Justine McGrath


Justine McGrath

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Panther like, it sneaks up silent and stealthy. It pounces out of the darkness. Her heart races. Attempts to wrestle it are futile, the harder she tries the fiercer the attack. Adrenaline and anxiety mixed with a black terror surge through her muscles, followed by such exhaustion she remains in the foetal position for hours, unable to move. It will leave as mysteriously as it arrived -  uninvited, leaving her vulnerable and exhausted.

It has deprived her of a woman’s birth right - the chance to procreate. It is too late. Her biological clock has ticked its last tock. Whatever. It causes her body to attack itself – Autoimmune. In her case, it was the thyroid it was after. She thought she could outwit it with learning. She read so much about endocrinology she could have passed the exam. She read obsessively, learnt more than she needed to know, desperate to understand what she had done wrong and how she could fix it. She couldn’t.  Diagnosis made – fait accompli. It stole years of her life.

Her grief is fierce and undying. 

She clung to the last faint hope of a miracle as she aged and after all the fertility treatment had failed. 41, still possible, 42, getting slimmer but a tiny spark of hope remained, 43, get more thyroid meds, 44, last chance, 45, it’s over.

Tears at inopportune moments; ‘Bridget Jones Baby,’ she went for the laugh. Never mind that the main character is a dysfunctional mess – her life works out perfectly. She gets the guy and the baby.  Well, they never said it was supposed to be realistic. 

Sometimes her body relaxes in relief. No chance of being the ‘geriatric mother’ a horrible term, coined by the medical profession for older mothers. No standing around playgrounds in the freezing cold. No lack of sleep. And then she sees a tiny foot or the perfect chubby arm of a baby, and the invisible dagger hits her in the gut. 

She wonders how they survived it, implosions and pressured coupling nearly destroyed them. His pain tore strips off her heart. He patiently gave her the injections at the beginning when she couldn’t face it. He comforted and soothed her when she lashed out in agony. But he has lost out because of her.  He doesn’t get to be a father because of her. She has stolen the greatest potential joy of his life. He stayed anyway.  For better or worse.

She remembers the crazy things she did in her endless pursuit of a pregnancy. One day she drove up to see a Chinese lady in the back of beyond near the North Antrim Coast. Apparently, she was the best.  She had come highly recommended. It was her third visit. She gave her acupuncture, herbs and some disgusting tasting medicine. It took her 3 and a half hours to get there from Dublin. She had to keep telling herself it would be worth it, as she dragged her tired bones into the car. The previous night she had felt numb after another negative pregnancy test.  She arrived at a coastal route. The road curved round and high over a sheer drop into the sea. She suddenly felt dangerous. An opportunity? It would be so easy. Pain free. Not deliberate. A tragic accident. She saw her husband at her funeral.  The sweat trickled down her rib cage. Her vision blurred and she pulled over and stared out at the sea, and howled like an injured wolf cub. She sat in her car until the shaking subsided. She drove on, hoping the kind lady would stick a thousand needles into her, to bring her to her senses.

They could have adopted. They considered it. They even went to a meeting. But after having someone prod and poke her for four years, and then to be told that every single aspect of their lives would be held up to the light and examined was too much. Their finances, their health, their friends and family, their lifestyle. Nobody else has to go through that. She gets it. You can’t give away a child to just anyone, but she needed to retrieve her soul. 

She remembers another day standing outside the hospital. She had been obsessively meticulous that month. The timings were perfect. This time. This time. She was sure. The consultant broke the news that for some unexplained reason the ovaries had not released the eggs, or done something they were supposed to do. She tuned out after hearing the words ‘I’m sorry.’ She stood on a cold dirty night waiting for the train, all hope extinguished. She clung to the shelter when all she wanted was to lie down on the tracks.

Life went on. After the grief, they found their own version of happiness. They smiled through all their friend’s having babies, and the family babies being born. They celebrated their own joys, battling the self-pity that hovered insidiously, trying to take hold like a dementor.

She found comfort in words, books and literature. One day she read a book set in the 1600s, and she came across that word. The word that had the power to fell her like a dead tree. Barren. For this is the word that torments her. This is the word that sums up how she feels about herself. Synonyms and meaning add their weight to this cruel cruel word; arid, unproductive, impoverished, waste, useless.  That is me, she thinks. I am barren.This is how others see me, pretend and try as they might not to think it. Damaged. Faulty. Barren. 

She discovered that its origin is French, from the old French word Barhaine, and dates back to medieval times. A cold word. A hateful word. 

She reminds herself that it is only a word and she has the power not to let it hurt her. Her only certainty is in knowing that asking ‘Why?’ is the road to hell, so she makes herself a coffee and waits for the black panther to stroll out of her consciousness. 

Justine McGrath

Justine McGrath is originally from Belfast, but has been living in Dublin since 2003. In 2014 her first non-fiction book, 'Conversations with my Father: Jack Kyle' was published by Hachette Books Ireland. She writes book reviews for Cuckoo Magazine and blogs at http://www.thebookclubcafe.com  She is currently working on her first novel.  She is on Twitter @ScarlettJustine