Lights At The End Of The Tunnel
My personal struggles with infertility.
By the time I reached my early thirties, I felt my biological clock pounding away as I searched for a suitable husband.
I was so relieved to get married at the age of 36, and assumed that I would get pregnant almost immediately. After all, my doctor had assured me that I was very fertile. As month after month passed without my getting pregnant, I began to feel panicked. Finally, I got pregnant more than a year after we got married. We were elated that our prayers had finally been answered with a resounding "Yes, now it's time for you to have a child." No lottery winner could have felt more grateful than us when we saw the fetal heartbeat on the sonogram at eight weeks. We had never considered the possibility that when I went back to the doctor the following week, we would see no heartbeat. The fetus died, and so did a small part of me when I heard the terrible news. My husband was inconsolable.
We never considered the possibility that we would see no heartbeat.
We began consulting fertility specialists who assured us that all was fine, but that a little assistance would help speed things along. We dutifully sought interventions every month, some of which required us to turn our lives upside down. One month, we needed to walk four miles each way to a hospital on the Sabbath. Another month, the doctor inserted an assortment of instruments into my reproductive system, left the room, and forgot to return for 45 minutes. No one heard my screams in this back-room office while telephone calls and a lunch break distracted her. Another month, we were recommended to a fertility specialist whose recommendations we faithfully followed. We found out later that his exorbitant fees were exceeded only by his willingness to subject women to procedures that had been scientifically proven to be ineffective. Finally, we went to one of the top fertility specialists at a well-known hospital where we were put at the end of a one-and-a-half yearlong waiting list.
A year after my miscarriage, I got pregnant again during a trip to Israel. I attributed it to my endless prayers at the graves of saints and at the Western Wall. My husband and I were delightfully astounded, and awaited the birth of this child with great anticipation. A few weeks later, I gave a lecture at a community Sabbath lunch. The topic was, "Why Bad Things Happen To Good People." One of my patients, who had suffered tremendously, insisted that a good friend of hers come to listen to me. The friend was trying to come to terms with a host of tribulations and challenges that she was facing, and my patient assured her that my words would help her find her way. Two minutes before I was to start speaking, I felt the familiar sensations of a miscarriage. I felt as if a messenger had come to tell me that I was not the rightful winner of the lottery whose prize I had already mentally banked. It had all been a mistake.
I gave my talk, with its uplifting message that nothing happens by accident. Everything we undergo is a divinely engineered circumstance that is tailored to help our soul develop its maximal beauty and connection to its Source. When I finished, my patient's friend came over to tell me how deeply my words had touched her. When the crowd left, I sadly walked back to the rabbi's house where I was staying. In private, I sobbed, feeling physical pain that reflected the emotional torment of my tragedy, even as my intellect told me that God was embracing me, and it was all for an ultimately good purpose.
Three months later, I got a telephone call from the hospital's fertility center. The nurse told me that she had found a way to get me into treatment in only six months instead of 18. I jumped at the opportunity. I underwent yet another fertility workup from scratch, the fifth in two years. This time, though, the news was not encouraging. I was nearly 39 years old, and the tests showed that I might have reached the end of my fertile years. I would have to get monthly blood tests to determine in any given month if I would be fertile that cycle. If I was not for three or four months in a row, there would be no point in subjecting me to any more fertility interventions.
Every month we waited with bated breath for the results to come back, and the first two months we were crushed. My hormone levels were so high they were off the chart, indicating that I could not get pregnant those cycles. The third month, a miracle occurred. The levels were borderline, and the program accepted me for in-vitro fertilization. I had to inject myself with massive doses of fertility hormones for about a week, get multiple blood tests and sonograms. Then, at the ideal time, I would be anesthetized and have my (hopefully fertile) eggs removed so that they could be fertilized and later re-implanted. For the first time in two years, I had strong hopes that I would actually have a healthy pregnancy.
I dutifully got my blood test the day before egg retrieval was planned. My husband and I were looking forward to having dinner that evening with friends who had finally had a baby using our hospital's program. That afternoon, we received a terrible phone call. It seemed that my hormones had already surged, and that the chances that I would get pregnant if the eggs were retrieved the next day were not great. The doctor never said it, but he botched the timing. Based on what he told me, I had the surgery the next day, and a few days later had one or two embryos implanted. Nearly two weeks later, with every day seeming an eternity, I discovered that I was still not pregnant.
We endured several more months of torture, as I went for blood tests, only to be told that my numbers were off the chart. Finally, one freezing, windy evening, we heard the unlikely news on our answering machine. My numbers were good, they were within normal range, I should start injections that evening.
We were floating. It was Friday night -- the Sabbath. The nearest pharmacy was over a mile away. It was 21 degrees outside, with a 20-mile an hour wind blowing. We would have to walk at least a half hour each way to get the drugs that I needed. We couldn't take money or credit cards with us, and we couldn't use the telephone since it was Shabbat. What would we do if we got there and the pharmacist said that he didn't have the medication, or that he wouldn't believe that we would come back the next day and pay him the $1400 for the three boxes of drugs?
I felt that God was smiling down on me, and would finally give me my heart's deepest desire.
When we arrived at the pharmacy, huffing and puffing, with beet red cheeks, the pharmacist told us that he had the medication, and he would trust us to pay for it. Once again, we were at the top of the roller coaster.
Everything went along without a hitch. When the doctor implanted three embryos, they looked very healthy. As I rested afterward and recited Psalms, I felt that God was smiling down on me, and would finally give me my heart's deepest desire.
Less than two weeks later, my pregnancy test confirmed that I was, at long last, pregnant. It was June, the flowers were blooming, the warm spring air caressed me, and all seemed right with the world. My unrelenting ordeal of the past two-and-a-half years seemed finally finished. I waited, with perverse longing, for the familiar, all-day morning sickness to arrive.
A few weeks later, while writing one of my books, I suddenly felt those sickening sensations. A scream welled up inside me. I couldn't believe this was happening to me for a third time. Hadn't I suffered enough? "Almighty God," I beseeched, "please make me a miracle and save this child. Please."
I had to wait until the next day to get a sonogram. I was bleeding massively, yet the fetus was still alive. I saw the tiny heart beating, a light in the midst of my otherwise dark tunnel. The doctor reassured me that it was possible to still have a healthy pregnancy and that I should go to my local obstetrician for any future care.
When my obstetrician saw the sonogram in his office the next day, he showed me that the fetus was dead. "No, it can't be," I challenged him. He showed me why it was, I told him why it wasn't.
"Listen," he said nonchalantly, "if you don't believe me, you can get another sonogram across the street."
I did. Two hours later, my third sonogram in two days showed that I was right. The fetal heart was still beating at a healthy 140 beats a minute. "Thank you, God," I exclaimed, hoping that this baby's will to live might persevere. The radiologist was not optimistic.
"Look," he cautioned, "the heartbeat is still good, but you have a huge amount of blood in your uterus." He would say no more about my prognosis.
The fetus died a week later. "Okay, God," I resolved, "I'm not sure what you want me to do with this. Whatever it is, You're in charge, and I hope that it will affect me so that I can be close to You and do Your will, whatever it is."
In the midst of recovering, a woman whom I had never met called and asked if I would speak to a group of singles in her home about how to find a marriage partner. "No problem," I agreed. She had gotten my name from a mutual friend whose home I had spoken in the previous year.
The next night, this woman, Sharon, called again. "I don't know anything about you," she admitted, "but there is a rabbi who is coming to my house tomorrow night. He looks at people's ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts) and helps them improve their lives. Would you like to come?"
"When will he see me?" I questioned, wary of consulting any miracle men. Unknown to Sharon, I had already consulted a host of them in my desperation to have a baby. "After midnight?"
"Well after," she confirmed.
"Thanks, but no thanks," I retorted. "I have already seen many rabbis. I have prayed at the burial places of more Jewish saints than I can count. Nothing ever helped," I told her.
"Look, I don't know you and I don't know what you've sought help for," Sharon pressed, "but this rabbi is really very special. If you come, I don't think you'll be disappointed."
Feeling that I had nothing left to lose, except for a few more hours of sleep, I went to Sharon's house after midnight the following evening.
Her living room was filled with people I knew, including the woman who had given her my name. She and her husband were still childless after six years of marriage.
"Your husband is like a dead man."
I waited impatiently to see this rabbi. When I finally saw him at 1:30AM, he looked more exhausted than I felt. I wordlessly put my marriage document in front of him and he studied it for a few moments.
"Your husband is like a dead man," he said, as he studied the paper further. "This document should be rewritten. Come and see me in three weeks and I will give you another ketubah."
I was dumbfounded. My husband had lost his desire to live since my first miscarriage, and for more than two years he had been profoundly depressed. "How do you know that?" I managed.
"It's all here in the ketubah," he explained. "Part of the Jewish couple's blessing comes via their Jewish marriage contract. The contract creates and defines the spiritual channel. When it is has a flaw, the full blessing cannot come. In your case, your husband's father was deceased when you got married and your ketubah was written with your husband's name, son of his father's name, followed by the abbreviation, "May his memory be for a blessing." It is best for that abbreviation not to be in a wedding document. Many believe it can cause misfortune. You need your document rewritten and everything will be okay."
As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning, I felt exhausted and cautiously optimistic. After all, I had learned from hard experience that there are few bona fide mystics in the world today. Prerequisites for being one are that a person is scrupulously observant and a Torah scholar, and few such mystics make themselves known to the public. People today are desperate to find miracle workers who through magical means can give others what they want. I had already met my share of charlatans. I had only met a few who had truly helped others. Had God put this rabbi in my path as a conduit for greater holiness to come into my life, or to test whether I would stop hoping for intermediaries like rabbis and doctors to provide me with the child that I so urgently wanted? I decided to pray that I had undergone whatever personal changes I needed to make, and that changing the ketubah would allow me to be the person that God deemed was ready to receive a child.
Convincing my husband to get a new ketubah was not easy. Not only had he given up hope that we would have a baby, he was not receptive to the idea that changing a ketubah could alter the spiritual reality of our lives.
Three weeks later, my husband got the new ketubah from the rabbi and gave it to me in front of two valid Jewish witnesses. After I took the document, the rabbi said, "Please God, you should have a baby within a year." I hoped that his prayer would go to the Almighty and be responded to in the way that I hoped. On the other hand, it was hard to imagine that after so much yearning and praying that my dream would come true.
The next month, my body finally returned to normal, and I called the fertility doctor. "Should I come in for blood tests this month?" I asked.
"Your chances of ever having a healthy pregnancy are infinitesimal."
In an avuncular voice he responded, "Don't bother. You've already spent almost three years and over $50,000 trying to have a baby, and nothing has worked. We know why you keep having miscarriages or don't get pregnant in the first place. You have no good eggs left. Some women reach menopause earlier, some later. You are no longer fertile. If you still want to have a baby, either adopt or go to a donor egg program. Your chances of ever having a healthy pregnancy are infinitesimal."
I was crushed, and agreed with him that it was futile for me to go back to the hospital. On the other hand, I believed that God wanted me to have a child, but not through that avenue. How He would make it happen, I had no idea.
Two weeks later, my husband and I visited Israel for the Jewish holidays. We prayed a lot at the Western Wall, stayed in Jerusalem, and absorbed the holiness of our land. Two weeks after we came back to the United States, I discovered that I was pregnant. Our daughter was born on a Friday night in June, the first day of summer. It was ten months after the rabbi changed our ketubah.
When I saw her for the first time, I was not prepared for what a newborn baby looks like. I had expected a Gerber baby. My child looked like a combination of Popeye and a conehead, covered in mayonnaise and ketchup.
"Isn't she the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"
"Isn't she the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" my husband gushed, his eyes blinded by love. Indeed, when I saw her after she was cleaned up a few hours later, she was.
A few months later, the rabbi visited our town, and I brought my baby to see him. "This is the baby that you told us we were going to have," I reported.
He looked at her, smiled, then looked at me. "You're going to have another one," he said confidently.
I nearly fell off my chair. I was already 40 years old, and the doctors had told me that I couldn't even have the baby that was already born. I was going to have another one?! I was too stunned to reply, but my husband asked, "When?"
"Soon," the rabbi smiled.
Over the next six months, my husband urged me to stop nursing our baby so that I would have a chance of getting pregnant again. I spoke to two top fertility specialists and they both agreed that in the best of circumstances, nursing would drastically reduce the possibility of conceiving again. Finally, I compromised: I would stop nursing when our baby was a year old if I still had not conceived by then.
Twice every day, I prayed that I should get pregnant again and not have to stop nursing. When our daughter was eleven months old, we went to Australia together. When our daughter was one week shy of a year, my husband told me, "Look, our daughter will be over a year old by the time we get back to the States. You need to start getting used to the idea of weaning her." She was happily nursing about eight times a day at the time. I said nothing, just intensified my prayers to get pregnant.
Three days later, on the eve of Shavuot (the holiday that commemorates God's giving the Torah to the Jewish people), I discovered that I was pregnant. I gave birth to our second child the following winter.
My experiences taught me many things. First, many of us spend our lives trying to get and achieve what we want. It is easy to think that it is up to us to make our agenda happen. I learned that trying to mold what we want to fit God's agenda is what life is all about. The utter helplessness that I felt trying to have a baby made me understand that I first needed to feel utterly dependent on God before I could properly raise a child who would be utterly dependent on me.
The Almighty uses pregnancy, giving birth, and raising children as opportunities for us to continually turn to Him and recognize that we always need Him. He wants us to talk to, and relate, to Him, not only when we need something, but because we love Him and want to be close to Him. Love that is dependent on getting what we want is not real love; it's self-love. Loving God even when He doesn't give us what we want is a true relationship. I learned to love and trust God even when I was very disappointed that He couldn't give me what I wanted.
Second, I realized that sometimes the only way that God can get us to do what He needs us to do is to prevent us from having what we want. I realized after having a baby that there is no way that I could have written so many books on Judaism if I had had children when I was younger. Raising children requires so much of my energy that I simply didn't have enough left over to write books for years. Obviously, God wanted me to have children, but not on my timetable. He needed certain spiritual accomplishments to occur before it was time for me to be a mother.
Even though I prayed a lot, gave extra charity, and did other spiritually beneficial acts that didn't result in my having a baby,
I realized in retrospect that these were not wasted. No good deed is ever wasted, even if it doesn't get us the results or object that we want. Maybe God specifically made me unable to have children for many years so that I would deepen my relationship with Him through prayer and help others by giving extra charity. Without having this impetus, I would not have done either.
Third, I learned what it feels like to be infertile. I have helped many other infertile people as a result by giving them medical, spiritual and emotional counseling. I learned how insensitive people can be to those who are not blessed with children.
If I looked at my ordeals only as barriers to my getting what I wanted, I would have missed much of the point of life's challenges. They are supposed to transform us, make us into more giving, caring individuals. I believe I have been able to use the suffering that I underwent to make other people's lives easier when they are in the same boat.
Fourth, I learned firsthand that God controls nature. While we are not supposed to rely on miracles, and have to do everything that is normally required in order to achieve results, I was privileged to experience how the Almighty overturns nature when it suits His purposes.
We are often misled into believing that what doctors tell us is the truth, and that life and death are in their hands. We need to remember that doctors are only God's agents, and He is the ultimate Healer and Giver of Life. When we believe only in what is rational or natural, we limit our lives. When we attach ourselves to our Creator, and to His constant providence, miracles can, and do, occur.
Fifth, I realized the importance of doing Jewish rituals correctly. Life is in the details. Does it really matter if I perform a commandment this way or that way, or observe it only in my heart? The answer is yes. Just as there are prescribed doses of medication to take when a person is sick, or specific ways of wiring a house so that machines there will function properly, spiritual matters must also be done with attention to details. Within six months of having my ketubah changed, two other infertile friends of mine had theirs changed, too. (It doesn't take a mystic to do this, only a rabbi who is properly versed in how to write a Jewish marriage document.) Each couple had been unable to have children for seven years. One couple now has three, and the other has two children. The women got pregnant within a few months of having their ketubot changed.
Finally, I learned the power of prayer. We sometimes think that we should only pray as a last resort, and then when we don't get the results we want, we don't do it again for a long time.
Learning Torah is the way that we hear God talking to us. Praying is the way that we talk to Him. Every relationship requires communication, and we need to always keep open the channels of communication with our Creator. We may not necessarily get the things that we want, but we can always have the relationship that we want. Being close to God can change us so dramatically that we become people who are worthy of getting blessings that are out of this world. I will forever be grateful that I got both.