From a cancer diagnosis to a miscarriage to pregnant — at age 43
When I found out I was pregnant at 43 years old, as a standup I immediately brought it to the stage. I joked that I was both high risk and an inspiration, that finding out was somewhere in between a surprise and a mistake, like a “wow” with a “holy crap” in it. Because I was older, I didn’t have to worry about ruining my life, because now I’d be ruining someone else’s life. Audiences lapped up these irreverent one-liners, but they also accomplished something larger:
The jokes made me feel safe. They distanced me from my intense fears and allowed me to partially rewrite my own story.
The truth was that I didn’t leave it this late in life because I was waiting for the right situation: the right job, partner, life insurance policy. I waited this long because I don’t really like kids and I was waiting to want to do it. In my mid-thirties many of my friends started to sweat about having children. They’d say things like, “When you see a baby, don’t you just want to grab them and gnaw on their little pudgy legs? Deeply inhale their heads, and run away with them?” I honestly had no idea what these creepy Hansel and Gretel fantasies were about. Every time I held someone’s baby, it screamed and cried like they had slipped it into the arms of an ice sculpture. I figured whatever came naturally to everyone else just didn’t come to me. On one hand, I felt bad about not being maternal. Whatever came naturally to every other woman did not come naturally to me. But I also liked it. It was okay that I wasn’t put on this earth just to raise children and clean the house. I could focus on building my career. Plus, who would torture a child by raising it in New York City? You’d have to have the last name Rockefeller to get a place with closet, let alone a backyard.
By “career” I mean standup comedy, which even in my mid-thirties was more of a volunteer career than anything. My goals were to make a living doing standup and have an apartment with a bedroom large enough to fit a bed where I could walk around all three sides of it. The big pie-in-the-sky achievement, the achievement that I equated to “making it,” was to own a wine fridge, full of wine in it that lasted more than one weekend.
Then I turned 40. That year things finally started to gel for my career: I was performing and traveling a ton, and I wrote a book. I had a job at NPR. For one nanosecond, I felt satisfied, but was still entirely ambivalent about having kids. So I ordered a wine fridge.
The next nanosecond, a sledgehammer smashed through my house of cards. After a routine test, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Talk about a “wow” with a “holy crap” in it — just forget the “wow.” To be clear, it was early stage breast cancer, but as you can imagine, there is no such thing as lucky cancer. And thus started a year of hell. As a performer, I didn’t respond to it by having a brave Tig Nataro moment where I spun the tragedy into comedy gold. I didn’t take to Facebook and ask for thoughts or prayers. I didn’t live-tweet it. I was destroyed by it. I could barely hold myself up as I went through one, and then unexpectedly two, surgeries, hundreds of tests, 30 days of radiation, and endless hours of trying to figure out what I did to deserve this.
I don’t know what it feels like to die, but I felt half-buried in a grave that whole year.
By the end, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I wanted to throw out all of my belongings and move away because I didn’t relate to the past, and I certainly didn’t understand what was next.
There’s that saying printed on inspirational greeting cards and stenciled on yoga studio walls: “Live in the moment.”
Nothing sucks more than being forced to live in the moment. In my opinion looking forward is the most luxurious and enviable thought pattern. Musing about the future is for the happy and free.
At the end of that disastrous year and all the treatments, I went in for an evaluation. They don’t say “remission” any more, but doctor did say, “We’re done with surgery and radiation and everything seems stable, so you’re good to go. We’ll see you in a year for more testing in to make sure everything is still fine.”
Upon hearing that, my most optimistic thought was, “Well, I guess I have one more year.”
I tried to get back into my old life and do things that made sense before — and just as I was maybe easing back into it, I got pregnant. From my husband. Obviously I know how it happened, but I still couldn’t believe it. I thought my body was against me, full of bad cells that were slowly trying to kill me. But this was beyond what I thought was possible on so many levels. It was like looking out over a patch of cracked dirt and seeing one tiny green shoot. I honestly didn’t think so much about the promise of a child; I was elated because it made me feel like maybe my body wanted to survive. I dragged my leg out of my own grave because maybe I was okay.
I walked into a CVS to buy my first pregnancy test ever. What can I say? I was really careful in college. It was April 1, and I mentioned to the cashier that I just realized it was April Fool’s. She glanced at my purchase and gave me this look, like I must be one evil person for planning what looked like the most brutally hilarious April Fool’s gag of all time.
I poured over all four pages of those instructions intently, which they can pretty much shave down to one tight tweet: “Pee all over it. Wait. Either it says pregnant or not pregnant.” That’s only 52 characters, by the way, so they could also add something like, “And if you can’t figure it out, don’t have a kid.”
The word pregnant showed up in the little digital window. I called my husband Jonathan and told him that I was going to tell him something crazy, but he had to promise not to tell anyone and to have no reaction to it. I said, “I’m pregnant.” Then I experienced my first actual pregnant pause.
“Okay,” he finally replied, and then said, “I’ll see you later.”
I didn’t know how to feel. Could I let myself get excited? Should I be worried? But before I could pick one, I miscarried. I hate that word, and people hate hearing it. Perhaps that means that we should be talking about it more often. The miscarriage felt more significant to me as it allowed me to revert to my earlier conclusion, that my body was a mess. It couldn’t support life. It was only declining.
Then I received a brutal phone call from my OBGYN saying that the lab results showed the miscarriage to be something called a partial molar pregnancy. It’s a genetic mistake that has nothing particular to do with anything — not age, not prior health history, just a weird thing that can happen. “Bad luck,” as the doctor put it. It meant that what was growing wasn’t so much fetus but a group of irregular cells. And what else are irregular cells considered? Cancer. My own pregnancy caused another cancer scare. And to make sure it didn’t develop into cancer, I was told that I needed to get blood tests every week for another six months. Not only could I never move forward, but also it felt like I’d taken a giant step back. And I’d always be taking steps back.
My emotional state wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to destroy myself. That didn’t seem enough. I wanted to destroy everything. I wanted to rip up the sky, light everything on fire, and watch it all burn to the ground.
It was a very dark six months. I think it was summer. I couldn’t really tell you.
At the end of six months, miraculously, I was cleared. Jonathan came with me to the appointment at my OBGYN’s office, and she said everything looked good and we could start trying again. We stared at her in heavy silence because we hadn’t discussed trying again. We just wanted to get to the point where I was considered stable, healthy, perhaps feeling in control of my own body again. She looked at us, confused, and said, “Well, you do want to have kids right?”
I responded with one of my standard flip deflections, one of the handful of replies I’d been using for years when people, strangers, family pressed me with the question, “Aren’t you having kids?” The subtext being after all, you are a woman. I’d say, “Maybe. But who’s gonna raise ‘em?” or “I’d love to, but I live in New York, where am I going to put them?” In this case I just said, “It’s too late, I’m too old now.”
Delicately, she reminded me that most of her patients were of an “advanced maternal age” and suggested I get a blood test to see what my egg count looked like. Depending on that, she’d give us a referral to a fertility specialist. She ended the appointment by saying, “Let’s see what happens.”
If anything seemed normal, routine, and unemotional at that point in my life, it was giving blood. I was an expert. I knew the better arm, the better vein; I could judge their insertion technique. I walked into one of those Quest Diagnostic places where the woman faxing forms also takes your blood. She put down the toner, snapped on some latex gloves, and picked up a needle. There were no diplomas hung on the walls, just photocopied instructions on how to lock up. I ripped off the Band-Aid as I walked out of the place and let the blood stain my leather jacket a bit. I was done with everything. I considered stopping for a couple shots of whiskey and starting smoking again.
A few days later I got the results via an email. It was a strange number with a one-line note from my OBGYN that simply read, “an encouraging number for someone your age.” And I sobbed. Not because of the number, but because it was the nicest thing anyone in the medical community had said to me for years.
I cried again at the notion that maybe my insides weren’t waging a constant war against me, maybe the fact that I felt good and strong most of the time wasn’t disconnected from the truth.
Maybe things were going to change. And with that I looked at the calendar and decided that I was going to see if Jonathan wanted to try. I mean — it would be a shame to waste all these encouraging eggs, right?
I kept trying to find this perfect little pocket of time to have a talk, but it just didn’t happen. So I told Jonathan at breakfast that the omelet he made reminded me that my egg results came back, and they were encouraging. Jonathan smiled and said while he could envision life with a kid, he could also see us being just fine and enjoying our lives without one. We could travel, go on whiskey tours, we’d have all this extra money. I agreed, but I knew his statement was clouded by everything we’d endured for the last three years. He didn’t like the idea of putting me through another medical situation, having something else intense happen to my body. I was equally terrified. I just wanted to feel safe, protected, like nothing could ever get me again.
Later that afternoon, strangely, I found myself writing an email to my own husband. It said,
“We should at least try, because we can’t live in fear and not do anything just out of fear. If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s not like under the circumstances either one of us can guarantee that we’ll have a kid, only the potential. But if we don’t because we’re scared, then the fear has won and we’ve lost. And I can’t live in that world.”
Jonathan’s reaction was, “Yes! Great! I’m in!” Turns out if you offer a guy a few months of unprotected sex, he’s totally onboard.
After that first month when I got my period, I looked at my underwear and screamed, “WHAT?? SCREW YOU!” I wasn’t all balanced and zen. Let’s just roll the dice. No, I swore at my period. I was furious at my body yet again. What’s your problem? You have encouraging eggs and you still can’t do anything right?!
The next month, I was paralyzed with a different kind of fear when my period was late and then missing. Jonathan and I barely talked about it, trying to keep ourselves as emotionally distanced as possible. A month and a half later I made a doctor’s appointment, and then the real tests started. We made choices and signed releases for more and more tests, as many as were available to us. I bought a dozen blousy shirts. We told one person each, because you need someone, but we didn’t tell our parents, our close friends, or our jobs until about five months. I could have easily told no one until I just had a healthy baby in my hands — but at a certain point you physically have no choice. We allowed ourselves to only get excited a couple weeks before he was born.
I write this with a healthy six-month-old boy in my backyard-less apartment, Lucas’s crib taking over what was supposed to be my dream office. It’s still just sinking in. I was lucky enough to have an uncomplicated birth for an old broad like myself. And, of course, he’s the sweetest thing on earth. He smiles for hours on end for no reason at all. The fear is still there, greater in many ways because now there is so much on the line, so many scary question marks looming in the future.
My policy over the last few years has been not to get too happy, excited, or invested, as that makes it too tempting for the universe to rip it all away. But I recognize that’s no way to live. So I try asking myself, “If it all went to hell, if everything went the worst way possible, would I think, ‘I’m so glad I didn’t let myself experience joy or enthusiasm in the good moments because it really protected me?’” No. Nothing protects you. So I practice enjoying.
I work on seeing something wonderful and taking it in without wondering when it will end.
Now my greatest hope is based on that joke I made about that ruining my life. The goal, the big pie in the sky achievement, the achievement I equate to “making it” is that my husband, the kid, and me… we all ruin our lives together.