It’s been a month since I last wrote, the longest gap since I started this blog. That’s because August was a month of goodbyes: one easy, one hard.
The easy goodbye
We parted with our first IVF hospital. When we started out with them in February 2015, we were bright-eyed newbies to assisted reproduction. We knew nothing about IVF, other than to expect needles and waiting rooms. I believed we’d complete treatment by the end of the year, with a baby bump and our scan pics to show for it. Come December, however, we still hadn’t done our embryo transfer. I felt dreadful between Christmas and New Year, we both did. I knew I needed more support, so I started to connect with people who understood my hopes and fears. Thank god for this loving community.
This July, we made our decision to change hospital. It took fifteen months to do IVF1 (one frozen embryo transfer which resulted in ectopic pregnancy). We just don’t have that much time for IVF2, as the NHS will only fund our treatment up until my 40th birthday in January. So, we went back to our GP, who swiftly referred us to a new hospital in central London. At their open evening, they told us they had no waiting list for NHS patients – a miracle! We set about transferring our IVF funding.
Then we received a letter in August. Our new hospital wrote to tell us we had one NHS cycle left. There must be a mistake, we said, we have two rounds left because originally we were funded for three cycles. It turns out, however, that two of our three rounds of funding were used on one attempt at pregnancy. This came as a total surprise.
If in doubt, write a letter! We asked our first hospital why one frozen embryo transfer has used up two rounds of IVF funding; we also asked why no-one informed us at the time. We do know we are still very lucky to have one more NHS funded cycle. In England, depending on where you live, clinical commissioning groups fund anywhere between zero and three IVF cycles. The postcode lottery in England is clearly a divisive system, where many people are not offered three cycles (as recommended by NICE). That said, we did have important questions about our funding and treatment – we should receive a reply this month.
The hard goodbye
After writing our letter, we both needed a break from all things IVF. Dad 100 wanted some fresh air. He said he was going for a walk to the High Street. I took up my favourite position on the sofa and picked up a chunky Harry Potter book. I’m twenty years late to the Potter party but it’s still a delight to discover JK Rowling’s plot mastery. Her magical tales erase all thoughts of IVF from my mind, which is clear evidence of her wizardry. I dived into Hogwarts. I drank Butterbeers at The Three Broomsticks. I attended a Care of Magical Creatures lessons with Hagrid, learning about Blast-Ended Skrewts.
This is the moment I want to press stop. I want to go back in time like Harry Potter can. Have you ever had that feeling, in your stomach or your heart? – that feeling when you know, before the fact, that something is wrong? It’s like a snapshot of the future, but it’s not a premonition of a precise event. Instead, it’s a tight ball of fear, scrunched up in your gut. When Dad 100 returned from the shops, I had that feeling when he walked into our living room. He had a shiny steel frying pan in one hand (a fertility-friendly replacement for our knackered non-stick pan). His mobile phone was in his left hand, hanging by his side. His face was in shadow with window light behind him.
‘My Dad’s died,’ he said.
‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘Please no.’
I reached out for him. He sat on the sofa next to me. He put down the frying pan and I wrapped my arms around him. I kissed his face and put my hand on his cheek and held him there.
He relayed the phone conversation with his brother. His Mum and Dad are called Win and Leo. They were getting ready for a weekend trip to Blackpool, to celebrate Win’s birthday. Leo went out to the garage to clean the car windscreen. Next thing Win knew, Leo was back inside the house, calling her name. She dashed through to the kitchen and there he was, passed out at the kitchen table. Win dialled 999. She ran for a neighbour, who volunteers with St John’s Ambulance. The neighbour came quickly. He felt for Leo’s pulse. He found a faint beat. The paramedics arrived and they lifted Leo off the chair on to the kitchen floor. They tried so hard to revive him with heart compression and artificial respiration.
‘Pumping at him for ages, they were,’ Win later told us, distressed at her husband’s suffering.
The paramedics took Leo to hospital but he died on the way – a cardiac arrest, they said, brought on by angina. Win thinks the attack happened while Leo was cleaning the car windscreen, ready for her birthday trip.
I hugged Dad 100 tight. I wanted to squeeze love into every muscle and cell. I stroked his head and kissed him.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I love you.’
‘I can’t believe I’m never going to see my Dad again.’
I felt a twist in my stomach. We cried at the loss of his father, such a kind and jovial man. Though he had his health problems, no-one expected this abrupt end. Only days before, I’d suggested that we go up north to see his Mum and Dad. We wanted to see them before IVF2 kicked off.
‘Put your feet up on the sofa,’ I said. ‘I’ll do dinner. Do you want some tea? Please let me take care of you.’
I wanted to show him the same level of support that he’d shown me during the ectopic pregnancy – and he did let me look after him. When the fish stew was simmering, I went to buy him some wine. Over dinner, we talked.
‘My Dad always had time for me and he loved to crack a joke. He had a great bullshit detector and he would do absolutely anything for our family.’
Before bed, I replayed the events of spring and summer 2016, going through our embryo transfer. Then came the confusion of the ectopic pregnancy, lost inside me until 9 weeks pregnant. We cancelled our holiday to the Balearics. For weeks, we didn’t venture much further than our postcode boundaries – alternating between home and hospital. It ended with emergency surgery at the end of June and recovery in July. When we got back to normality, Dad 100’s work tipped into his hectic summer season. During that time, there was never a clear three days for a trip up north. Could we have found the time? I felt guilty in light of Dad 100’s loss. Had IVF and pregnancy complications prevented his last visit to his father?
“Busy and strong”
We drove north to see Win. We camped out in her living room on a blow up bed. Usually we stay in a B&B in the village but we really wanted to be with her at night time. For the first time in 62 years of marriage, she was on her own.
Win likes to keep busy. She’s always up on her feet, offering cups of tea and beef sandwiches, handing round the well-stocked biscuit tin. She likes her soaps and Strictly Come Dancing. She grew up in a time of post-war rationing. Her parents didn’t have enough money for the ice cream van that came by but Win didn’t mind. There is hardship in her story but no sorrow. Her Dad died when she was nine. She remembers dunking bread in Oxo beef tea for her dinner. She played out in the streets with her siblings and friends. She took on the local bully boy, Michael, who terrified the other kids on her street. Win stood up to him when no-one else would. The same spirit was shining in her now – she was standing tall, she was fighting.
‘I’ve got to be strong,’ Win kept saying to us. ‘I promised Leo. We always said to each other, “if you pop off before me, I promise I’ll be strong.” ’
‘You don’t have to be brave with us,’ I said.
But Win insisted. This was her way. They’d just had a new carpet fitted and Win brushed it at least a dozen times while we were there, to remove the scuff marks from all the feet coming and going. She showed me the muscle in her right arm – it was like Popeye’s bicep, the result of all the housework and gardening she does.
‘It’s come right up this year,’ Win said, ‘since Leo’s angina took hold.’
Win has three sons and five grandchildren. We all went to the crematorium to help her pick the right spot for Leo. It was a hot and bright day. As we walked around the petal garden, I read the headstones, so many ‘treasured memories’ of husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. It’s always relational in death. That is how we mark our losses, with our name and dates and to whom we related in life. There was a baby’s grave with a teddy bear. The birth and death dates were within a year. It was a sharp reminder of the brutality of nature, how we are not in control of life and death. Win wanted a sunny spot for Leo. She was adamant that the digits of the plot number must not add up to 13 (which ruled out plot 1066). She joked about not putting Leo between two women.
‘They’ll be trying it on with him,’ she said, and we all laughed. ‘Such a good lad, he was, my Leo. Gave me anything I wanted. They’ll all be after him down there.’
The hardest goodbye
The following day, we took Win out for a birthday meal. She was dressed in a pale blue suit with matching handbag. She had sweet potato and ginger soup for starter and cottage pie for main, with a pile of vegetables. We took photo evidence of the feast to show her granddaughter, who had given us instructions to make sure Win ate enough during our stay.
After lunch, we met up with the family to visit Leo in the chapel of rest. The three brothers went in first with their Mum. I waited in the small waiting area with the partners and one of the grandkids. Through the open door, I heard their heartbreak. It was an impossible thought, that my lovely man was seeing his father’s body.
After ten minutes, Win called the rest of us through. The room was clean and cool with lilac lighting. I reached out for my partner, put my arms around him. I hugged him tight.
‘I’m so proud of you for supporting your Mum,’ I whispered. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’
Over his shoulder, I saw Leo. He was lying on the bed beneath a dark blue cover. I could see the collar of his smart white shirt. His white hair was brushed back over his head. His eyes were closed and his glasses were missing. Win smoothed back Leo’s hair, stroked his face. She leaned over the bed to kiss him.
‘I love you Leo,’ she said. ‘What am I going to do without you?’
The brothers reached out for their Mum, pulled her into a hug.
My partner and I went towards the bed. I stroked Leo’s white hair and his cool cheek. There was that childish belief in me, that wish for Leo to open his eyes. I can’t help but hope for the impossible at these times.
That evening, we stayed close to Win. We looked through photo albums – their tanned faces on cruise ship holidays, their sparkling eyes in black and white wedding photos. Win said she felt a bit better, seeing Leo at peace in the chapel of rest – especially after the shocking scenes when the paramedics attempted to save Leo’s life. Despite our protests, Win insisted on making cheese and pickle sandwiches.
‘We’ll do it,’ I said.
‘I want to keep busy,’ she said.
One of the things I most admired about Leo and Win was that they still went dancing together. They danced a lifetime of rumbas and quicksteps and foxtrots. In recent months, Leo had to sit out of the sequences but he still went along with Win because he knew how much she loved it. For Leo’s headstone, Win has decided on a pair of dancers – the symbol of their joyful partnership throughout life. Leo was buried in a brand new suit, made to measure, and his dancing shoes. Win said she wants the same when she goes, so they can dance together again. We told her she’s not going anywhere for a long time. I am inspired by the energy and stamina of this brave lady. I marvel at her long and loyal relationship. Rest in peace Leo.