hovering over life
“Life happens while you are making other plans” is a popular cliché, but for me the true theme of my life was, “Life happens because you aren’t able to plan.” Sometimes, I simply failed to take the time to think ahead and work out the consequences to decisions I made. Other times, insurmountable barriers blocked the path I chose, and I had to re-navigate my life. This pattern began when I was twenty-three and my gynecologist upturned my world with the news that I might be infertile. Until his fateful words, I expected to wait to have a child until I finished my education and established myself professionally. Instead, I put my career plans on hold and threw myself into trying to get pregnant.
professional promise in an envelope
Exactly one year later, I was home from work sick with the flu, but new life bloomed in our tiny abode. I had not conceived, but our cat, Champagne, had. Fuzzy, grey-striped kittens cavorted in every corner of our living room. The kittens couldn’t hold my attention, however, because earlier that afternoon, I’d pulled a bulging envelope from our mailbox. Addressed to my husband Jay, it was from the Illinois Bar Association. Thick meant it had papers for him to sign, which signaled he had passed the bar.
Tense with excitement, I counted the minutes until he would arrive home from work and see the envelope sitting in the middle of the card table. Following his June graduation from law school, he accepted a position as an Assistant State’s Attorney, but keeping the job depended on passing the bar. He’d be over the moon. He loved his job, its fast-paced rhythm, the intricacy of the court system, the dealings with police, judges, defense attorneys, and defendants. Every day he headed out the door affirmed in his choice of profession.
one more wish
I pulled my knees up to my chin, and Champagne jumped from my lap to check on her little ones. As I waited for Jay to appear on the walk outside our apartment, I couldn’t help wish I was pregnant. Then everything would be perfect.
We hadn’t shared my infertility with our families, but they were asking questions. Barrenness sounded biblical to me, not a condition of the twentieth century. Yet, here I sat, an apparently healthy twenty-four-year-old with a womb as unresponsive as Sarah’s in the Old Testament. Champagne jumped back up and rubbed against me. “Too bad you’re not an angel in disguise,” I told her. “Maybe you’d be the one sent to tell me God had answered my prayer.” Her deep green eyes held mine solemnly. I could have sworn she understood.
The front doorknob rattled. Jay was home! I sat perfectly still, anticipating the moment he’d see the letter. But he walked right by the table and up to me, “Feeling any better this evening? … Oh!” he jumped because he almost squished a kitten under his heavy work shoes.
“I’m fine,” I said. “More than fine.”
He twisted his head, “What’s that grin about?”
“Look on the table!”
“Holy smokes. Is it THE letter?”
I nodded. He grabbed and ripped it open. And jumped, hitting the ceiling with both hands. “Passed! I passed. Your husband’s a real lawyer now, honey.”
Euphoria swept over us. We ignored the budget and ordered Chinese takeout. We celebrated and talked past midnight. How strange it would be to be financially stable. Passing the bar assured him an immediate, substantial raise. By the next week, his salary would double what I brought home. It made our heads swim to think what that could mean. Dreams piled onto one another like a child’s house of blocks, colorful and covered with dozens of images.
Then at some point he ventured, “We could start saving to buy a house, one big enough for kids.”
My heart froze. “If we have children… if not, it would feel empty living in a house, just the two of us.”
He took both my hands in his. “Jule, it’s only been a year. Dr. Grimes says your body had to heal from the surgery before we can count on any eggs being produced. It’s important you don’t get negative. That’ll just stress you out and make things worse.”
I leaned against him. One of things I loved about him was his optimism, but I wished wouldn’t make infertility sound like something that would just fix itself. I was just so tired of living my life in a holding pattern while his life moved forward in such a defined direction.
“Maybe I should leave Children’s Division. Take a break. The doctor suggested that maybe the stress of the job was contributing to my problems.”
“But you love what you do.”
“I enjoy helping kids have a better life than they could have, but I don’t love the struggle. They can’t be with their natural families because all kinds of awful things happened to them there. And yet, they very often yearn to go “home” no matter how caring their foster family is. There’s never a truly suitable answer. After three years at the agency, I am understanding why some of the older caseworkers are so jaded.”
a possible new future
“But what would you do if you quit?”
“I could go to school full time instead of just at night.” Where had that come from? Had I been chafing all along, frustrated by the slow pace of my crawl toward a bachelor’s degree?
“Could we afford it if you quit?”
My heart clenched a little that his first response was practical rather than supportive, but the rest of me was roiling with excitement. I wasn’t giving up on this idea. “Let me work on it, okay? I just need to juggle the budget a bit.”
He looked over at the letter propped against the salt and pepper shakers. “Tonight, though, we’ll celebrate this victory. Your next campaign can start tomorrow.”
He reached over and ran a finger down my cheek to my chin, traced the outline of my neck down to the barely visible crevice between my breasts. Keeping his hand in place, he stood, circled the table, and bent over me. “I think I’m ready for bed,” he said. “How about you?”
I leaned all the way back to stare into his grinning face. “This would be a perfect night to become parents,” I murmured.
“Can’t hurt to try it,” he agreed.
the hard part
A month later, I stood, shoulders back, arms at my side, fists clenched just outside the door of my supervisor’s office. I admired and respected Mrs. Geis not just for the keen understanding she brought to our work, but how sensitively and deftly she molded untried young women, barely into their twenties, into capable, caring but effective caseworkers.
I dreaded telling her I planned to quit, to leave behind the children that had grown to be like nieces and nephews to me, the fosters mothers that “mothered” me even as they cared for the children I brought them. Building these relationships took time and dedication. Every time a caseworker left the agency, the families in their caseload experienced disruption, sometimes serious enough to capsize a placement.
Resigning felt like a betrayal.
Over the last two weeks, I had created a budget that would allow me to quit working for the six months it would take to earn my degree and to pay for the courses. But I shrunk from taking the next step.
“Mrs. Ward, did you need something?” My eyes flew open. The petite Mrs. Geis stood in her doorway not a foot away.
“Oh, I, ah,… I need to talk to you.” I felt like a schoolgirl called to the principal’s office.
“Come in then. You are pale as milk. It must be serious. I hope you’re not ill again.” She laid a small hand on my arm.
“No, no, I’m fine.” Silence gripped me.
“Sit down, please. You’re clearly agitated,” she said and closed her door. She sat on the other side of her battered wooden desk. Suddenly, a sweet grin broke out on her narrow face. “Are you expecting a baby?”
I wished I could lie. Being pregnant was a better reason than just quitting. I could not, however, sit there forever saying nothing. “No, I’m not having a baby.”
“Oh, my dear, I’m sorry to hear that. I know how badly you’ve been hoping for a child.”
Her concern for me drew a sigh. “But I am leaving Children’s Division.”
She nodded her head slowly. “I’ve noticed that you seem strained lately. If a case is particularly troublesome, I might step in.”
“No, it’s not that at all.” I didn’t want her to think I simply couldn’t cope. “I need to finish college. It’s just so slow going to night school. If I switch to full-time in January, I’ll graduate next August.”
“A wise decision, I agree. Can you make it work financially?” she asked.
“We can, unless I get pregnant. That would be a whole different ball game. But I’m not going to just sit around and wait for it to happen.” Both my hands flew into the air. “With my husband done with school and working, we can swing the tuition and a little sabbatical from work for me.”
“As much as we’ll miss you, I applaud this move.”
“Thank you for understanding.” I stood, eager to leave, but at the doorway I turned. “Telling the foster mothers I work with is going to be even harder than telling you.”
one of many new beginnings
We couldn’t know when I started classes at Roosevelt University in January, 1967, while Jay moved to the Narcotics Court at the State’s Attorney’s office that we had laid the cornerstone of our marriage.
From that day until he resigned from his law firm in 2007, Jay would pursue his professional life with unwavering dedication. For however many hours of each day it took, for however many days of each week it required, he devoted them to being a successful attorney.
During that same period, my life spun in kaleidoscopic cycles.