As a child, I loved to draw. The younger I was, the more simple my subjects and the more primitive my technique. My trees had three parts: the green cloud of leaves, the thick, bowed trunk, and the hollow—the oval, black hole in the middle of the bole. I’d use my waxy, black crayon to outline the long shape first, and then place my tongue between my lips in concentration as I colored in that hole. That dark, black empty hole in the belly of the tree.
A heart born wrong
I was born with a heart unable to do its job. With holes between its chambers, thickened muscle, and narrowed valves, it sent blood without enough oxygen through my veins. My mother would find me squatting as a toddler, my lips and fingertips blue, as I instinctively tried to move oxygen to my lungs. Corrective surgery happened at sixteen months. I’d have three more before I turned 35.
My heart history runs through my life like a ribbon. There are surgeries and procedures. Incisions and pain. There’s the cold, squeaky gel of countless echocardiograms and the steel touch of a stethoscope before a doctor’s furrowed brow.
The ribbon is threaded through all the ordinary parts of my life. It moves in and out of school projects and cheer competitions, senior prom, and college boyfriends. It continues to my days teaching English and runs right through to a first date over paella, a haunted hayride, and an arm around my shoulder. It loops over a diamond ring, a bended knee, an ivory dress touched with lace. The ribbon slips through that first year, through a new home, around a new dog, and brings us right to my cardiologist’s office on that day—the day we’d ask if we could start our family. The day I’d ask if I could carry the baby I had imagined.
My husband and I sat in stiff, black leather chairs as my doctor listed the risks of pregnancy, her voice steady as always. Pregnancy was possible, but the risks were plenty: arrhythmia, weakened muscle, damaged valves. We could take the risks. We could gamble, but neither one of us was willing.
My heart had always been defective, and now I knew my uterus would always be empty. Each month its lining would thicken in anticipation. Each time, with no zygote dropped, the tissue would die. The blood would be shed. The hollow would stay hollow.
My baby, whose body?
My uncle sent me the magazine, a bookmark wedged inside the shiny pages. I read Her Body, My Baby, looking at the pictures of Alexandra, the author, and Cathy, her surrogate. I wrote down the name of the surrogacy attorney, and within days, I scheduled a consultation. We filled out paperwork, perused profiles, and found our surrogate, Amy, a blue-eyed mother from Illinois. She loved to grill steaks and saucy ribs. She loved diet soda and Survivor. She loved her kids and her husband. And she was willing to carry our baby inside her.
We moved through the process hopeful but wary. Amy started her medication; I started mine. Purple clouds flowered on my skin as I injected hormones each day. Nurses pulled blood from the crook of my arm. The doctor inserted the gloved transducer inside me, and I craned my neck to see the black blobs of follicles flickering on the screen. There were as many as twenty, which meant as many as twenty eggs. This was good. The more eggs retrieved, the more could be fertilized, and the more embryos could be transferred or frozen. The odds were in our favor.
With the cold of December outside, the doctor slid a needle through my vaginal canal, aspirated the liquid in each follicle, and sucked the eggs out. After, I fluttered my eyes open and saw a nurse through the black stripes of my eyelashes.
“How many did you get?” I asked, the words climbing their way out of my throat.
“Six,” she said quickly.
“Six?” I groaned. “Why only six?”
“All it takes is one, honey.”
Losing the odds
Out of my six eggs, only one fertilized. One would be transferred. Zero would be frozen. The odds were slipping away. A few weeks earlier, my cardiologist had recommended surgery. In four months, I’d have my sternum cracked and my heart plucked and prodded. After that, surrogacy would be off the table. We had only this.
“All it takes is one,” we told each other.
The night before the transfer, anxiety settled in as the numbers danced in my head. I yearned for some comfort, and I reached for my phone to check my horoscope, desperate for any shred of reassurance. I scrolled down to Scorpio, and as I read the words on my screen, my eyes widened:
It only takes one seed planted at the right time to grow into a tree.
“I am inserting the embryo now,” the doctor said.
Amy lifted her hand to mine. I closed my eyes and pictured the baby I knew from my dreams. I pictured his chestnut hair and portly cheeks. I imagined the sound of his voice, the curvy lines of his hefty legs. I went home with a black and white picture of our embryo. I kept it next to my bed for the two weeks until Christmas Eve, the day we’d get the results. Each night, I held the picture in my hand and kissed it good night. I asked him to hold on. I begged him to be mine.
On Christmas Eve, I held my husband’s hand as I dialed the doctor’s number.
“I’m sorry. The doctor isn’t in now. He’ll call you later today.”
I shifted from foot to foot. “Could you possibly check the results for me? Please. I need to know before I go out for the day.”
“All right, hold on.” I heard the soft thumps of sneakers on a carpet and the shuffle of papers. “Here it is. Okay, let me see. No, she’s not pregnant, hon.”
“No?” I ask her.
“See now you’ve made me ruin your Christmas!”
“No, no. Thank you. Thanks a lot.”
I pressed the end button, placed the phone down, and dropped my face into my hands. It only takes one seed at the right time. But what if your tree is hollow? What if it never grows at all?
We kept the secret over the next two days. As we ripped off wrapping paper and sat around holiday tables, I held the truth inside me. I didn’t tell anyone that he was gone, the baby that I loved. I held the secret within me. I did for that secret what I couldn’t do for him.
A way to heal
He was gone. My round-faced little man. His pink lips. His dark eyes. Tiny, little wishes pieced together in my mind. They had come apart and disintegrated into nothing. I wanted to curl up. I wanted to tuck up my knees, wrap my hands around my belly and feel that he was there. Feel that I could hold him. Feel something other than emptiness. But I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t keep him. He was lost in another woman’s womb. Maybe he wasn’t even mine anymore. Perhaps now, he was hers.
In March, I lay on the narrow, metal table of an O.R. The doctors stopped my heart. They cut, snipped, and sutured. When the repairs were done, they placed two tiny paddles on the dark red tissue and shocked my heart back to beating.
I lay in the hospital for 10 days and then at home for weeks recovering. My heart and I worked together. It worked to turn the stitched slits into scars. I worked to turn my grief into hope. My new valves opened to let the blood in and closed to keep it out. I opened my mind to adoption and closed the door on a biological baby. Each day, I breathed into a spirometer, the mouthpiece bitter on my tongue. Each day, I breathed with less pain. Each day, I took in a little more air and a little more hope.
When summer came, we began the difficult climb to adoption, and the day we met our daughter, the grief finally faded away. I remember the baby I wanted so badly, but adopting my daughter made it all make sense. Somehow, the fragments of that first wish came together again. They floated back and pieced together to reveal something brand new, something beautiful. Someone I could hold in my arms, someone I could touch.
She wasn’t my dark-haired boy. She didn’t have deep brown eyes or a face just like my husband’s. But this baby girl was here, and she was mine. I knew then that every tree is different. I knew as she lay in my arms, that some trees might be solid. But other trees are hollow, and even hollow trees can bloom.