Excerpt of Nadine Kenney Johnstone’s OF THIS MUCH I’M SURE

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After calling the university and asking for more time off, I hear a knock at the door of my hospital room. A middle-aged woman with wavy hair stands in the doorway.

“I’m a social worker,” she says, then she sits down in the chair next to my bed and asks if I’d like to talk. She seems nurturing, and it’s nice to have a visitor.

“My husband and I were doing IVF,” I say, and I’m about to continue when she cuts me off.

“A lot of people struggle with infertility. It’s more common than you think.”

“Yeah,” I say, “I’m learning that.” But when I start back into my story, she interrupts me again.

“IVF can be really stressful,” she says.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you, I think, if you’d just zip it and listen for a minute.

But she doesn’t listen. She talks and talks until tears reach my cheeks. She touches my arm, thinking it’s a cathartic moment, but I shift to the right side of the bed, out of her grasp. Jamie and the doctor walk in just as I’m reaching for the tissue box on my tray.

The doctor sees my red eyes and asks what’s wrong, but all I can do is shake my head and look away.

“Buck up,” the doctor says. “You should feel fortunate that you have all your organs.”

Anger rings in my eardrums and my lips tighten into a line. My body hardens with rage and rotates away from him, as if shielding my fragile core and fragile soul. I think of Mom and the many times she threw plates around in the sink, screaming, “What about me?” My fury could break a whole set of china.

Jamie stares at me, wondering what I’m going to do.

When the doctor stops talking, I turn my head back toward him and stare at his crinkled face with burning eyes, as if possessed. My voice is a guttural growl.

“If one more person tells me that I should be grateful,” I hiss, “I’m going to fucking lose it.”

Then I do lose it — sobbing into the starched bedsheets, ignoring the doctor and the social worker until they leave.

Jamie rubs my back, and I feel, in his palm, how heavy of a responsibility I’ve become.

Even while crying, I make a decision to get my act together. I’m going to keep my hurt to myself, not burden Jamie or his mother or anyone else. When the doctors discharge me from the hospital again, I will take care of myself alone.

So that’s what I do. Back home the next morning, Jamie gets ready for work, and I sit out on our cold sunporch with a book. Though every ounce of me screams, “Don’t leave me!” I plant a smile on my face and wave goodbye to Jamie.

His face relaxes when he climbs into his truck, and I understand that this is how he copes. When he goes to work, he gets lost in emails and phone calls. The business of his job carries him away from our IVF trauma and my neediness. He gets to be Jamie Johnstone, operations manager, and not Jamie Johnstone, childless caretaker of a needy wife. Then, when he comes home, he escapes into television and food. He can watch Dave Chappelle and laugh or get caught up in an action flick and fantasize about life as a Navy Seal. He can snack at night and numb his emotions. Whereas I grapple with my stress outwardly, in the messiest way possible, Jamie uses distraction. My mother-in-law says she can come over today and Mom repeats her offer to fly in, but I insist I’m OK.

Through trial and error, I learn which medications I should take and when—iron pills, stool softeners, ibuprofen. I learn that Percocets are not my friend. I learn how to take naps sitting up. I learn how to clean my incision, but I still haven’t learned how to accept that it’s there. Once the gauze is peeled back, I stare down at it for a long time, my fingers running along the cut, which is nauseatingly numb.

Anxiety is a new permanent state, and if I carry Lorazepam around, sometimes it gives the placebo effect without having to place the pill on my tongue. Still, the negative thoughts circle my cerebrum. It seems that when the doctors cut me open and held my hemorrhaging ovary outside of my body, they also exposed every repressed worry and every harsh truth I’ve ever stowed away.

My brain busies itself by watching the neighborhood, and during my first time at home on a weekday, it becomes quickly apparent that absolutely nothing happens here. The only person I see is the mailman who comes at ten.

Each day, I wait at the door for his deliveries — Jenny sends me a care package; my ESL students make me a get-well video; Marie, who unexpectedly lost her young mother in August, sends me a touching card about loss; Courtney, Mom, and Dana send flowers even though I’ve been nearly absent in their lives.

Dana and I make up for all of the talking we didn’t do over the last four years. Although she is only 22 and just graduated college, she speaks like a therapist who’s been counseling patients for decades. She says all the right things, like, “This must be so difficult. You’re dealing with a lot right now. You have to take care of yourself.”

When did she get so wise? I wonder. In the years I’ve been away, she’s morphed into an amazingly empathetic person.

“Thank you, sister,” I say before I hang up, but there’s so much more I want to say.

I’m realizing now that when I moved to Massachusetts, I gave so much of myself to my new life, my new love, that there wasn’t anything left for anyone else. Now, I’m seeing the repercussions.

During this extended time alone, recovering, I sit in our living room and think about all these things. In the afternoon, I linger in each room of our lovely home and feel such loneliness that it seizes me. We’ve put so much heart into this place — I picked out the serene green paint on the walls and the colorful pillows on the couches; Jamie has updated all of our floors and light fixtures. Every room is bursting with color and life, but then I step out onto the porch, and everything outside is dull and dormant. Even though we live near a main road, it leads to a laundromat and a Salvation Army. Three miles in the other direction is a pizza joint. I yearn to walk to a coffee shop just to sit and be around people my own age.

How did we move to a place so different from my Chicago apartment? What made me ignore my concerns about moving to a remote town two years ago, when we were looking for houses to buy? I’d felt increasingly more isolated the farther outside of Boston we searched, but each Saturday, we continued to tour homes that bordered farmland.

My memory pauses on the night shortly after we purchased our house. Jamie and I were walking Tessa through our small neighborhood, and I grew silent. The stillness of the street, the lack of people — it instantly depressed me.

Jamie asked what was wrong, and my eyes averted his gaze. “Oh, I’m just happy,” I lied.

“For now,” he said, picking up on my tone. I nagged him to elaborate, and finally he sighed, then cleared his throat.

“I just think you’ll always want more. I don’t think that this” — his arm waved out at the sprawling land in between each house, the goat farm in our neighbor’s backyard — “I don’t think that this will ever be enough for you.”

We stood there, in the middle of the street, no noises coming from the houses, no neighbors getting into their cars. It was as if someone had pressed pause on life here. Jamie’s words hung, stagnant, between us: “I don’t think that this will ever be enough for you.”

“It is,” I insisted. Because I wanted so badly for it to be.

Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the author of the memoir, Of This Much I’m Sure, about her IVF challenges and the healing power of hope. Her infertility story has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Today’s Parent, and Chicago Health Magazine, among others. She teaches at Loyola University and received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. Her other work has been featured in various magazines and anthologies, including Chicago Magazine, The Moth, PANK, and The Magic of Memoir. Nadine is a writing coach who presents at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family. Follow her at nadinekenneyjohnstone.com.

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