Why I Wrote "The Fisherman's Widow"

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The Fisherman’s Widow, while not a Romance, is about love. It’s also about grief and what grief does to us. When I first got the idea for The Fisherman’s Widow, I anticipated a Lovecraftian short story wherein I would continue to explore writing horror. Quite admittedly, I would also try my hand at tentacle porn. (Let’s call it what it is.)

But right around the time Eidolon released and the first draft of The Fisherman’s Widow began, I unfortunately had become closely acquainted with grief, and what it did to me specifically. Thus, The Fisherman’s Widow turned into a much more personal project than I ever intended—a longer one as well, hence it being a novella.

Let me back up to the spring of 2015. Back to when my husband and I had been trying for a year to get pregnant without success. Back to when a vague dread had been growing in the back of my mind, one that whispered, "Did you really think this wouldn't happen to you?"

After receiving a referral to a reproductive clinic, we did a gamut of tests. A few things came back as concerning, but nothing was satisfyingly definitive. I was told I was still young and otherwise healthy. We had cause for hope.

First, we tried something called IUI (intrauterine insemination). Basically, if my uterus were a bed waiting for an occupant, IUI “fluffed the pillows” and made sure that an egg and a potent contribution from my partner were both "in the bedroom.” I was told the odds of conception, and what to do to care for myself. I tried to stay positive.

When the second IUI failed that summer, I broke down crying in front of one of my doctors. She held my hands and spoke gently and told me my feelings were important and valid and completely normal. I remember her fingers were thin, soft, and cool, and I was so grateful for the way she cared for me.

But I also knew I was coming undone—decaying, in a way. Every negative pregnancy test had been slowly destroying me and my self-worth. A woman’s ability to conceive isn’t and shouldn’t be part of what makes her important or valuable, but for me, my inability was yet another failure at making my loved ones proud and happy.

I'd shut down whenever I saw a pregnant woman or an infant. Sadness and longing and guilt instantly snuffed any joy I was feeling. One summer day, my husband and I were walking through a small neighborhood park, smiling and talking about something. Then I spotted a woman pushing her infant in a stroller. Something gripped my chest and my pace slowed. I couldn't smile again for the rest of the day.

Twice that summer, I had nightmares that my husband was leaving me. In one, I was holding him tight, my arms around his neck, and I begged him not to go. I specifically remember plaintively yelling, "No!" In my dream, he was trying to pull me off him so he could walk away.

I woke up crying from that one. In the darkness of our bedroom, my husband held me and comforted me. Throughout all of this, he has been steadfast and a well of strength. But I couldn’t ask him to soak up every emotion I was having when he was also in pain, and I wasn’t ready to tell my friends or family that the agonizingly slow process was tearing out pieces of me.

So, I sat down with a social worker. In her office, I expressed my fears and dashed hopes. I admitted that I often wondered whether I had done something to deserve this. That maybe I had always known "something" wasn't right, and I had been merely waiting to find out what. I told her how mad I was that other couples didn’t seem to know they had pulled off a Copperfield-level magic trick. I cried so much that first session that by the next one, she had a better brand of tissues out.

But putting into words what my mind didn’t want to confront, and crying as a result, felt like ejecting toxins from my body, or like squeezing all the water out of a sponge. I would eventually soak up more, but for a little while, I had space to breathe.

After three failed IUIs, it was time for the more aggressive option: IVF (in-vitro fertilization). More tests were done, and they were unpleasant. One of the uterus’s main jobs is to expel things, and that includes cameras. A little over a month after Eidolon released, I began the IVF process.

I’m not scared of needles, but I still had to take a calming breath before plunging one into my stomach (and then two more). For about ten days, I gave myself multiple injections of different medicines and submitted myself to several transvaginal ultrasounds and blood tests that tracked my progress. One of the medications can cause a hive at the injection site, which typically disappears after an hour. Once, I had a hive so raised, warm, and itchy that I couldn’t stand to let clothing touch it. Emotionally, my mood became delicate, but I was very hopeful. If everything went according to plan and if I was lucky, I would be pregnant by Christmas. My mother would be visiting, and I fantasized about strolling with her through children’s clothing stores.

The first bit of bad news came not long after I woke up following the egg retrieval. They had not pulled as many mature eggs as they had wanted or expected. It was pointed out to me that my estrogen level hadn’t shot up as high as expected for someone of my age, something my doctor had only seen a handful of times in her entire career. This news was a bummer, but we did have good eggs. I held onto that. But though some women end up with five to ten embryos after an IVF cycle, I had two. Better than zero, yes—but my body’s lackluster response became a new torment in the months that followed.

Right around this time is when my insurance company sent us a letter telling us in the gentlest way they could that we were rapidly nearing the lifetime cap for fertility treatment. Now, I’m grateful to have any insurance at all, doubly so for insurance that even offered some fertility coverage—and then no more for the rest of your life—but the lifetime cap, compared to the cost of a single round of IVF and embryo transfer…? Not as generous as I once thought it was. And I knew, based on where things were going, that we’d blow past the lifetime cap in early 2016, if we hadn’t already. (Spoiler: we had. Hospital billing is infamously slow as hell.)

I expressed numerous times to my husband and the social worker how guilty I felt about the cost, and how unfair it felt that other couples got pregnant “for free” while we were spending a great deal of time, energy, and money just trying to get pregnant. (Adoption is not cheap, in case you’re thinking it.) But I also thought about infertile couples who don’t have a high income or insurance that covers fertility treatments (or who don’t have insurance at all), and how much heartache they had to have gone through.

More bad news when they told us they wouldn’t be transferring either of the embryos that had resulted—not yet. Various factors made a transfer at that time unwise. Hearing this, I was anxious to know how long I’d have to wait for the embryo transfer. One month? Two? The answer turned out to be five months.

First, a hysteroscopy. I had already done one before, but my body hit the panic button a second time when the camera passed through my cervix. My heart went from chill to oh fuck in an instant. Sweat broke out on my forehead, and my face became red-hot. I learned that when I’m in extreme discomfort, I cover my face with my hands and do my damnedest to keep breathing.

Then, a polypectomy. I was given a Vicodin that was supposed to make me not care, but boy did I care. I felt every scrape. It was panic mode times ten. One of the medical assistants held my hand for a moment before she had to do something else, and just for that, I will love her for the rest of my life. Due to how not okay I was, they asked repeatedly if I wanted to end the procedure early and do it in an operating room with anesthesia instead. (My doctors do have hearts, of course.) I was naked from the waist down with medical instruments inside my body, and my heart was racing, but all I could think was how tapping out would mean waiting even longer for that embryo transfer, and how much more expensive the operating room would be.

Practically all of fertility treatment for those with uteri is cycle-dependent. If a certain kind of cyst forms, the whole month is a wash and one has to hope the cyst clears up by the next month. If birth control doesn’t manage to suppress the ovaries in order to begin the run-up to IVF or an embryo transfer, the whole month is a wash. If the lining is too thick or too thin, if hormone levels are too low or too high, if if if…

I endured the polypectomy until the end, and while they were removing the various instruments, one of the doctors held my head up and put a tray under my chin because I was close to vomiting. I gagged once, but then it was over. Faded, I dressed and went back to the lobby where my husband waited to drive me home.

Finally, in late spring 2016, they transferred a beautiful embryo. I figured I could “feel pregnant” for just a little while, even if… I celebrated my birthday and hoped for a belated birthday gift. When the clinic called to tell me the pregnancy test was negative, I was sitting then where I’m sitting now as I write this, and my only thought was that in just a day or two, that beautiful embryo would leave me. My husband stood behind me and could hear the result in our quiet office. He rubbed my shoulders, and I lost the day to tears.

The second and final embryo was to be transferred the next month. My husband and I arrived at the clinic and waited in the lobby. I told my husband I had a “good feeling about this one.” But our wait was longer than expected. When a medical assistant came to get us, we were taken to a consultation room rather than downstairs to the OR. Trepidation made my stomach sink. My doctor came in almost immediately to tell us that the embryo hadn't survived the thaw. A five-percent chance with any thaw, and of course, I hit the jackpot.

I don’t remember much of what was said after that. I was barely holding myself together, and my husband asked if we could have the room for a few minutes. I broke down for what felt like the hundredth time. My husband was also crushed, and all we could do was hold each other. As we were leaving, a man waiting in the lobby glanced at my face and quickly looked away. My husband called the elevator, and at the other end of the hall, someone's infant was crying. I began sobbing again and covered my face in abject shame. The elevator came quickly and thankfully was empty. I pushed myself into the corner, and we rode it down without meeting anyone else.

Neither of us wanted to go directly home after that. Instead, we went to a restaurant a few minutes' drive from our house. Their outdoor seating was open, empty, and—incidentally—exclusively ours for the entire time we were there. The weather that day was the most beautiful yet of the summer, and I kept my sunglasses on so the server wouldn’t see how red my eyes were. My husband and I ate our fill and talked about where to go from there. In the end, we opted to do IVF again.

The next time I talked with the social worker was the first time I didn’t cry in front of her. Grief would still bring me to tears in the days and weeks afterward, but on that day, I was mostly angry and resentful. Not at anyone in particular, but at the universe, I suppose.

By then, I wasn’t far from completing the first draft of The Fisherman’s Widow. As the title implies, it’s about a woman beset with grief and longing. I had spent a lot of time translating my grief into hers, my anger and resentment and despondency into hers. The process was difficult but cathartic. And after years now of trying to conceive, so much more of that stress affected the story than I anticipated, but I feel it has lent more authenticity to Eva’s struggles.

For example, feeling detached and alienated from my own body. Feeling as though sex has become something fraught and weird and even a bit tainted at times. As though the outside world was moving on without me. Grief has at many times convinced me to isolate myself. Twice in the last year, friends on social media happily announced their pregnancies just months after their weddings, and I was both bitter and ashamed. I avoided Facebook rather than risk the chance of another happy couple torpedoing my day. Half a dozen times, I came close to telling my friends about what my husband and I had been going through, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It’s stupid, but it's like I thought talking about it to others made it real, and I didn't want it to be real. And I didn't want to admit something I felt ashamed of. Instead, I festered.

But eventually, I did open up to friends and family. They were generous with their love and support. I found ways to step back from my grief when I didn’t have the space to process it. I try not to feel guilty when it manages to overwhelm me, and I’m still coming to grips with the fact that this heartache will be a part of me for the rest of my life.

As for The Fisherman’s Widow, I invite you to read Eva’s journey through a stranger, more terrifying loss. I hope you see something of yourself in her, of your life in her story, and that what I put into it thus resonates with you.