You Leave Me With No Choice
Sometimes my body makes choices without consulting the rest of me. My right foot plays me for a fool, as one wrong move sends me sprawling across an icy patch in full view of strangers. My right arm throws wide of the makeshift strike zone I establish while teaching my son to develop a consistent batting stance. After numerous orders to play it cool, my anxiety flashes at the most inopportune moment, flushing my body with dizzy warmth.
In its greatest act of betrayal, my body elected to prevent me from making babies. Made at a time and place unknown to me, this choice denied my body something my mind assumed I’d have, and shuttered a place where my heart stored up hope.
The witness of beloved friends and family reminds me of the humble company I keep. Stories of endometriosis and chronic pain, of depression that clings as close as your shadow. None of these narratives start with a conscious choice; all give lie to the myth that our lives take only the shape we grant them.
We navigate a world of overwhelming choice.
One decision unlocks the good life; the other leads to doom—or, worse yet, mediocrity. This bounty holds the power to paralyze.
The absence of choice comes with its own strange sense of paralysis. Bereaved of the choice to feel good, to move on, to think clear, to start a family on your own terms, suspends the soul in a moment of decision lost before it was ever offered. Afraid or unable to move forward, I wonder which sin or shortcoming revoked my right to choose.
Some days paralysis feels preferable to the phantom pain of a choice you never had the chance to make. Most days, the hurt expresses itself in dull sensations. If you close your eyes and think about something else, anything else, you can almost pretend it doesn’t exist.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, pain grows predictable over time. Sure, it sneaks up on you in the quiet of a moment’s peace, after you let your hair and your guard down for the night. But pain also knows which buttons to push, how to dig its nails into your skin and bring about something acute. My pain feels sharpest in three situations which repeat themselves without fail. With each encounte, I envision a sort of soul doctor entering the room, asking me to rate my discomfort.
A friend or online acquaintance insists their experience caring for a pet bears a perfect resemblance to raising a child. They won’t abide a word otherwise and double down if challenged. My weary eyes spy the difference.
Longing to conceive, my wife and I knew we couldn’t start the family we wanted at a moment’s notice, driving to our local pet store or wandering into a neighbor’s backyard after their dog bears an unusually large litter. These friends fail to worry whether their baby will grow up and thrive, be plagued with self-doubt or face the arrows of an unforgiving world. Feels like a 4, doctor. It hurts, but I can bear it.
A healthy, happy, relatively secure couple announces to anyone within earshot they will forego having kids. I step outside myself and try to imagine making the same choice. I mentally sift through all they have to offer. I think this is a 7. I’m breathing through it, but struggling to concentrate.
Friends announce another child on the way. No surprises, they say with a smile. We planned and plotted and got the timing just right. I’m at a 9, and I need you to do something for the pain right away.
When the pain subsides, humility takes over and I see with clearereyes. These people bear no responsibility for my pain. Hearing stories from the first group, I appreciate the emotional need an animal meets, sometimes easing even the shared pain of infertility.
The self-assured justification offered by the second group often counters another reality I know too well. Our society still makes people feel incomplete, lesser than, for remaining unmarried or childless. The defiance on display means to strike a blow against cruelty and conformity, but the punch still lands against the face of those who can’t exercise the same choice.
The third group reminds me that life never abides just one feeling at a time. To receive these joyful revelations is to know the strange sensation of pain mingled with pleasure, to see that beauty sometimes dresses in ashes.
Life’s offbeat rhythms require us to make choices constantly, even in response to the choices denied us. My wife and I decided to adopt, choosing our son in the same spirit with which our father chose us, just without the foreknowledge. I choose to reject resentment and all that hardens a heart so that I might sit with every twinge of former and present pain.
If choice and no choice conspire to leave us bereft in this world, I choose something different. I want us all to spend less time justifying or trumpeting our choices. I want us to find more time to recognize the unmade choices piling up in lives around us. Then, instead of hanging needlepoint utterances of the Serenity Prayer, we might render something more realistic in stitches, praying for strength to accept what we cannot choose, courage to see through the surface of others’ situations and wisdom enough to live together in the difference—whether we chose it or not.