A woman in her thirties approached me with purpose from the other side of the IVF clinic waiting room. "Will you join us in praying for each other?" she asked, handing me a slip of paper with another woman’s Hebrew name on it. Of course I would, I replied, not wanting to seem ungenerous, or in this particular Jerusalem waiting room, unpious.
It was September. I took the paper from her and slid it into my wallet, making a mental note to retrieve it before Rosh Hashana. She asked for my Hebrew name in return, which I scribbled down quickly, passing it to her with an embarrassed nod of thanks.
When I bled out a transferred embryo several weeks later, my mind suddenly snapped onto the name that wilted, forgotten, in my purse.
"Did I lose this baby because I forgot to pray for her?" I wondered in panic.
It’s a reaction familiar for many women undergoing fertility treatments, pondering at length the ways in which our own actions caused any particular loss. Did I lose this pregnancy because the shower I took was too hot this morning, or because I didn’t lie down after the transfer? Should I not have gone on that walk, or carried my groceries up the stairs?
That day my crime somehow seemed more serious: I had forgotten to pray, and perhaps I was being punished.
God and I weren’t exactly on speaking terms. I wasn’t angry at him or resentful, though I had good reason to be.
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My mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and during her treatment we discovered that she carried the BRCA1 cancer gene, and that I carried it too. BRCA1 puts you at 70 percent risk for breast cancer, and 50 percent risk for ovarian (roughly). For the rest of my life I’ll require biannual monitoring, after which I’ll have to sit on my hands for days and wait for a doctor to call and tell me I have cancer, or that I don’t.
Those intervals, between test and result, are not for the faint of heart: you must scale a mental jungle gym with the agility of a cirque du soleil acrobat, and options for dismount aren’t particularly appealing: you may reduce your risk of cancer with a preventative double mastectomy and oophorectomy by the age of 40, removing as much tissue as possible and dismantling the stage on which cancer would perform its deadly dances. Or you can continue to grasp at the monkey bars through your monitoring sessions and hope that you don’t fall.
Perhaps the most elaborate of circus acts is the science-fiction-like ability to prevent the gene from passing on to your own children by conceiving through IVF, with the help of preimplantation genetic diagnosis. You and your partner make embryos which are then tested for the cancer gene. Non-affected embryos get transferred back into your uterus and you get a chance at a healthy kid.
Women who must seek out IVF usually arrive at the clinic after years of trying to conceive, after suffering through painful diagnostic surgeries and multiple methods of fertility assistance. They arrive hardened by their battles, for which they have been aptly dubbed "IVF Warriors." Sitting among their ranks in the waiting room, I feel like a private who’s been promoted to general: I have none of the qualifying experience, yet due to my bad luck I’ve been fast-tracked to in vitro-fertilization.
I don’t feel like a warrior, I feel like an imposter: I could run home right now, have sex with my husband and make a baby. The women in my clinic don’t have that choice. And then they ask me to pray for them.
How could I have forgotten? I’m not really sure that I did forget. My mind bumped against that slip of paper every so often, when I would see the Haredi and Arab women waiting for their ultrasounds, worn prayerbooks in hand, lips moving in practiced vigilance and perhaps a look or two askance at my jeans and uncovered hair.
During my first IVF cycles I ignored their stares and practiced a ritual of self-preservation which blocked my ability to pray for a baby, or for anything.
I learned to not want. I would meditate in my neutral zone of zen, injecting and swallowing pills, getting needled for blood samples and accepting the cold jelly of the ultrasound wand while the tech told me how many follicles I was growing, how many potential eggs we might retrieve.
I did not cry in our doctor’s office when we lost all our first embryos, or again when we had none left after the second try. "I can’t make you any promises," our doctor repeated over and over in her own supplication. "We can only keep trying."
So I did not want. I did not approach a state of wishing or hoping, sensations that can cause one to open their mouth to god. The Talmud calls prayer a "service of the heart," but I absented my heart, I quarantined her. It would be far less painful, I thought, to lose something you never brought yourself to want, than to lose something you got on your knees and begged for.
And it worked, but only in a way that was warped and in the end, futile. I did not pray for myself or want for myself, so it was not myself for whom I felt pain when we lost the pregnancy. Instead, I called out to God for my husband. "Don’t do this to him," I begged. "He doesn’t deserve this, he should meet this baby. And this baby should know their father."
The wanting and wishing and hoping were not for me, they were for him. And so I dodged the fullness of my loss but walked straight into want anyways.
The other day I pulled out the slip of paper with the other woman’s name on it and placed it in my line of vision on my desk. I’m not ready to ask anything for myself just yet, but I think it’s time I ask for her.
Maybe she’s pregnant already, maybe she’s lost like I have lost, like all the women who go to war to make a family. But maybe she needs my help, and maybe I need some too. At the very least, we aren’t alone.
Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs is a literary agent and editor at The Deborah Harris Agency in Jerusalem. Twitter: @Jessica_KJacobs