Found Grace: A Personal Story of Infertility
Carrying the burden of infertility taught Dreena Tischler many things: that life is not easy, but also that suffering is a door, not a wall.The year I was 19, I learned that I was inoperably infertile.
The news barely fazed me at the time. I was young; medical technology was advancing rapidly and miracles were always possible. A few months before I turned 25, my marriage ended. My husband, the second of seven children, desperately wanted to be a father. In our tiny community, adoption was unheard of. Believing myself to be a failure, I ran from my home and my marriage and immersed myself in city life.
There were many things "right" in my life—I had a wonderful church, plenty of real friends, and a job I enjoyed. On Christmas Eve the sheriff showed up at my door to serve me divorce papers. The numbness I felt slowly melted into a deep depression—a dark night of the soul—that lasted for months. My suffering was compounded by my impending 25th birthday and the painful realization that my infertility was, in fact, permanent. I finally knew I would never experience the joy and pain of pregnancy and childbirth that I had been looking forward to for years.
The acceptance of reality brought me my first lesson on suffering: A major part of my suffering was caused by holding onto a myth that if I was a good person, my life would be easy. Life, I found, was not easy. I could not "live right" enough to shield myself from pain.
We live in a society which often trains us to believe that life should be easy. This myth is perpetuated through romance novels, movies, television, and an instant gratification mindset. Although my parents limited our television viewing time, I was nonetheless intimately acquainted with the perfect life portrayed in Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch. I was also an avid reader of romantic fiction. Consequently, I grew up believing young women met their knight in shining armor, had a fabulous wedding, gave birth to several healthy bouncing babies, and then lived happily ever after. No wonder my new life as an infertile divorcee left me believing something was desperately wrong. Where was God? Why had He abandoned me?
I was fortunate to have friends with a stronger faith than mine. With their encouragement, I continued to attend church weekly, often leaving with teary eyes and stooped shoulders. Someone introduced me to the writings of Henri Nouwen, which penetrated my darkness as tiny pricks of insight. As I browsed through a Christian book center one day, I saw a set of tapes by Nouwen, The Spirituality of Waiting. Trusting my instincts, I bought the tapes, in which Nouwen recounts the Biblical stories of waiting and urges the listener to stand firm in faith. I understood the wisdom of his words but could not yet apply them to my life.
Then one sparkling spring Sunday, a transformation occurred. I sat—as was my custom—with a large group of single adults in the first row of the balcony. There was a baptism that week, a common occurrence in our large and young congregation. This baptism, however, stood out. I did not know the young couple or the tiny child, but as the water poured, I received a message. It didn’t come to me as a voice; instead, a knowing came over me that God had something special in mind for me with children. Startled, I glanced around at my friends. No one else seemed to have experienced an epiphany. The change in me, however, was apparent. The fog of depression lifted and hope shone again in my life. My friend Juana was the first to ask, "What happened to you? You suddenly seem so happy."
I wasn’t sure how to answer. I simply told her that I knew that something brighter was around the corner, and I was willing to wait. An insight came to me through a memory of a time living on a farm. I recalled coming home from work one evening ready to harvest some fresh produce from my garden. To my dismay, the garden was filled with sheep that had eaten every bit of green down to the earth. I called the dogs to chase the sheep back into the pasture, and the frightened sheep began racing along the fence line, completely missing the large opening through which they’d passed into the garden. It was only when they finally slowed down and realized they were safe that they were able to see the entrance that had been there all along.
I had received my second instruction about suffering: Suffering is a door, not a wall. Likewise, holding onto my vivid recollection of the suffering of the past kept me in pain and obscured my vision of the graces of the present. Like the sheep missing the opening, I had been racing around to find a way out of the agony, but I was completely missing the way through. How often this happens in our lives. We train ourselves to find the answer to our problems instead of waiting for God’s gifts to become more apparent.
It took nearly two years, but I finally got a glimpse of the "door." I was offered a job as an assistant in our church’s Ministry with Children. I had never considered ministry and didn’t think myself particularly gifted with children, but I recognized the prompting. I accepted the post and resigned my job as a law firm administrator.
My gifts with children quickly became apparent to me. I was frequently called to the nursery to comfort a crying infant or to the second floor to deal with an unruly second-grader. Through my work, I gradually felt my pain and sadness subside as I attained a sense of purpose in my life. I attended a course called "Focus on Children" during which a United Methodist Bishop, Leontine Kelly, asked a question that has guided my life ever since: "Who will be an advocate for children?"
Though I didn’t move or speak out loud, my heart responded resoundingly to the question: "I will!" I had the gift of children in my life — hundreds of them! I had a reason for being in the world and was making a difference. Within a couple of years, I became Director of Ministries with Children and worked harder than I ever had before. I thought this was the special gift I’d been promised. Yet, after four years in children’s ministries, I knew it was time to take a break and work on me. My work with children brought to light the many unresolved spiritual issues of my life. Now over 30 years old, my longings to parent had resurfaced. I resigned my position and took a secular job, which allowed me sufficient time and solitude to work on my own spirituality.
Finally I met Paul, my soul-mate and the husband of my dreams. Through the miraculous process of annulment — which some people consider only paperwork — God reached out again with healing. My conversion to Catholicism and the soul searching required to request an annulment were the vehicles through which I finally came to accept God’s forgiveness for my past. His hand had long been reaching out to me in reconciliation, but I had been unwilling to accept it. Annulment provided me that opportunity.
My marriage to Paul was tested from the start as I became very ill with endometriosis and had my first surgery just six weeks after the wedding. The eight months that followed were rough ones for me. I suffered terrible side effects from the drugs I was taking to alleviate the endometriosis, including bone loss, stiffness, memory loss, and crippling migraine headaches. Paul proved himself a patient and loving man. Around Thanksgiving, we both came face to face with my infertility. I was to undergo a hysterectomy that was medically necessary and spiritually troubling. There would be no miraculous pregnancies for me.
As a perpetual college student, I decided to try a positive approach to my infertility by writing a research paper on adoption. This project woke Paul and me up to an important truth: loss and grief are an inherent part of the adoption process. The birth parents grieve the loss of their child, the adoptive parents must work through the loss of their fertility and the dream of conception, and the adopted persons — at some point in their lives — must come to terms with the loss of their original family. I wasn’t sure about passing through this door through suffering; a part of me still wanted to find a way out.
My research in adoption led my husband and me to two decisions: first, that God’s plan for us was to form our family through adoption, and second, that we were to adopt children from the "hard to place program" which, in Texas, means adopting a child of African-American descent.
Within months of joining the agency we used, a birthmother whom I will refer to as Lee called us. We met her and immediately realized her profound love for the little boy she carried. She was a Caucasian woman, the daughter of an evangelical Protestant minister; the birthfather was black. Lee believed her church and community could never accept this biracial child or her unplanned pregnancy.
When the day arrived for her son’s birth, we were elated—and just a little nervous. We were permitted to hold and feed the precious boy for several hours on the day of his birth. After a sleepless night, the social worker brought him to our hotel where we would all remain for the next 24 hours until the paperwork could be signed. In Texas, by law, the birthmother cannot relinquish her parental rights until 48 hours after the child’s birth We had a blissful day cocooned in our room with the tiny fellow.
That evening around 11 p.m., the phone rang, and my stomach sank with dread. Sadly, my instincts were correct. The social worker told us it looked like Lee might change her mind and choose to parent, but we wouldn’t know until morning. We were devastated. Even in our grief, our hearts went out to Lee, since the social worker told us she hadn’t stopped crying since leaving the hospital. That night we were often tempted to lay the baby in his crib and not allow ourselves to feel the love we already had for him. Grace touched us, though, and we chose instead to hold him all night, assuring him not only of the love that we had for him but also of Lee’s love.
I was physically ill by the time Lee came with her mother and our social worker to retrieve him. Yet there was a glimpse of bright news: the baby’s grandmother told us that Lee had shared her story (at last!) with their congregation and they had pledged their full support. The first few days at home without the baby were very difficult for us both. We cried frequently and could barely stand to look at the empty bassinet in our bedroom. After a few weeks, we were able to put away the tiny clothes and bassinet until we were close to adopting again. During this time, we received prayers and all manner of support from our family, friends, and parish.
While almost incomprehensibly difficult, this period of suffering and grieving was an important part of the healing process and also an important part of understanding the suffering and pain that is so much a part of adoption. It woke us up to the incredible sacrifice that birth parents must make. One day a precious card arrived from Lee’s mother to thank us for some photos we’d sent. She mentioned what the baby had been not only to their family, but to their entire congregation. A single line provided all the assurance we needed: "We can’t imagine our lives without him."
Through grace, we learned another lesson: Sometimes the way through suffering is the realization that our suffering can bring gifts to others. In the midst of pain, it is so difficult to see God’s hand at work. As Christians, we are called to say "yes" to all God’s gifts—not only the ones that meet our expectations. Our experience with Lee and her son was a holy gift; we learned to find the treasure hidden within our loss and pain.
We had two more adoption attempts fall through, although none as dramatically as the first. We received our first child, Allison Clair, about four months after the first baby’s birth. Her birth family wanted only limited contact, so we were in some measure removed from their grieving process. We realized that from our first contact with Lee’s son, we lost all desire to create a child of our own flesh. Our primary desire was to parent and we had received that opportunity.
Through our love for this tiny angel baby, Paul and I both became more aware of God’s presence in our life and the incredible sacrifice God made in sacrificing His only son for our sake. We believe that our previous pain in some way better equipped us to love Allison and gave us greater empathy for the suffering of her birth family in choosing to make an adoption plan for her.
When Allison was 18 months old, we decided — with some trepidation — to re-enter the adoption process and try for another child. We prayed for an easier road this time while telling God we were still willing to go through whatever was necessary for this second child. We met (and fell in love with) a new birthmother, "Sharee." Our first meeting was a blessing because she was so like my husband in her talents, interests, temperament, and spirituality.
Sharee had been told she was carrying a boy and together the three of us chose a name for him that honored Paul’s grandfather and her uncle, both deceased. Of all the birthmothers we’d gotten to know, Sharee was the most open. With her, we truly witnessed the struggle of making an adoption plan and the difficulty of explaining to her family the decision she’d made. Although her choice was an agonizing one, she never wavered in her determination to follow through with the adoption. Allison was 21 months old when the baby was born. Paul and I were with Sharee through her labor, and I was able to be present in the delivery room as the baby was born. It was our second experience of supporting a birthmother in labor. I was amazed at the pain women are able to endure, and we were both sadly aware that for Sharee, the pain of labor would not even compare with the pain of separating from her baby. As I witnessed the miracle of childbirth, my thoughts ran to the Blessed Mother and how difficult it must have been to labor to bring forth a child who would be sacrificed for our sake.
As I held Sharee’s hand as the child was born, my stomach tumbled with an uneasy mixture of love, joy, and sorrow. I was distracted momentarily when we were told, to our astonishment, the child was a girl! We quickly decided to name her Mary Chanelle after a nun who had a profound influence on my life.
Paul, sick with a fever, returned home to care for Allison. I stayed near the hospital and spent time with Sharee and Chanelle. After a sleepless night in my hotel, I returned to Sharee’s room to see how she’d fared during the night. My heart sank as I saw the pain on her face. Sharee told me the nursery had brought the baby back to her soon after I’d gone to my room since she was crying a lot. The only way she could soothe her was to sleep with the baby in her arms.
My mind raced, wondering if she would be able to follow through with her adoption plan. I resolved to set my concerns aside and give Sharee my unconditional love and support. We left the hospital as planned, and the baby and I settled into a hotel for the night. My heart soared with gratitude each time I looked at the precious infant in my arms and then tumbled with grief as I thought of Sharee.
Unable to sleep, I spent the night praying that she would have some easing of her pain and would somehow know how much her sacrifice meant to our family. As morning dawned, I wrote her a long note including some of my favorite scriptures about suffering.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-13).
God was writing another lesson onto my heart: Love is a sacrifice. Sacrifice involves suffering. It seems obvious, yet it was so hard for me to hear. God calls us to love unconditionally. Perhaps it’s the unconditional part that invites the suffering. Sharee would have been a fit parent for her daughter, yet she looked at the broader picture of all a child needs to thrive and chose to place her in our arms. In loving her child, she chose to sacrifice her own and her family’s expectations to unconditional love. For our part, we sacrificed our cultural beliefs about the autonomy of parenting and embraced a life with children who are fully our children but also have other parents. We were charting new territory in this relationship and choosing a rockier path.
Chanelle is now nearing two years old. During her lifetime, we’ve developed a close and loving relationship with Sharee, which includes learning about and understanding her process of grieving for her child. Many times after a telephone conversation, I’ve found myself crying as I prayed for a lessening of her pain. There are many obstacles she’s had to overcome in her determination to provide the stability she wanted for her child. She has had difficult days such as the first time she heard Chanelle call me "Mama," receiving pictures of our family, instead of hers, celebrating the baby’s first birthday, and hearing me call Chanelle "my baby."
Through this relationship, I have learned much about suffering. I’ve seen that through the pain, hearts open. Sharee’s pain has caused her to seek God in a new way; it has deepened and matured her heart. Paul and I have ached, too, in seeing such depth of pain in someone we have grown to love like a sister. Our relationship leads us to another insight into the miracle of suffering. The door of suffering leads us closer to the heart of God and broadens our understanding of the gift of Jesus Christ. Christ suffered throughout His ministry on earth; He was willing to endure the pain of his last days on earth so that we could receive the gift of eternity at His feet. We suffer because we live; we have hearts, minds and wills. The humble beast does not suffer because it does not have the capacity to love; humans love, therefore we suffer. My willingness to acknowledge my feelings of suffering means I can also fully experience my feelings of love and gratitude. It’s a package deal.
I recognize that there is much I have yet to learn in my life about the relationship between grace, sacrifice, and suffering. However, in looking back I see that I have shifted in my basic approach to life. My desire is no longer to avoid suffering and live an easy life, but to enter willingly the open door of suffering in the understanding that it is a part of God’s refining process for me; it leads me closer to the pure heart of the Trinity and strengthens my journey. I hold fast the promise in Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved (Psalm 46: 1-5) .
Reprinted with permission from Canticle Magazine.
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