Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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The well diggers arrived on a windy late-January morning. They came in three large trucks that barely made it up my steep, rutted driveway. One truck carried water to cool the drill and flush the well of debris; one carried the twenty-foot drill bits that would bore into the earth; and one was the rig that would support and power the drill. Before they could even position the trucks to dig, they had to cut down a poplar tree and a sweet gum and some hollies. The trees were felled, sectioned, and rolled over the hill in minutes while I watched from the kitchen window. It was OK, I told myself; we had plenty of trees but not enough water.
I’d known this day would come ever since my husband and I had bought our eight-hundred-square-foot house more than six years earlier. Right away we’d noticed the coil of black tubing that had once carried water from our neighbors’ home to ours, back when both were rental properties. But we loved the privacy of five acres of hardwood forest, which meant we didn’t have to hang curtains in any of the windows and could sleep with the french doors wide open in the spring and summer, listening to the crickets and cicadas and owls. We figured we would make do with whatever water our two low-producing wells provided, and we would put off calling the well drillers as long as we could. Drilling would be expensive and might not produce more water, and when was it ever a good time to spend thousands of dollars on something with uncertain results?
We grew accustomed to the inconvenience: strategically choosing the best time to do laundry, jumping out of a weak shower and streaking across the driveway to switch tanks, washing dishes with just a trickle. In a way, the meagerness of our wells was a learning experience, reminding us to conserve and be mindful of limited resources. I was highly attuned to the condition of both wells, which we monitored via a gauge located in our garage. But I was also constantly afraid of running out of water, as happened sometimes when we had guests. And we wanted to raise children here. So we finally made the call.
“There’s no guarantee,” Mr. Maness told me cheerfully once the rig was operating. W.W. Maness and Sons had been doing business in Chatham County, North Carolina, for decades, and they were known for being honest and fair. It was true that there was no way to know whether drilling our well a few hundred feet deeper would yield more water or not. In the hilly, rocky land around our property, unlucky farmers have been known to drill dry hole after dry hole, their efforts marked with bright-blue plastic lids, like overturned trash cans. Even the most skeptical homeowners will enlist dowsers, who “witch” the land with a forked stick to determine the best spot for drilling. Why not? Dowsers work for a nominal fee — some old-timers won’t accept payment at all — and everyone has a neighbor or friend with a high-producing well that somebody witched.
We were down two hundred feet already, and no more water — “not a drop,” Mr. Maness said. At ten dollars a foot, and an eight-hundred-dollar setup fee, we were already in it for close to three grand. Work slowed as the men hoisted a new drill bit onto the rig, then lowered it into the hole. I watched the heavy rod slowly disappear while, behind the rig, waste-water and rock fragments spewed into the trees. I tried not to think about the money.
“We checked their well tag,” Mr. Maness said, pointing up the hill at my other neighbors’ property, “and they got twenty gallons a minute at 640 feet.” I was prepared to go that deep, though I hoped we wouldn’t have to.
“You think the water’s that far down?” I asked, picturing an aquifer, blue and level, like one in a textbook.
Mr. Maness shrugged. It’s more like veins, he explained, tracing a twisted pattern in the air with his hand. But he hoped we would hit something before too long.
I wished I could walk up the hill and ask my neighbors if they’d felt like giving up at 500 feet, or 550, or 600, but two years earlier they’d had twins and moved to town.
Richard and I had been trying to have a child for more than four years. Actually I calculated our failure not in years but in menstrual cycles — twenty-four cycles without success, thirty-six cycles. I’d stopped counting when we’d passed fifty. We’d tried on our own and with the help of a reproductive endocrinologist. We’d tried oral medication. We’d tried intrauterine insemination. We’d tried acupuncture. We’d tried natural-cycle timing.
I have notes from meetings with our reproductive endocrinologist scattered throughout a pocket-size notebook, and I distinctly remember our first appointment, when he said, “I’m 90 percent sure I can get you pregnant with IVF” — in vitro fertilization. I did not write his prediction down, so I have only my memory of him saying it, and of the way Richard and I both bristled at the idea that a doctor would get me pregnant. The involvement of medicine in something so deeply personal, so long hoped for, so much a part of how we envisioned ourselves, felt wrong. No woman imagines that she will need to be tested, medicated, and injected before she conceives a child; that her eggs will have to be retrieved and combined in a laboratory with her partner’s sperm before being transferred into her womb. Like water, our bodies’ generative capacity is something most of us take for granted.
Richard and I resisted IVF for other reasons too. The cost — around thirteen thousand dollars for one try — was not covered by our insurance. I feared injecting such powerful medications into my body. And we still hoped that we would somehow conceive on our own, as people often assured us we would, as soon as we stopped “trying.” (We’d tried that too.) I remember sitting in an infertility support group and listening to other couples’ horror stories: multiple failed IVFs, medications that caused large cysts to grow rather than ovarian follicles, extraordinary emotional and financial distress. I thought, That will never be us. I will not go that far. But what I was really thinking was that we would not have to go that far. I thought that we would get lucky.
As with our upper well, which had been failing since the summer, I knew that our time was running out. I was thirty-six, already past the age at which fertility precipitously declines. Just as I’d accommodated myself to a scarcity of water, I had been accommodating myself to being childless. I’d kept busy with a variety of social and solitary pursuits. I’d stayed on the lookout for childless or single friends. I’d read a lot. I’d kayaked. I’d made last-minute plans that would not have been possible if I’d had a baby. But lately it had begun to seem — for both of us, but especially for me — as if something essential was missing. It was difficult to imagine my life without the experience of motherhood. Why else had I bothered to store away so much information about raising children? Why else had I saved all of these picture books, bought this house in the country, imagined myself as a mother and Richard as a father?
I went outside with my camera to snap photos of the well diggers’ trucks, the tall rig, the pale mud coating the trees: documentation of the expense, the effort. I stood nearby, my hands cupped over my ears, and thought about how a toddler would enjoy the spectacle of the big trucks boring holes in the ground. Mr. Maness noticed me and came over with an apologetic look. We were down to six hundred feet, he said, without any more water to show for it. I tried to picture six hundred vertical feet and found that I could not.
They’d used all the drill bits that they’d brought and would have to come back the next day with more. “Rock’s changing,” he told me, describing how it was now darker and softer. It might be a good sign. I pictured it crumbling like clay, giving over to wetness. They couldn’t go any farther than a couple of hundred more feet, however. After that, they’d have to stop.
That night I laid out our options to Richard as Mr. Maness had explained them to me: stop drilling and limp along; keep drilling and hope to hit more water; drill a new well somewhere else; or “restore” the well we had. Well restoration, which involves forcing hundreds of gallons of pressurized water into low-producing wells, would easily cost five thousand dollars. But so would drilling a new well. Neither could guarantee more water.
I’d grown up in the country, in a hundred-year-old log cabin, and was familiar with the many ways a house and its property can turn on you: fallen trees, frozen pipes, wells swamped with greenish storm water. Richard had grown up in the comfortable suburbs, and I’d worried, when we’d bought this house, that he might be put off by its inconveniences. Together we had lived only in cities, moving every year to a new apartment, a new neighborhood. We’d appreciated the convenience of calling the landlord when something broke or needed to be serviced, and the proximity of restaurants, live music, shops. This house is ten miles from the nearest gas station. A covenant restricting outdoor lights makes the nights pitch-black, except for the stars. When we moved in, I wondered if the solitude would cause Richard to freak out like my grandmother, who would draw all the army-green shades in our cabin and secure them with masking tape.
But this house and the life we were living here had changed him. He’d learned to appreciate the privacy and the chance to learn skills — plumbing, carpentry, driveway maintenance — that had previously been unnecessary. He’d stocked our shelves with books on home repair and using salvaged materials, with 1970s editions of Shelter found at the thrift store. Lately he’d become interested in emergency preparedness, a concern I connected as much to our isolation as to the increased frequency of powerful storms and long droughts.
“I don’t know what we’ll do if they don’t hit water,” I told him, scrolling through a table of well-restoration data I’d found online. This was my real fear, both for the well and for IVF — that our efforts would not work, and, financial resources depleted, we would have to figure out a plan B.
Richard was calm, his mind bent not to subtraction but to addition. “It’ll be OK,” he told me. He would figure out how to earn the extra money we needed. I was struck by how much his calm determination reminded me of my father, and also by how readily we were falling into traditional gender roles: he was gathering the resources; I was managing them while agitating for more. An old story.
I’d often made Richard promise me outcomes he had no ability to predict, but I knew better than to do that now. In some ways our goals felt ridiculously modest: one baby, enough water to wash clothes and take a shower without worrying. “A gallon a minute,” I said. “I’d settle for that.” I was sure we could function on a gallon a minute.
I sometimes had nightmares involving broken eggs with yolks and shells, but lately those had been replaced by pleasant dreams about babies. I dreamt of the heft of their little torsos, the sweet smell of their heads, their laughing faces. I had never been a baby person — I’m more taken by older children — but now my dreams were strangely full of them. None of them looked especially like Richard or me, and I wasn’t even aware that they were ours.
But that’s what I was thinking about the next morning when I woke up: babies. Then I remembered the well-drilling rig still parked expensively up my hill, and the uncertainty.
I had lived for a long time in a state of limbo about getting pregnant, doing my best to accept that it might not happen; that I would be putting my writing desk where I’d imagined the crib would go; that instead of taking long, meandering walks with my son or daughter to pet the neighbor’s goats, I would travel with Richard to Italy or Morocco. Although this other future wouldn’t be the one we’d hoped for, we could surely accommodate ourselves to it, the way we’d accommodated ourselves to a lack of water. But would we be happy?
We weren’t ready just yet to give up and start consoling each other with the promise of peace and quiet and sleeping late. So, a few weeks before the well diggers had arrived, we’d done it. We’d scheduled the IVF tests. We’d paid the money, more than I’d ever paid at one time for anything in my life. From a nurse at the reproductive endocrinologist’s office, I’d received a month-long schedule of appointments and medications and phone calls to check estradiol levels. We’d watched online videos on how to inject Lupron into the upper thigh, how to mix the Follistim and Menopur into a single dose before injecting it into a pinch of stomach fat. In a week the UPS driver would deliver my first shipment of medicine: three large cardboard boxes marked PERISHABLE, OPEN UPON RECEIPT, and inside them styrofoam coolers, and inside the coolers frozen gel packs and cartons of medication, along with syringes and alcohol swabs and three sizes of needles and pages-long lists of instructions and precautions. Every night Richard would inject me, the needle piercing the skin, the medication flowing underneath.
The outcome was uncertain, but we were taking that chance, even if we ended up back where we’d started.
That morning, Richard stayed home in case we didn’t hit water, to help me decide whether to give up or tell them to dig in a different spot. The men started early. By now I could tell by sound alone when they were drilling and when the truck was idling. I sat on the sofa and tried to work while Richard stood at the window and watched. “Something’s changing,” he said after a while. “There’s more water.”
I got up and looked at the place where the rig blew waste and exhaust into the woods. “It always looks like that,” I said. “It looked like that yesterday.”
But a few minutes later Richard reported that the men were mucking around with shovels and a scoop cut from a plastic gallon jug. They were fitting a new length of PVC onto the exhaust pipe and digging a trench in the grayish sludge that had once been solid rock. We were still guessing at what it could mean when Mr. Maness came to the door.
“You’ll be OK now,” he said. “You’ve got five gallons a minute.”
We high-fived. We did a dance of happiness. Five gallons a minute would be enough for us, and even enough for a family. I stepped onto the damp porch in my socks and watched Mr. Maness make his way back to the rig, where he had still more to do: additional drilling to get beneath the vein, then extracting the thirty-four sections of drill bits that had finally, far below, found water. It could easily have gone the other way. We have some neighbors with deep, dry wells and others who could supply an entire farm with water. We wound up in the middle.
“That’ll be plenty,” Mr. Maness reassured us again, before he and his crew left in their three trucks. “Plenty for the whole house.”