come sip your tea before it gets cold.”
I was numb. Did I say that out loud? “That was song lyrics going through my head, you could not have heard that.”
She replied in a steady voice “At that moment is that what you felt?”
I felt tired and the feelings welled up in me again and I dejectedly said “Yes”
“Well then come in and have some tea with me” she quipped with a cheerful voice.
I could not resist any more. My strength of will was gone and I slowly walked to the table and slumped into the chair. For a moment I dejectedly stared at Perry. The rag woman casually held her cup in two hands and sipped at her tea with eyes closed as if in momentary bliss. Despite her initial appearance of a lost street soul I could now see that she had air of command and assurance of self that I was envious of. I took up my own cup and brought it to my lips. The aroma wafted up and caressed me and the taste soothed my mouth and soon brought warmth to me. The flavor was like chamomile but with a hint of peach and pomegranate. I had never tasted anything so gentle and soothing. I closed my eyes and remembered a time when I was young and in my Dad’s lap with his arms around me. I did not think I had any tears left but I cried softy this time. It was a good cry. Usually when my Dad came to remembrance I would feel this angry hole of his missed presence and it hurts so much but this time I could just remember and feel him and miss him cleanly. I laughed. With my eyes still closed I said softly “I miss you so much Daddy”. After a while the memory faded and I opened my eyes. Perry was looking at me.
“Let’s take a walk in the garden” and she got up and moved toward the door. I slowly rose from my chair and took off my coat is it was warm here and placed it on the back of the chair and followed her. The outside air was fresh and exhilarating.
Perry picked up a basket by the garden and went to the tomato plants. She started picking the tomatoes and said “ You know, I am a very good gardener but two of my favorite fruits I cannot grow. I love bananas and huckleberries. Oh I have them growing here but they never give me usable fruit. The climate in my garden is not right for them. The bananas need a tropical heat and the huckleberries love the colder mountain air higher up. No matter how hard I try they won’t produce fruit.” She bent down to pick the lower tomatoes and turned her head to me. Her eyes were unnerving as they seemed old and young at the same time. “What is it you cannot grow?”
Was she really comparing my problem with a vegetable garden? What nerve she has, how callous is she? My hurt, my anger, my frustration at dealing with people who just did not know welled up and I replied with caustic disdain “I can’t grow children, can you grow them in your garden?” My body was tensed and I just wanted to lash out, to hurt someone, to hurt anyone so they could feel my despair and disgrace.
Perry stood up with the basket held in front of her and looked at me with saddened eyes. “A long time ago when I was like you, before I found this place, I had my own journey. I came to this land when the settlers first came and the old world collided with the new one. When I was eight I got cholera but I survived and I thought my life would be still be good. I married a young man who fished these very shores. He became a vocal community leader and moral snob. The years went by but I gave him no child. It seemed that all the other women were getting pregnant but me. My husband called me cursed and beat me and eventually threw me out. No one else would take me in thinking that I might curse their houses even my relatives. I just wanted to die and I went into the forest to do just that. An old Indian from the Nauset Tribe, who was foraging for herbs, found me weak and sick and brought me to his village. I eventually found out that he was called Crow and was a sort of medicine man. They nursed me back to health but I was broken of spirit. For the next two years they taught me Nauset and I taught them English and I just muddled through life and they watched me carefully. At the end of the two years the village elder sat down with me and asked me about my journey. I told him what had happened to me but he shook his head and said that was the past and a journey is more than just the past. It is what was before, what is now and what will come. He then told me that our journey to come starts now. If one waits for winter to prepare for winter you will die. When we hunt we needed to first prepare our weapons and train so we did not fail the hunt. So where is your journey headed so you can prepare now. I told him that I had no journey as my people had abandoned me. Ah, he said, so you have no journey because your people think you are not a tent for making babies. I corrected him and said that they think I will stop THEM from having babies. He thought about it and then told me that if you do not have a journey you must share a journey with someone else. He called for Crow and told him to teach me to heal. So I started learning plants and at first helped the village and I made a cabin in the woods and soon the settlers found me and I helped them also and they became less afraid of me. Ten years later the smallpox hit the towns and spread to the Indian villages and wiped them out. Ten years after that Crow came to see me. He told me that his people were gone and his journey had ended and he brought me here. He showed me how to listen for my peoples cries and that is how I heard you. I have been around a long time and I have seen everyone that I have loved die. Do I understand all that you are going through, no, as that is your journey. But I may understand more than most. Let us go inside.”
Perry and I slowly walked back to cabin and I settled into the chair at the table. This time she had some soup that she got from a pot on in the fireplace. She poured us the soup in some bowls. When I had finished she got up and said “You must rest now” and led me to the cot and pulled a blanket over me.
I closed my eyes and could hear Perry cleaning up then that faded and I could feel a slight ache on my left forearm and a consistent beeping noise, then nothing.
I woke suddenly from the crow of a rooster and a headache. By the light in the room I guessed it must be late in the morning. I sat up but I think it was to quickly as my head felt a little woozy. Perry walked into the room “Greetings and sunshine to you Iris. I hope your sleep was restful. Come sit and eat some oatmeal.” I walked to the table and a bowl of steaming oatmeal was sitting there. How did she know when I would wake up? I took a bite and it was wonderfully sweet and flavorful. The embedded blueberries gave bursts of delight to my mouth. When I had finished Perry took my bowl and put it in the sink and fixed me a fresh cup of her amazing tea. Her hat with the flower, that was still on the table, caught my eye. Perry noticed my gaze and reached over and got the hat and put it between us. She took the flower out placed it gently down and turned the hat over so that the top rested on the table. “This hat and flower reminds me that there are somethings I can’t hold on to and somethings I should never let go.”
Perry closed her eyes a moment and put her hand on the purple hat. She took a couple of shallow breaths then she opened her eyes looking at me and yet not, it was as if she was seeing something far away. “In the Nauset village I was staying at they had a custom in late Fall, when all the leaves had fallen, to remember all that we love and is lost. That week of the ceremony the women would find the long dead grasses and weave a sort of small baskets from them. I always seem to remember them as looking purplish. There were at least two little baskets for every person in the village. The men would go and hunt some turkeys and would take the feathers off. The saved the tail feathers in one pile and the wing feathers in another pile. On the day of the ceremony they cooked the turkeys and other foods they had gathered then would eat it all together. After eating. each person would take two baskets and a tail and wing feather. The would put the tail feather in one basket and said what they missed. For some children they would say the leaves but for adults many would say the name of a dead relative or friend. Then they would throw the basket in the fire. They would take the second basket and put a wing feather in it and say what they were thankful for and then toss that one in the fire. When all was done the would sing a chant then go to their own tents. I always wondered if this in part was where we got our Thanksgiving from. I tried years later to make the grass bowls but I was not good at it. Then one day I saw a purple hat and I knew I needed to it. I started my own tradition of just holding the hat like this and saying out loud or even whispering, what I missed, or could not have, or loved ones I wanted to remember and let it fall inside the hat. I would then say what I was still thankful for and let that fall inside. Then I would raise and turn over the hat and blow under it to release the things, so they would all go away. It has helped keep my sanity all these years. Somethings you just need to let go or need to be said.”
Perry put the hat down and picked up the yellow flower. “I wear the yellow flower as a remembrance. In the 1891 I had worked with a young woman that was also infertile. She was in a deep malaise and could not believe her husband could still love her. I tried my best but then one day while were at the park, her husband showed up and brought her a yellow rose. Back then the colors of flowers were quite significant in their meanings. I still remember what he said. He gave her the rose boldly told her ‘This yellow rose stands for friendship or sympathy. I am truly your friend and I have sympathy for you.’ But before she could react to the second part he continued quickly. ‘There are two kinds of sympathy, one that leads to feeling sorry for someone and the other leads to action to bolster someone that needs support. I mean the second one. When your sister’s husband died, did you just feel sorry for her or did you jump to be at her side and help her walk through her grief and the paper work afterwards? My dearest this is not your challenge alone but our challenge and we will meet it fiercely.’ He did in that moment more than I had done for her. I now wear this flower in solidarity for me, for her, for you and all others that have struggled with similar dilemmas. This flower reminds me of who I need to hold onto and stand next to so that perhaps they in turn will help others. We are a sisterhood that most would like to ignore or are uncomfortable with. We ourselves are uncomfortable with it and we even shun ourselves. Our pain is real and lonely and shakes our foundations. You would be surprised how many voices in this city alone that cry the same tears.”
She then then turned the hat over and put the flower back in and put it on her head. “It is late and you need to go back.” I looked at her with panic “Franklin! He must be out of his mind with worry.” I got up quickly and raced to the door and opened it but it was still the garden. “You cannot go back the same way, each time it is different, which is why this place is so hard to find. I will take you to your door.” She led me up the hill into a thin path in the woods. She continued speaking to me of things and I don’t exactly remember what they were, but it was something about a journey ahead of me. We reached an opening and walked to a cliff edge. I looked over with trepidation and I knew somehow that this was my door. I turned to ask one last question. “You have talked to me of this sisterhood, does this mean there is no possibility for me to ever have children?” I feared the answer. She smiled and gently said “I do not know for I can only know what is and what was. The future is for God alone to know. There is nothing wrong with hope and doing everything in our power to achieve things but whether these things happen or not our journey stills needs to be walked and we still should serve in thankfulness and where we can stand by others fiercely as they walk paths that are difficult and challenging.” Then Perry touched my head and I fell backwards and curiously kept falling and falling and the world around me darkened. I felt an ache on my left arm and an annoying slow beeping sound that kept getting louder. My eyes opened to a bright room. On my left arm was an IV and apparently the beeping was some sort of monitor. Why was I in a hospital? Franklin was sitting next to me with his eyes closed listening to something on his phone.
“Where am I?”
Franklin’s eyes popped open and he yelled “Your awake”. Then he went to the door and shouted to someone outside “Iris is awake”. Then he came back to me and repeated “You’re awake”
I asked again “Where am I and what happened?”
“You’re at Mass General. You had fallen in an alley in Back Bay and some guys ran to the fire department around the corner and they brought you here. I came as soon as I could and we have been so worried about you.”
I didn’t remember falling but everything had been so very odd it might have happened. “How long have I been here?”
“They found you yesterday morning and it is about 4 pm now, so about a day and a half. The doctor said the wound looked superficial but since you did not wake up he thought there might be some deeper head trauma that the scans did not pick up”. The nurse came in and started asking me questions and rechecked all my vitals. A doctor finally came in and reexamined me and gave me a clean bill of health though he did tell me to take it easy the next few days.
On the table next to the window I noticed a thin glass purple vase with a single yellow flower. “Where did that flower come from?”
Franklin looked confused. “Some sketchy looking woman came in yesterday and put it next to you. I don’t know how she got past the nurses station. I put it on the other side away from you as I did not know if she had any diseases.”
As I gathered my things I smiled and quietly whispered “Thank you.” as I picked up the vase. I was changed now and did not feel quite alone as I had. Whatever my journey was now I knew that others needed support as I still do. Perhaps I can help open eyes to our precarious position and be a shoulder to cry on and a friend to walk with. Life may not be easy, perhaps even messy, but it still can be good when you know that there are people out there that will stand beside you without judgement.