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The seventeenth of February 2009 began like any other day. The alarm went off at the usual hour, but I hit the snooze button three times, delaying wakefulness for as long as possible. I opened my eyes to see Paul still sleeping soundly and tiptoed out of the room. I’d been up with our daughter Megan during the night, and sunrise had come much too soon.
I had condensed my morning regimen to a bare-bones routine, but no matter how I planned ahead, nothing ever went smoothly. When I caught a few extra minutes of sleep, I could jump out of bed, slide into the shower, and dress—tossing my makeup bag into my purse, kissing the girls, and grabbing a cup of coffee as I went out the door.
That morning I took the same route I always drove to work, but traffic seemed more sluggish than usual. As always, I found myself frustrated with slower drivers who dawdled and stoplights that turned red when I approached. After turning on my favorite local talk radio, I put on my lipstick and sipped coffee as I sat at red lights, glancing around to see several other drivers wrapping their hands around their coffee cups. We were all trying to stay warm and awake.
Once I got to the middle school where I taught eighth grade, I went to my room and dropped my bulging purse on my desk. Almost immediately, I noticed that the message light on my classroom telephone was blinking. Who might be calling so early? Usually people only call the teacher when there’s a problem, so I assumed it was one of my students’ parents calling with a concern.
Postponing the inevitable, I walked around my L-shaped desk and hung up my coat. I pulled out my chair and slid into it, then sighed and picked up the phone. The automated voice told me I had two messages, so I pressed the button to play the first.
My heart skipped a beat when I heard the voice of a nurse from my fertility clinic. The doctor would like to talk to me, she said, so could I please call the office as soon as possible?
I rested the phone against my shoulder, thinking. I hadn’t been to the fertility clinic in years, though I had an appointment scheduled for the next week. But why would the doctor want to speak to me now?
But there was another message. I pressed the button, expecting to hear from a parent, but I heard the nurse yet again, repeating the same message.
So … the doctor really wanted to talk to me. The nurse spoke in a calm voice, yet a note of urgency underlined her words. I didn’t have much time to ponder the reason for the call because just then the morning bell sounded. I stepped into the hallway to supervise the oncoming rush of kids, but I couldn’t get the odd message out of my mind. Maybe the doctor wanted to ask a few questions in light of my upcoming appointment. Maybe he wanted to tell me about a new development in procedure. This had to be good news … didn’t it?
Fortunately, first period was my planning hour. After the tardy bell rang, I dialed the clinic. The nurse thanked me for calling and said my doctor would really like to speak to me, but he would be in surgery all day. Could he call me later in the afternoon, around four?
“Absolutely,” I told her. “He can reach me during my lunch hour or after three thirty p.m.”
She said she’d relay the information. Overcome with curiosity, I asked, “Do you know why he wants to speak with me?”
“No,” she answered, and at that point a nagging doubt entered my mind. During my first in vitro process, which resulted in the birth of healthy twin girls, I had never spoken with the doctor over the phone. He always relayed instructions through his nurses, and they called me. The fact that he wanted to speak to me directly was … odd.
When second period began, I tried to keep my mind on my lessons as I taught American history to my energetic eighth graders. During my lunch hour I received another message from the clinic nurse—the doctor’s surgeries were running late, and, by the way, he would like to speak with me in person, not over the phone. Could I come to his office later in the evening?
More curious than ever, I called the nurse again. “I’d be happy to come to the office. What time?” I asked, thinking that the arrangement would work out well. I’d been planning to take my girls with me next week so they could meet the doctor, but if we saw him tonight, I wouldn’t have to take the girls next week. Before hanging up, I blurted out a question: “Should I bring my husband with me?”
“That would be a good idea.”
I hung up the phone and wondered why the doctor was in such a hurry to speak with us.
After school, I called Paul to tell him about our appointment. As usual, he remained unflappable, not at all alarmed. We discussed what we could have for dinner that would be quick and easy, and decided on spaghetti.
Once I arrived at home, we received another phone call from the fertility clinic—the doctor was stuck in traffic and running late. Could we postpone the meeting by about thirty minutes?
“Sure, no problem,” I told the nurse, relieved that I’d have an extra half hour to feed the girls. “We’ll be there.”
I was actually looking forward to bundling up the girls and taking them to the doctor’s office—he had been my physician during our first in vitro cycle. This proud mama wanted him to see Megan and Ellie and know how happy he’d made us nearly three years before.
We ate quickly, though I didn’t have much of an appetite. Then, because the girls’ clothes were covered in spaghetti, I changed their outfits and we loaded them into the car.
Megan wanted to know where we were going.
“We’re going to see my doctor.”
“Your doctor? Don’t you feel good?”
“I’m fine. It’s just for a brief appointment.”
On the way, the girls chattered away with Paul, leaving me with plenty of time to think. My thoughts kept drifting toward the clinic. I was dying to know what the doctor wanted to discuss, but I told myself to be patient—we’d be there soon enough, and then we’d hear whatever he had to say. In only a matter of minutes, the big mystery would be solved.
The sun had already set, and the facility’s parking lot was nearly empty when we pulled in. Only a few lights burned inside the windows.
Mixed feelings surged within me as I studied the clinic building. I hadn’t visited the practice since my last appointment when I was eight weeks pregnant with the girls.
Paul and I each unbuckled one of the girls from their car seats and hoisted them onto our hips. We walked forward and found the front door ajar, undoubtedly propped open for us. The waiting room stood empty, the magazines neatly stacked on the end tables. A single lamp burned at the check-in window, but no one emerged to greet us. I walked up to the counter and waited a minute or two, then decided to sit down. After five phone calls, someone had to be expecting us.
How nice, I thought, for the doctor to meet with us at night. We sat for about ten minutes, spending most of that time trying to get the girls to sit down and stop climbing on the furniture and shuffling the magazines.
Finally the nurse came out to talk to us. We chatted about the girls for a minute or two, then she motioned us forward, ready to lead us to the doctor’s private office. Though she smiled the entire time, faint lines of strain puckered the skin of her forehead. Those faint lines sent a shiver of unease through me—why, exactly, had we been invited to this unconventional meeting?
Paul and I greeted my doctor from his office doorway, introducing him to our toddlers. He stood up and shook our hands, then greeted the girls. “These are the twins,” he said. “Oh, they are beautiful.”
I smiled. “That’s right. You’ve never seen them before.”
“No, we usually only see photos, so this is nice. Now, if you’ll please step into my office so we can talk …”
The doctor was gracious and kind, but I couldn’t help thinking that he looked exhausted.
“I’ve had a long day and I’ve just finished a complicated surgery.” He gestured to a pair of chairs. “Why don’t you have a seat?”
Still wearing my coat, I dropped into the nearer chair. Paul sat on the other, gathering the girls around him. The doctor moved behind his desk. “Thank you for coming in,” he said, sinking into his seat. He paused, shuffled a few papers, then looked directly at the two of us. “I thought it would be best to speak to you in person rather than over the phone.”
Alarm bells began to clang in my brain, nearly blocking out my awareness of the girls clambering behind me. What was this about? I didn’t have to wait long for the answer.
He hesitated for a moment and dropped his head, then took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. “I’m so sorry, Shannon, but there’s been a terrible incident in our lab.” The doctor’s voice became darker and grimmer. He took a deep breath. “Your embryos have been thawed.”
I blinked as I absorbed the news. I could see stress on the doctor’s face, so I knew this matter was serious. Thawed embryos … meant our babies were dead. All six of the tiny embryos that had been stored so we could soon expand our family. Some kind of massive power outage must have struck the storage lab, and probably thousands of frozen embryos had died. … All those poor families!
I gasped. No wonder the doctor looked worried.
Little did I know that within the space of a few moments, I would wear that same expression myself … and I would continue to wear it for months. For reasons I could not understand, God took responsibility for our embryos out of our hands and placed it instead into the hands of strangers.
Sitting in that office, I looked at my trembling hands pressed against my knees, then looked up at Paul. In that moment we both realized that our lives were about to spiral out of our control.
© 2010 Paul