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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

The first time my husband and I tried to conceive was in a barrel. We were on our honeymoon in the Douro Valley and staying at Quinta de Pacheca, which boasts 10 individual wine barrel rooms each outfitted with a tiny bathroom, air conditioning and a round bed. With grape vines undulating down the mountainside and olive trees blowing in the early-summer breeze, not to mention the glasses of port consumed, it was supremely romantic. Or so said my Instagram stories. In reality, I’d come down with a bad cold and pink eye, my body always failing me after moments of great excitement and great stress, i.e. our wedding.

Ever the planner, I’d been charting my period since we’d gotten engaged on New Year’s Day, and now, six months later, I knew I was ovulating. We were going to do it in our barrel bed, despite my worsening chest cough and my reddening eye. I’d put it off until morning, hoping I’d wake up feeling cured and sexy, but I did not. Still, it was time. Mike was packing his bag for our drive to Lisbon when I interrupted him by seducing him with my phlegmy cough.

“Uh, honey, maybe right now isn’t a good idea?” My new husband said, gently rejecting my advances. But I was having none of it. We were going to conceive our baby during our honeymoon in Portugal. It would make a great story, plus it lined up perfectly with my university-teaching schedule. We would just never the mention the fact he refused to put his face anywhere near mine during the process for fear of contagion.

For the rest of the trip, I took only sips of the Aperol spritzes I’d been inhaling, and once home I bought one of those expensive pregnancy tests that tell you you’re pregnant before you’ve even had sex. I peed onto it expectantly. To no one’s surprise but my own, Portugal had not made us pregnant.

Twenty months later, and my husband is not even in the same city while we try to conceive. He’s conducting an examination for discovery in a suburb and I’m sitting with my legs in stirrups, trying not to think about my full bladder. I could have asked him to take the day off and come with me, but he wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway because of COVID-19 protocol. I would be alone regardless the moment our embryo was placed inside me.

“This is a VERY full bladder,” the nurse says, as she presses down on it with an ultrasound wand and I try not to pee on the fertility doctor stationed at my vagina.

“Well you are 45 minutes late and told me to drink a litre of water,” I think.

There’s a TV screen mounted on the wall with a direct feed of the lab next door. It shows our embryo in a petri dish with my name on it being sucked up into a pipette by the lab technician.

“Oh, careful, don’t crush it,” I say to myself. They may just be cells, but I am willing them to become a chubby, little baby, with my red hair and ambition and Mike’s height and calm demeanour. I’d even take a baby with my thighs and impatience and Mike’s hairy back and bad time-management skills.

The technician comes into the room and hands the tube to my doctor. I feel nothing as the catheter is threaded inside me. I watch on the ultrasound screen. There’s a small whoosh – and the embryo is out and placed snuggly into my uterus.

My mom is waiting for me at the elevator of the fertility clinic. My bladder is still throbbing from the fullness, but you can’t pee out your baby, I’ve been told. Because I’ve asked. She ushers me into her car and takes me back home where she brings me snacks and puts on Netflix, doting on me as if I’m still her little girl home sick from school.

Mike phones as soon as he gets a break.

“How did it go? How are you feeling?” he asks expectantly.

They say infertility is hard on a marriage, but it’s brought us closer. Sure, sex is intimate, but have you tried an intramuscular butt injection? You know you’ve married a good person when he watches the YouTube injection tutorial more than once, then carefully divides your butt cheek into quadrants in hopes of not hitting a major nerve. At the beginning he would stop every time I exhaled in pain, which made the progesterone shots infinitely worse. Now he’s learned my cues enough to know to push through until it’s done. Kinky, right?

It was also over the phone a few months back when I told Mike I’d be miscarrying the pregnancy we’d just confirmed. A nurse had phoned me with the news that the hormones in my blood had dropped since my first test a week earlier. It wouldn’t be a viable pregnancy. He came home from the office immediately, stalwart and strong, and held me as I sobbed.

“How are you so strong right now?” I’d asked him that night. “Aren’t you gutted, too?”

He told me he’d cried the entire drive home, to get it out, so he could be there for me. It might not have been a barrel hotel in the Douro Valley, and it certainly wasn’t a good conception story, but it was the most romantic moment of our young marriage.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney lives in Vancouver.

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