At the Edge of Hope

At the Edge of Hope

At the Edge of Hope 1080 810 Fiona McPhillips

We’re ten minutes late, two-stepping through the clinic doors, spewing breathless excuses at the receptionist. There’s nothing she can do. The next patient has already gone in.

“You’ll have to wait,” she says lightly, as if she can’t feel the weight of it. ‘Wait’ – a word that can grind the highest hope into the deepest despair.

We’ve been waiting for over two years, life measured out in two-week portions, endless cycles of blood and sex, tears and tenacity. Waiting for appointments, tests, results, for prescriptions, procedures, treatments. We’ve seen two pink lines fade to grey, the pulse of a heart that stopped beating. Mine is a body that knows time but is not in time.

It’s the hope that gets you, the accumulation of it. I see it on the face of every woman in the waiting room, some of the men too, the flicker in their eyes, the same fire that spits and burns behind closed doors. Beethoven’s third fills the space between us and my gaze is drawn to the glimmer of the muted TV screen in the corner. It’s an image I’ve seen several times in recent days, the blue-green eyes and blonde hair of the missing three-year-old girl, taken from a holiday apartment in Portugal.

Another couple gets the nod and John’s knee bounces like a jackhammer. We’re both due back at work but, thanks to a considerate boss, there is less of a time limit on my patience. I put my hand on his thigh and he wraps his fingers around mine. My phone vibrates and I show him the screen: his ma. She prefers to call me, the good cop, once removed from the emotional toll of family dynamics.

“What’s happening?” she asks.

“We’re at the clinic,” I say, hiding my voice under my hand, “waiting for our scan. Remember, I told you?”

“I mean, what’s happening with him?”

He is the son that moved in with her after John’s dad died, the best of intentions all round, but the spirals of behaviour she’d learned in her marriage didn’t transfer to a filial relationship. With her health failing, she’d agreed to a short stay in a nursing home while he got his act together and moved out. Two years later, she’s given up waiting and has started down the long legal path to reclaim possession of her house.

She has every right to her anger, but she’s been a woman scorned for so long she has forgotten how to be anything else. It’s almost forty years since her hastened move from the maternity ward to the psychiatric ward, something that was always treated as a personal failure. She carried that blame as a wife and as a mother until it became part of her. And yet, she never stopped fighting against it, the infantilization handed down from one generation to the next. On the TV, the child’s mother clutches a teddy bear, pain etched into every crevice of her face.

John mouths ‘sorry’ as I explain the slow pace of litigation though I hardly understand it myself, how an elderly woman of limited means can be denied access to her own home. I’m saved by the sound of my name and we’re on our feet, following the nurse’s lead.

“Eileen, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you later.”

“So you’re just going to leave me here to rot?”

The nurse points to a sign: No mobile phones past this point.

“Only for another hour or so, ok?”

“I’ll be dead by then.”

The sun sweeps through the ultrasound room, brushing parallel shafts of light and dark onto the wall, the bed, the monitor. I feel the warmth across my legs as I undress until the nurse snaps the blinds shut. As if I have any dignity left. There’s only one thing I care about in this room and that’s the ultrasound screen, the oracle that prophesies follicles, embryos, heartbeats. After two weeks of injections, a canvas of purple yellow red across my belly, we’re hoping to see ten, maybe fifteen follicles in my ovaries; the next step will be to collect the eggs inside for fertilization.

I point out the first one, then another.

“I could do these scans myself if you’d let me take the machine home,” I joke to the nurse as she manoeuvres the dildocam inside me. She says nothing, letting each second grow dark and silent against the next. John’s eyes flit from her face to mine, waiting for permission to exhale. She pushes deeper, probing the black hole inside me until we can all sense the vastness of it.

“They’re probably hiding in the other ovary,” she says. Hope fires the blood through my veins. She prods and pokes, digs and rummages while galaxies shift and stars falter, and a single, tiny shadow shudders on the screen and I’m grateful for it.

“I’ll get the doctor,” she says, but I already know what he’ll say. My ovaries have not responded to the drugs.

It’s the worst possible news. John tries to read my blank expression, the dull paralysis masking the rage that’s gurgling underneath those three precious follicles. I ignore the doctor’s concerns about proceeding, his low prediction of success. Yes, I want to go faster, harder, stronger. No, I don’t care about the risks, the side effects, about me, us.

When you can’t have a baby, nothing else matters.

“As long as there’s a chance,” I say.

“Well, it only takes one,” he says.

I don’t tell him I want three.

At home, a group text from a friend with the news that his wife has just given birth to their fourth, a boy at last after three girls. I fling the phone against the wall and the tears come, angry welts of grief that rip through me. John says the right things which are the wrong things and puts the kettle on. As he drifts away, I wonder how many cups of tea he’s got left in him.

When he brings the tea (green for fertility), he reminds me that most people just don’t think about these things. They don’t think because they don’t have to, that inverse relationship between fertility and effort, the more you know, the less you have. I don’t expect a medal for my endeavours, just something, an acknowledgement.

I keep stabbing myself in the stomach and the three follicles continue to grow. We get two eggs. Now, the longest wait of all, to see if they fertilize overnight. Time is more visceral during these twenty hours than any other in my life. Sky News is the pacemaker, promising and failing on the hour to deliver the face of a suspect in the case of the missing girl, Madeleine McCann. The presenter talks of renewed hope. I wonder how Madeleine’s parents face the surge and crash of it in every moment.

In the morning, I do nothing but stare at my phone, willing it to ring. Each time electromagnetic interference stutters through the room, it takes my heart with it. When the phone finally connects, the let-down is crushing: it’s Ma.

“I need you to call the solicitor,” she says.

Time is of the essence, an efficient approach required.

“What is it you want?”

“My microwave. He has it in the house.”

“You want me to bring it to the nursing home?”

“It’s mine and I need it.”

When we lose the big things, we fixate on the small things until they grow to fill the space left behind. Until all of life is contained in a moment.

“I’ll call the solicitor and get back to you, probably after lunch, is that ok?”


When the call from the clinic comes, it’s good news, two embryos. They survive the night and the transfer to my uterus is straightforward. The sense of achievement is overwhelming. Only two weeks left to wait.

In the days after transfer, the tabloids’ official period of restraint comes to an end and they turn on Madeleine McCann’s parents, ask the ‘hard’ questions. I can’t look away. McCanns ‘are hiding a big secret’. Did they kill her by accident? Will they take a lie test? In their PR-led media appearances, the McCanns are too polished, not sad enough. Kate McCann’s controlled grief is not typical of a bereaved mother.

People on Internet message boards know exactly what they’d do in an unimaginable situation. I’ve heard it all before. I’d never pump myself full of drugs, do IVF, use a donor. All they mean is they’ve never had to.

Nature carries on regardless, the low murmur of bees in the lavender blue catmint in our sliver of yard. A single shaft of sun slides across the silver granite paving and I catch what I can, meditating on every nerve ending in my body, analyzing twinges and aches until they seep from skin to spirit. I have no clear pregnancy symptoms, but John is sure it has worked. I am dreading the aftermath.

The first test is negative, but it’s still only days since transfer. Hours unfurl between tests, minutes coil like springs waiting for the emotional release of peeing on a stick. I hold each one to the light, dismantle them in a desperate search for that second pink line. When the line comes, it is fleeting, a shadow that disappears before I can show it to John. It’s better than the alternative but all it confirms is that, for now, I am a little bit pregnant.

Another day, another pink line, and a rush of nausea as the morning eggs spill their yolks onto the plate. John is convinced but I need a digital test to spell it out. And so, it’s in the toilet cubicle at work that I get the confirmation: Pregnant.

We decide we’re going to enjoy it this time. No more worrying, testing, watching for blood. We’ve come this far. We deserve an uneventful pregnancy. Friends and family are thrilled and relieved and it feels like we’re finally starting to sail away from infertility island.

It’s only five days before the line is not as pink. Lighter still the next day. I have blood drawn at the clinic; the nurse is not optimistic.

I’m in Marks and Spencer when the final call comes. It’s over. I buy wine, sushi, veined cheese and peanuts.


With the blood comes rain. It’s fitful and furious, as if the whole of life is flowing into the gutter. I arrive home to a grey twilight that filters through the braids of rain on the kitchen window. To the hunched shape of my husband at the table.

“I can’t take it anymore,” he says.

As if he had the power to stop it.

“With Ma, I have no choice, I have to look after her. But this…”

A sob catches in his throat, and, in the pause, the leaden beat of the rain fills every corner of the room. It soaks through my bones into the angry, bitter marrow of them.

“We can end this utter misery any time we want.”

I don’t tell him I can’t, that there is only one way to stop this deluge. That I would give up on him before I’d give up on a baby.

The wipers cut through sheets of rain and there’s barely a glint of light in the murky sky beyond. We’re all dampened by it, Ma beside me and John in the back. Through the clatter on the sunroof, we listen to the news that the Portuguese police don’t expect to find Madeleine McCann alive.

“It’s shocking,” says Ma. “But it’s time they moved on.”

I take it personally, the idea that such grief can be put aside.

“How could you ever move on?”

“God lets you know when it’s time.”

John spits out a sigh and I say nothing.

“Like you,” she continues, “if God had meant you to have a baby, he’d have given you one by now.”

Those words land in my gut with the weight of every platitude I’ve had to endure, all the unsolicited advice that’s been thrown my way. I don’t want to hear it anymore.

I pull into a ditch and walk out into the storm. Solid panes of rain shatter in my eyes, spill from my nose. I breathe in musty earth and seething tarmac. As I wade through silver violet streams, fractal colours in oily puddles, the world separates into all its chromatic possibilities, and when I look back, John is half-walking, half-running towards me.


Header photograph © Shalini Chaudhary.

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