The water was colder than she anticipated. Fooled by the unseasonably warm January day, she touched her fingertips to the blue water and pulled her hand back quickly. The icy droplets were refreshing yet a sharp reminder that not everything is as it appears to be at first glance.
She didn’t expect to come across this lake in the middle of nowhere. Just as the sun rose over the horizon she shrugged on her backpack, laced up her 10-year-old sneakers that weren’t really meant for anything more than a thirty-minute stroll through a suburban neighborhood, and headed out on the dirt path that was just outside her cabin door.
The cabin was a weekend rental. She was anticipating staying longer, though. She had three weeks of vacation time dangling in front of her that would be snatched away if she didn’t claim it soon. Usually she let it go because when you were in charge of multi-million accounts at the biggest pharmaceutical company in the region, you didn’t just pack a bag and schedule a flight to a lush green island in the middle of paradise. You didn’t lounge on a beach chair and drink one Mai Tai after another when you had accounts that needed your attention. You stayed firmly attached to your ergonomic office chair with a wireless headset attached to your ear.
It was in that office chair that she received the papers from Eric.
She hadn’t seen her ex-husband in almost two years. Two years is a long time. It was long enough for the pale, white circle around her ring finger to disappear. It was just enough time for her not to think about him the moment her phone’s alarm woke her from restless sleep each morning. It was just enough time for her to begin to heal.
And then she received those damn papers.
She knew they would be coming, but she like to live in an isolated world of denial. She had hoped that Eric would be too busy with his new life and his new family to forget that once they had been fiercely determined to create their own little brood. Yes. Two years is also just enough time for an ex-husband to find a new love of his life and raise his own children with her.
When the letter came from the fertility clinic stating that in sixty days the embryos – the little family she and Eric never had a chance to see through to fruition – would be destroyed unless the donors (really, that’s all we were, she thought) made other arrangements. That little family was all she and Eric could think about for five years. They spent all their savings trying to become pregnant. There were three embryos left of the original six. Two years may cure a lot of things, but it can’t rub out the pain of losing those three babies, one which teased them for five months before they lost him.
It was too much even for the strongest marriage and, if she’s being honest, their marriage was weak and flawed from the moment they said, “I do.” Her devotion to her work; Eric’s dependence on Jim Bean; their volatile fights that erupted every few months were not something that a family would cure. Each time the IVF procedure didn’t take and when they lost Sam (how insanely optimistic of us to name him and pick out clothing for him, she thought), she couldn’t help but think it was the universe’s way of not-so-kindly showing them they were not fit to be parents – at least not together.
But that letter. She hadn’t forgotten about the embryos. She just thought that she would never have to make that choice.
She came to this cabin at the suggestion of a friend who thought she may find answers or clarity if she could be alone with her thoughts. When her friend made the suggestion, she laughed out loud. Alone with her thoughts? She and her thoughts were all she had for the past twenty-four months, and she tried to silence them as much as she could. Yet, she took her friend’s suggestion and rented this cabin in the middle of nowhere in the St. Francois Mountains overlooking the Ozark Plateau. She had only been hiking for about an hour when she came to the lake; the white sand along its bank that weaved throughout the pine trees that surrounded the lake struck her as odd. It reminded her of the white sand desert landscape in Southern New Mexico that she and Eric visited one summer early in their marriage when they still loved each other.
She dropped her backpack at her feet and sat on a rock still cold not yet heated by the sun. Sitting on this rock, staring at the lake, she remembered simple. She remembered the time before the choices she made had permanent consequences that couldn’t be erased by apologies, the shrug of the shoulders, or even carefree dismal. She remembered her life before its journey toward parenthood.
Did she regret it? Did she regret the money invested, the emotional exhaustion, the demise of her relationship with Eric? She couldn’t really say because it wasn’t that simple anymore. All she knew was that now she had a choice that would have lasting consequences.
Eric’s lawyer drafted a letter stating that his client wanted to either destroy or donate their embryos to other infertile couples. She had fourteen days to respond and state her intent. She and Eric were stupid. They had divorced quickly, each wanting to be done with the other as soon as possible and didn’t give a second thought to the embryos in the lab. But their haste had led them here.
Now, the final decision was hers. She could fight Eric for custody of the embryos and go through another round of IVF by herself. It was something that women did all the time. But, was she really prepared to be a single mother at 42-years-old? Was she ready to endure the turmoil of another unsuccessful IVF procedure? Who would be there to help her navigate the pain – understand the lost?
A sound to her right pulled her away from her thoughts. Quietly, gingerly, a young deer and its mother walked out from the woods to the water’s edge. The pair considered her for a moment and then each lowered its lips to the water, determining that she wasn’t a threat. At that moment, she still didn’t know what her choice would be, but calmness wrapped itself around her, and she knew that she’d be all right. Whatever decision she made, she knew that she would be all right.
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