“Help,” my 81-year-old father is saying. “help me.”
t is 2017, COVID-19 is three years in the future, and even in the absence of a murderous pandemic that’s especially brutal on sick and elderly people, not to mention their caretakers, I am struggling to take care of my dying father at home.
I am startled out of sleep, squinting at the baby monitor, which I thought I would not need as a child-free, 43-year-old. The two-inch, black-and-white, grainy image of my father is moving. He is face-down in bed, clutching at the twisted sheets, trying to get up.
I’m on my feet now, pulling on a robe, practically sleep-walking down the dark stairs. I lay a hand on my father’s back and feel him relax; he releases his death grip on the sheets. I help him roll onto his back. I hug him up to sitting and then I do the transfer just like the nurses in the hospital: one, two, three. He is safe inside the makeshift bathroom next to his bed. There are no private spaces in the first floor of my tiny townhouse, so I made one with a folding screen. I wait across the room.
My living room is a hospital. I’ve replaced the whiskey and vodka and good rum bottles on my bar with little orange medicine bottles, baby wipes, boxes of gloves, antifungal powder, lotion, and spray bleach. Neat stacks of white sheets and towels sit on the coffee table, which is crammed into the corner. I carried the dining table to the curbside days ago to make space for the wheelchair, the walker, the toilet, the motorized recliner that lifts my father to standing, and the portable shower.
There was a time when I thought I might need to make room for a crib, a changing table, toys and baby gear, but that time has passed.
“Okay,” my father says “I’m done.”
I lift him up, clean him up, we pivot, he sits, he curls into the cocoon of blankets. I go back to bed. I lie there looking at my father on a tiny screen on my bureau.
I hope he will die soon and I dread the day he does.
The tulips in the painting are mostly red, a few of them pink, all open, in full bloom, their petals spread, ready to receive. The metaphor is almost too much. I recline, slide my body to the edge of the padded, papered table, my disposable gown rustling as I hoist my feet into the stirrups.
I fix my gaze on the painting, touch the flowers in my mind, will myself to be open like them. The wand slides inside me and I count the tulips: twelve, a dozen, like a typical carton of grocery store eggs.
The doctor narrates, explaining every movement of the camera rooting around my reproductive system. She says I can follow along on the black-and-white monitor at my shoulder. I shift my gaze and see the fat, triangular beam of snowy light, where mothers first glimpse their bean-sized babies and later marvel at tiny toes and fingers — and later still, coo over a comma of a body tethered to a tiny cord.
My beam is empty, save two dots where the camera scouts my uterus. A pair of small fibroids, nothing to worry about, not an obstruction, the doctor says. She tells me I have a beautiful uterus. The technician agrees, says I should consider making it my Christmas card. We laugh.
It’s over, they exit, I swab the goo they left between my legs. I dress.
This is the first of three tests at Shady Grove Fertility Clinic. A month from now, they will inject me with dye to discover that my fallopian tubes are clear. My husband’s sperm is enumerated and assessed for shape and movement: his count is high, morphology and motility good, which adds up to a fertility ranking on the lower end of excellent. My numbers are terrible: too much of this hormone, not enough of that one, a scant supply of eggs, the formula for a one percent chance of conception.
We are 44, and have tried for babies in the past, but decided a year or two ago that we’d be just as happy child-free. Now, grief has come for me, changed my mind, made a mess of all my plans.
My father — my only parent since I was eight, when my mother died of a tumor that burrowed into her brain — has been dead nine months, a full gestational period.
Though my husband and I faced enormous challenges as his full-time caretakers for the last few months of his life, I hadn’t known until he cried out to me on many nights and relied on me for almost everything, just how much I wanted to mother.
When I look back at my caretaking experience now, as COVID-19 has claimed the lives of countless elderly people, I try to imagine what it would be like to care for my father in my home with a deadly virus lurking outside our door.
Just thinking about maintaining his health and safety amidst the rampant spread of this virus gives me a stress headache. In the days before he moved into my home, he had been released from the hospital to a short-term nursing facility, precisely the kind of place that has become a hot-bed for the virus.
Not only would it be risky and extremely challenging to care for him at home these days, it would likely be impossible due to lockdowns at nursing homes across the nation. When I think about adding motherhood to the mix, along with eldercare and COVID-19, my stress headache morphs into full-body exhaustion.
Before I became my father’s caretaker, I sometimes wanted to become a mother, and other times did not. My urges to have and have not were split straight down the middle, divided into a fifty-fifty vacillation. Maybe this is true for most women, the ones who have kids and the ones who don’t. Sometimes, I think if my mother had lived longer I would have become a mother myself, that a lack of mothering left my body swinging between want and un-want.
It’s also true that I’m a writer, a career choice that has required large amounts of uninterrupted time, which I know is a luxury not afforded to many mothers.
I’ve had long periods during which I held 9–5 jobs and wrote on the side, and during those stretches my husband and I went off birth control and tried to conceive.
But trying to make a baby has never been a happy practice for me.
In my late thirties, I monitored my ovulation with thermometers and pee-sticks, kicked my feet to the ceiling post-coitus, like a stressed out yogi yearning desperately toward a zygote. And then I’d get so sick with the effort of it all, the hyper-focus and repeated minus signs on pregnancy test wands, that I’d go back on the pill a few cycles, change my mind, and go through it all again.
My husband was always happiest when we weren’t trying, when sex was for pleasure and we were more than baby-making mates. But he wanted me to have my shot at motherhood and so he’d dutifully do the deed.
We had always been a maybe-maybe-not kind of couple, reluctant parents, lovers of free time. But when my father died, a hole so big opened up inside me that all I could think to fill it with was a baby.
A year prior to that first trip to Shady Grove, I am sitting with my dying father in my home, which is also his home now. He has moved in with me because long-term nursing homes terrify him and he is too sick to live alone. I ask him, in a kidding tone, who is going to take care of me when I’m in his shoes?
“You have to adopt,” he says.
He is not kidding. His expression and tone are serious, grave.
My father has never weighed-in on my child-free status. Of his three daughters, I am the only child-free one, and though my sisters love my father deeply, their motherhood prevents them from being with him in the way that I am with him in his dying months. But my father loves his grandchildren more than he loves anyone; when I am in a selfish mood, I feel his love for them as a subtraction of his love for me.
“I’ll be okay,” I say. “Of course, you will,” he says.
For a long time after he is gone, I can’t hear that last part of our conversation, the part where he and I agree I’ll be okay. I hear only my question, which plays on repeat in my head: “Who will take care of me?”
What has caused me to boomerang so much, so often, and for so long on this idea of having a baby? The answer itself is a boomerang. Every time I have launched the question, the answer has come back to me changed, different, sometimes unrecognizable. But these ever-changing answers somehow always include both my lifelong urge to take care of my father — who, even when he was not in my care as a dying patient, was very loving but constantly broke and rather needy — and my lifelong longing for a mother who died too soon to take care of me.
According to the doctor at Shady Grove, donor eggs plus my husband’s sperm are our only truly viable option. I take the pre-natal vitamins, sign up to gain access to the donor database, put the thing in motion.
And then I change my mind.
This change doesn’t happen all at once. There is no defining moment, no earth-shattering epiphany that sets me somehow right with the idea of remaining child-free. No turning point works its magic inside me, no concrete sign points me toward a picturesque path where middle-aged, child-free women lead charmed lives.
This change of heart and mind seeps into my being slowly, over several months of conversations with doctors about drugs they’ll shoot into me, measures they’ll take to synch my cycle with my donor’s, and counseling sessions my husband and I are told we must undergo to ensure we’re really ready.
It gathers in me, this change of heart, as I grieve my father over time, and begin to recognize that a baby cannot bring him back. When I ask my husband if he likes the name William, my father’s name, for a boy, or Willa for a girl, it does feel like something of an a-ha moment, but one that leads me more in the direction of letting go of this idea of a new little life than clinging to it.
This notion of birth as a balm for death feels — as I give it my full consideration with the distance that time affords — simultaneously too soon and too late.
I’ve barely given myself enough space to grieve the loss of myself as a daughter before insisting my body bend to a motherhood urge that has seized me with self-doubt in the past. I’ve climbed aboard the the babymaking ship countless times over many years and it never fails to toss me around on tempestuous waves of anxiety and unhappiness. I want to collapse my sails and stand on solid ground.
I begin to take better care of myself. I get all the sleep I need, start a running routine, write at all hours of the day, make new friends, quit a job I hate, move from the suburbs to the city, have so much good sex it seems my husband and I have one mood only: giddy.
This is not to say our lives become storybook perfect. We still struggle with all the stuff we have struggled with over more than a dozen years together: career choices; finances; funerals; and fights with friends, family members, and each other.
I still want kids sometimes, I think I’ll always have that longing space inside me. But I want to treat it tenderly, the way a mother would.