Here is what we know: we plan to find out that we are pregnant while we are lounging in the decadence that is San Sebastian, Spain.
This is actually not much of a plan, and we know that, because we also know that you cannot plan these things, not really.
However, we do know that it will happen, because we want it to be true, because we were once at a party where we learned about this magical place called San Sebastian, and now that we are finally able to go, we have decided that when we get there we will be pregnant, period, end of story.
Again, that’s not much of a plan, and maybe I should back-up for a moment anyway.
My wife Debbie and I are at a party at some long ago co-worker’s loft in some Chicago neighborhood whose location is now lost to me.
The crowd is young and cool, lots of short hair and black T-shirts, and they’re doing what young, cool people do so well: looking good in lofts while drinking craft beers, talking about training runs, and listening to the Tragically Hip.
The co-worker’s husband is from Dublin, Ireland, and one of his high school friends is there with his striking curly-haired Irish-American wife. We are happy just to listen as the high school friend talks; it doesn’t matter about what—his voice is lovely, all lilt and whiskey-saturated.
So there we are, hanging on his every word as he regales us with stories of his endless travels and we try to discern whether he might be at least distantly related to Larry Mullens, Jr.
We are struck that this guy has lived a certain kind of life. He has done things, and been places, and we really have not, not as a couple anyway. We are still building a life together, and while on the one hand we feel like we’ve had few adventures in comparison to him, on the other, merely speaking to him leaves us feeling like the possibility of adventure is right there if we just reach out and grab it.
“If you could tell someone where to go, just one place, where would that be?” Debbie asks him.
“That’s easy,” he says, “San Sebastian, Spain. There’s nowhere else like it.”
And that’s that. We don’t need to know anything else. We don’t even need to know why he thinks this. We apparently needed a place to go, and though we didn’t know this when we left the house, we do now, just like that.
The cool story would be how we went home that night, dropped everything, booked our trip, and were soon having a threesome with Larry Mullens, Jr. under the ocean spray that endlessly cascades over San Sebastian’s horseshoe beachfront.
But that isn’t what happened.
Instead, my father got sick, cancer sick, eighteen months to live sick, any trip of any real length didn’t seem possible sick, and for the most part we didn’t go anywhere that didn’t look like a cancer ward or my parent’s house until my father passed away.
Instead of ocean spray, there was the drip, drip, drip of IVs, and instead of Sangria there was talk of Thalidomide, and a string of blurry days with him that never seemed like anything other than borrowed time despite our fervent desires for some kind of news that would tell us everyone was wrong.
Not that it was all death; there was life as well, or the idea of life, as Debbie and I started talking about the baby we would someday have.
The presence of this still unborn child in our lives was something both real and far away, and it existed in a kind of parallel universe to that of my father’s illness, first lingering there like a ghost, and then gaining a sense of realness when the sadness around my father’s loss was replaced by the need to create new life.
Before there could be a baby though, I needed an adventure, something travel, real life, and electric.
Debbie did not.
She was ready to move forward even as I was ready to run away, and with her blessing, I ran to Italy, gone, no death, no wife, no nothing but Jackson Pollack, The David, and Caravaggio.
Then Debbie changed her mind.
She wanted the baby and the adventure, and we decided that not only would we start trying, but that we would learn our baby was something real when we got to San Sebastian. Going there had been delayed, but now we could go, and it was going to be magic. We felt we had earned it.
As family folklore has it, when my parents had been married for seven years they decided they had the proof they needed that they were going to stay together and they traveled through Europe for several months. When they got to Italy my mother was certain she was pregnant. When they got to Spain she was told she was not, and she was crushed. But when they got home, they found that she was pregnant after all, and had been all along. The doctor was wrong, she was right, and there was me, or there would be soon.
And so it goes.
For some chunk of our life most of us do everything we can not to get pregnant, while still hoping to have as much sex as possible. We are careful, mostly, but not always, because there are so many things that impact our better judgment—alcohol, watching Fatal Attraction, poor impulse control—and so many things that can go wrong regardless: ripped condoms, missed birth control pills, and the act of pulling out that isn’t quite pulling out at all.
But then some of us decide that we are done doing everything we’ve been doing to avoid having a child, and it’s amazing how hard it is, or how hard it feels, to make it happen when so much now has to go right, and so many things are working against you, including, but not limited to, luck, timing, and your own body, because any or all of that is happy to conspire against you.
Which takes us to San Sebastian, and how in all of our death-infused magical thinking, we have made a plan. Not that you can plan on anything, not dead fathers, not babies being born, and not even as it turns out, my own cancer scare, because while we are making all of these plans, a shadow appears on my kidney, and I am peeing blood, and the doctors just don’t know why.
Nor do they care that my father has recently died from some rare form of cancer that people know little about and we think we deserve a break, or that we plan to have a baby because we’ve earned that, or even that we are leaving in one week to go to Spain where we will find out that this baby is a very real thing. They definitely don’t care about our plans.
They do however, sort of care about the incredible pain I’m experiencing in my lower back after they scope my kidney, because this pain is so excruciating I’m not clear how I can go to Spain at all.
But even that, they don’t care all that much about.
“Do you really think I’m okay to fly?” I ask my urologist.
“You are fine to fly,” he says, “this will pass.”
“And so that’s it?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” he says, “when we washed out your kidneys, we did find some oddly shaped cells, and so we’re going to need to biopsy your bladder when you get back.”
“And that’s because you think I have cancer?” I ask.
“We don’t know,” he said. “It’s probably nothing. Go enjoy yourself.”
Which we try to do, despite the rainy, overcast, skies that greet us in San Sebastian, the waves that constantly crash over the boardwalk, making it nearly impossible to walk anywhere, the wind that somehow swirls in all directions at once, and the restaurants that never seem to be open.
Still, we are there, we have made it. The room is lovely. The horseshoe-shaped shore is in place. And everything is going according to plan. We are where we are destined to be, and there are no IVs, dead dads, or scoped kidneys, just a biopsy awaiting us, which we will choose to ignore, so we can lose ourselves in the baby we are certain to find out that we are having.
Again, all of which is a fine plan, except that on our first morning there we wake up to coffee, fresh baked rolls, the waves pounding the boardwalk beneath our window, and the fact that there is no baby, and no magic, just dashed dreams, more loss, and the realization that you can’t will a baby into being any more than you can will your father to stay alive.
Which leaves us where exactly?
Nowhere, that’s where. Well, besides at a bar, drinking cold beer, eating cold fish sandwiches, and going home.
Which I suppose is a certain kind of ending to the story, at least the particular story we had written out of hopes and dreams and grief before there was even a story to write.
That doesn’t mean the story can’t have a different kind of ending though, because that’s the thing about plans—you can make other ones when you have to. And so in that vein, a coda if you will, though with your permission, I am going to offer you two.
We are home, we are sad, and I still need to have a biopsy.
When I wake up the morning of the biopsy, I realize I don’t know how long it will be before I can go for a run, but I do know I have an hour before we leave, and I am off.
Which is cool, or not, depending on whether you are Debbie, or me.
“Dude,” Debbie says when I get home, “you went for a run?”
“I know I’m having surgery, and maybe it was dumb, but I had to go, I’m sorry,” I say.
“I don’t care about your surgery,” she says, “but I’m ovulating, you’re running, and we need to leave in 30 minutes. Let’s go.”
Let’s go indeed.
And now for coda number two.
A month later I am on a plane, the sun is rising over the Pacific Ocean, my kidneys are pain-free, and there is no cancer. There are no answers, but no cancer, which is nice because you can’t plan on learning you’re cancer-free any more than you can plan on anything else.
As I sit there, I think about my father and all the sunsets he will never again see, what it means to plan for things that may never be, and how sometimes we search for magic in places otherwise unknown to us.
I’m also thinking about how much of that is past already, how quickly we move on to the next thing in life, and then the thing after that, because that’s what life is, endless disappointments, and some triumphs, yet always, and inevitably, we make new plans and we move forward regardless.
For a moment, it’s amazingly still, the quiet pounding my head from all sides, but then I hear a baby cry out from somewhere behind me, and I take this as a sign of not what might have been, but what is yet to come.
Because here’s the thing, that morning as my biopsy loomed, and questions of life and death swirled around us like those winds in San Sebastian, it happened. We made a baby, and while that baby is no more than four weeks along, and no more than a blip on a screen, there is a baby, and magic, and if we have learned nothing about making plans, much less how anything works, we at least know that sometimes, our stories, and plans, end, and begin, just like this.