How did this story come about?
This novel evolved like many narratives do: from personal experience.
I was in my late 30s and had been trying for months to conceive a second child when my physician recommended I see a fertility specialist. It was this specialist who gave me two pieces of news for which I was not prepared: (1) I was “infertile on paper” and (2) I was one step away from menopause. In fact, she was surprised that I hadn’t yet entered menopause.
Sitting on plush chairs, in her cozy office, in front of a large, wooden executive desk, surrounded by photos of bright flowers and serene landscapes, I felt cold and not at all serene; I felt almost numb as I listened to my new doctor, this person who had, just minutes ago, been a stranger. My tongue felt dry and uncomfortable, like a stiff sock wedged in my throat, and I shivered, tightening and loosening my fingers in and out of a grip to keep the blood flowing to my hands. I couldn’t utter a word. I was shocked, speechless, devastated.
I didn’t even know how to properly pronounce this woman’s very foreign last name, and yet, here she was dictating the rest of my life. “Please, call me Aimee,” she encouraged, as I botched her surname. I managed to ask a few questions, all of which were answered by her displays of colorful, digital lab results, all indicating barely a hint of promise remaining in my ovaries. My wee baby factories were nearly closed, going out of business, shuttered for eternity.
Many of us, when discussing babies with our friends or significant others, have an image of our future families; mine included two children—two little handfuls who would play and bicker and love and grow up together. Just as I had done with both of my brothers.
Instead, Aimee explained to me in various ways that my future family would, “probably, most certainly, very likely,” have to be assembled in another way.
One of the alternatives she suggested was to secure an egg donor. “Have you heard about egg donation?” she asked in a gentle tone.
Off course I’ve heard of egg donation, I said to myself. I mean…I had heard the term before and thought I had a basic understanding of what it meant. But now, faced with the possibility that an egg donor might be my new reality, I felt a pang of insecurity and unsure about what I’d previously learned. “It means someone else gives you an egg? And…that’s it, right?”
She smiled, “In a nutshell, that’s what happens, but let me fill in all the missing details. Also, if you have any questions after our discussion—or once you’re at home—don’t hesitate to ask. As a matter of fact, here’s my email, and my cell number. Call or text or write, anytime, even on weekends. I’m always available. Let me be your guide. This is a lot for you to digest, I’m sure. I don’t recommend looking everything up online,” she advised. “That’ll just make it more confusing.”
Against all caution, later that day, and in the following weeks, I did the forbidden and expected: I Googled. I launched into an intensive online investigation to determine exactly how egg donation worked. And down a rabbit hole I hopped…from egg donors, to embryos, to the wacky world of sperm. Have you ever seen the 2013 movie “Delivery Man,” starring Vince Vaughn, which highlights how many babies one man could produce…if the system were out of whack?
At some point during my research, I stumbled upon a story about a woman whose cryopreserved (ahem, frozen) eggs or embryos survived Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t until five years later that she used those same eggs or embryos to give birth to a healthy child. Five years…as though the little beings had been eagerly waiting for her the whole time.
I discovered that cryopreservation facilities already have the technology to store frozen, unhatched offspring for up to ten years! Ten years of preservation. Ten years of deep, frozen sleep while global events and personal milestones unfold everywhere: Winter and Summer Olympics, economic booms and busts, countries battling and reshaping boundaries, couples meeting, marrying, and creating families, children blossoming from timid Kindergarteners to fearless teenagers. A lot can happen in ten years.
The news of my infertility and impending menopause was fresh in my mind as I continued to read about and imagine what could have been—if only I had had the foresight to use cryopreservation. If only I had known that cryopreservation was! I thought about what I had been doing ten, or even fifteen, years before. Was I thinking about babies more than a decade ago? Where had I been living and working? When I was 27 I lived in Maryland, earning paltry tips at a sleepy pub that served beer and ribs. At 28 I stayed in Rhode Island, briefly, working at a ritzy, waterside restaurant, rumored to be run by the mob. At 29 I translated web pages for a Silicon Valley start-up during the day, and earned extra cash at night serving margaritas to exhausted parents, quesadillas to screaming children, and green tea to quiet, laptop-toting single males.
As I shuffled through images of my nomadic past, I considered how happy I was in the present. I adore my daughter and husband, so I really wouldn’t want to risk accidentally altering my fate, like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (plus, a friend of mine once owned a DeLorean and they are expensive to maintain and everyone stops you for a photo). But what if I had preserved my eggs or embryos ten years ago? What if I had created those embryos with another man or a boyfriend that I was infatuated with at the time? Who was I even dating back then? Or who held my interest? There was a handsome gardener (I admired him from afar, but we never once spoke), I hung out with an arrogant, controlling poet (his anger fits reminded me of a toddler), and I pined over a soft-spoken musician who lived in an econodome (his house looked like an enormous golf ball stuck to the side of a mountain, and wild black pigs often visited his front yard). Could I have convinced any of these remarkable candidates that creating and preserving embryos was the right thing to do? Furthermore, would I have held on to our frozen, unhatched offspring after I met my husband, the love of my life? And if I had, what would my husband say if I suggested we use embryos produced with a previous lover?
Thus, the story of Ailie and Finnian was—for lack of a better word—conceived.
BOOK GROUP QUESTIONS:
- Ailie sometimes felt like a teenager in the presence of her mother. Do you find yourself returning to past patterns of behavior when you’re around your parents or grandparents or extended family? Do old habits resurface? Tendencies that you thought you’d outgrown?
- What were you doing ten years ago? How much have your beliefs evolved or has your personality changed from your twenties to your thirties? Were you dating? If so, what was he or she like? Can you imagine having a child with that person ten years after the relationship?
- What are your thoughts about cryopreservation? Should there be a time limit as to how long eggs, embryos, or sperm should be preserved?
- Today the rules and regulations around cryopreservation and egg and sperm donation differ from country to country. In fact, those who live in countries where these activities are illegal often make a pilgrimage to the United States for these products and procedures. Why should such activities be illegal? Why should they be legal?
- Work/life balance is a hot topic and new mothers are often faced with pivotal questions such as: “Do I return to work? How can I juggle a full time job and be an attentive mother? If I stay home, how do I maintain my identity? (And my sanity?)” These are questions that Ailie would eventually have to ask herself, whether she stayed with Finnian or moved in with her mother and grandmother. How do you picture these two in the near future or a few years down the road?
- Lastly, during fertility treatment I also learned that unused embryos may be destroyed or donated. For example—Couple A combines their sperm and egg, creating a dozen or so embryos, but they want only two children. After successfully giving birth to those two children, Couple A makes a decision to donate their remaining embryos, to Couple B. This means that Couple A’s children may have full brothers or sisters…somewhere…out there, birthed by Couple B. If you and your partner had a surplus of embryos, would you destroy them or donate them to another person or couple? What If?
(to be added to Kindle and paperback versions of my novel, What If)