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We don’t talk about infertility until fertility treatments work. We breathe a sigh of relief for the couple when the news is positive and struggles that happened behind closed doors become public. “They’ve gone through so much. They deserve this.”

But what about those families that never find their happy ending? If we’ve developed a language to talk about infertility when it is no longer a sad story, we haven’t done the same when it persists, when infertility is the end of the journey and not just the middle.

I think about this as I tend to my garden. I watch my husband and wonder if it is the same for him as he carefully prunes his tomatoes. Does his desire to raise someone and help them thrive transfer to these plants we grew from seed? My need to nurture has been present in a thousand different ways in my life – in my career, where I help others tell their stories; with family, where I keep people together and fix problems; with friends, where I cheer their successes more than I cheer my own – and it is here, too, in this garden, where I murmur to the seedlings popping through the soil or the flower buds that take their time to open.

In the beginning, I talked about it more – what it felt like to try and try for a baby that never came. Sometimes we still joked about it, and we would laugh. The first injection my husband administered took 40 minutes, each of us alternating between hope and despair and fear of failure so that we couldn’t quite plunge the needle into my abdomen. After every treatment, our doctor encouraged us and friends held us as best they could. But the highs and lows were ours alone. Timed cycles, IUIs, an IVF cycle that was a failure before we had barely begun, when we had to abandon it before egg retrieval because my body wouldn’t respond to the daily injections and pills. Lows became lower, the lowest. A therapist helped me name the feeling: the deepest grief, even if it was for someone that never existed.

Friends and family who knew we were trying stopped asking, because what is there to say? Our lack of news said what we couldn’t, and we sunk deeper into a different state of aloneness. I realized at one point that it had been several weeks since I cried – a shock for someone who cries at airports and Tim Hortons’ commercials. Then one day, it took only an innocent and commonplace “How are you today?” from an unknowing grocery clerk to open the floodgates. Suddenly I couldn’t stop crying. Living became going through the motions and every perceived failure or rejection became an outsized commentary on my worth. I stopped showing up for myself and for the people around me.

“How are you doing today?” We are drowning. We are overwhelmed. We are here but we are not. I got out of bed today. Please save us. “We are okay. Excited for spring.”

I think about my dahlias. They are a flower from Mexico and to survive our cold Canadian winters, they must be dug out of the ground each fall and protected and cared for in exactly the right way so that next spring, they have their chance to bloom again. Underground, one tuber becomes many as they clone themselves over and over. Through the winter, I would head to our crawl space once a month and pull my tubers out of their sleeping place, carefully inspecting each of them for rot or mould, or to see if they were too dry. What do you need, my darlings? Is the air too warm? Are you thirsty? Sometimes they required a bit of surgery – cut off a bit of rot, dip the exposed tuber in cinnamon, leave it alone for 24 hours and it would be good as new. I wished the solution was that easy for my body.

When we started our fertility treatments, we talked about the parts we thought might be hardest: pregnancies that didn’t last or mounting costs; the emotional impact of a sustained process or having to be patient (for two perfectionists who have been able to fix anything by simply working harder or faster). We didn’t consider what it would mean if there was simply nothing – no answers, no progress, no pregnancies at all.

We were on vacation in Mexico City when our doctor delivered the hardest blow. There was a 5-per-cent chance we would ever be able to conceive, based on the trail of bread crumbs left by each subsequent attempt, each treatment. The 5 per cent felt like a fake promise. Nothing is ever guaranteed, not even this. There is always a margin of error. We ended our video call and headed to the botanical gardens at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The dahlia trees that grow there were in full bloom.

Back in Toronto, he catches me looking at him from under my hat. “What? Is everything okay?” He asks me this a lot these days.

“I love you,” I say. And it’s true, and I feel lucky. At the fertility clinic, we were told that our story often tears love apart. Here, in the deepest shadow, ours has grown.

I turn back to my dahlias, whispering encouragement to the little bud that has appeared.

Katherine Skene lives in Toronto.

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