A Letter to… Our Last Embryo

author picRachel Cathan is a writer from Bedfordshire. In 2001, a mutual friend introduced her to a part-time pub DJ in Southend-on-Sea. A month later, they had moved in together, around seven years later they tied the knot, and a little while after that – just like so many couples before them – they made the exciting and terrifying decision to start a family. And then, like a growing number of couples today, well…not a lot happened.

Throughout the subsequent years of fertility investigations and failed treatments, Rachel kept a diary of her experiences, and it’s from these first-hand encounters in the world of infertility and IVF that her first book, 336 Hours has been adapted.

Rachel is mum to Ruben and Delphine.

Website: www.rachelcathan.co.uk

 

Dear Speck of Dust (for that was the size of you when we met five years ago),

You might never know how we used to talk about you, even wave to you on occasion as we drove past the turnoff for the fertility clinic where you lived.

‘Hello, little one’ we would call out, and just for a moment my heart would lurch in recognition of the life that could one day be mine. But then I would check myself, realise my foolishness, and feel the searing shame of knowing that this was as close as I could get to calling myself a mum.

Six months had passed since the day you were conceived, and finally the day had arrived to thaw you out from your frozen state and bring you back to your home.

You won’t recall any of this, of course. And nor will you recall the trusty weekend staff who had given up their Sunday morning to perform your transfer; a compassionate gesture since your mother had (typically) ovulated on a day that was not conducive to normal opening hours. But I can see them gathered around us still, the embryologist holding out a miniature straw, no bigger than a sewing needle, containing our last embryo.

‘Mrs Cathan’ he told me, ‘I need you to confirm this is yours.’

I can feel the sweat trickling down my arms and prickling the skin behind my knees, as your transfer was performed to the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D-Minor. As we laughed uncomfortably at the dramatic choice of soundtrack, I attributed my sweat-drenched self to the uncharacteristic 32- degree heat outside. But we were in a state-of the-art, fully air-conditioned laboratory, and the truth is I was as scared as I had ever been.

I feared so badly that you were destined to be only a dream, like a beautiful town, glimpsed from behind the closing doors of a train, whose imagined possibilities would haunt me for a lifetime.

Is this what you would come to represent? The road untravelled; the opportunity missed; the one that got away?

The next two weeks passed in an agonising time-warp that seemed to last for months. Like Schrödinger’s cat, you were hidden out of sight, arguably both dead and alive. I analysed every twinge, every pulse and every pinch. Even quantum physics could not bend my mind like the days that would determine your fate.

But that was five years ago. It’s 2017, and I now know the result that those two weeks would bring.

All I can say is it’s just as well that the embryologist couldn’t tell us too much when he introduced our embryo in a straw. He couldn’t tell us that what he held between his thumb and forefinger was a time-travelling collector of dinosaur relics, a superhero fanatic, and a swashbuckling leader of a mutinous pirate crew: the infamous Caption Walrus.

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He omitted to mention that, if successful, this embryo would be leaping from armchair to sofa by day, a cutlass whistling through the air above his head. And then sprawling diagonally across our bed each night, a tattered blue rabbit fiercely tucked under one arm.

I’m so grateful that there was no information sheet explaining how the contents of our straw would grow. Because how could I ever have borne the responsibility? How could I have survived the two weeks before the pregnancy test, and indeed the nine months that followed, knowing the scale of catastrophe if I didn’t get you into this world?

You had to be here; it’s so obvious to anyone now. How could our planet ever have been complete without that miniature John Travolta dimple in your chin? How could I bear to be awoken without your face a millimetre from mine, demanding I answer an urgent question about the dubious superpowers of Popeye?

It’s just as well, too, that our embryologist was at a loss to share the less enchanting traits of your character: your stubbornness, which would turn every remaining dark hair on my head a solid grey, and your night-time alertness of a bat.

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They offered me no advance warning on that fateful August day that you would be a plunderer, not only of treasure, but also of sanity and sleep. I didn’t realise that the world and its many failings would soon be solely my fault, or that I would so often be walking the plank.

But just as you have no idea of your beginnings, you are probably also unaware that I am secretly enjoying these things to which you drive me each day: every eye roll, every coffee, and every sigh.

I will be forever thankful that you pulled me through those closing doors and on to the other side. And that, whatever happens from here on in, I would every minute choose the reality over the dream.

336 Hours cover copy

Rachel’s first book 366 Hours is available now from Amazon and all good bookshops.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures on CBeebies and Catastrophe on Ch4 (not with the same viewing companions, I should add)

Reading: The Unmumsy Mum Diary and Hurrah for Gin (must-have reads for bad parenting days)

Listening to: BBC Radio 2 (I’m no longer fighting the fact that I’m old)

Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog? Please suggest 3 people with their Instagram or Twitter handles

Rachael Rogan: @RogansBooks
Rachael owns a fabulous independent bookshop in Bedford and made a trip to London to meet with Lucy Mann and Sophy Henn last year. She would be a great contributor to The Muse!

Rosanna Slade: @RosannaSlade
Rosanna runs her own yoga practice in Bedford – inspiring woman with a great outlook on life and now a new mum.

Delyth Johnson: @Thischangedme
Delyth is the co-creator of the app, This Changed Me – an inspirational way to use technology to create a better work/life balance and achieve personal goals.

 

 

In Her Words… by Sheila Norton

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Sheila lives near Chelmsford in Essex, and has been writing avidly since childhood. For most of her life she worked as a medical secretary, retiring early to concentrate on her writing, Sheila is the author of 11 contemporary novels.  Part 1 of Sheila’s brand new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017.  http://www.sheilanorton.com/

 

 

In at the deep end: How a failed swimmer finally overcame her fears

I’ve occasionally been asked, in interviews or on questionnaires, to talk about my proudest achievement. Without wanting to be mawkishly sentimental, my personal response is always ‘my family’ – because, well, obviously bringing up my three daughters was the best (and sometimes the most challenging!) thing I’ve done, and I’m not afraid to say how proud I am of them all. But the interviewers have usually wanted a writing career-based response, and there have been lots of possible answers, from winning two short story awards, to selling my first novel to a publisher, to writing so many of my earlier novels alongside working at a busy full-time job in the NHS. But there’s another answer, that has no connection with writing or even with my family, and it’s this: I’m ridiculously proud of myself for learning to swim!

I was never what you could call an active child. I spent most of my time with my head in a book, or dreaming up stories in my imagination. True, I did at least have to walk everywhere – I didn’t learn to drive until my mid-thirties – and that, together with the lack of junk food available during my post-war childhood, might have kept me from an early obesity-driven grave. I did take up cycling at one point before I passed my driving test, mainly to get to and from the shops more quickly. But I gave up after the massive humiliation of being overtaken on a hill by an eighty-year-old acquaintance, who waved and called out to me as she passed, while I could only manage a wheeze and a puff in response.

School PE lessons were, for me, the devil’s own torture device. You know the stories about the child who nobody wanted to pick for their teams because she was so totally useless at every game? I was that child. I suffered that mortification on a regular basis. I never learned the rules of netball. I hated hockey with a vengeance, scared stiff of being hit by the ball or clouted by someone’s stick. In tennis lessons, I’d actually sit down on the grass court and pick daisies. And in gym sessions, I’d wait for as long as I dared in the line to vault over the bloody horse, letting other girls go past me when the (strident, bossy, scary) gym teacher wasn’t looking, and then run up to the thing and pretend to fall over or hurt my ankle at the last minute. How did anyone actually get over it? I watched all the mega-popular sporty, athletic girls with a strangely detached feeling of awe and wonder. Detached, because I didn’t even want to be like them. I wasn’t interested. It all seemed such a profound waste of time and effort.

Swimming, of course, fell into the same category. School swimming lessons when I was a child consisted of being coached enthusiastically for galas if you were one of the best swimmers, and being pretty much ignored to hang around in the shallow end holding a float and feebly kicking your legs if you weren’t.

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Almost 2 years old and in love with the sea

However, when I was eleven, my dad taught me to swim in the sea. The sea and I have had a lifelong love affair. From toddlerhood, I’d always trot into the shallows enthusiastically, despite not having a clue how to survive if a wave knocked me over. I was, of course, too much of a coward to go out of my depth. But on one family holiday, Dad decided to show me how to float, and then how to throw my arms around in a rough approximation of the front crawl. It couldn’t have been pretty – Dad wasn’t a great swimmer himself – but it worked. I was thrilled. I could swim! Well, after a fashion. By the time I was a teenager, I could just about flounder across the width of the shallow end, often putting my feet down halfway. To all intents and purposes, I was still virtually a non-swimmer.

When my three children were born, all within less than four years, I decided to take them all for swimming lessons, and was thrilled when they all learned to swim at a young age. Not only that, but (because they were being taught properly), they were confident in the water, learned their strokes correctly and all became very good swimmers. I was extremely proud, if a tad envious – but it never occurred to me that I could have done the same. I’d long come to terms with my limitations with regard to anything physical!

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Sheila’s three daughters all loved the water

And that was pretty much how I remained until a holiday in Australia in 1997. One of our trips was to the Great Barrier Reef. On the boat out to the reef, a marine biologist told us about the amazing sights we’d see by snorkeling in the sea above the reef. I guessed I’d have to miss out on that. But then, she added that if anyone was a nervous swimmer, she could tow them along with a lifebelt and point out the marine life.

‘I’m going to do that!’ I decided, carried away by the moment.

I hadn’t quite thought it through. When it came to being fitted up with my snorkel, mask and fins, I panicked.

‘I’ve never swum with my face in the water before!’ I blurted out to the marine biologist.

I suppose, in my naivety, I’d kind of hoped she’d feel sorry for me, give me some advice, or somehow devise a way I could see the life below the surface without actually getting my head wet. Instead, she gave me a slightly supercilious look and said:

‘So what makes you think you’ll be able to do it now?’

And I reacted in what was, for me, a very uncharacteristic fashion. I sat up straight on the edge of that boat, squared my (shaking) shoulders and retorted:

‘Because I want to!’

The first few minutes were very scary. For a start, I didn’t like not being able to touch anything with my feet. I held onto that lifebelt so tight, my knuckles hurt.

‘Now just rest your face on the surface of the water,’ the (young, fit, sporty) marine biologist instructed me and the other wimps she was towing.

Just like that, ha! But – I did. Surprise, surprise, because of the mask, nothing went up my nose or into my eyes. I could see below the surface! Wow!

‘Just relax and float,’ she went on.

And, yes, I did. I experimented with breathing (having up till then been holding my breath in fear), and it worked. I could do it! Breathe in, breathe out, nothing happened – I didn’t choke, I didn’t sink, I didn’t drown. It was amazing! I saw some fabulous sights during the next half hour – brilliantly coloured coral, huge fish who gazed back at us with disdain, shoals of tiny bright fish who darted backwards and forwards in front of us – but none of it compared with the excitement I felt at the very fact that I’d done it. I didn’t let go of that lifebelt for a single second, of course, but that was beside the point. I’d snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef! Me! It was an experience I’d never forget.

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Discovering a new found love of snorkelling

But back home, back in my real life as a wimp, the excitement soon wore off – until one day soon afterwards, my friend Geraldine told me she fancied going to adult swimming lessons.

‘But you’re already a good swimmer!’ I said.

‘No, I’m not. I want to improve my strokes.’

Improve them? I’d just be satisfied with getting some. After a few moments of deep breathing to control my nerves, and before I could change my mind, I said:

‘OK! I’ll join up with you.’

We both started in the beginners’ class. On the first lesson, our instructor asked us to show him what we could do. Geraldine set off powerfully across the pool. What the hell was there to teach her, I wondered? I followed, gasping my way untidily along for a few metres with my head held high. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting applause, but unlike school swimming lessons, there were no scornful titters. The instructor asked me whether I could try putting my face in the water. I shook my head. What, without a snorkel? You must be joking!

‘Just try, for me – duck down very quickly,’ he encouraged me.

Right. I was conscious that everyone else was waiting to get on with the lesson. I ducked my face in and out within a split second, coming up with my hair all over my face, spluttering and rubbing my eyes.

‘Two pieces of advice,’ the instructor said. ‘Tie your hair back. And get some goggles.’

It’s no exaggeration to say those words changed my life. Within weeks, kitted out with my hair band and goggles, I was learning to swim – properly. Within months, I was joining Geraldine in the ‘intermediate’ class (she’d been moved up straight away). Within a year, we were two of the select group of four adults who made up the advanced class. At the age of 49, I could finally say I was a swimmer. I’d learned the correct breathing for front crawl. I’d learned breaststroke, which had always been a complete mystery to me. I’d learned back crawl, and had even had a go at butterfly. I could swim lengths – several lengths – more lengths the longer I learned, the stronger I got. I could pick up a brick off the floor of the pool, jump in at the deep end, and swim wearing pyjamas for survival training. I was finally doing all the things I’d admired my children for doing when they were a fraction of my age.

Despite my excitement, I knew I’d never become a really good swimmer. I’d probably left it too late for that. Sometimes I regret never learning properly when I was young – I missed out on so much enjoyment. But then again, the thrill of having overcome my fears and lack of ability later in life has never worn off. At the peak of my (admittedly still limited) fitness, I undertook to swim a mile for charity. I didn’t find it easy. But every time I felt like giving up, I remembered that scary gym teacher at school, and thought: If only you could see me now.

Nearly twenty years further on, I tire more easily and accept that I have to stop frequently during my thirty lengths, to take a few breaths. Ironically, I find now that I can’t swim without my face in the water – it hurts my neck too much. But yes, I still swim regularly and with asthma and arthritis among other things, I know how good it is for me, and it’s still (apart from walking) the only active pursuit I’m even interested in. I’ve realised it suits me because I’m not at all competitive. I swim alone, the only contest being with the constraints of my own body. When people ask me if it’s boring, just swimming up and down the pool, I reply that it’s my thinking time. Many a plot twist has been devised during a few lengths of crawl!

And of course, my love affair with the sea is still going strong. I might not be so keen these days to fling myself into the freezing waters of the English Channel at all times of year, but give me a warm ocean, a snorkel and the chance to jump off a boat moored in a beautiful blue bay, and I feel as close to paradise as any ex non-swimmer could possibly be.

 

Right Now I’m….

Watching: ‘Game of Thrones’

Reading: ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ by Bill Bryson

Listening to:   ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ by Coldplay

Pass it on:

Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Fenella J Miller @fenellawriter  Prolific and very successful self-published historical novelist .

Emily Yau @EmilyWhyy   My editor at Ebury Books, who also performs in musical theatre.

Jojo Moyes  @jojomoyes  One of my all time favourite novelists

 

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Part 1 of Sheila’s new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017.

 

In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

image1Lora is a wife and mummy of four sons.  In 2012 her family were devastated when her third son, Finn was born sleeping.  

Her brave and honest account below was written to promote Baby Loss Awareness Week this week.

 

In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

My third little boy, Finn, is 4 years old. He would have started school in September, joining in his brother’s morning rituals which are sealed with a kiss goodbye in the school playground. I imagine he would be delighted and excited by the prospect of being a big boy and starting school.  I imagine. I imagine everything about Finn, as he isn’t with me anymore.

The aftermath of losing Finn was deeply wounding. The grief was engulfing and all-encompassing whilst my deep sense of guilt was choking. I lived on the fringes in the early weeks, as babies born sleeping seemed to be one of the great unmentionables.

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Lora with Finn

I was angry. Angry at my own body; angry at those people who were still pregnant; angry at those who tried to comfort me with their own sadness of miscarriage (I have had four of those too). Finn was a perfectly formed 5lb 8oz little boy. He may have been stillborn, but he was still born.

Finn is irreplaceable, yet a few months after his passing my arms felt desperately empty and I became pregnant again. Interestingly, I felt more normal when I was, as suddenly friends who had gone quiet were more comfortable speaking to me again. At 34 weeks, our family was blessed with the arrival of our fourth little boy Joshua Finlay Martin, known as Joss. Our tiny miracle perfectly filled our yearning arms and helped us smile again.

With Joss in our lives, I felt strong enough to start the beginning of our new future. Sadly, this was short lived as one week post-birth I learned that my beloved father had, unbeknown to me, started an aggressive battle with cancer. (He had withheld telling me whilst I was pregnant as he didn’t want me worrying). He put up an incredibly strong fight with the bravest of faces, but four months later cancer took my Dad and enveloped me in the tentacles of grief yet again.

This grief was akin to carrying a boulder around with me all day. I struggled under the pressure, my knees buckled and my arms strained to maintain grip. But letting myself go through this grieving process, allowing myself to feel angry, to unapologetically feel like I had been wronged, that I was the victim, that life was unfair, was in hindsight key to starting the healing process.

It takes time to feel human again and I remember feeling a huge sense of pressure to seek professional help. For reasons that I don’t even understand myself, I couldn’t face this. I couldn’t tolerate the thought of exposing or sharing my deepest feelings with someone I didn’t know. I was much more comfortable being the shoulder to cry on, rather than the one doing the crying. Or maybe I just didn’t want them to take the pain away?

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Lora’s dad with his grandson Joss

You can’t heal every wound and I believe that is OK. The ache in my heart is important and I don’t ever want it to fully subside. It’s what tells me that I love Finn so deeply, it’s how I take Finn everywhere with me and it’s my barometer which helps me evaluate what is important in everyday life.

However, I am not ashamed to admit that contentment and happiness are a big part of my life again. I spent the early part of this evening with Sonos belting out some big tunes in the kitchen whilst my husband, three other children and I busted some shapes amongst a furore of laughter! However, as I sit here writing this article with a glass of wine on standby, I am joined by tears rolling down my face and a very heavy heart and it got me thinking about how often I cry now. Is it daily? No. Is it weekly? I’m not sure. Is it about Finn or my Dad? I don’t know and really it doesn’t matter because I love and miss them both. But what I do know is that crying feels much easier and more manageable now, as I know that happy times are just around the corner again. I’d actually go further to say that shedding a tear is for me now is a therapeutic exercise. It’s always done privately, in a quiet moment at home or maybe on a contemplative country walk with my faithful four-legged friend, but for me it is like releasing the pressure valve which allows me to be the wife, the mummy and the friend I want to be. Crying (and writing!) are my own personal forms of healing it would seem.

In fact, I jest about writing, but actually in the early months after losing Finn I found myself enslaved to the computer as I completed a piece of writing which captured our two days with him. This documentation of Finn’s time with us proved to be somewhat cathartic. I was conscious that time could possibly erode the details and I was keen to preserve as much of that time as possible. It’s neither a heart-warming or uplifting read, but it is an honest and precious account, you can find it here: Forever My Finlay 

It is clear to me now that I was particularly fortunate to be surrounded by such a strong and patient group of people who gave me the platform to face the future again with renewed strength and hope. However, one of the most painful struggles I faced in the early months was the discomfort that clearly resided in many friends, dare I say some extended family members too. I get it. Giving birth to a baby who isn’t alive is a difficult reality for everyone to face. Many people don’t have previous experience to draw upon when dealing with friends in this situation. What do you say to them? Talking about said baby will only cause further upset surely? So, many simply said very little. At best ‘how are you?’ At worst, nothing. Certainly there was never any mention of his name. I don’t want Finn to become a forgotten member of our family or his name to be a taboo word in my presence. I yearn to hear his name still. Yes, it may bring tears to my eyes, but it also brings music to my ears.

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Lora with her boys and husband David

So looking back now, how do I reflect on all this? I do believe I can see the world in many more colours than I did before we had Finn. Having witnessed both the fragility and blessing of life I am more self-aware than I was before, I count my blessings with much more commitment and I look to really enjoy and not second-guess the good times. To get to the place I am in now, I had a choice to make; I could stagnate and let the world move on without me or I could re-join the journey and start moving forwards again. I chose to jump aboard life’s train, in part, because I owe it to my incredible family unit, but also because I am so grateful to be alive. Many people didn’t go to bed last night or didn’t wake up this morning. But I did. And I am grateful.

I am also much more mindful now of how I react to others facing difficult times, whether great or small. I always try to step off the ledge and offer the comfort that I feel I didn’t always receive. To be honest, this has had a varied response, some have closed me down not wishing to go any further, but equally some have welcomed that subliminal nod which allows conversation to unfold.

I don’t profess to have a secret ingredient as to how best to get through times such as these, I think everyone’s road to reach their new normal is totally personal and unique to them. What I would say though is if I can, then you certainly can too. Also, for those readers who do have a friend out there who does need you, then don’t let your social awkwardness stop you from being the friend you want to be or the friend you need to be.

Everyone’s life will undoubtedly have ups and downs. I believe it is critical to appreciate and savour the ups because this creates the reserves of strength that you need to deal with the downs.

Finally, my advice when you are going through your own crisis: listen to advice but don’t allow this well-intentioned counsel to take you in a direction you are uncomfortable with. Trust yourself and you will find the right path back to happiness.

For anyone looking for support following the loss of a baby, the following charities offer excellent advice:

Sands 
Tommys 
Saying Goodbye 
The Mariposa Trust 
Baby Loss Awareness