It was towards the end of April on Long Island following the never ending cumbersome winter of 2014 as I looked into the “eyes” of purple pansies, our first purchased flowers of the season. At least a couple of weeks late for pansies, the weather had just started to cooperate, for a day here and there, and my husband and I were ready to initiate the slow yet glorious re-immersion into our yard. Aside from a strong mid to late March showing of my most revered flower, the crocus, the coming of spring had felt like a long awaited prize dangling just out of arms reach. Our last fertility treatment had failed on January 31. With all of my energy since then going towards humble attempts at putting one foot in front of the other, I had been able to give thought to little else. So the jolt I got looking at the purple pansies was sudden and unexpected. “I DON’T know how I’ve been doing this without you,” my soul spoke to the pansies. (Yes, I’m compelled to speak to plants. What of it??) The abysmal state of dealing with this awfulness for three whole months with practically NO garden suddenly took on a poignant significance. Because when life forces you to go through excruciating, traumatic, unbearable crap, better to do it with a garden than without one.
Although it wasn’t always one of my bigger pieces as a human being, I have always had the desire to plant. I’ll never forget my excitement over my first “garden”. Amid my parents’ tension and put downs towards each other (gardening was somewhat of a bone of contention in my house), I must have made it clear that I wanted one of my own. And to their credit, at around age 6 or 7 I got one as it was deemed the small patch to the left of the porch steps and to the right of the bulkhead would be mine. Furnished with a white azalea and a bleeding heart, I was whole. It was the best feeling. As the years passed and my parents continued to be snippy with one another (at age 42 I STILL can’t figure out how a couple manages to argue – for YEARS nonetheless – about friggen GARDENING), I’d fill in some of the gaps. Watering a little here, planting a little there. But between very emaciated soil in my Massachusetts home’s yard, and much apartment living as a young adult, the gardener in me for the most part lay dormant. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I finally, in my late 30s, was able to have my own yard that I really connected.
Our second round of IVF failed in early April of 2013. Knowing I had six weeks before the next one started, and knowing that the third IVF was a pivotal one, I took advantage of the willing spring that year and threw myself into the garden. If life was doling out such ugliness, I was going to forge some beauty god damn-it!! Sparing no expense on the yard was one of the few useful ways left to give to myself when life and the act of existing in it was otherwise taking truckloads. And we did so much appreciate the yard that year. It was there that I did most of my supposing, grieving, crying, and hoping.
The end of fall came on the heels of IVF failure #4, and the job of cleaning up the yard and preparing the garden for winter along with it. I tried to fathom what I had ahead of me, the transfer of our last 6 embryos, as I clipped and raked and took a few little leaps of faith with some transplanting. I could not believe that I would have to do the hardest thing, let go of the last pieces that will ever be of me and my husband, without the garden. If nothing else, infertility has an aptitude for always becoming “worse” somehow. It felt as if I was putting my head under water. On a soulful level my sleeping garden was reminiscent of those hours when Apollo was reentering the earth’s atmosphere and there was no possible communication with mission control.
Significant loss of any kind makes everything feel strange, typically a little or a lot more dull, a little or a lot less joyful. Infertility is of course no exception, nor is gardening immune to this truth. The allure I felt from the purple pansies quickly made its way to the background and was followed by an inertia of sorts. But after putting the pictures of twenty four embryos that turned into nothing into the ground, one is bound to feel some inertia, don’t you think? We had decided there was no better place for the pictures of our embryos than to be surrounded by something that is representative of what they should have been; the joy, abundance, growth and love that is our backyard. So on May 13th we buried them in a handmade wooden music box that plays Edelweiss under the first major tree we planted in our yard, a dogwood. And although it seemed right, after that life got very sad. Like the year prior, I started to use our backyard to grieve and cry as the weather got nicer, but unlike the prior year all hope was now officially gone. There was no more hoping. It was hard to bond with things poking through the earth when I had just put our dream that we had worked so hard and suffered so much for deep down in it, never to emerge again. But eventually, an involuntarily childless infertility survivor needs some sun. And gets curious about just what kind of shade perennials will work in the area that she thought was sunny, but with the addition of a fence and last year’s forsythia hedge, really actually isn’t. Called forth by nothing perhaps other than the fact that there are no failures in gardening, only over-sites, and that everything that doesn’t work out somehow generously manages to point out to what might, I eventually made my way back to the garden shops and found myself once again in the gardening process.
This did not come without some cringe worthy moments, like when I was planting my seeds. The idea that I could put all of these seeds in and that most of them would come up and many of them would make brilliant plants while my twenty four embryos created nary a whisper of growth broke my heart in two. Seeing seedlings come up is always exciting, but this year they also evoked at least a few eye rolls and some hopeless sighs. With every perennial that made its way back there was the reminder that the last time it came up I thought I’d have a baby or at least be pregnant by now. And then there are those times when the familial sounds that sometimes pervade my very fertile neighborhood banish me from my own backyard. This Father’s Day could be one of them, as the weather looks to be perfect and our backyard neighbors (who, under normal circumstances, would be considered the nicest most unobtrusive neighbors ever) have family gatherings outside in their backyard. And they may not be the only ones. The sporadic sounds of young child/parent/grandparent banter along with babies crying still can wreak havoc on my nervous system, as after a period of exposure I become incredibly sad, my mind starts to race, my heart starts to pound and my breath becomes rapid and shallow. The experience of being driven inside away from the garden by my own PTSD is shattering, and feels about as wrong as infertility itself. The only assurance I have is that Mondays in fertile neighborhoods are inevitably better for being outside than Sunday family holidays. And I always make it back to the garden, one way or another.
For all of the life metaphors the garden holds, it does not hold one sliver of an explanation for infertility. Because like all traumas and losses, and in spite of the grueling dramatic emotions that accompany them, there is also the universal experience of the cruel unwavering truth that, in the end “this just doesn’t make any sense………and it never will.” For all of the wisdom offered by growing, flourishing, and yes, struggling and dying plants, there is not one ray of light that is shed on the mystery of the “why” of infertility. Not a single one.
Yet, the garden still manages to be a mystic satisfying place in spite of it all. It is a place where cause and effect is more evident, and boy do I need some of that. The simple formula of the right combination of shade, sunlight, water, fertilizer and persistence almost always allows life to flourish, whereas when it comes to baby making the right nutrients, diet, exercise, holistic measures, drug protocol, doctor and all of the diligence in the world all too often equals ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING. It is a place where I can be a willing participant nature’s beauty instead of an unwilling participant in her heartlessness. Nature, in spite of all of its brilliance, is also highly impersonal. As an infertile I have been, every day for the past four years and now for the rest of my life, forced to be in tandem with nature’s cold unforgiving side. Being part of the yoga community that often has an interpretation of nature that is inconsistent with my own personal experience, I’m all too aware that some like to put nature up on a pedestal and claim its harmony, goodness and supposed perfection, while failing to acknowledge this is just one side of a multi-faceted force. From my experience with infertility I can also say, with steadfast assurance, that nature can be extremely indifferent. Its flaws and failures are as stunning as its wonders. Its ability to harm is as worthy of recognition as its ability to produce and nurture. As an infertile I am in awe of nature’s unresponsiveness. As a gardener I get to be in reverence of its gifts and beauty. So gardening gives me reason and opportunity to call mother-nature something other than “THAT useless BITCH”, as I did from time to time late in my infertility struggle.
And then there is that intangible piece, the space where you are not exactly sure what is so exciting or why you, eventually, MUST plant, tend, and sit in observance. There are plenty of “better” gardeners out there than me. Slews of people who know more, and do better layering and landscape design. But, in spite of my novice status, I’m “in it”, somewhat by choice, somewhat by force of nature. To others my little patches may look like a few plants and flowers thrown into the ground. For me, they are ebbing and flowing sanctuaries in progress.
Regardless of life’s circumstances, the garden, for me, may simply just be the right fit. There’s nothing more adept at shutting down the trial and error learner than school. A garden, however, is a treasure trove of opportunity and a laboratory of sorts for this kind of brain. After years of “Sarah you strayed too far from the assignment” (that’s what happens when I like my idea BETTERJ), not to mention being excruciatingly BORED in school 95% of the time, I revel in the blank and flexible canvas that is a simple patch of earth. I decided in my later years that why I am divergent is no so much the question, while the fact classroom teachers can’t seem to teach to it IS.
I must confess, the non-gardener types bring a mild smirk to my face every now and then when I’m out tending to my plants. You know the people, the ones who are always after the “right” answers, sometimes not for the sake of the greater good but more so for their own gain. The people who always need to know how to do things before they do them (weird!), and are all too often striving for a specific result, which, when they don’t get it, are commonly highly in-adept at re-working their approach and tactics. Now that I think about it, people who have an aversion to gardening are probably good spellers too. Yours truly is not. Those who excel in that environment can have their classrooms. I’ll take this forum framed by sun, shade, rain, seeds, and soil and fueled by observation, intuition, and good old common sense any day, infertility or not, deliriously satisfied that my ill-fitting assignment conforming, right answer seeking school days are forever behind me.
If I make it to the old folks’ home I have no clue if I’ll be arriving as an adoptive parent or as someone who ended up living out their life involuntarily childless. I’m quite certain though, that upon my arrival I’ll be asking for, or perhaps even demanding, a patch of earth to garden.