Friends & Friendships

This past weekend I went on a well thought out, obsessively planned, bonsai road trip.  I had an agenda, stops were scheduled, I was fitting as much into this one day on the road as I could.

I left my house at 7am, coffee in hand (of course), Nav system tuned into my first stop, and a back pack with snacks, water, and the necessary paperwork.  My phone was charged up, the car charger on hand…and the baby goat was in the back of the car.  It would take me 5 hours to get to my first destination, and I started up my audio book.  I listen to books constantly, as I spend a lot of time on the road, and I love to read!  Today was a Kate Wilhelm book in the Barbara Holloway series.  I stopped to fill up my gas tank.  I stopped to pee (lots of coffee!).  I stopped to text and give updates to people on my agenda for the day.

At noon, right on schedule I pulled into my first stop.  Tieton Farm and Creamery.  I met Ruth, her rescue dog Jamie, and we became fast friends.  Ruth and I unloaded Rafael (the baby goat) into his pen and she took me on a quick walking tour of her farm and set up.  She runs a mixed herd of dairy goats and sheep and they make lovely artisan cheeses from the milk.  I got to meet Bella, one of her livestock guardian dogs too!  I love meeting dogs! LOL  It was a lovely place, thick lush irrigated pastures, healthy and happy goats and sheep, cute dogs, and Ruth was a gem. Back at the car we did some paperwork, took a couple of selfies, and I was back on the road.

Nav system updated with the new destination, text message sent, book restarted, stop for gas and pee again, and I was off.  A short 30 minutes later and I pulled into Red Robin and met up with Kristen for a lunch date.  Kristen is a fellow MRKH warrior and is a spit-fire!  She’s pierced and tattooed and currently sports a mohawk with bright blue in her platinum blonde!  We’ve met before in a group setting, but spending sister time one on one is always special.  No one quite gets you like another MRKH sister.  We talked and ate, and talked some more.  We talked about our physical limitations, symptoms associated with MRKH, and other random stuff.  We talked about her “threenager” Dek.  Kristen and her husband adopted Dek as a newborn.  We talked about their adoption journey, and family planning as it relates to having MRKH.  We talked about the research being done and trials being conducted for uterine transplants.  We both agreed that if we were within 5 years of diagnosis and these transplants were being done we would be totally on board in considering this as an option.  We talked about all the MRKH sisters we know who are doing or have done surrogacy.  We talked about younger MRKH sisters we know and how as “big sisters” we can work to mentor them and share our experiences.  We talked too about meeting sisters face to face, but also finding sisters our own age who can relate to what is relevant in our lives in the moment, and the value of sharing out experiences.  I personally treasure every opportunity I have to spend time with my MRKH sisters, so was sad when our time was up and I needed to get back on the road.  Several hugs, selfies, and promises to get together again soon…and we finally parted ways.

Once again, Nav system updated with the next destination on my list, text message sent, book restarted and I was off!  A couple hours and I was pulling into Dennys for my next meet-up.  I was a few minutes ahead, so took the opportunity to use the bathroom and wash up/freshen up.  At this point I was feeling the hours of being in a car driving…and appreciated the chance for blood circulation again!  My darling friend Janine pulled up a short few minutes later.  Janine and I have been friends since high school!!!  That’s 28 years.  We’ve been through it all together, and while we’ve had a few stretches were life was too crazy and we didn’t speak for several years…she will forever hold a special place in my heart.  I was one of her bridesmaids 27 years ago, and she was one of my bridesmaids 21 years ago.  But that is only one part of what makes her so special to me.  This post will likely embarrass her…but I expect she could write an equally gushy blog post about me!  LOL

So Janine and I met in high school, well specifically, we met at the Sno-Isle Skills Center.  A collaborative voc-tech school that served several school districts in the area.  We were both in enrolled in the medical office assistant program.   I don’t know why we hit it off so well, but I’m sure that God had a hand in it!  We became good friends, sharing stories of our boyfriends, families, and life at our different high schools.  When it came time for me to be scheduled for the diagnostic laparoscopy, it was Janine who would be the person who would drive me to the hospital at 5am and sit with me until time for my surgery.  This was the surgery that confirmed my diagnosis of MRKH.  The day I was told that I did not have a uterus, would never get my period, and would never carry a child.  Janine was there for me that day.  As I went back to school, and back to the Skills Center – she was there, and our friendship was cemented.  She asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, and I asked her to be in my wedding too.  So our spring was filled with graduations, our summer with bridal showers, and that fall we both got married.  I wore a red dress in her wedding, and she was supposed to wear a green dress in mine.  A few weeks before my wedding, she got hit with a horrible bout of endometriosis and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks I think.  She was not well enough to be in my wedding or even to attend.  It was sad, but I found an alternate bridesmaid.

A few months later, we both ended up moving into the same apartment complex in Everett.  Two very young couples with minimal furniture, but wanting so badly to be adults.  We shared several dinners at each others apartments as we learned to navigate as married couples.  As life continued we kept in touch when I joined the army and ended up in Colorado.  Occasional phone calls, a few letters.  This was before email and cell phones, so long distance calls were a luxury and an extra expense.  I stayed in Colorado and we all know how that marriage fell apart.  Janine and her husband moved to central Washington, but again, we stayed in touch every few months.  When I met Jeremy, I told her of course, and when we decided to get married I asked Janine to be one of my bridesmaids again.  I hadn’t seen her in probably 5 years, but I desperately wanted her to stand with me.  She agreed, and we did dress measurements over the phone, made travel arrangements, and she came to Colorado to be in my wedding.

It was a wonderful few days with her.  We talked and talked and talked and talked some more.  About little things, and big things; light things and heavy things.  We talked about family, and children, and infertility.  We talked about my first marriage and divorce.  We talked about grief and acceptance.  And she was there on my very special day…again.

Right, back to Dennys 2016.  Janine pulled in, and I gave her a giant hug as usual!  We were seated, placed our orders and took up conversation as if it had never paused.  She and her husband adopted a brother/sister pair through foster care about 10 years ago, and so I got the update on both kids, including the sick one! We talked about family, and cancer; children and infertility.  We talked about my crazy schedule, the work I’m doing with Courageous MRKH and the Beautiful You MRKH Foundation.  We talked about healing, and grief, and acceptance.  We talked about our long friendship, and the roll we have played in each others lives.  We talked about girl time and forming unbreakable bonds.  We talked about God and the roll Faith plays in our lives.  And all too soon we started talking about what time it was, how short time could be, and the fact that I had 3 more hours to drive before I would make it home.  With deep regret, we hugged another 20 or so times…walked out and headed to our cars.  She to go back to her family, sick kid and all.  Me to head home to my own family.

Set the nav system for home, called hubby to let him know I was on the final leg, and restarted the audiobook.  A quick stop to empty my bladder and fill my gas tank, and 14 hours after I had started, I made it home.  600 miles – 1 goat delivered; 1 MRKH sister meet up; 1 sistersisters of the heart of the heart meet up, and I was ready for a glass of wine and some R&R.

Over the years I’ve come to deeply treasure special friendships.  The ones where you connect on a truly visceral level; where words aren’t necessary, and even physical presence isn’t necessary.  When I can walk into a room and know that person accepts me completely, understands me probably better than I understand myself; and we spend the time to build each other up…those are the beautiful sisters of the heart I cherish more than anything.  I’m so truly blessed to have MRKH sisters that fill this role, but also a few very special girlfriends – sisters of the heart.

Welcome to Colorado!

After US Army Basic Training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, I was off to my next level of training.  I arrived at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center (FAMC) in Aurora, Colorado in February 1991.  I got short term barracks on base with the rest of my arriving class and settled into a routine fairly quickly.  I did the necessary paperwork to be approved for off base housing because I was married, and started apartment hunting.  This presented itself with several challenges, not the least of which was figuring out which bus to take to get to the part of town I needed to be in.  I wasn’t the only one on the apartment hunt, but it was my first real introduction to city buses.

I was also simultaneously doing paperwork to have my belongings in Washington packed up and shipped to Colorado, which according to the military, also included my spouse!  I found a suitable apartment complex, completed applications and set a move in date that coincided with the arrival of my spouse, and planned for shortly there-after, our belongings.  We got settled in fairly quickly, and my training classes started up the beginning of the next month.

I was in training to be a 35G – Biomedical Equipment Technician.  I studied anatomy and physiology, electronics, pneumatics, mechanics, and all sorts of other stuff.  It was interesting and suited me just fine.  I enjoyed getting to know my classmates, had some study groups, and generally enjoyed my life in the military.  When we weren’t in classes, we were doing group PT and other basic military training.  We spent a fair amount of time in and around the hospital in disaster training.  There was a war going on, and Fitzsimons was a major orthopedic facility.  So we did mass disaster training focused on transporting the wounded from helo pad to ambulance to medical facilities.  We braced ourselves for the worst…but to my knowledge we never did get a wounded soldier transferred to FAMC for treatment.

So while I was focusing on being a soldier in training, my husband was looking for jobs “on the economy” and not really doing much with his life.  It was kind of ironic really, the role reversal we found ourselves in.  Our whole dating relationship he had been in the Marines and had planned to stay in.  I had been a high school student, engaged to a Marine and planning to be a military wife.  In fact, just before I graduated high school, it was brought to his attention that something was off with his re-enlistment paperwork, and he had the option to take a new agreement, or revert to his original enlistment.  As a surprise to me, since he had this new option, he decided how great it would be for him to revert to his original enlistment and he would be done with the Marines and able to “come home”.  Uh – yeah – he really didn’t know me at all, did he?  This surprise was delivered at the airport in Florida when I arrived for what I thought was his leave.  We’ve talked about how that trip already and all that happened.

Anyway, back to the role reversal.  Now, close to 2 years later, I was the one in the military, and he was the spouse.  He eventually found a job with a major security sub-contractor.  AKA – he was a rent-a-cop making minimum wage.  He had been doing menial labor kinds of jobs in Washington too, which is a whole lot of why I ultimately wanted to join the military – to make some sort of life for myself and “us”.  So I was doing something meaningful and fulfilling and making a life and a career, and he was working for minimum wage.

It was frustrating.  I started on a rant that became pretty common in our house – “get a better job or go back to your dad.”  I wanted him to do more…to BE more – not just for me, but for US and for him.  We argued a lot, and neither of us had the skills to discuss and compromise and find some resolution.  We were young and immature in the relationship realm.  We just fought, and used every trick we knew of to get what we wanted.  We tore each other down and fueled the flames of resentment.  We were unhappy but didn’t know how to deal with it.

It was during one of these arguments that things escalated beyond just the verbal mud-slinging that had become common place in our lives behind closed doors.  I couldn’t tell you now what the argument was about or why it got physical, but it did.  It went from verbal insults to pushing and shoving that night.  I’d love to say it was an isolated event, but it wasn’t.  I’d also like to be able to say that it was only him, but it wasn’t.  I knew exactly what buttons to push to piss him off, and I tore at him (verbally) relentlessly.  We both spewed venomous words at each other intending to hurt the other.  But he was bigger than I was, so when it did eventually turn physical, I went defensive.  I was shocked the first time he shoved me…and more than a little bit afraid.  I had seen him mad…but I had never seen him fighting mad.  I think the shock of it that first time hit us both, as it was so unexpected.  Apologies followed of course, promises of never again were given, and we made up.

The pattern continued, as it is want to do in unstable relationships.  A disagreement turns into an argument.  The argument turns dirty and the taunting begins…and the abuse changes from verbal to physical.  Just a little bit further each time.  Shock, apologies, shame, denial.  I am not without blame.  I was as nasty as I could be verbally, and I taunted him relentlessly.  But he pushed and shoved me…down…into things.  He did strike me a few times, grab me too tightly, and always used his size to intimidate/threaten me.  The art of verbal intimidation is something we both learned in the military.  But he never hit my face, he never broke the skin, and he never used a weapon.  I never pushed him that far.  And there was always an apology, and a promise it wouldn’t happen again.  And it never crossed my mind that I should report it.  We were having an argument; I was as much to blame as he.  I pushed him too far.  I should have stopped.  It was my fault.  (Pretty standard refrains for someone involved in domestic violence, I think.)

During the day, I wore my uniform and went to work and got on with my life in the military.  I worked hard, I trained hard, I did whatever it took to be the BEST soldier I could be.  I was proud of my accomplishments, I enjoyed the people I worked with, and I was encouraged to work hard for what I wanted – and plan for my future.  I was praised for my accomplishments, recognized for the work I did.  It was the positive reinforcement I had craved all my life, and seemingly only found in a military environment.

In the evenings, and in other quiet private times I really questioned where my life was going, what I wanted, and how I would get it.  Wondering what it would take to get my husband to truly approve of me, to accept me, to be proud of me.  I was convinced that I was less of a woman because I couldn’t make him a father.  This was all my fault, and something truly insurmountable – and it was brought to my attention often.  But how could we have a family when we would essentially have to BUY a child?  If I could have gotten pregnant…the military would have paid all my pregnancy, labor and delivery costs…we would just have to pay for things after bringing the baby home.  But I couldn’t get pregnant…so we would have to pay legal fees, adoption fees, agency fees and all that…plus pay for everything after bringing the baby home.  It wasn’t fair, and it was one of many things we fought about.

I don’t honestly know at what point I finally realized that I had to get out of the relationship.  I wasn’t a quitter…I was stubborn and hard headed and dammit, don’t tell me I can’t do something!  But I did finally accept that there was not a healthy viable future with that man…and my choices started to change.  Thoughts turn to intentions, intentions turn to action, and action compels momentum.  Eventually the wheels of change started to pick up speed – and once again it was Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.

Do you have kids?

I think figuring out a tactful way to answer this is pretty simple really, and not really the issue.

“No, we don’t have children.” Is sometimes enough for the person asking.  And it’s the answer that is easiest to give, because it doesn’t give anything away.  It doesn’t elude to the heartbreak that is infertility.  The inability to have a child no matter what you do.  It’s the simple answer to the basic and simple question.

When I was younger, and in my “prime child bearing years”, often the question was followed up with a more probing question of “why not?” or “when are you planning them?”.  Sometimes I was brutally honest, and very blunt in my response, “I was born without a uterus and can’t get pregnant.”  And sometimes, I would give an answer along the lines of, “we are considering our options for adoption, but the timing just isn’t right yet.”  I tried not to get too involved with the details, giving just enough information that the questions would stop.  I didn’t share the hurt that comes along with being told at 18 that you are infertile, that you will never carry a child in your body.  I would never shop for maternity clothes, I would never pee on a stick and wait with wild anticipation of the results.  That option was ripped away from me when I was diagnosed with MRKH.

I still wanted to have children.  I would adopt.  I would get that perfect newborn baby to love and cherish, and that would somehow make me normal and my life would be as I had perfectly planned it to be.  And a couple years later I would get another perfect baby and be a doting mother to 2 charming children – maybe even 3.

Things were falling into place in my life, and so I started really thinking about motherhood and adoption.  I met with social workers, attended support groups, wrote biographies, and talked with doctors about pursing parenthood.  I bought baby clothes and supplies, knowing that if I could just get a baby then my life would be complete.

Over the course of a few months, things changed pretty rapidly in my life.  Or rather, the accumulation of events led to some difficult decisions.  I put the brakes on starting a family in an attempt to truly have control over my life.  I comforted myself in the thought that I could always start again, but first I needed to get MY life in line.

In the months and years that followed, I had several friends start families either through planned or unplanned pregnancies.  I just kept waiting for the right time and worked on filling my life with other activities – putting my infertility on the back burner.  I stumbled around for several years trying to figure out just what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I listened as my biological clock ticked telling me you need to get busy with this parenting thing…you need to get that baby by the time you’re 30.  As I got closer and closer to 30, I thought…well maybe 35.  I could get my life together by the time I’m 35 and still be a mom.  I’d be more responsible and “ready” then to truly give my child the life they deserved.

I wanted to be a mother, but I started to question if I needed to be a mother to be complete in my life.  Was I destined to be a mother, or was my purpose in life to be something else?  I wasn’t sure anymore.  I enjoyed the life I was leading, and I knew that I would be a good mother if a child came into my life. But I had a choice.  My husband and I had a choice, and we could chose to NOT be parents.  After-all, our default option was to not be parents.  There was no way we could accidentally become parents, get unexpectedly pregnant.  We truly had to make a choice – just let the default option be the answer, or actively pursue parenthood. In all honesty, we pretty much just let the default option take over.  We didn’t talk for hours and hours about the pros and cons of parenthood.  We didn’t discuss financial implications of adopting a child or pursuing surrogacy.   We didn’t talk about savings accounts and college funds and baby nurseries and family friendly cars.  We just let the default option be.  We were complete in our individual lives, and in our married lives.  We loved our nieces and nephews, and we would have loved a child.  But we didn’t NEED a child to be whole.

So now, when people ask us, “Do you have children?”, we usually answer “No, we never got around to that.”  Somehow, in your mid 40s if you state that you haven’t had children, it’s an acceptable thing.  Whatever lead to the choice isn’t as important, and they just accept the fact that you chose not to be parents.

I now use the question as an opportunity to talk about infertility and MRKH.  Sometimes I share just a little, and sometimes I spend close to an hour talking about it.  We begin with a recitation of facts:

  • 1 in 8 couples struggles with infertility in some form
  • up to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage in the first trimester
  • 1 in 33 babies are born with some sort of congenital birth defect
  • 1 in 4500 women world wide are diagnosed with MRKH

And then I start to discuss my own diagnosis, being born without a uterus, cervix, and the upper portion of my vaginal canal.  I tell them about abnormal kidneys and skeletal and joint issues.  I explain that I do have ovaries and hormones, and all the outward signs of being a woman.  I explain that I still have hormonal cycles – PMS if you will – I just don’t have the punctuation in the form of menstrual bleeding – no period.  Often a full discussion follows where my anatomy is discussed in great detail, to include how I had to stretch my vaginal canal in order to have penetrative vaginal intercourse.  We sometimes talk about other treatment options of vaginal dilators and surgical creation of a neovagina.  And I talk about WHY I talk about it.  How I went over 25 years thinking I was so different, never meeting another woman who had the same thing as me – feeling ashamed of my “otherness” – depression – adoption – surrogacy.  I never want another women to feel so utterly alone.

While I don’t particularly enjoy talking about my physical differences, I feel it’s important – no VITAL – to remove the shame associated with having MRKH.  I am no less a woman than someone who is born with one blue eye and one brown eye.  I am no less a woman than someone who is born with a cleft palate.  I am no less a woman than someone who is born without a fully developed hand or foot.  I am in a unique position where I can say that while I will forever carry this diagnosis – but my diagnosis will not hold me back.  Plenty of my MRKH sisters are mothers.  Some have adopted children, some have used gestational carriers, some are foster parents, and many more of us are pet-parents.  And we are scientists, teachers, engineers, veterinarians, authors, fitness coaches, yogis, accountants, farmers, librarians, politicians, pastors, truck drivers, day care workers, business owners, beauty queens, doctors, counselors, sailors, soldiers, MRKH Warriors.

We are stronger than we ever thought possible.  We are compassionate.  We are fighters, survivalists.  We learn to make a life with what we have, and not focus on what we don’t have.  We learn to improvise, adapt and overcome.  Our path may not be clear, well lit, and obvious – but we will follow it none the less.  We are Courageous.

“How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them.”  Benjamin Franklin