Ellis’ hat is too big.
Instead of fitting snugly over his newborn head, the cream-colored wool cap with the floppy bear ears keeps sliding over his eyes.
Sitting in the backseat on the way home from the hospital, his mom, Christine Wisnieski, keeps trying to push it back up. At just 5 pounds, 12 ounces, Ellis is tiny. When he sleeps, his face looks like that of an old, wise, wizardly man.
I am so lucky, Christine thinks, as she gazes at his smooth, still eyelash-free face. So lucky to be alive, so lucky to be going home, so lucky to have this family.
As if sensing his mom’s thoughts, Ellis lets out a small, screechy pterodactyl sound that makes his parents laugh.
A few minutes later, Christine and her husband, Kevin, pull up in front of their Cleveland Heights home, the one they bought a few years ago, dreaming that one day it would be filled with the sound of pattering children’s feet.
They couldn’t imagine then that it would take them seven years — three miscarriages, three lost embryos, two egg retrievals, four egg transfers, seven uterine surgeries — to get there. Nor could they imagine they would almost lose Christine in the process. Or how much they would lose — but also gain — in this time.
Now, as they walk up to the house, Kevin looks down at his son still snuggled in his carrier.
“Welcome home, Ellis,” he says softly.
* * * * *
“Maybe this journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that really isn’t you so you can become who you were meant to be in the first place.”
Christine always wanted to be a mother.
But when she first met Kevin her freshman year at Kent State University in 1997, motherhood wasn’t exactly at the top of her mind. Instead, Christine was enjoying getting to know this introspective, hardworking blond guy, who she’d first seen in a photo in her friend’s dorm.
He’d been wearing a black leather jacket and a crooked grin in the photo — and she’d kind of fallen for him, right then. He was a fixer, always trying to make things right and better, whether it was a friend’s paper or someone’s flat tire. Christine loved him for this.
“I knew from the moment I met him I wanted to have his children,” she laughs.
Kevin felt just as strongly about Christine, a social, ambitious design student who laughed easily and unabashedly. Even then, she was maternal — bringing snacks to parties (in case anyone got hungry, she says) and sitting up with drunk friends to make sure they were OK.
“She was easily the most caring person I knew,” Kevin recalls.
Since they first got together in 1998, things between them were easy. After four years of dating, it seemed natural that Kevin and Christine would continue this path together.
“We sort of inspired each other,” Christine says. “Life was better together. It was easier. It was more fun. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t do or handle together.”
The two got engaged in 2002 and married in 2003 at St. Michael’s Church in Independence. At the reception, relatives laughed and toasted the couple, telling them they’d make beautiful babies.
Christine’s best friend, Bethany Cocco, was one of the most enthusiastic celebrants, spinning around the dance floor in a long black dress and flowing black scarf. Bethany frequently talked dreamily of her and Christine having children at the same time, so they could grow up closely (although Bethany lived in New York).
Christine and Kevin wanted children too. They wanted to raise good people together, who would hopefully go on to make the world a better place.
But first Christine and Kevin wanted to build careers and a stable home. Christine started as a graphic designer downtown and Kevin worked as an engineer at Applied Medical Technology. They bought a home in Middleburg Heights and traveled to places like Italy and San Francisco. Children were on their mind, but time felt elastic — like it could stretch forever.
“It seems naive now,” Kevin says. “We just assumed children would be easy to have.”
“Be gentle on us world … We are always healing and we are trying our best to remain present.”
Christine and Kevin were in their early 30s when they started talking seriously about starting a family. They were going to as many baby showers and birthdays as bars, and their careers were on the upswing.
Christine had started her own design company, Studio of Christine Wisnieski, and her handmade stationery had been recently featured in Martha Stewart Living. Kevin had finished business school at Case Western Reserve University, and was rapidly moving up in his company. The timing felt right.
In March 2012, Christine felt a little off. So she decided to buy a pregnancy test — her first one ever. She walked into their bathroom early one morning and peed on the stick. “I didn’t know if I was doing it right,” she says.
When a blue plus sign appeared, she blinked hard and ran to wake Kevin, waving the positive sign in his face. “We were kind of like, Wow, OK, it worked,” she says.
Christine immediately called to get a doctor’s appointment. The receptionist told her it was too early to come in — but Christine pushed, and they relented.
A few weeks later, Christine walked into her then-doctor’s office for an ultrasound. Two techs were in the room. They rubbed gel on her belly and projected an image of her uterus on a large screen. The techs were quiet for a while as they moved around the wand. Finally one of them said, “The sac is empty.”
Christine had had a miscarriage. At first, she mulled over the strangeness of the words “empty sac.” Like an overnight bag that had been emptied?
Then, she felt guilty. “Like I did something wrong. Like I failed,” she says.
She called Kevin from the car, sobbing. He left work to come home and sit with her. Slowly, they calmed themselves down.
It just wasn’t meant to be, they reassured themselves. They didn’t tell anyone about the appointment or the miscarriage.
“Christine had gotten pregnant so easily,” Kevin recalls. “We figured we would simply try again soon.”
* * * * *
“This journey we’ve experienced has been overwhelmingly defining for me. I am attached to it in so many ways. I hate it for the pain but appreciate the pain for what it has yielded — someone who is broken and whole at the same time. I do believe we can be broken apart to be put together better than before.”
Two years passed both quickly and slowly for Christine and Kevin. Two birthdays. Two Christmases. Eight seasons changing without another positive pregnancy test.
Frustrated, they turned to University Hospitals’ fertility clinic in 2014. “We figured we must just have had the timing off,” Christine says.
To assist in the process, Christine and Kevin decided to try intrauterine insemination, or IUI, a fertility treatment where sperm is directly injected into the uterus to increase the chance of fertilization. It had worked for their friends, they figured, why not them?
Christine had her first intrauterine insemination on her 35th birthday. Over candles that night, she silently wished for a child.
“We wanted to share ourselves with someone,” she explains. “Share our time, our lives, our home, our savings, our dedication, our work ethic.”
They also wanted to share a child with the ones they loved. “We wanted our parents to have the opportunity to be grandparents. Our grandparents to be great-grandparents,” Christine says.
The first treatment didn’t work. Neither did the second two IUI treatments.
So they started to seriously consider in vitro fertilization, or IVF — an expensive, drawn-out assisted reproductive technology process that involves stimulating and extracting eggs. These eggs are manually fertilized with sperm in a lab. The healthiest surviving embryos are then transferred to the uterus with the hope that they will thrive.
During a 3D scan in spring 2014, Christine and Kevin learned she had a uterine abnormality. Instead of normally developing into one clean, whole cavity, Christine had a small separation in the top of her uterus. Sometimes, septate uteruses can increase miscarriage rates.
But Christine’s septum was small, her doctors said. Her cavity measurements were in the normal range. Many people have normal pregnancies and deliveries without ever knowing they had a septate uterus.
Christine and Kevin were left with two primary options. They could try surgery to remove the septum or they could move straight to IVF. Time no longer felt elastic. It felt like a boa constrictor around Christine’s neck.
“I worried that the surgery would delay the cycle even more,” she says.
She feared that interceding with her uterus might actually make it harder for her to get pregnant. But if the septum was impeding their chances at a healthy pregnancy, shouldn’t they at least try to remove it?
Unable to decide, they chose the fail-safe option: Draw a piece of paper from a hat. “It’s how we solve all our most difficult questions,” Kevin laughs.
One Saturday morning, they wrote out both options and threw them in an old hat of Kevin’s grandfather’s. Kevin fished out the paper which read IVF. Christine was relieved.
“It felt like the right decision,” she says.
Christine began the process of preparing for egg stimulation and retrieval. But all the while, she and Kevin didn’t stop trying to conceive naturally.
One day, on the way to the studio, Christine picked up a pregnancy test. It was an old habit, by now. For the past few years, she’d been taking them constantly. Conditioned by all the negative signs, she almost didn’t even bother looking at the results.
But this time, she saw a plus sign. “I was like Holy shit,” she says.
She was taking Lupron, a drug that suppresses ovulation, so she didn’t know how it happened. But it didn’t matter: she was pregnant. She immediately texted Kevin a photo.
They were thrilled and relieved. Now they wouldn’t have to proceed with weeks of ultrasounds, drugs and surgery.
But their joy was mixed with guilt and sadness. Christine’s best friend Bethany had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and returned to Cleveland to be with her family. It felt strange to celebrate life at the same time they were bracing for possible death. “I felt very selfish,” Christine says. “She always very much wanted children.”
So Kevin and Christine once again chose to keep their pregnancy secret. Christine’s focus turned toward her friend’s comfort. Between trips to the lab to make sure her pregnancy hormones were still climbing appropriately, Christine spent long afternoons with Bethany, cooking dinners, getting pedicures and watching the World Cup.
In October 2014, after her friend’s experimental cancer treatment failed, Christine visited Bethany at UH Seidman Cancer Center. There, Bethany pushed at the hospital food, talking dreamily about real food — steaming bowls of pho with slithery, long rice noodles.
Christine propped up pillows around Bethany and said she’d be right back. In her car, Christine raced to MidTown for pho, but stopped first at her office to pick up blue-and-white ceramic bowls and real silverware.
As she got back into her car, Christine’s phone lit up with the number of her doctor’s office. Her heart sank.
The blood test she’d taken earlier that morning showed her hormone numbers weren’t doubling, indicating a potential problem with the pregnancy. She called Kevin on the way back to the hospital.
But she said nothing about the pregnancy to Bethany. She just sat with her friend, slurping noodles and recounting memories.
Two days later, Bethany died.
“It was a storm within a storm. You can’t organize thoughts, make rational decisions, you just do and be. We were numb. We almost couldn’t feel anything because it all was just too much to bare [sic]. So, we boxed up the pain of our loss and put it on a shelf to protect our hearts. We’d come back for it when we were ready.”
their doctor determined it was an ectopic pregnancy. Just bad, random luck that the fertilized egg had implanted outside Christine’s uterus, where it couldn’t grow.
While ectopic pregnancies affect about 1 in every 50 pregnancies in the United States, the good news was that her fallopian tubes hadn’t ruptured. They’d caught it early.
Following Bethany’s memorial service and a trip to recover from surgery in California, Christine and Kevin decided to try IVF one more time. And again, right before the egg retrieval protocol, Christine became pregnant.
This time, they allowed themselves to feel hopeful. They had paid their dues. The previous times had been flukes. This was their real turn. How could it be otherwise?
They found out on July 4, 2015 and started telling family and close friends right away. At two months, Christine began to show. She loved wearing long, free flowing dresses and taking luxurious naps in their sunroom, windows open, with the light streaming in. “It felt like sleeping in the sun,” she says.
Kevin, who was not particularly superstitious, really believed that everything was aligned. In the past year, he had started regularly attending St. Patrick’s Church — and the baby was due on St. Patrick’s Day.