Friday, December 1

'Tis the Season: Music

One of my favorite things about the holiday season has always been a holiday concert the local high school performs. The Festival of Sound is a magical production organized and performed by the students of Wheeling Park High School. The strings, band and choir groups join together to put on a show worthy of highest props. There is a wonderful narration presented throughout, which highlights interesting facts about the pieces performed. And the jolly man in a red suit--Santa himself--makes an appearance each year. It's that good.

I grew up playing the violin. I enjoyed many parts of my time playing, but the annual Festival of Sound performance was by far my favorite part. It was so powerful and moving to join with the other musical groups at the school to perform holiday favorites. And to this day, the traditional closing piece--Hallelujah Chorus--moves me to tears. Music has always made me well up at times--there's something about a bunch of separate notes coming together as they do that makes my heart swell. But, I think the added beauty of this piece is found in the entire audience standing and joining in. I mean, we humans like to argue and disagree a lot, so the very act of singing together and such a powerful piece is nothing short of thrilling.

This year, eighteen years after my last Festival of Sound, we will attempt taking four month old Isabelle along with us to see it. But, the icing on the cake this year? It will mark the first year that my niece, Sydni, will be playing in it. Even the years I roped Sydni and others in the family into attending and knew no student musicians, I would be moved to tears witnessing the amount of talent and potential present in each of them. Now, I get to watch my very own niece--who I've watched grow from a baby girl just like Isabelle--perform as a high school violinist for the first time and in a show I adore.

Something tells me the 2017 Festival of Sound will only make me love the yearly tradition even more.

Monday, November 27

'Tis the Season: Food

I can find something to bake or cook any time of the year. But, this season when temperatures drop, snowflakes fly (come on snow!), and the holidays arrive is probably my favorite. When handed total darkness at an obnoxiously early hour and hard frost when light returns, everyone needs a little comfort. One place I find that is in food.

Dinner during the cold months is oh so pleasing. It's cool enough outside that using the oven and heating up the house isn't miserable like it can be during the summer months. Add to the warm, cozy house the wonderful aromas of roasted seasonal veggies, simmering sauces and slow cooked soups and stews. There are so many ways to soak in the meals cooked--outside of devouring every last delicious bite. Taking a moment to see the beauty in the prepared food is a must. The beautiful tray of colorful roasted veggies, the vibrant color of a carrot or butternut squash soup, or the plate of pumpkin pancakes with a handful of plump blueberries tossed on top with rich maple syrup.

Baking during these months is another satisfying activity. Whether whipping up a batch of simple oatmeal cookies or putting together a cranberry cobbler, snickerdoodles or spiced walnuts, baking is something along the lines of sacred for me. My guilty pleasure is to grab a fresh out of the oven serving of whatever it is I've made. Truth be told, if there were a way of creating single servings of these things, I would do it. There is absolutely nothing as good as a fresh from the oven baked good. But, since I haven't figured out single serving baking just yet, I double the pleasure by sharing the goods with others.

It was only recently that I realized how much both of these activities have become creative outlets for me. Sometimes fancy outlets but sometimes just simple straightforward outlets--take a bunch of separate stuff and make something wonderfully fulfilling. Not too dissimilar from taking a bunch of words and writing a poem or novel or using a range of colors to compose a visual art piece. But, everyone wins when the plate is the canvas and seasonal ingredients the paint.

Thursday, November 23

In Search of Life (Conclusion)

While a conclusion to my journey to motherhood, this is by no means the end of the story. When Isabelle Peyton was delivered on July 21st of this year, she rang in a new year unlike any I have ever known or will know. Every ultrasound along the way, every listen to her beating heart, reminded me what an incredible gift I had been given. On her birthday, when it was determined we'd have to move on to a C-section, I suddenly felt totally unprepared to meet this new human. I was very emotional on the OR table, and when I heard her cry, I knew we had finally crossed the finish line to finding one another. It had been a long trip for both of us. The nurse wrapped her up warm and laid her on my chest before taking her off to the nursery. The instant she was laid there, she went silent and I silently welcomed her to our world. She was perfect in ways I could not have imagined.

And so on this Thanksgiving Day, I am eternally grateful for having been given so many things. The resources to open my womb to Isabelle. The financial ability, the all-star medical team, the male donor. The support of gracious and loving family, friends and co-workers. There were so many waves of need--from the emotional support and the understanding when I needed to use time away from work to the physical help while pregnant and beyond. So many small things had to come together for this to come to fruition--for Isabelle to complete her journey and me mine. I am so grateful this day and give thanks to all who have played a role over the past few years. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 22

In Search of Life (Part IV)

November 21st finally rolled around. To find out if I was, indeed, pregnant, I would have to go up to Magees for a beta blood test. They measure your hCG blood level to determine whether or not you are pregnant--this is the same hormone that home pregnancy tests use but blood levels are more reliable. Many women will actually buy and take pregnancy tests at home before this test. I was too afraid of getting a negative and, frankly, could not look at one more negative test. Having never seen a positive, I didn't want to do anything to jinx this round of trying.

My mom and I drove up to Magees early that morning. I took her for company on the drive, but I couldn't even speak. Only after the fact, she told me she thought I had tested and knew it was negative. The car ride was tense. I had a lump in my throat the entire time, and my mind could not manage actual thoughts. For one of the only times I recall, my mind was truly blank. After the blood draw, we headed back home and the wait for the call from the nurse with results commenced.  

I dropped my mom off then wandered after that like a blank mind does. I drove to Oglebay, parked by the lodge and stared at the gray sky, breathing--in, out, in, out. After sitting there for some time, I panicked. What if my reception on my phone wasn't good enough?! I needed to make my way back down towards my home. But, I couldn't bear to go home and sit--I had done that too many tries before and it didn't seem like the best luck. So, I moved to the other local park. I drove up the only hill in Wheeling Park, and I sat staring at the turkey buzzards floating around and around and around in the sky. I finally went home, hugged my dogs for a while, and then I went to my upstairs and literally laid on my back on the floor. More staring blankly. 

Close to 3pm--what seemed like an eternity after the early morning blood draw--the call came through. I remember staring out the window, barely breathing as the nurse greeted me over the phone. I think my mind was trying to decipher whether her hello seemed like one that would precede good or bad news. The next thing I heard her say was this: "Congratulations, you are very pregnant." I immediately burst into tears like I never have before. I was so shocked that I could barely find my voice. I recall saying to her, half crying and half hyperventilating, "This is the best news I've gotten in my life." She explained that with the first beta blood test, they look for a value of anything over 5--my value was 1,915. Thus, the reference to very pregnant. She was shocked I had not tested and had no idea until that moment--most women cannot make the wait. I hung up and of course began making calls to let family know. That day and the ones after were like slow motion for me. A strange but new reality that I didn't fully trust.

The journey had scarred me, so I did begin immediately worrying over every single thing. Was there such a thing as a too high hCG level? What could it mean? Would I make it through the delicate first trimester? The same racing mind remained, just a different and new set of questions.

Despite this, I did manage to fully drink in the miraculous fruits of my journey. Dr. Menke had warned me going into the transfer that she estimated I had a 30% chance of success. Working against that other 70% is no joke. The mental fight alone is exhausting, let alone the physical one. But, I had crossed that line to the other side, and I was ready for the new challenges of pregnancy. 

Tuesday, November 21

In Search of Life (Part III)

Anyone who has been through IVF knows the unique, and at times unnerving, circumstances it brings. For a planner like myself, the fact that literally each day in the process could totally change your next step was at times emotionally unwieldy. The toughest was probably waiting to find out if transfer could be a go or not. For it to be a go, specific hormone levels had to be achieved and the uterine lining had to measure within a specific range. Once again, I was pleading with my body to cooperate. And it did. It seemed only appropriate that my transfer day would be on the day of the 2016 presidential election. High stakes. November 8, 2016, would be my chance to sustain the life I had produced (with help). My embryo was considered a blastocyst at the time of transfer since it had been given 6 days of growth prior to the freeze. If you ever want some interesting reading, take some time to learn what an embryo is doing in its first five days of existence. It is utterly fascinating and humbling.

The night before my transfer, I wrote a letter to the embryo. I explained what a miracle it already was. I promised happiness and love galore should it be meant to be my child. I loved this embryo as terrified as I was to do so. I knew too well the heart pain of failed attempts. The emotional isolation and biological drive to continue despite it all.

So, transfer day came, and it was a truly magical morning. Despite the sterile atmosphere of the center's operating room area, the warmth and joy in the air could not be denied. There was laughter, kind eyes and kind acts, and there was love. The doctors rotate OR duties, so I ended up having a doctor I had not met, but he was both hilarious and competent. So, I was wheeled back to the procedure area where the team worked like a well oiled machine--for me, it was so interesting to watch all of the roles happening simultaneously, I forgot that I should be nervous or worried, etc. The room was freezing cold, but my partner was able to sit at my head, they had soft music playing, and the team placed the embryo. 

I had acupuncture sessions both before and after the transfer procedure that day. Francie, the acupuncturist at the center, was yet another amazing member of the care team. She sent me off with some sound advice to help encourage implantation, and the morning ended with another drive home. It would be another thirteen days of waiting and wondering about an outcome. But, wait I did, binge watching election results coverage, working, and rubbing my tummy just in case life was brewing in there and needed a little encouragement.

Monday, November 20

In Search of Life (Part II)

At the end of the summer of 2016, I decided I'd at least explore the option of IVF. It meant another round of testing--to determine whether I could even be a candidate for it. Through this process, I discovered I actually had premature diminished ovarian reserve--in layman's terms, I didn't have many eggs or much time to make use of them. Based on other test results, we proceeded with entering the IVF cycle later in September. Another surprise surgery had to be done in October of 2016--between egg retrieval and the frozen embryo transfer. Despite the logistical challenges of being cared for out of Pittsburgh, I cleared my mind of all other things and proceeded to get the daily shots (thanks to my gracious aunt) necessary--often leaving my home in the morning before the sun came up--driving to Pittsburgh every couple of days for very early morning blood draws, adjusting medicines based on results. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. After a few weeks, it was finally time for egg retrieval.

But, after egg retrieval, things looked really grim to me. While I had 11 eggs extracted, only half fertilized and given the number of days we needed for embryos to mature, the expectation was that we would only have one viable embryo in the end--my doctor called to report this to me a day after my retrieval. The sudden drop in enthusiasm after a solid 11 egg turnout was tough. Part of this issue came from the need to have 6 days of growth prior to freezing so I could have the surgery. Needless to say, after getting this news on a Sunday, the wait to hear the final outcome on Friday of that week was so long and difficult. Would there be any embryos in the end? Would I have more than one so that I could have multiple chances at conception? Could I take the pressure of only having one? Even more intense, I had my egg retrieval on that Saturday and then had to have surgery the following Thursday.  Only now, as I recall the timeline, do I fully appreciate all my body had to endure for me.

So, that Friday rolled around, and I was at Trax Farms, buying mums and pumpkins, when the embryologist from Magees called me. I was so nervous when I answered, I was physically shaking--not something I do often. With one of the most reassuring voices I've heard, she happily let me know we had a very strong little embryo that had survived the week and was ready to be frozen. I burst into tears when I got to the car and shared the news. I wasn't sure at the time whether the tears were the result of joy or sorrow. The prospect of a single shot at success terrified me, but there was this tiny spark inside of me that said it would be okay. We were still okay.

At this point, I resumed all I'd been doing to increase my chances of success for months. Eating extremely healthy, skipping any alcohol, exercising moderately, meditating, doing yoga, having acupuncture, praying my heart out and so on. I would have to return to Magees to get cleared from my surgery to be able to proceed with transfer. If something happened and I couldn't proceed in November, I would have had to wait until at least January because the lab closes for annual cleaning and inventory for the month of December. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but after two years of waiting away weeks of time, it seemed like I would crumble if I had to wait for the transfer. Thankfully, all went well with my recovery, and we were on track for a November transfer. 

Sunday, November 19

In Search of Life (Part I)

Tomorrow is a very special day for me. Last year, the Monday before Thanksgiving is when I received the amazing news that I was pregnant. I've thought a lot about what parts of this journey I want to share. In sharing, I hope that another woman who may be struggling to conceive may come across my story and find hope. Because what I know best from my experience is that hope can be impossible to find and sometimes tales from the Internet are the only salve for an aching and isolated soul. I spent countless nights reading and re-reading message boards and blogs focused on infertility, to the point that I had memorized many women's stories even though I had no idea who these women were. During this week of Thanksgiving, I'll tell my story because I cannot think of another thing I am more thankful to have taken the chance on and more thankful to have found the doctors, faith and support people I needed to come out the other side.

In December of 2014, I decided that I was going to begin my journey to motherhood. I was 32 years old and confident my biggest obstacle would be sorting out how to choose a male donor. I did that over the next several months and commenced artificial insemination attempts in May of 2015. I went through three of those unsuccessfully then was told I would need surgery before proceeding with another attempt. In the midst of these attempts, I scoured the cryobank for different donors. Surely the issue was with the donor and not me. I was healthy, in shape and still young. After surgery, we waited another couple of months and attempted artificial insemination for a fourth time. Again unsuccessful. A fifth time. Again unsuccessful. At this point, I decided to move my medical care to Pittsburgh and see what could be discovered there.

I cannot say enough for the care that I received at Magee-Women's Hospital at the Center for Fertility and Reproductive Endocrinology--particularly from Dr. Marie Menke and her team. I had to basically start from scratch and go through some testing, then we attempted my sixth artificial insemination in May of 2016. When this attempt failed, I decided to take a break and re-evaluate. To this point, I did not want to try IVF. I didn't want to feed my body the hormones, and I didn't want to chance it with the price tag. (To this point, I'd already spent thousands of dollars.) If I were to remain with Dr. Menke, that would have to be the next step.

I decided adoption would be a better route for me. After all, I didn't have to rely on my unreliable body that way. However, I soon discovered the many obstacles and challenges of trying to adopt as an untraditional parent (untraditional being defined here as not married to a man). I recall a conversation I had with a lady at the recommended adoption agency in the state of WV. She basically listened to my story and let me know that they had a waiting list of (traditional) couples and that they likely would not be the best fit for me because of my "situation"--funny because I thought my only situation to this point was that I could not conceive. Needless to say, I felt transported back to the Stone Age. This meant moving out of state, and I started down the path with a national agency only to find that their $13K price tag would only cover the very beginning of their search for me and each year that passed would carry more cost for the search to continue. I researched the foster care system but knew, living alone, I was not well equipped to handle any special needs situations. Unfortunately, many many of the foster to adopt opportunities include those due to skyrocketing drug and alcohol use. This suddenly seemed like the worse of the two options and my unreliable body started to seem more promising.