This is an abridged version of the essay ‘Stars’, from Michelle Langstone’s new book Times Like These: On Grief, Hope and Remarkable Love. As this section begins, Langstone is preparing for egg collection.
I read about fertilisation, and learn that when a sperm fertilises an egg there is a tiny flash of light, a little burst of energy – enough to turn the lights on. I watch a video, see a stranger’s egg in a laboratory light up like a firefly or the twinkle of a far-off star. It is a magic I am unprepared for, and I can’t stop thinking about when my eggs will meet my husband’s sperm in the lab and light up in recognition. Nobody will be there to see them turn on. In the dark of the laboratory they will wink and glimmer in a cellular constellation. Some will fall dark and die, and others will survive until the next measurement. I can’t get it out of my head that there will be nobody there to see them. They are away from home. I have traded the soft comfort of my ovaries for the sterility of test tubes, and the thought leaves me ragged with sadness.
I forget I have left my underwear on. I lie down in the hospital room to have my eggs retrieved, and the doctor has to ask me to take them off. Crimson, I wriggle them down my trembling legs and hand them to Arun, who puts them in his pocket, looking nonplussed. I sit back on the bed, lift my legs into the stirrups and lie down like an uncomfortable starfish. When the drugs come I feel an ocean pour through my veins, a warm flood of softness that lifts me away from the room. I can’t see, but I hear Arun and the doctor chatting about television, while the nurse and lab technicians prepare to receive my eggs. I come in and out, yelping when the needle pierces the most quiet parts of my anatomy, and then I drift, my blood a boat I float in. I hear the embryologist counting as the individual eggs are passed through the window to her. One, two – Arun squeezes my hand and I come round to see his face hovering close to mine. Six, I hear, and then I slip away again.
When it’s over I wobble back to the cubicle, drag on my undies and wrap up in my warm clothes. They make us wait, make me drink hot tea and eat Marmite on toast. The drugs leave my body, and the doctor sticks his head around the door to give us the final count. Fourteen. I ask him if he is sure, and he says he is, though they won’t all be mature enough to fertilise. It’s a good number, and he smiles and closes the door. I sob, and we are hustled back out into the day, clearing the cubicle of the traces of our hope, making way for the next woman. I go home and climb into bed, and the ache comes upon me, spreading through my womb, an iron warming up and pressing down. Mum comes round and sits beside me on the bed and asks what happens now. Now we wait, I say.
We have to wait a day to see which of the 14 eggs will achieve fertilisation and become Day 1 blastocysts. I lie in bed through the afternoon, imagining them mingling with Arun’s sperm, wondering which of our eggs and sperm will be wallflowers and which will be bold and go for it. I close my eyes and see the lights come on one by one. I am awake for some of every hour that night, checking the time, staring into the dark, imagining the lights.
It goes like this: you wake six times in the night, every night, and when dawn comes you drag yourself up the maunga, filling in time until the next phone call. You never know when they will ring; it could be any time of day. You leave the volume on your phone up high and jump each time there’s a text, feeling rage when someone who is not from the clinic calls you. Your nerves jangle, you can’t eat, your hands shake. You have no control over anything that happens, or over the torrent of emotions that arrive at unpredictable moments.
On the third day, a crucial day, when you are waiting to hear how many of your 11 surviving blastocysts have made it to Day 3, you sob in the rain on your second trip up the maunga, at four in the afternoon. There has been no news. You imagine them all dead, the test tubes being rinsed in a basin and placed into a steriliser ready for the next devotion to attempted life. You play out the conversation at the clinic: your doctor demurs about being the one to call, and the nurses draw straws about who will make contact and give you the bad news.
“Michelle,” they will say – “is this a good time to talk? Could you give me your date of birth, please? Michelle, of your 11 blastocysts, none have made it to Day 3. I’m sorry. Have a rest and have a think, and then perhaps come in to see your doctor about what we can do next.” You can hear the words before they are said, and grieve for the end you know is coming.
In the rain, up Maungawhau, no birds are singing. You stand under open skies and let the water pound on the hood of your raincoat. You sniff the collar and it smells like a circus, and you remember the visit to the big top when you were a child, before they banned live animals. You watched greyhounds jump over spiked metal fences that got higher and higher as they cleared them, until the spikes almost touched the top of the tent and you expected to see those grey dogs impaled up there. The audience gasped and you wanted to scream for it to stop, but still they jumped, higher and higher, their bellies so soft and vulnerable above the metal. You hated that circus. You never went to a circus again after that.
The phone rings, but for a moment you don’t notice, because you’ve changed the ringtone to the song of tūī and think the birds up the maunga have started singing again. You dash for the trees that line the road to the crater and shelter beneath them, the fat drips of water falling down the back of your neck because you’ve pulled your hood back to take the call. “Ten of your eggs have made it to Day 3,” the nurse says. “A very good number, but expect to see them drop away by Day 5,” she cautions. “We always see them drop,” she says.
You hang up the phone and you can’t even be happy about this news, because there are another two days to wait, and another round of news that may be bad. It is always like this – no chance to celebrate a milestone, because there is another to clear, and then another and another. Make it to Day 3; now make it to Day 5. Whoever survives to Day 5 gets tested for genetic soundness; whoever passes those tests can be transferred. Then you will wait to see if the embryo takes to your womb, and that will be 10 days of agony and wondering. If your embryo embeds in your uterine lining and you are pregnant, you will take blood tests to watch if the hormones rise higher each day, and then you will wait for the seven-week scan, and then the 12. It is never over. You walk home with your hood back, the rain all through your hair and your jersey and your trousers and your socks. You are just like those greyhounds, jumping for your life.