The most important woman in my life is a woman I only met for a couple of minutes.
My sweet daughter Olivia is 14 now, and I'm still so madly in love with her that several times each day I wish I could inhale her. I often think about the young woman known in my household as Angel Cate, whose egg made this child possible, and I send up little agnostic prayers of gratitude to whatever force in the universe brought her life to sit forever next to ours.
I went off birth control when I was 24 and gave birth when I was 33. They never did diagnose why my body didn't work, but I spent that decade of my life building to a crescendo of desperation in trying to figure it out and fix it and have it be over, so I could meet my baby. I wasn't then, nor am I now, a woman who's naturally drawn to children. But I always knew I wanted a shot at living out the clean love I fantasized a mother might feel toward her child.
When we began sliding into infertility treatment, the science was new and labor intensive. Every stage of it, as it unfolded in my body and my marriage, demanded a physical diligence and a consuming emotional preoccupation that I thought at times would take me down. It strung together mercilessly, making us not believe we were in our third year of trying, then our fourth ... well surely it'll happen this cycle ... yet there we were in our eighth year, then approaching our tenth. I stopped counting surgeries and procedures after the seventh in vitro. And still, 104 times, my period came. Each month, more hope rinsing out of my body.
As my chances of conceiving continued to fade, I spent a couple of those years reluctantly contemplating the idea of donor eggs, and weighing my ambivalence about carrying another woman's baby against never having the chance to carry one at all. I'd grown up in a family in which there were always stop orders being placed on what was thought of as love, so I'd learned early on that genetic connections guarantee nothing, but that understanding wasn't enough to disconnect me from wondering if I could love a baby that wasn't my own.
When my last in vitro failed, we decided we would try one more time with a donor, if we could find one we agreed on. Through a friend I found a psychologist who advertised for, and screened potential donors. She mailed us a chart of available women, each of them accompanied by the standard descriptive terms: height, ethnicity, eye color, IQ and so on. We selected three from that list and requested the full packet on each of those women, which would include a lengthy questionnaire, completed in the donor's own handwriting, and Xeroxed photographs.
The afternoon the three packets arrived in the mail, I was home alone. I was scared to open the white 8 1/2 x 11 envelope they came in, because I felt like it contained the prognosis for my future, so I laid it on the table and sat next to it for a little while. When I was as ready as I was capable of being, I opened the first one. Before I could even engage in reading the woman's questionnaire I was overcome by the fact that it was peppered with bubble exclamation points and "i"s dotted with smiley faces, and I became immediately uncomfortable. People from that stratosphere of perkiness make me edgy. I feel badly about this, but it's true. The second packet stirred almost no reaction in me, and then I started to feel flat and numb -- a sign my emotional rheostat was dimming off to protect me from the pain of what it would mean if I didn't connect with the last donor profile laying on the table.
But when I opened Angel Cate's packet and saw the warmth in her eyes, all my ambivalence fell away. I read her thoughtful responses to the questions about being an egg donor, and said to myself: I can do this with this woman.
My husband felt exactly the same.
I didn't want to meet Angel Cate when the three of us were trying to conceive my daughter. We were in the same hospital at the same time, but after so many years of what felt to me like the loss of baby after baby, I was irrationally afraid that if we met her, and I did get pregnant, she would somehow be more inclined to take the infant back. I also felt protective of the positive reaction I'd had to seeing her on paper, and didn't want anything to mess that up.
Instead, we passed along to her a gift, with a note containing feelings drawn all the way up from my toes. I knew if I were to get pregnant, I wasn't opposed to having our child meet Angel Cate, if that's what the child wanted, but I was certain I didn't want to start out on that foot. When we learned the pregnancy had taken hold, we asked the psychologist to please share this miraculous news and our profound appreciation with Angel Cate, who then sent her congratulations back to us.
The pregnancy was a joy. A joy. But by noon on the day Olivia was due to be born, not having had any symptoms of labor yet, a part of me couldn't help but go back to that dark psychological place we'd been living in for so long, and I asked my husband, "What if she's not coming? What if all of this has been a dream, and we wake up and never meet her?"
Olivia was born a week later, and it didn't at all feel like I was meeting her. It felt like I had known her my whole life.
When Olivia was 16 months old, we contacted the psychologist to see if Angel Cate, who had said she'd be open to a second donation, was willing to try again. She was. Once again we took drugs to coordinate our menstrual cycles, and once again we were in the same hospital in separate rooms.
During the surgery to have her eggs harvested, there was a glitch. The HCG injection that causes the release of the eggs had apparently shot blanks; the eggs weren't retrievable, and the procedure was stopped. Afterward, the doctor gave her the choice to consider this the end, or to take a second injection of HCG and return in 36 hours to undergo another surgery. The chances of the eggs being viable had dropped significantly due to the inability to retrieve them at their ripest point, but she chose to do it again anyway, and this second time, I could not leave the hospital without meeting her.
While Angel Cate was in recovery, lying on a gurney and coming out from under the anesthesia, she'd given her permission for me to come in. I had no idea how to begin to tell her what she meant to us, and as I was hoping to say something to her to do her justice, she looked up at me with a calm smile and asked, "How's your baby?"
My eyes had been full of tears before I'd even walked into the room, and the generosity she held out to me in her choice of those three words, and all that they revealed about this young woman, made them crest and fall. I told her she had given us an amazing little person and I handed her the silver box I'd gotten her with a lock of Olivia's hair inside its velvet lining.
She thanked me and said she'd been happy to do it, and told me how sorry she was that the HCG hadn't worked. I told her we had worked as hard to have a life as we would have to save a life, and that she had given us life. Then I kissed her on the cheek and said what you say to someone who has given you a gift you can never possibly repay: Thank you.
The three of us did conceive again, but I lost the baby. Shortly after the miscarriage, I wrote Olivia a fairy tale about Angel Cate, and my husband illustrated it. I wanted her to know that in this world such dimensions of humanity exist. They are out there; and they are in her. We read it to her at bedtime as often as we read Goodnight Moon.
Once upon a time,
in a kingdom deep, deep in the center of two hearts,
there lived a King and a Queen.
The kingdom was safe and warm,
with soft cool breezes,
and the King and Queen were quite happy there.
The only problem was that this kingdom was dimly lighted,
and the King and Queen longed for a brightness
to illuminate the land.
and each night
they dreamt of brightness,
but it did not come.
Now it just so happened
that there was a distant star
way above the kingdom.
And this star
was governed by a third heart,
the heart of Angel Cate.
One magical night,
after nine years of dreaming,
the synchronized pulsing
of the King and Queen's hearts
propelled the dream
up into the sky.
As the beating of their hearts
Angel Cate's heart
began to beat in exactly the same rhythm,
and it pulled their dream
all the way up to her star.
The sound of the hearts beating together
was so powerful
that the star began to sparkle.
Angel Cate reached into the
and sprinkled it onto the dream,
and floated it gently back down
to the King and Queen.
As soon as the stardust was
absorbed by the King and Queen,
the kingdom began to glow.
And from the love
in each of the three hearts,
of the King, the Queen, and Angel Cate,
a fourth heart
brighter than the King and Queen
began to beat.
This was the heart of
The Baby of Light.
And from that day forward,
the tempo of Olivia's heart
set the sun
to wash golden over the day,
and the moon
to wash white over the night.
What began as my ambivalence about having another woman's baby has alchemized into a purity of love for both Olivia and Angel Cate, and I realize the longer I love Olivia, the more indebted to Angel Cate I become.
My daughter has a capacity for empathy that blows me away. She is smart and true to herself, and she has a wicked sense of humor. The privilege of loving her has been my resurrection.
To this day, she will occasionally take her fairy tale off the book shelf and we'll snuggle together and read it, just as we will occasionally go to the desk drawer and carefully take out Angel Cate's packet and read her words, and touch the picture of her face.
This is our love story.