Sunday, January 30, 2011

PNG - My Life in a Tropical Paradox

I was recently at a party with friends when someone asked some questions about my experience growing up in Papua New Guinea. I had not talked about it in a long time and while talking I realized how much I had missed sharing this experience with people who were interested.
If you did not know this already, I was born in a remote village in the jungles of the Enga province of Papua New Guinea. Enga meris (women from Enga) are known for being quite fearsome. I like to think I can be fearsome. I was delivered by a New Guinean midwife since the Scottish doctor who delivered my older sister was on furlough. Perhaps this is the beginnings of my fascination with the miracle of birth (and an insane admiration of my Mama).
I spent the first few years of my life playing with leaves and sticks and dirt, wearing a grass skirt, being carried over vine bridges on the shoulders of New Guinean men (I don’t think they trusted my parents and their slippery white-folk hair that was no good for a kid to hold on to), and riding in helicopters to go grocery shopping. I honestly do not recall a thing about those early years beyond what I have seen in pictures and been told in stories.
Apparently I could speak three languages by the time I was three. English, Melanesian Pidgin and Duna, the local language (there are over 800 languages in PNG). And I could tell who spoke which language. I am impressed with me. If only I could remember one of those languages well now! I learned recently about myself that my early exposure to many languages while making it easier for me to learn other languages as I grew up, also made me incapable of communicating fully to the extent of my intellectual desire - I reduce everything to the simplest of terms. Perhaps I am always preparing to have to change something into another language. I’ll claim that as my excuse. Please tell my professors!
There were some funny stories surrounding our return to the US when I was three. Like me and my sister diving for cover under the car in the grocery store parking lot when we heard a helicopter - in PNG it would have been a police helicopter coming to break up a tribal war with tear gas. Or my Mom trying to tell us that snow was soft stuff and us jumping off the steps onto our faces in three inches of it.
There was the confusion for me of living in a really white town for a few years and then moving to Hyde Park in chicago and having African American kids - who looked like my first friends - being angry towards me. It took years for me to understand that.
We returned to PNG when I was ten and quickly learned that the paradise we had left behind seven years before was now a pretty scary place to be. Violence, especially against expats and women was rampant. Our home had bars on the windows and alarm switches in every room that could send the Seminary students running to our rescue should we need them. We could not go out at night. The few times we tried to ended badly. Once my Dad picked a few of us up from a school dance and our car was attacked as we neared the one-lane bridge that led to home. He desperately tried to turn the car around but the engine died as the men beat on the windows of the van and my friends and I sat paralyzed in fear. We eventually got turned around and back to the police station where we waited for hours for an escort home. There were even times in broad daylight that were quite terrifying. My younger sister and I were in a friends’ car on the way to their house when a man jumped out and threw a rock into the windshield of the car, leaving us covered in glass and blood. Thankfully my friend’s Mom had the presence of mind to keep driving us to safety. It was impossible to deny the fear that we all lived with.

Yet at the same time there were beautiful moments - we would drive down close to the coast and smell the salty air, or I would climb the tree in our back yard and watch as the sun began to set and the palm trees swayed lightly in the breeze. Between the two different houses we lived in over those eight years, we had pineapples, guavas, lemons, star fruit, papaya, bananas, passion fruit and mangoes growing either in our yard or across the street. I used to make a game of eating lemons and daring other kids to do it too. (One poor girl threw up from it.) And we had a pool. A round, corrugated tin pool that we could make an awesome wave in by pushing down repeatedly on a large inner tube until the wave would crash over our heads and sometimes over the sides of the pool. I remember trips into town when we would get to pick out a treat at the grocery store, maybe some gum or a dove bar. There was a smell about the city. A combination of sweat and buai (it is chewed and spit out like tobacco) and rain. Thinking about that smell makes me happy. I remember trips into town to go to the international hotel and swim in the big pool and eat fries and drink a lemon lime bitter. Once the toucan that resided there caught a ball that was being thrown around in the pool. School was usually fun too, especially when we had to run from building to building through the rain. We would arrive at the next class refreshed and exhilarated! The sound of the rain at night, beating down on the tin roof, was so peaceful. I miss that. So while there was a very real risk and danger involved every day, there was always beauty and fun to balance it out. And that it what life is - balance.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


“I’ll do it.”
It was that simple. I did not hesitate. My friend had been talking about how she was thinking about looking for a gestational surrogate. She had been diagnosed with lupus after having her first child and was told she should not attempt to get pregnant again. Most of us in the playgroup that were gathered at her house that day had just recently had our second children.
We were driving home from an appointment one day, several months later, when she turned to me and said, “why are you doing this?” I could not tell if she was still surprised that I would do this or if she thought that I was a little insane for doing it, but it was easy for me, I knew that she and her husband had two blastocysts that were still cryogenically frozen from their previous round of IVF and I knew that they needed a chance to grow into the life that they had the potential for. I am not choosing sides in the abortion debate here, nowhere near. I am not even judging whether or not people should use medicine in this way. All I knew was that if it were me, and I had two little possible babies out there I would want them to have a chance at life.
Sometime during my pregnancy with my own first child my husband and I were watching the show Everwood and there was an episode where one of the character, Nina, was a gestational surrogate for a friend of hers. I thought it was such a beautiful and selfless gift. I knew that two of my husband’s cousins were struggling with infertility and even though it had only taken a few months for us to conceive our first, each time it did not happen was agony for me. I could not imagine living with that kind of painful longing for so long.
So I signed on the lines and I took the blood tests and I went to the fertility office appointments and met with a lawyer and learned how to give myself injections. We prepared. We got giddy every once in a while, thinking about this beautiful experience we were hoping to share.
My husband was a little reluctant at first but was always fully supportive of me. Others were weary and admitted their concern, if only through their lack of encouragement. I came to learn a lot about those around me as I viewed their reactions to my experience. I did worry about my own children’s understanding of what was going on and how they might handle it if Mommy had a baby and it was not their baby to keep. I knew they would understand when the time came. They were only 3 years old and 18 months.
I don’t remember when they set they appointment for the transfer (it is not called implantation because the blastocysts have to implant themselves, they only deposit them into the uterus). I remember being anxious. I remember them telling us that the blastocysts had thawed well and were of good quality. Then we watched the monitor as they guided the thin tube into my uterus and carefully transferred the tiny blastocysts - we could actually see them on the monitor! It was pretty cool. I was worried that movement might decrease the odds of success, so I lay still for as long as I could (but having had a full bladder for the procedure made it impossible to wait long).
The whole process did not take long and afterwards we went to the Cheesecake Factory on Michigan Ave. for lunch. We were all holding our breath, hoping that it would work. It was December, so they were worried about the ice on the sidewalks.
I was to go in to the office for a blood draw pregnancy test in a few days.
I went home and my wonderful husband agreed to give me the shots of hormones because I was too chicken to give them to myself. He does not do well with needles (usually passes out at the sight of them) so this was huge for him. Every evening he would give me the shot. I was a little surprised at how big the needle was but it was part of the process and I desperately wanted this to work for my friends.
It was just before Christmas and we were headed down to my parent’s house to celebrate early with them. We stopped at the fertility office so that I could run in and have the blood draw that would tell us what we’d all been waiting for.
The next day I received a phone call from my friend. “It WORKED!!!” She yelled through joyful tears. I sat down and laughed and cried with her over the phone.
A few days later we were back at home and preparing to go in to my in-laws for Christmas. I was beginning to feel the nausea and finally feeling like this was all very real. My husband had become quite good at giving the shots and my poor pjs were showing signs of the two weeks’ worth of injections - small drops of blood had stained the waistband. As we headed in to grandma and grandpa’s house the day before Christmas Eve, we stopped for another quick blood draw to confirm the pregnancy for a second time.
I was laying on a bed upstairs reading a Jodi Picoult book while my little boy slept nearby when I heard my phone vibrating. I decided not to answer it and risk waking him up. After a few minutes I checked my messages. It was a nurse from the fertility office.
I don’t even remember what she said in the message but she was talking about the hormone levels being low and something about how I could quit doing the shots. It all became something of a blur as I rushed down the stairs with hot tears streaming down my face. I called my friend. She had heard as well. I had miscarried. But I did not believe it. Physically, nothing had changed. I insisted that they were wrong. Part of me knew that they knew what they were talking about but I did not want to face it, so I still did the shot that night.
We went out to a comedy club with my brothers in law and their wives and a cousin. Everyone had margaritas but I could not bring myself to drink. Maybe they were wrong. Maybe. The comedy skits must have been funny but I don’t remember laughing.
The next morning I woke up and knew they were right. A chill ran through me when I knew the baby(ies?) had passed. I bawled. Relatives tried to comfort me and tell me it was for the best. It would have been too hard anyway. Something like that. Maybe they were right. But it still did not feel right to me.
Days passed. I finally saw my friend about a week later. We drove around for a while and then parked near the river and talked. She seemed so much more together than I had expected. She was worried about me. I was worried about her. We cried and hugged. Someday it would all be okay.
I guess I am naive. It was only about a year and a half later, just after having talked with her about her hopes for adoption that I learned that she had been cheating on her husband for a while and was planning on leaving him. It would seem to be another story altogether but after what we had gone through together I was incredibly shocked. I know that infertility can take it’s toll on relationships but she knew this too and they had one child that they had gone through a lot to have. How she could do this was beyond me and I was furious with her. It damaged our relationship beyond repair. The one thing that kept running through my head was, “if you are so sure that this is what is right for your life, would you have done this even if the surrogacy had worked out? Because you are making a fool of me now too.”
The light at the end of all of this is that as I was talking with her husband as he was trying to understand what was going on, how his world was crashing all around him, my husband and I (I like to claim responsibility) hooked him up with another friend who had gone through a divorce and the two of them hit it off. They have been engaged for a year now! Not how I had ever really pictured things turning out but it is good to have some happy to the ending.
For the two years after the surrogacy I cried a lot right before Christmas. I had also found a new respect for Mary in the Christmas story. She was the first surrogate, after all. I suppose her story did not have the happiest of endings either. At least not the earthly story. Not that I rate myself so highly as to compare myself to Mary. Heavens no! But it does make me pause to think about everything I went through and how there can be little glimmers of hope where we least expect it and even when things don’t go how we’d hoped we can still learn about ourselves and those around us.
Every once in a while we are faced with the opportunity to do something that just feels right. Sure, it did not ‘work’ in the way that we had hoped. But the question was answered. There is peace in that. And I believe it is that gift of knowing and not having to live with the not knowing that was my gift to them. People like to make a bigger deal out of it than I think it is worthy of. I just did what I could to help some friends find a bit of peace in their lives. We all do it in some way or other at some point in our lives.