“Do you believe in love Z?”, she asks as she blows rings of vape smoke away from my direction.
I am standing with Shawna who I have worked with for the last five years. The topic of our smoke break discussion started off with me asking about her two boys and then turned towards the relationship between biology and spirituality that played out in her life, her own body. After a spate of disastrous relationships, abusive boyfriends, and multiple miscarriages, Shawna met her husband Phil in a coffee shop. They got married in six months and decided to have a child. Parenthood had always been part of their plan, the life vision they shared as they fell in love, swapped vows, and launched their careers. Their schooling completed, careers in motion, finances steady, the late middle of the third decade of their lives, the time was already way past. It wasn’t so much a decision as a mutual embrace of the next logical, lovely thing.
But months passed and she wasn’t getting pregnant. Each cycle, she rode the crest of hope and then the trough of disappointment. After a number of missed attempts, her doctor ran the standard tests. Nothing concerning showed up. There was no biological reason she couldn’t conceive. But more months passed, and still no baby.
“There are interventions to consider,” her doctor eventually counseled. She handed her a stack of glossy, pastel-colored fertility brochures.
They drove home from the appointment with the doctor in the city late at night, brightly lit houses shining through the trees. They could glimpse the families inside, someone at a kitchen sink, cozy groups of parents and children clustered by a fire or in front of a TV. But when they pulled down the driveway to their new home, all was dark.
They were still so far from the life we wanted.
A few months later, in the spring of 2015, after another cycle without conceiving, Phil and Shawna stood at the bathroom sink one night, brushing our teeth. He turned to her.
“We could give IUI a try,” he said
Artificial insemination was the least invasive of the available procedures. They went through the procedure twice. But no baby. On the third attempt, a new nurse was at the clinic, a temporary substitute. She was about fifty-five years old. She hummed as she adjusted her on the table and prepped the syringe and then turned towards her to give her a big hug — wrapping her in an embrace of love, totally unprofessional but oh-so-good.
“All right!” she said, releasing Phil’s cells inside her. “A life is beginning.”
And just like that, for the first time, they conceived. Even in those early, early weeks, the joy of carrying a life within permeated her sense of self. Phil and she were going to be parents! She was holding a tiny light inside her and felt its warmth and hope and promise.
The night before her first ultrasound, she had dreamt that she was in her childhood home in St. Louis, in the pink-flowered kitchen where she’d spent so much time with her mother, this place of nourishment and life, where she’d been taken care of so well. In the dream, she stood at the sink, in her mother’s place. Suddenly, the deepest grief hits her. She seemed to fall to the floor on her knees, crying, “He’s dead, and I never got to know him.”
She woke with relief. It was only a dream. A nightmare. Sad and haunting, but not true. She stroked her non-existent belly but she didn’t mention the dream to Phil. To name it would give it too much credit, she thought.
The week after, when the ultrasound technician passed the wand over her abdomen, the cold gel tickled. She was giddy in anticipation of the first glimpse of their child, and she closed her eyes in the darkened room, feeling the glide of the wand over her skin.
Then the wand stopped. “I’ll get the doctor,” the technician said.
Her bare belly felt cold. Goosebumps rose on her arms as she waited for the doctor. She came in briskly, made a few passes with the wand, and said matter-of-factually, “The baby’s heart has stopped.”
And so, just like that, in early 2015, Phil and she were sitting in yet another IVF clinic — this time, the fertility clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, home of the scientists who had researched sea urchins at Woods Hole and invented in vitro fertility treatment.
“Of course, we can get you pregnant,” the doctor said.
She’d lost count of the times a respected practitioner at a top-notch facility had said these exact words. Shawna tried to ignore the feeling in her gut that he was wrong. And yet, there was no physiological reason anyone could find that explained why she wasn’t getting pregnant, and so she told herself not to lose hope.
She had to be on bed rest, and Phil stayed in the hotel room with her in solidarity. They were at a beautiful place in Rittenhouse Square, in a room that looked out on a peaceful park. They cozied up, ordered food, and looked for something good on TV. But when Phil tried to flip through the channels, the remote wouldn’t work. They were stuck on a channel showing a depressing documentary shot in a garbage dump in Caracas. A little boy, an orphan, stood on a heap of trash, interviewed through a translator.
“I don’t care that I can’t go to school,” he said. “I don’t care that I live in the garbage dump. But I hope someone can help my family…..and give us some love”
She caught her breath turning towards Phil.
He said it first: “There’s a child out there for us.”
It was just a coincidence that they saw the little boy on TV or what that meant for them. When the IVF treatment failed again, the familiar despair closed in. But a new feeling threaded through the dark — a sense of curiosity about how things might unfold.
A few nights later, she had a profound experience. She suddenly woke out of deep sleep. Phil was breathing softly beside her. She sensed a sort of charged brightness in the room, though no lights were shining in. And there felt something she could only describe as a presence there with them. Her heart started racing. She sat straight up in bed. The presence spoke to her. She didn’t hear it exactly. She sensed it, felt its resonance. If you were pregnant, would you adopt? the powerful presence asked.
“No,” She said into the night. Her answer had come right out of her mouth before she could consider the question. But she knew it was the truth. She wanted a baby in her body, an expression of Phil’s and her love, a being to carry on all they had received from their families, who looked like them.
As soon as she spoke, the presence was gone. The space it had occupied, whoever or whatever had visited her, closed again, and then the darkness folded back.
One afternoon later that year, Shawna came home from yet another IVF treatment, heavy with the familiar feeling that it wouldn’t work. As she neared the front door, head foggy and out of sorts, she happened to glance down and see something on the doorstep: black, wet, the size of a finger. She stooped to examine it. A beak and tiny webbed feet dangled askew. It was a duck embryo. She used a piece of mail to scoot it gently onto the earth beside the door.
Getting into bed with her clothes on she took a long, depressing nap. She dreaded Phil’s return home and the next OB appointment when yet again they’d likely learn that the embryo had not implanted — that it had failed to find its home. She finally woke to a persistent tapping, loud and clear over the racing river. When she peered out the front window, she saw a full-grown duck, a female, thrusting her beak at the door. Tap, tap, tap. She opened the door and found that the mama duck had brought her a gift: a plump, juicy worm. The duck dropped it on the threshold and waddled back toward the river.
At that moment, Shawna’s inner life and outer life lined up in a way that felt significant, too improbable to have happened by chance. She felt guided by something, a larger order or life force — A feeling of pure and unadulterated love. At that moment, she saw the mama duck as evidence of the deep connection possible between living beings, a feeling of oneness.
Later in the year, a few months after finding the duck embryo, she sat with Phil in a small room of a Pittsburgh adoption agency, every wall plastered with photos of smiling families from all over the United States who’d adopted babies and children from Asia. After the most recent unsuccessful attempt at IVF, Phil and Shawna had turned back to the impulse that had arisen in the hotel room in Philadelphia as they watched the documentary of the boy at the garbage dump who had longed for love. There were children all over the world longing for a better life — and they were longing to give it. Her father Jason had put them in touch with the agency that had sponsored her friend’s adoption. They’d insisted the couple could fill out the initial paperwork and questionnaires from home, but once they decided to look into the possibility of adopting, she needed to make eye contact with the people who might help match them with a child.
“You need to tell me honestly,” the woman from the agency said. “What do you want in a child?”
“I don’t care what race this child is,” she said. “I don’t care about gender. But please, I want a child who can love us back.”
She looked at Phil. “What about you?”
“Everything that Shawna said is true for me. But…” He grinned sheepishly. “But I’d kind of like a girl.”
That night, Pittsburgh’s professional ice hockey team won a playoff game and the city erupted — music blasting, parties in the street. They took a walk, riding that energy and ebullience. For the first time since her initial pregnancy years earlier, it felt like they were on the right trajectory.
To parent is to love. She knew it intellectually. She knew it from the way her parents loved her — the warmth around the table, her mom’s bright eyes and tinkling laugh when she asked about her day, her dad’s steady thoughtfulness, the way he would slowly nod his head as he considered something Shawna had said. But sitting in the Pittsburgh adoption agency that day, surrounded by images of exquisitely loving families, struck her in a new way. Love seemed the foundation of it all. It was the day she sensed that love would be essential to her journey toward motherhood.
Months later when she was staying up with her aunt on a business trip to Boston, she got up in the morning and her aunt Jamie handed her a mug of green tea, kissed her cheek, and left for work. Just before Shawna got back in the rental car to drive to the airport, she called to check in at home. Phil didn’t pick up, so she dialed into their voice mail. There was one message, left late the previous night, after Jamie and she had gone to bed. Her heart raced. Was something wrong with her sister? Or Phil’s parents? Why hadn’t he called her? Throat tight, she pressed “1” to hear the message, barely breathing as she listened to an unfamiliar woman’s voice. It was their overseas adoption contact, the priest’s daughter, calling from India.
“We have found your child,” she said. A baby boy, six months old, soon of legal adoption age, had been located at an old Christian orphanage in Calcutta.
Some weeks later, they received a video of a joyous little baby boy, happily gesticulating, raising his arms, smiling at a nurse. “Pa, Pa,” he cooed in his nascent lingo. He was pure love. He radiated it, a high-voltage, kind of love that enveloped you. A soaring euphoria consumed her, a love so immediate and powerful it moved through her like a riptide, miraculous. She was carried. She was drowned.
Phil and Shawna went to bed that night as parents. In the deep of the night, the presence came again — that full sense in the air, the non-luminous light. “If you were pregnant now”, it asked, “would you still adopt?”
“Yes!” she said. Tears brimmed the corner of her eyes. Of course, She would still adopt. She had already met their son. She was madly in love with him. “Yes!” she cried out into that void.
Phil stirred and woke. She embraced him.
“Let’s name him Prem,” she said. She had been thinking about it for some days now. An Indian name; it meant Love. “Prem Phil Sarcone.”
“Yes,” he said, laughing, kissing her. They tumbled back into bed, joyous in each other’s arms, wrapped in love.
The presence in the room slowly receded.
That was the night they conceived.