Birth in the Time of Covid: The God with the Shiny Fingers
“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” — William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
The best place to start is in the middle because a starting point would mean an ending point, and an ending point would mean the cessation of everything as we know it.
Thinking about starting or ending a life chapter, or approaching a turning point can be overwhelming and makes me prone to a panic-attack if I think in terms of clear-cut stages that are chiseled in stone. When I exit the mindset of something starting or something ending and ease into the growth-mindset of everything simply following a continual changing pathway that is part of a flowing process, only then am I able to enjoy the here and the now. Fortunately, this way of thinking is pretty much the way I’m wired, not letting life be ruled by milestones or “big moments” that lie as markers or gravestones to past eras; instead, I like to see life as a constant process where there are always opportunities for learning and growth.
And yet, still…memory is a funny thing, and there are moments that we cannot shake. There are those moments that stick out and call to us. At the time they happen, they may appear small and unimportant, but there is something in these moments that will not let us go from their grasp, or perhaps we even want to capture those moments and stop time as much as possible.
This piece addresses a moment that happened in the middle of a process, and I feel a need to capture it. With perhaps William Faulkner as the only exception, most of us live life according to the constructs and restrictions of time, so I will set up the timeframe for this moment as a backdrop for the reader’s convenience.
It’s the beginning of May, 2020, and I sit waiting for my wife outside of Dr. Li’s office at MacKay Memorial Hospital in Taipei. The hospital is about 20 minutes walk from where we live, a perfect distance for mentally preparing to enter a hospital. The weather is hot, and it will continue to be this way for the next half year, large clouds mushrooming up into the sky, straight from a Studio Ghibli movie. Being inside of a hospital waiting room is as good as any place to enjoy the air conditioning.
I look around the waiting room. There are many expectant mothers with bellies ballooning out. Some sit alone rubbing their stomachs, as if waiting for the genie from Aladdin to pop out. Others are accompanied by their husbands. Like taking the same bus to work everyday, I have begun to accumulate a faint familiarity or recognition of one or two of the other patients. Doctors’ and women’s schedules flow in cycles, and so we’re bound to cross paths with some of the patients more than once. The woman sitting in front of me is “Sandwich Lady.” She is called Sandwich Lady because: 1) I don’t know her name, and 2) She’s normally accompanied by a sandwich from Mackay Memorial Hospital on the first floor by the escalator. I know the sandwiches by sight but not by taste. I’ve never eaten one. In my memory, she has one on each visit, and we’ve definitely seen her more than twice. I remember her because of her sandwiches and because I can actually see her face. She has to pull down her mask to bite into the sandwich, the iceberg lettuce reminding me of salads from my youth in Lexington, Virginia. I can almost feel the crunch of the lettuce and wonder if it makes friends with the tuna next to the bread or not. Maybe Sandwich Lady only comes to the hospital for the sandwich and then leaves. I doubt it, though, because I’ve also seen her holding the same introduction for the In vitro fertilisation (IVF) process that we held in our hands months before. Even though I know exactly how far along she is in the process of consuming her current sandwich; however, where she is in the IVF process remains a mystery to me.
The door to Doctor Li’s office opens and my wife sticks her head out and beckons me to enter. I leave Sandwich Lady behind, this particular iceberg lettuce never to be seen again, and pass through the doorway to Dr. Li’s lair. One of the first things I notice about Dr. Li is how shiny his fingers are. I guess that he’s most likely in his mid-60s, his hair died to hide the grey colour. He wears square glasses, a mask, and the white jacket of course. But it’s his cadence of speaking and his shiny thin fingers that always catch my opinion. He speaks with a rhythm of confidence that lets the listener know he’s been in the fertility business for a long time. I almost feel as if he’s going to pull a Danny Glover from one of the latter Lethal Weapon movies and say, “I’m getting too old for this sh**t” at any moment. Of course he never says so. His fingers always seem to reflect the hospital lights; they are long, seemingly polished with vaseline, and bony. I imagine if I put my ear close enough to the fingers I can hear the voices of a choir in the background.
This is our first IVF we’re doing. We’ve already had two unsuccessful Intrauterine insemination (IUI) procedures. IVF is the next level up, adding body armour to the suit to help a more successful battle outcome. We’ve already harvested my wife’s eggs in a previous procedure, increasing the amount with hormone injections and medication to produce the maximum amount. After the harvesting, I dropped off my sperm donation, and the result was 11 successful frozen embryos. We were given a year’s “parking space” at Mackay to store our embryos, and each of the embryos was labeled according to its quality, with 4AA being the cream of the crop. 4 is more preferable than 3, and A more preferable than B, and so on.
It is on this visit that Dr. Li chooses the date to implant 4AA in my wife’s uterus, hopefully giving it a successful docking position and chance of life. Dr. Li is deciding the fate of a human family with his next words. He swivels his body to the left while seated and faces the gigantic calendar on the wall. I can see from the focus in his eyes that his relationship with the calendar is quite intimate.
After turning to face the calendar, he strikes a pose that I have never seen before. While staring at the calendar, his right elbow rests upon his desk, not far from the ever present plastic model of a woman’s uterus that’s there for explanations to patients. His right forearm turns up at a 90 degree angle ending in his right fist which appears to be balled so tight as if trying to crack a walnut inside of it. I hadn’t imagined his fist could be so intense and the skin on his hand stretches. His left hand, meanwhile, reaches out towards the calendar on the wall. The entire hand is open, and yet the reach of the fingers has clear intent. The light shines off his fingers. It’s as if the fingers themselves are discussing with one another and coming up with a consensus.
It’s at this point I glance at his face and notice that his mask is moving.
He is talking to himself. Silently. Imperceptibly. And yet, I know that he’s talking to himself. I can tell that his lips are moving.
He holds this pose for what seems like a good stretch of time.
….Right fist balled….
….Left hand and fingers reaching out to the calendar….
…….His mask moving…..
Is he casting a spell on the calendar as he chooses the date? Does he even know we are still here? Have we vanished?
I see this man as something greater than a doctor during these brief few seconds that he casts the spell on the calendar. He is a magic man…almost a god in some sense. The fate of a life and creation rests in his hands, one balled, one reaching. Time stands still at this precious moment and the see-saw balances on its fulcrum. It is the equinox and the egg stands on its tip. All is silent, and part of me never wants to leave this moment and rest in its uncertainty like a baby in the womb. I want to be the spell that he is casting. I want to be the calendar on the wall. I want to be 4AA and know what it is like to be frozen in time. Slowly, the moment leaves, and I know that we must leave soon, too.
Left hand rests.
Breathing returns to normal.
Somewhere there is the sound of crackling iceberg lettuce.
He swivels away from the calendar. The spell is cast. He turns to us.
The clock stops and time comes to life.