Renovating Memory Lane

The builder has started work on my childhood home. The place is ancient, sagging, tumbling down. A ramshackle pile.

Dave and I spent last Saturday, in blazing heat, moving the entire contents into storage. Thankfully, my Mum had carefully wrapped and packed all her china and ornaments and keepsakes, so I wasn’t caught up in reminiscing. That is, until I found my Bunnykins mug in the kitchen cupboard. I remember sitting up at the old kitchen table, being finally old enough to use my precious china cup. I was given a weak, luke-warm tea and as I sipped I felt so special. I must have been 4 or 5.

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The next day, with the packing all done and the house empty for the first time in more than 50 years, I took my Mum around to visit. She wandered the rooms, stopping and starting, touching the walls, staring along the hallway. She was full of emotion, and didn’t say much. What is there to say, really? At 81, the majority of her life was spent in this house. She and my father moved two toddlers into this house in the early 1960s, and then a newborn surprise almost a decade later. They raised us there, in the tiny old cottage, with much love, hardship and grief, and then grew old there. This house is part of the fabric of our family. There are bits of us all here, and we all bear the imprint of this house.

She’ll go back to the house when it’s all fixed up and fancy, but it will be different, and at 81, difference is not often easy. She could walk those halls blindfolded and not miss a beat, knowing every creak of the floorboards and groan of the walls shrinking and moving at night after the heat of the day. She can lay her hands on every light switch, all original giant black switches without looking. Except the morning the hospital rang to say my Dad had died. That morning she reached for the light switch and couldn’t find it; knowing what that phone call would be made her lose all sense of what she knew.

That’s not to say she’s not excited about her new, old house. She asks all the time about paint colours, and where cupboards will be and where her favourite chair might sit. She looks at furniture catalogues and picks out things that might replace the things she sent to charity. She can’t wait to be back, surrounded by her neighbours, holding court from her remodeled palace. In the meantime she’s living with us, keeping our house tidier than it’s ever been before or will be again, and ensuring that our pets all get equal amounts of time sitting on her lap.

Apart from my Bunnykins mug, I’ve only taken one souvenir from the old house. In one of those nobody really knows why kind of stories, what was originally the front door became the bathroom door sometime in the 1960s. One of my earliest memories is of the ornate door knob on the bathroom door; I remember spending hours gazing at its sparking, faceted beauty. It was such a fascinating anomaly in our bare-bones, basic house, so I asked our builder to save it for me before the demolition started. He handed it to me this morning, and its heaviness in my hand was a surprise, and a comfort. For all the stress and cost of this project, it feels very, very right.

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The Reason for the Season

If you’ve been reading Boob in a Box for long enough, you won’t be surprised by me telling you that I’m an atheist who loves Christmas. Whilst the festive season holds no religious significance for me, I love this time of year because it’s all about family, friends, food and festivity. (As an aside, I am now wondering why it is that all my favourite words start with ‘f’? Fuck knows.)

The past few years, Christmas has offered up a mixed bag of blessings .. and other stuff. December 2012 I was in the middle of chemo, so spent Christmas Day bald, sweaty and unable to eat the fresh prawns on offer. My beautiful friend Kylie flew in from interstate and wrapped all Hugh’s Christmas presents while I lay in bed. I  resisted all offers to help make Christmas lunch, and once it was on the table collapsed into a chair from which I was, quite literally, unable to move for several hours. The following year we flew to beautiful Vanuatu the week before Christmas to mark the end of a very difficult year, and I remember flying home on Christmas Eve feeling like maybe, just maybe, I had some life ahead of me. In 2014 we had a pre-Christmas holiday in Thailand, sweating our arses off (not literally, unfortunately) and last year we did a driving holiday, ending up in Dave’s tiny hometown for Christmas.

This year we will be at home, where we are hosting extended family for a huge lunch. I am obsessed with food (see also: arse) and love searching for recipes, menu planning, preparing and cooking. For those playing along at home, on Sunday we’ll be having port and cranberry marinated turkey with sausage and parsnip stuffing, apricot glazed ham, beef Wellington with Madeira gravy, potatoes roasted in duck fat and various salads. For dessert I’m making a berry pavlova, after which I plan to stretch myself out under a shady tree and reflect on the year that was 2016.

First and foremost in my mind will be nine kids who this year lost their mums. I’ll be thinking about gorgeous little chubby-cheeked Jenny, who lost her mum Nat. I’ll be thinking about four beautiful kids – Piper, Matilda, Violet and Isaac – who lost their mum Antoinette. I’ll be thinking about Dakota, Indi, Tana and Georgie who today will attend the funeral of their mum Jules. And then I’ll look at my boy Hugh, who will, if Santa has gotten the many messages, be playing with a brand new Nintendo DS, and think about just how very, very fortunate we both are. I have been allowed to be a mother for four years since my diagnosis; I’ve seen Hugh start school (Jenny and Issac will both do that without their mums), I’ve travelled to different countries with my boy (something Jules so desperately wanted to do with her girls), I’ve seen him learn to read music, perfect his tennis backhand, be awarded certificates at school. I’ve prepared the same sandwich for his school lunch every single day, filled in excursion forms, checked his homework, held a bucket while he vomited, listened to his endless (and often tedious stories) about Pokemon, made birthday cakes, made beds, made friends with school mums for the purposes of play dates. I have lived the routine, and often monotonous, privilege that is denied to many. This Sunday, I am determined to take a quiet moment to be thankful, truly thankful, for this privilege.

Whatever your reason for the season, from me and my Boob in a Box, Merry Christmas.

 

 

Tin

Sitting our kitchen bench is this tin:

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Although it’s the festive season, this not a Christmas decoration. It actually sits on the bench all year, with its manky bit of peeling of sticky tape on the side and rust around the top. It’s filled with plastic bags, bank deposit receipts, $5 notes and assorted coinage.

Dave had the tin when we met, and it’s been a part of my life ever since. It’s ugly, it gets in the way, and it annoys me greatly that there’s a Christmas-themed item on our bench all year round. A couple of times I’ve tried relocating it, but it always ends up back on the bench.

As much as the tin gives me the irrits, it’s also really handy. Every time I realise I don’t have any money in my purse for Hugh’s tuckshop/excursion/gold coin donation I raid the tin. Every time I forget that the cleaners are coming and I’m $10 short to pay them, I raid the tin. Every time I’m going into town and know I’ll need money for parking, I raid the tin. The tin always has money in it because at the end of each day, Dave puts all his $5 notes and change into it. Every so often every he bags the cash up and banks it, but he always leaves something in the tin.

Today is our 10th wedding anniversary, for which the traditional symbol is tin. And it occurred to me this morning that, for all its ordinary-ness, this tin that sits on our kitchen bench is the perfect symbol of what Dave means to me. Like the tin, Dave’s always within easy reach and always has just what I need, just when I need it. He is practical, unassuming, but incredibly important. I  may take him for granted, but I am eternally grateful that Dave (and his tin) are central to my life. On a daily basis, without Dave (and his tin), I would be lost.

Happy Tin Anniversary, honey. I love you more than words can say.

 

Ago

Four years ago, I was about to start chemo for the first time. In so many aspects, my life has moved on from that awful point. I am doing well professionally, my boy is now 8 years old and thriving in school, and Dave has graduated and is just about to finish his second year working as a teacher. As a family we’ve been on two overseas holidays, we’ve gone camping, to the outback and to the beach. We’ve driven thousands of kilometres through country towns and spent time in big cities. My Dad died and we’ve bought my family home and are embarking on an enormous renovation project. I’ve connected with some new friends, disconnected with some old ones and stayed beautifully bonded to others. I’ve started this blog, kept at it, bared my soul and my empty right chest, and had the privilege of sharing so many stories.

But for all that moving on and living of life, a part of me remains back there on November 18, 2012. That day before I started chemo, I thought I was prepared. But the thing is, there is nothing that can prepare you for the physical and mental assault of chemotherapy. In the days after my first infusion, I searched our house high and low to try and ascertain where the bad smell I could smell was coming from. I asked everyone who came to the house to try and locate it, until one evening as I was about to get into the shower, I realised the smell was coming from me. I was being poisoned – essentially, that’s what chemotherapy is – and what I could smell was the chemicals attacking my body. It was an incredibly confronting moment, that was the first of many such moments. Hair falling out, feet and hands losing sensation, mind (quite literally at times) going blank. Pain thresholds met and then broken through. Patience and reason gone, sanity on the brink. Constant thoughts of death, withdrawal from loved ones initiated to spare them the pain. My mother commented only recently how quiet I had been during my treatment. Quiet is perhaps the exact opposite of my normal state, but in the vice grip of taxotere, doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide, my usual roar was dulled to a whisper.

I’m loud again now, no doubt, but in a different way. There’s a hollowness to my voice which perhaps only I can hear. I live life with as much gusto as my depleted body can manage, but the pain makes me whimper. I laugh, a lot, but my deepest guffaws are at the blackest of humour. Death is deeply funny, being one breasted and scarred is hilarious in the extreme. My experience of living on the edge of being alive has made me unforgiving of so much, and yet more vulnerable than I care to contemplate. I know what is precious, have seen it in such sharp focus, yet the very reason I know is the reason I loosened my grip on it. 

The words I wrote four years ago have never rung more true.

First round of chemo tomorrow. I think this is where I get to say fuck you stupid cancer.

Not Just 1 in 8

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I’ve written this post in support of Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA). BCNA is the peak national organisation for Australians affected by breast cancer, and consists of a network of more than 110,000 members and 300 member groups. When I was diagnosed, BCNA provided me with so much support via resources, information and understanding. It’s wonderful to have a chance to shine al light on the work BCNA does.

 

 

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month in Australia, and also the month in which I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Within a week of my surgery, I had been contacted by the BCNA who sent me one of their amazing My Journey Kits, and information about how to join their online forums. It was then I started to realise that I wasn’t alone, and that this amazing group would be with me, whenever I needed them, every step of the way.

The risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is 1 in 8 for women in Australia. It is estimated that in 2016, 15,934 women and 150 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Approximately 43 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every day this year. The statistics are frightening. Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women. But the numbers don’t tell the story. Each of us with such a diagnosis is an individual. We are mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends. We are professionals, carers, sporty types, brainiacs, crafters. We speak English, other languages, do sign language. We walk, we run, we hike, we wheel. Our experience of cancer will vary, but we are tied together by a common thread: breast cancer does not discriminate. There are so many women with so many stories.  We are 1 in 8, but not just 1 in 8.

As I sat in my oncologist’s office yesterday waiting to get the results of my mammogram and ultrasound, I tried to focus on not being just 1 in 8 – I reminded myself that I am not, and have never been, just the sum of my statistics. And true to my form thus far, despite being given a 50% chance of not being alive at this point in time, I was given the all clear for another year.

This past month I was also asked to speak (in a pre-recorded video) as part of a symposium called Empowering Women Through Adversity. At first I was a bit taken aback by being asked – after all, I am just a middle-aged, part-time blogger who swears too much – and I was being asked to speak alongside the Executive Director, UN Women and the Director, National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, Office of the Chief of the Defence Force! I mean seriously, what the actual fuck?! And then I remembered. Four years ago I felt powerless. Stricken with fear, grief and pain. Lost and broken, crying every night after I put my four year old to bed – big, fat, anguished tears as I felt my grip on my world slipping away. But I gradually got it back, grasped the remaining shards of my life in my distinctly unfeminine man hands and stuck them back together as best I could. I reinvented the bits of my life that were beyond repair, and accepted that other bits were neither reparable nor replaceable. Without even realising it, I had empowered myself through my own adversity.

Here’s me, talking about being not just 1 in 8:

Fertility Friday: A Long Story

Fertility Friday started out as a bit of a half-baked idea, but it has grown into something very, very special. When I started the series I contacted a few women who I knew had stories to tell. One of them was Viv; I contacted her with some hesitation because I knew her story would be incredibly painful for her to relive. Viv told me she would think about it, and as the weeks passed and I didn’t hear from her, I thought that she had decided – understandably – that she wasn’t able to share her story. Then, last week, out of the blue her story landed in my inbox. It is a story of incredible love and unimaginable loss, told with humour and grace. Viv, you are an amazing, courageous woman. On behalf of everyone who reads your story, thank you.

This is going to be a long story …

After meeting my Mr Right at 34, we decided to start trying for a baby after about eight months. Given my advanced age and all we thought maybe sooner would be better, just-in-case. Well, Justin proved to be a bit of a bastard. After trying for six months without success, we decided to go and get checked out. Turns out I had a fibroid the size of a grapefruit, which wasn’t exactly helping the whole process, so out it came… Once all that was over we went back to the specialist for a review to be told that if we wanted to have a baby then IVF was our only option. BUT, we should still take contraception, just-in-case.

At that point were undecided about how we felt about IVF, and in the end we just figured that a baby wasn’t in the plan for us… so I went and bought a motorcycle. It was a Triumph America, 960cc motor, and as comfy as a lounge chair, and we made a plan to ride (my husband was a veteran motorcycle rider as well) down to Melbourne for the October 2010 Moto GP at Phillip Island. We made five-star bookings at all the wineries we fancied all the way down to Victoria, and then a week before we were due to leave, it suddenly dawned on me that my period was late. So I peed on a stick, and lo and behold, it was positive. We were so shocked that we got on our bikes and took a ride to the country for breakfast. On the way home we made a pit stop at the pharmacy and bought more pregnancy tests, as you do, just-in-case (you gotta love Justin) we got it wrong the first time. Needless to say, the motorcycle was summarily parked, the winery trips were cancelled, and I flew to Melbourne as my husband rode past fields of yellow canola.

We welcomed our little Thomas on 24 May 2011 with a kiss, and whilst the obstetrician sewed me up standing on a box (he was a little on the short side), we were told that Thomas had Down Syndrome. The nuchal scan and blood tests done at the 13 week point in the pregnancy gave us a 1 in 400 chance of Down Syndrome, but nonetheless it was still a surprise.

As Thomas blossomed we started thinking about another little one because we didn’t want Thomas to be an only child. For a while I was plagued with ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ nightmares in that I was afraid that I wanted another baby for the wrong reasons (I’m a bit of an overthinker…).  Anyway, ultimately we decided to give it a go, so back for fertility advice we went, and the Clomid merry-go-round and IUI started. So did the detailed plotting of my husband’s murder, much to my angst. After a few months of the hormonal and emotional roller coaster we decided to give it a rest for the last couple of months of the year, and lo and behold, we fell pregnant in January 2013. Back to the obstetrician we trotted and, in utter surprise, he asked ‘how did that happen??’

12 weeks came and went and all was going well until our morphology scan. We found out that our baby had a diaphragmatic hernia that meant her stomach was in her chest cavity, which was causing her heart was pushed over to the right side and to not be developing properly. This in itself wasn’t a total kidney in an esky, but after an MRI at 26 weeks we learnt that there was a bigger issue with her heart than originally thought, in that there was a break in the aorta. The ‘not a kidney in an esky’ situation suddenly changed, but we needed to wait until they could do a chest ultrasound after her delivery to know for sure. Then decisions would be made as to what to do about the hernia in her diaphragm. Regardless, we remained hopeful that the situation wasn’t as dire as all that. At 32 weeks we moved two hours from our home into Ronald McDonald House at the Mater Mother’s hospital in Brisbane, and our Bailey was delivered on 22 October 2013. Immediately, Bailey was taken to the neonatal unit and I was summarily dispatched to the ward after hearing that she was doing better than expected (oh the relief…). The following day we met with the team of specialists who told us that her aorta was intact. Oh thank God… the relief… and then they told us that there was a problem with her mitral valve, and they could do nothing to fix her. And so we had to make the decision that no parent should ever have to, and we kissed her good-bye on the morning of 25 October 2013.

Shortly after, we heard about a legendary fertility specialist by the name of Dr Warren de Ambrosis… so I called in November 2013 and burst into tears on the phone when they told me that they couldn’t fit me in until July 2014. I’m not sure whether it was out of ‘Ohmigod there’sahystericalwomanonthephone’ pity or what, but they managed to squeeze me in around March. And so the IVF journey commenced… After two egg collections, a few failed cycles and countless self-administered injections of blood thinners, growth hormones, cycle suppressants, ovulation stimulants, blood circulation pads, pills etc, we still weren’t fortunate to have any viable embryos after PGD (pre-implantation genetic testing) was carried out.

After the last round of disappointing news, sitting at the dining table with my step-niece, I told her that I thought that the most challenging thing in life was having to accept that there are some things that you just can’t change, no matter how determined you are and how much you try, and I told her what had happened. With tears pouring down both our faces she offered to donate her eggs to help us given that she didn’t want kids herself. Well, that was Thursday morning, and needless to say, we didn’t need much convincing. By lunch time Thursday I had an appointment for her to see Warren de Ambrosis on the Friday (thank you G20 summit for freeing up all the appointments!) at which time he tried to convince my niece to get her mates together for an egg donation party. We then had an appointment with Queensland Fertility Group and a counsellor the following Monday. She then flew to Melbourne on Tuesday to start a new job with a bag full of IVF drugs. Her new employer was, incidentally, a fertility endocrinologist. After a few months she decided to move back to Queensland and got a job in Brisbane, about 5km from Warren’s offices, so things became a little easier for us.

At the end of February 2015 she had her first egg collection, and we ended up with two viable embryos after another round of PGD, and managed to finally arrange a transfer of the embryo. Well, needless to say I was howling after that, all the way through the shot of drambui I had been instructed to bring along to the procedure. A week later we got the news… the embryo had taken. Wow… Warren’s referral to my obstetrician of choice was a one liner – ‘She beat the odds’.

The pregnancy progressed but was fraught with tension and concern, and a lot of bleeding in the first trimester. Second trimester I lost two-thirds of my hair, so much so that I was convinced it was all going to fall out! The morphology scan was fine, but the worry was still persisting, even though we had a scan every month.

On the morning of 17 November 2015 we dropped Thomas at kindy. My parents in-law were kind enough to come and stay in our home with our son so that we could make our way to Brisbane’s Mater Mothers’ Hospital (the Fetal Medicine Unit had been caring for us through the pregnancy and we were fortunate to have the head of FMU as our obstetrician). I cried all the way to Brisbane, I’m not sure if it was because I was leaving Thomas or if I was terrified…

By mid-afternoon on 17 November 2015 we were crying lots, and kissing and cuddling our little Shelby, which we have continued to do for nearly 11 months, along with a few ‘OMG what’s in your mouth’ statements lately. She loves her bother to distraction, along with his trucks, legos and his glasses (much to his pain and grief), and I’m pretty sure he loves her too. But the gift in the middle will always be missed, and will never be forgotten…

Fertility Friday: Trainee Mama

Today’s Fertility Friday post is from Peta, who blogs at Trainee Mama. I knew Peta a little bit through our day-job work before she had kids, but over recent years have kept track of her via her Facebook page and blog. Although she calls herself Trainee Mama, I don’t think the name fits anymore – a trainee could not possibly manage three kids under three as well as Peta does!!

My fertility journey started, not because I had the desperate burning desire to have kids, but instead on a referral from a GP after a puzzling pain which we were trying to establish the cause of. I mean, we were at that stage in our life where we’d been married for a couple of years, had done some travelling and were comfortable financially, so we sort of just assumed the natural progression would be to the next chapter in our story – kids.

Even though I hadn’t made an appointment with the specialist to get pregnant, he did ask if we were trying. At that stage we had been actively trying, but at nearly 30 years of age I of course knew about the birds and the bees but didn’t really know about how it all worked with things like ovulation. I didn’t think it was that abnormal that all of the theory says a period cycle is 28 days and mine was on average around 33 days. To be honest I really didn’t even know about the small window someone with a regular cycle has to get pregnant. Obviously, someone with a longer cycle has even less opportunity. The doctor performed an internal ultrasound and some questioning around my cycle revealed that perhaps I might need some help in getting pregnant.

Day surgery was scheduled to properly check out my reproductive organs and see if I had any ovarian cysts, but it revealed no evidence and as such, the doctor flushed my tubes just in case there was a blockage. My husband was also tested and although he had no problems with the amount of competitors in the swimming race, the quality of competition wasn’t overly fantastic.

So at 29 years of age {my doctor advised that fertility for women decreases after 25 }, the recommended plan was to trial letrozole – medication to regulate my cycle and know exactly when I was ovulating to increase chances of falling pregnant.

First month was one tablet for five days at the appropriate time in my cycle and blood tests to confirm that the medication was doing what it was supposed to be doing. The medication worked for day 14 ovulation as planned but I did not fall pregnant.

We repeated the same dose for month two and again, did not fall pregnant.

Month three the dose was doubled but my enthusiasm, ironically, halved. I was unconvinced that the medication would work and on the verge of our fourth month of treatment I was at the chemist ready to fill my script for the medication and for some reason took a pregnancy test in the toilet of the medical centre … and it was positive. I couldn’t quite believe it and still filled the script anyway.

I took a further five tests over the following hour and days and there was no denying the pregnancy.

The pregnancy was easy and after a relatively straight forward {but long} labour, we welcomed Ned into the world in August 2013. You can read his birth story here.

Fast forward a couple of years and we started trying again, medication-free and with a good deal of scepticism on my behalf. I wasn’t desperate to have another baby – we both just agreed that we didn’t want Ned be an only child. Again, after months of trying I made an appointment with a fertility specialist (a new one, since we had moved since Ned’s conception) and explained my story and that letrozole had assisted us to get pregnant with Ned.

The doctor performed an internal ultrasound that day and asked me if I’d ever heard of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. I had heard of it but didn’t really know anything about it. The doctor and nurse explained the symptoms but the only one obvious to my scenario was the menstrual cycle length. He also mentioned something about large ‘follicles’ and at the time that sort of medical jargon just flew over my head without a thought. The doctor agreed to prescribe the medication, with the double dose from the get go.

First month, nothing.

Second month, nothing.

Third month, I forgot to take the tablets and fell pregnant naturally only to lose the baby early on.

Two months or so later we had a family holiday – a week in Perth visiting one of my best friends and then a cruise from Perth to Brisbane. About half way through the cruise I started to feel really nauseous and was not at all interested in food – or wine for that matter. I immediately knew I was pregnant and started to get excited at the prospect of having a girl as I wasn’t sick at all with Ned so surely it must be a girl, right? I took a pregnancy test at Port Douglas on one of our land days and it was confirmed. Given the previous miscarriage it was difficult to get excited so I remained kind of neutral about the situation for quite a few weeks.

The 13 week ultrasound was booked and thankfully I’d mostly gotten over the all-day nausea and inability to eat. As I lay on the bed ready to have the baby checked, the sonographer muttered ‘oh’ and immediately I knew it was twins. We’d forgotten that our first doctor mentioned the risk of multiples when ovulation drugs are used, and I suppose because Ned was a single I never even gave it a thought. You can read more about us finding out here. You see those large follicles {probably from having some form of PCOS} with any sort of stimulation {the letrozole} greatly increased the chance of multiples and well … suffice to say, in June 2016 we welcomed our daughters Frankie and Evie into the world. You can read their birth story here.

Some days I feel guilty when the madness of three young kids overwhelms me and I wonder if I’m cut out for the job when there are so many people out there desperate for the sleepless nights, the tantrums, the messy house and the baby brain. Trust me though, I really do appreciate this wonderful gift and only wish all people who wanted to become parents could.

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Fertility Friday: Me

This week’s Fertility Friday story is mine. I wrote this in February 2015. It made me sad then, and it makes me sad now. I think it will always make me sad. I believe I have come to terms with having cancer, but I don’t think I will ever be able to fully come to terms with the loss and despair that miscarriage and infertility bring. I’ve learned to live with it though, which is I guess what every single one of us who’ve shared our Fertility Friday stories has to do.

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Fertility Friday: Unplanned

It’s Fertility Friday once again. I cannot tell you how much I am loving reading and sharing these amazing stories. I really do have the privilege of knowing some truly amazing women. This post is by Heather, who I met through my online cancer support group. We share a dry sense of humour and a love of animals and our kids (not necessarily in that order). I am so grateful to Heather for opening herself up to share this post – she has been so honest and I think her words will resonate with many of us.

Have you ever felt your heart break?  I always thought it would make a cracking sound, like the snap of a dried twig underfoot or the sound a palm leaf makes when it falls from the tree.  It doesn’t.  It happens with a thud.  The same kind of thud you hear when a kangaroo bounces of your speeding car.  That kind of thud that you can not only hear, but feel, in every nerve ending, every hair follicle.  It makes you shiver.

My husband and I have a wonderful life together.  We are both incredibly in tune with one another.  We like the same things, laugh at the same things and generally think the same thoughts.  When we married 21 years ago we didn’t really think about children, ever.  The only time the topic came up was when well-meaning friends and family would enquire as to when we would be expanding our family.  There is some unwritten law that opens the most intimate details of your relationship to general discussion once you sign a marriage certificate.  The other thing we didn’t realise was that with each year of ownership of said certificate, the pressure to actually undertake the expansion would increase beyond bearable limits.  Children were not on our agenda.  We were happy in each other’s company and the only family planning we did was to add a couple of dogs and a cat to our household.  And besides, we were really bad planners.  Preferring to saunter along and allow life to decide where it would take us next.  We liked this relaxed way of life, the randomness seemed to make sense, seemed to work for us.

About a year into our marriage we found out we were pregnant.  We hadn’t planned this, we don’t plan.  In fact we had invested quite a bit of time and money ensuring that this didn’t happen.  It took us by surprise as we had never talked about children and really hadn’t thought too hard about the whole issue.   I had recently taken a redundancy package from work and was procrastinating over my future, self employment versus regular employment.  The pregnancy made me ill, violently ill.  I could barely drag myself out of bed and spent the best part of my days becoming intimately connected with the bath room.  We talked about what we should do.  My husband had never really shown any interest in children and I had just assumed that he wasn’t interested in procreating.  I had thought about it, perhaps too much, and I was terrified of the responsibilities associated with parenthood.  I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s physical and psychological development and I was certain that any child of mine would grow up to be a very proficient serial killer, or worse, due to my bad parenting skills. That scared me.

I was kind of surprised when my husband suggested that we could do this, we could become parents.  I immediately stocked up on baby books and in my usual fashion, began researching the topic.  I felt disconnected from the information in the books.  I didn’t have the warm, nurturing feelings that the books suggested I should have.  I wasn’t overjoyed by the miracle of birth.   I was now even more scared.  Scared and sick.  I don’t know if I was just incredibly selfish, but I didn’t want to share my home and my husband with anyone else.  I didn’t want an intruder introducing chaos into my perfect little world.  We decided to terminate the pregnancy.  I felt relief that this problem would be solved and we could move on with our life, together.  I booked into a clinic, and went to my appointment alone.  It didn’t seem important enough to insist that my husband miss work, just another doctor’s appointment.  Minutes after the procedure, I stopped feeling sick.  A great wave of relief came over me.  I was happy again.  The clinic counsellor wanted to talk, I didn’t.  I felt like a great weight had lifted and I practically skipped out of the clinic.

Of course, the questions about children continued to come up.  When people asked when we were having children we started replying with “we can’t”.  This seemed an effective manner of ending the questioning in the longer term.  The irony of this is not lost on me now.

We decided to move to warmer climes.  Again, we didn’t really plan.  My husband applied for a couple of jobs at various locations on the Queensland coast and secured a job in Central Queensland.  We had two weeks to give notice to our present employers, pack up the house and put it on the market, farewell our families and travel, with our two sizeable dogs, the 1700kms to our new home.  A little planning might have saved a bit of angst but people who don’t plan are remarkably adaptable and we got there in time for my husband to begin work.

We established a new life, made new friends, bought a new house, I found a new job.  The country lifestyle took a bit of getting used to but the informality of our new environs suited us to a tee.  We resumed our cruise through life.

I don’t know when it happened but we started talking more and more about adding to our family.  I rescued a poor, forlorn kitten from a pet shop, but the conversations continued.  Perhaps country life was just too relaxed and we were looking to shake things up a bit, anyway, we decided that we should have a child.  We stopped using birth control and waited for our baby to join us.  No ovulation tracking or temperature charts for us, we had done this before, without even trying, so we just had to sit back and wait for the waves of nausea to arrive.

I don’t know when we recognised that something might be wrong.  People who don’t plan don’t keep timelines.  I remember that I was approaching my 38th birthday and thought that maybe it was about time we sought a professional opinion.  I rang the local Fertility Clinic and was provided with enough information to get started.  I forgot about it for a few months and eventually set about obtaining the mandatory referral from my GP.  Having had the referral for about 5 months I finally telephoned and made an appointment with the Fertility Specialist.  I dropped the referral into the clinic only to be told that my GP, a rather eccentric old gent, had made the referral out to a non existent clinic, hadn’t included my husband and the sole content of the letter read “please help my patient to get pregnant”.  I laughed.  The clinic receptionist, not so much.  At least I had an appointment with the specialist and a deadline to produce a new referral.  I can work with deadlines.  People who don’t plan need deadlines, it helps to get things done.

I had never really felt a sense of urgency about the whole baby thing.  I am not sure if it is because people who don’t plan really don’t get those feelings or if I didn’t foresee any problems.  That was until I met my fertility specialist.  It was December.  I was basking in the glory of summer, the holidays were nearly upon us, life was good.  The specialist organised some immediate tests for us both and told me to come in for some further testing at the beginning of my next cycle.  It didn’t matter to him that this was likely to be during the holidays, it just needed to be done.  I was surprised by this and marvelled at his dedication to his craft.  I hadn’t caught on.  I undertook the required tests over the holidays and he scheduled some exploratory surgery that week.  Again, I failed to catch the urgency and praised the hospital for their standard of customer service and their speed in being able to organise this so quickly.  The surgery and the tests determined that we had unexplained infertility.  Nothing obvious was preventing us from getting pregnant.  We celebrated our victory and determined that we would only require some minor assistance from our specialist.  Our specialist had other ideas, due to my advanced years and my quickly declining fertility, we would begin our first IVF treatment in three weeks.  Now I began to panic.

We embarked on the first cycle full of hope and excitement.  The clinic gave me a schedule.  I liked this.  They did all the planning, I just had to follow it.  Nasal spray of one hormone, injections of another, scans, blood tests and finally we were ready to harvest the eggs we had been nurturing.  With step one over we just had to wait to see if my husband’s contribution would get us to step two, fertilisation.  While waiting for the clinic to telephone the results through I realised, to my surprise, how emotionally involved I was in the whole process and that the results really mattered to me.  I don’t think I was trying to protect myself from likely disappointment, I guess I just hadn’t thought too much about it.  I hadn’t planned.  The eggs became embryos, started growing like mad and were returned to their place of origin a couple of days later.  Life returned to normal and in two weeks’ time we would find out if all our hard work had had produced the desired result, a pregnancy.  It didn’t.  We were disappointed but recognising early that IVF rarely works first time, we were able to quickly move on.

We couldn’t wait to start round two.  More schedules, more hormones and this time our response was too good and we lost the best eggs before the surgery.  We only had one, very poor quality embryo to put back and as expected a negative result.

When we started on the IVF journey we decided that we would complete three cycles only.  If that didn’t work out, at least we could say we gave it our best shot.  The figure was quite random, not based on statistics or anything scientific.  Not that well planned.  It just seemed like a good number.  Approaching round three we realised how important having a child had become to us.

The third cycle was a dream.  We had record numbers of eggs collected.  We began to hope.  Not so great fertilisation rate but hey, we still had plenty of eggs to work with.  Our scientist told us we had two great looking embryos to put back and we even managed some leftovers to pop in the freezer for use at a later date.  Hope became a part of our day, our dream of parenthood a very real possibility.

I remember the exact moment that my heart broke.  I was standing on the verandah, soaking up the sunshine when I felt the all too familiar cramping sensation in my gut.  Our hope disintegrated like the rusted machinery littering the farms on the outskirts of town.

Our three cycle limit quickly became four cycles. We said adios to our regional clinic and organised an appointment with a clinic in Sydney. The clinic had the best labs in the country and very high success rates. It was going to break us financially but we had to try. IVF had become a way of life, an obsession.

The fertility specialist wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as we were and explained that for a woman my age, the success rate was less than two percent. The specialist decided to monitor my FSH levels and if there was a month where they were low, we would push ahead. He agreed to one cycle only as I guess he had stats to maintain that wouldn’t benefit from hopeless cases undertaking repeated cycles. Month after month, my FSH levels were high. Our sense of urgency was not felt by my specialist. Finally, after realising that my FSH levels were only going to continue to rise and that I wasn’t going to go away, he agreed to proceed with our one cycle.

The experience was completely different to my experience with a regional IVF clinic. I was heavily monitored, blood tests and ultrasounds every few days until finally I found myself in Sydney with ten perfect eggs. These miraculously turned into seven perfect embryos and then five perfect blastocysts. Not bad for an old chick. The specialist was stunned, I was smug.

I returned to country Queensland with two embryos on board. Just over a week later, a home pregnancy test delivered the news we had dreamed about for what seemed like an eternity. We were pregnant. Many months of angst finally saw us with a healthy baby boy who was so, so wanted and so incredibly loved. Life was finally perfect and we both felt complete.

My obstetrician, at my post birth follow up appointment, ask me what type of contraception I would like. I snorted while reminding him of the lengths we had gone to to make our family. He apologised for asking.

I remember standing in a queue at the checkout in Target, my gorgeous 7 month old baby in the pram beside me taking in the surrounds. Someone tried to push in front of me and the checkout operator shoo’d her away and proceeded to serve me. I burst into tears, hurriedly completed my purchase and retreated home all the while pondering this weird emotional outburst. A pregnancy test revealed that I was a hormonal mess and that I was, in fact, 5 weeks pregnant. Our lack of planning in this instance turned out to be a wonderful surprise in the form of a gorgeous baby girl.

I have many regrets about our lack of planning. About our seemingly appalling decision making capabilities. About the length of time we waited to form a family. I do however feel extremely grateful for the people and the science that helped us get here. These days, my heart may feel a little weary but it is whole again, it is full. I feel extremely lucky.

heathers-kids

Fertility Friday: Surprise!

The term ‘superwoman’ is very much overused these days, but I actually know someone who the term accurately describes. Ann-Maree has a husband and four kids, a professional career, and also manages to serve as treasurer on our school P&C as well as volunteering for pretty much everything going. She is one of those quiet achievers who makes a huge difference to the world with her energy and enthusiasm. As soon as Ann-Maree told me the story about how her youngest son came to be, I knew that other people would be as amazed by it as I was, and I was so pleased that she agreed to share it here as part of the Fertility Friday series.

My story about fertility is a little different. In 2015, I was a proud mum to three wonderful children aged 14, 12 and 7. I was in my early 40’s and happily married and the last thing on my mind was having another baby. For a few years, my husband  had said we should have another and my son always said that he wanted a baby brother, but I always said that there was no chance that I was having anymore.

In February 2015, I became very ill with constant vomiting and bloating. I went to my doctor who did a few tests which were positive for the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers. Apparently stomach ulcers can cause bloating as well as sickness, so it made sense. The doctor prescribed some very strong antibiotics which involved taking eight antibiotic tablets a day for seven days. The doctor told me that they would knock me flat and sure enough they did. The first day I vomited so much I couldn’t get out of bed. Over the next few days I continued to be bedridden and my children sat beside my bed with a bucket they named Chucky. Everywhere I went they made me take my new friend Chucky with me. After the seven days I started to feel better but still had the bloating and certain foods made me sick. After a few weeks I went back to my doctor as I still wasn’t well. My doctor decided to send me for a gastroscopy. The gastroscopy showed the ulcer-related bacteria was still present, so I was prescribed the same antibiotics again, which meant another seven days of taking eight tablets per day.

At that point we decided as a family to go on a holiday to the coast to help the children get over me being so sick. We went to Aussie World and I rode the roller coaster, the Plunge and the Octopus several times. I was still feeling sick but I was determined that the holiday was going to be the best fun for my children. When we came home from the coast I had a check-up with the doctor – I was still feeling tired so the doctor did a blood test to check to see whether I was anaemic. Sure enough I was anaemic, and had also lost a lot of weight.The doctor couldn’t understand why I was anaemic and started checking other things. She examined me, firstly pressing on my stomach and then she got the Doppler ultrasound and put that my stomach. I nearly fell off the examination table when I heard what sounded like a heartbeat coming from my stomach.

The doctor worked out that I could possibly be around 16 weeks pregnant, but could not confirm it. As you can imagine I was in a complete state of shock. I hadn’t had a period in approximately four months, but I was on thyroid medication so it was not uncommon for me to go months without a period. I went home after having another blood test and showed my husband the referral to the obstetrician. My husband was as utterly shocked as I was.

Fortunately, due to my age and the potentially advanced stage of my pregnancy, I was able to get an appointment very quickly, but I still had to go all weekend without knowing if I was pregnant or not. I remember driving my two older children to Brisbane to their Dad’s for the weekend, and shedding a lot of tears behind my sunglasses. I didn’t want to tell them until I knew whether it was true or not. I cried all weekend, not because I was sad about the baby but because it was such a complete shock. We had sold all of our baby things, our car was not big enough, I had my career and I hadn’t planned for this to happen.

That Monday I went to the obstetrician (he was the same doctor that delivered my seven-year old) but had to see another obstetrician before I saw mine. This doctor made me feel like a bad teenager that didn’t know anything. He asked my husband and I whether we knew about contraception. I asked him if he knew how old I was, and he told me I should know better! As if I wasn’t struggling with the shock of being told I was pregnant, I was now also being chastised for falling pregnant. Finally, I got to see my obstetrician and he did a scan straight away.

He told me that I wasn’t 16 weeks pregnant. I was actually 22 weeks pregnant, and at that first scan I also found out the sex of my baby.

It took me about a week to tell my older children that they were going to have a baby in the house. My eldest was stunned and my 12- and seven-year old both cried. 12-year old decided that she didn’t want another sibling as she already had two. They were excited but very unsure. I then went to tell my mother about me being pregnant. She was stunned but she was glad that I didn’t tell her that I had cancer, as that is what she thought my announcement was going to be. I have a really close bond with my mum so I cried and cried on her shoulder.

I think I cried for about a month after finding out I was pregnant, the whole time my mum kept telling me everything was going to be ok, but we lived with a very real fear knowing that the two courses of strong antibiotics, roller coaster rides and the food that I had been eating may have damaged my baby in some way. The pregnancy continued without any major hassles and eventually the tears stopped and I started to accept that this baby was going to be born. Everybody kept telling me that this baby was coming for a reason, but I was still trying to work out what that was!

At 38 weeks pregnant and on the 28th August 2015 with my husband beside me, I delivered a healthy and happy 8lb 8oz baby boy. He was perfect and there were no disabilities or any problems with him associated with not knowing I was pregnant for the first 22 weeks. After three days in hospital we took him home and just over a year later, we can’t imagine life without him. The older children absolutely adore him – even the 12-year-old, she decided a day before he was born that she was looking forward to having him in the family!

He is now a happy, delightful one year old and a central part of our family. Isn’t he the cutest stomach ulcer you’ve ever seen?luke