It is early fall, and the leaves are just beginning to change colour. Memories of summer linger in the warmer than usual temperatures. I haven’t had to pull out the heavier jackets just yet, and we can still go for walks after supper, even though it gets dark earlier these days. We point out the changing colours to our two year old, explain how the trees are holding onto the leaves for now, but soon the leaves will begin to fall.
I am holding on, too. I’ve spent most of the spring and summer consumed with sadness, but I’m still determined to hold onto my dream of another baby, come what may. So far, this calendar year, we’ve lost two pregnancies. The details are still bright, raw. My grief has only begun to wane. I am still on the trying-to-conceive carousel, each month a round of ups and downs ending with disappointment and fresh tears as the losses feel more tangible than the hope, a balloon deflating every twenty-fifth day.
The trees are in full splendour, a warm palette of red and yellow and orange. We visit a pumpkin patch north of the city. It seems like every family includes a toddler and either a newborn or an expectant mother, her belly as round as the pumpkins we have come to see. It is harvest time, and I am surrounded by nature’s bounty. I can’t help but be reminded that we should have a newborn right now, too. I focus intently on my daughter; we are here for a fun day, not more sadness. We cajole her onto the hay wagon and through the field of pumpkins. A visit to the cow is a definite highlight. We reminisce about how last year, when she was one, she went along with our Instagram-worthy plans. This year, every activity at the farm warrants a tantrum. On the ride home, she asks, “Did I go to a pumpkin farm? Did I have fun?”
I don’t know it yet, but I am expecting again. Two weeks before my fortieth birthday, and that little cell starts to divide and divide again. I am late on my birthday and take a test. Either I can have a glass of wine at the restaurant, or I can’t and we’ll be celebrating more than my birthday. We go to the restaurant where it all began, the site of our first date and our engagement. Over steak frites, we talk about baby names, giddy and quite pleased with ourselves. But it isn’t to be.
It turns out that, while my body is undergoing the rise and subsequent fall in hormones, the trees in my Toronto neighbourhood are also experiencing a hormonal shift. Hormones set off the abscission process, the process by which the tree actively cuts off the leaves. Abscission, from the Latin scindere, which means to cut; the word scissors comes from the same Latin word. I wonder if the tree, on a cellular level, feels any pain when the leaves separate from its branches.
Not even a week later, it’s over. The doctor calls it a “chemical pregnancy.” “It just didn’t implant,” she says. But it implanted in my heart, I think. I want to try again right away. The news reports claim that a woman is slightly more fertile immediately after a miscarriage, and I want to catch that wave. But my husband doesn’t think we can take any more heartbreak. When is enough, enough? he asks.
In order to survive the harsh weather conditions of winter, deciduous trees must shed their leaves. With fall come shorter days, cooler temperatures and less sunlight, a message to the trees to slow down their production of food. A switch turns off in their genetic system. The production of chlorophyll stops, and the colours of fall take over. If the leaves didn’t fall off, they would freeze come winter, and the tree wouldn’t be able to make new leaves in the spring.
I can’t help but see myself in the seasonal changes. I’m certainly not in my winter years, but I’m long past the blush of spring, and perhaps am moving out of the summer of my life. At forty, I’m what I once considered old. I was seventeen when my mom turned forty, and here my daughter is – only a few months past her second birthday. I never thought I’d have to wait so long to have children, and now I have to come to terms with the very real possibility, even likelihood, that I won’t be having any more.
One night, long after our daughter has fallen asleep, we have a conversation. With the dog curled up on the couch next to us, Netflix on pause, we decide to stop. No more counting days, no more marking the calendar. We have ridden the carousel long enough. My body and our hearts have been through enough. I concede. There is a relief in letting go, especially when it’s the last thing you want to do. We decide to look into adoption, something we talked about long before we were even married. The goal isn’t to get pregnant, we realize, but rather to parent another child. And with that decision, we feel lighter, that balloon inflating again. We are more in sync than at any point in the last year. We have hope again.
I pack up the What to Expect book and start to give some baby clothes away to a teacher at my school who is about to have her first. We make the first phone call to the Children’s Aid Society. And then I’m late again. A bonus round, without even trying. This time we make it almost to seven weeks, but two days before Christmas, I’m back at the doctor’s office, resigned to more heart-break.
The doctor tells me that, at this point, if I wanted to keep trying, she would send me to a specialist. But I don’t want to keep trying. We made our decision in November, after the third loss. Then we thought, maybe this terrible year will go out on a good note. But what was the point, I ask myself, if it is just going to end in more sorrow? My husband stays up late, baking butter tarts and shortbread cookies. He doesn’t know what else to do. I compartmentalize the sadness, push it aside; I am determined to have a joyful Christmas with our daughter.
My body keeps shedding what I so desperately wanted to keep and grow. Nature knows best, as the old adage goes. Hard to hear when you wish more than anything for a different outcome, but comforting after the fact, when acceptance – however bitter – has settled in.
I let go of a lot over the Christmas holidays – a large bin of maternity clothes, my breastfeeding pillow, an infant bouncy chair, and much of the newborn clothing I’d saved. And in doing so, I begin to let go of my desire to conceive, to carry another baby inside of me. Surprisingly, it is easier than I expected. I am making peace with what has happened, with our decision; my body is just my body again.
It is winter when we take our first steps into the adoption process, perhaps stepping onto a carousel of a different sort. Will they accept us? Will we be invited to the next step? Will we find that letting go has created a space for something new and different to happen, something that had we held on, would not have happened?
We visit the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Zoo. Our daughter clamours to get out of the stroller, to interact with the exhibits, to see the animals on foot like a big girl. She has her own ideas; she knows what she wants to do. Gone are the days when she rode in a carrier, when we could take her where we wanted to go without taking her opinion into consideration. And just like that, I’m letting go of her babyhood, making way for her growing independence and all the adventures that await us. If I don’t let go, acquiescing to the little girl she has become, she won’t be able to come into her own.
There is an intrinsic promise inside the tree, a promise of new life, new growth, regeneration. If the tree doesn’t let go of its leaves, new ones won’t grow in the spring. New life won’t come. If I don’t let go of one dream, this dream, another one won’t be able to transpire. No, we will not be having another baby of our own bodies. But maybe there is a baby out there, in our city, who will one day come to be a part of our family. I keep thinking that one day, when I look into the eyes of this future child, it will all make sense. “Oh,” I’ll say. “Of course it had to happen like this. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be you.”
Stephanie Burke is an elementary teacher by day, and a writer by both early morning and late at night. She typically writes fiction, but enjoys writing personal essays as well. Her daughter, Nora, is sixteen months old.