The path home leads through a woods, over two fences and across three fields. We live at the end of a long lane, down a dirt road, a ways out from town. Our rented farmhouse is small, old and white. Our landlady and her now-ailing husband raised a passel of daughters here. They used the closed-in front porch for extra sitting space; my wife has it filled with ferns, spider plants and cacti. With no babies to nurture, Janis mothers houseplants. Houseplants and herbs.
This spring, where I cleared the remains of a tumbled-down hog barn, she fashioned an herb garden. Under her care, the plants have taken off like rockets. Gardening is Janisʼ way of working through her deep disappointment over our inability to conceive a child.
More than anything, she wants to be a mother. And Iʼm ready to be a dad. We often imagine ourselves as parents, even as grandparents. What we donʼt imagine is me walking out on her, leaving her as a single parent to care for our young children. What we donʼt imagine is the particular set of circumstances that will lead to this.
The struggle to conceive consumes us. Doctorʼs visits, specialists, tests, procedures, charts, surgeries. More tests, more money. Are we trying to buy hope?
Why canʼt we have children? It seems so unfair. Weʼd make ideal parents. We often fantasize about how it might happen—through conception, adoption or (in our wilder moments) kidnapping. Weʼre doing all we can and can afford, but these barren years have convinced us the outcome is in Godʼs hands. Our prayers assail the gates of heaven.
As of yet, I have not begun to ask the questions that will unravel our marriage, shake loose my faith in religion. Janis and I are still on speaking terms and if our children will have nothing to do with me, that is now because they are not yet born. So much has not yet happened: my coming out, leaving the house, being turned over to Satan and out of the church, lawyers, the restraining order, meeting Dave.
Unable to see the future, I instead look for a four-leaf clover, find none. However, the mosquitoes have found me. I rise to go, straddle fence, cross fields, wend woods.
Rounding the last bend I see Janis in the twilight exactly as I want to remember her now. Aglow in her herb garden, dirt under her fingernails, concentration upon her face. All about her, gray-green. Basil and oregano gone wild. Chives and marjoram run rampant. Towering wormwood and all the thyme one could want. A tall handsome woman with chiseled features, sandy brown hair, face flushed with exertion and summer heat. Working out her own salvation, healing herself. Finding her way through.
We turn together toward an empty house. We believe love will keep us together come what may; infertility, if it doesnʼt kill us, will make us stronger; prayer changes things.
As the sky darkens, stars wink into view. We open windows, hoping for a cross-breeze. No luck. We lay down together but apart. Itʼs too hot and too sticky to touch each other. We fall asleep, unaware a judge will one day seal the distance between us; if after that we ever we touch again, it will be only in memory. Weʼll wonder how it happened, how anything ever happens as it does. And weʼll keep on going—and growing—as best we know.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the July issue of The Community Letter.