This week, in honor of the start of the holiday season, we're presenting stories about parents — and the ways our relationships with them intersect with science.
Part 1: As a kid, Dan Souza finds it hard to appreciate his mother’s nursing expertise until he sees it in action after a series of fateful incidents.
Dan Souza is Editor in Chief of Cook’s Illustrated and a cast member of the Emmy-Award Winning television show America’s Test Kitchen. Dan is the kitchen editor of the New York Times bestseller “The Science of Good Cooking” (2012) and James Beard Award-nominated “Cook’s Science” (2016). He is a regular contributor to The Splendid Table radio program, and his personal stories have been featured on the Peabody Award-winning The Moth Radio Hour. After graduating first in his class from the Culinary Institute of America, Dan cooked in restaurants in Boston, New York, and Hungary before finding his true calling: helping home cooks succeed in the kitchen.
Part 2: When Michaella Thornton shares her struggles with infertility with her bachelor farmer father, his response stuns her.
Michaella A. Thornton's essays and flash prose have appeared in New South, The Southeast Review, The New Territory Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and a University of Missouri Press anthology, Words Matter: Writing to Make a Difference (2016). She is also a staff writer for The Common Reader, "a journal of the essay," at Washington University in St. Louis. She loves her almost two-year-old daughter Lucinda, all the cannoli, Hall & Oates, and Jo Ann Beard.
Part 1: Dan Souza
My mom is an incredible cook. Really, really great cook. But she's also a nurse. That might not sound like a contradiction but just stick with me.
Growing up, my mom would work really long hours at the hospital. She’d come home and she was kind of an every woman, so she would also make dinner for us, for my dad, my sister and I. We’d sit down like I think a lot of families do, pretty much every night sit down to really, really great food.
She’d cook all kinds of things, really comforting stuff. My favorite was probably her Maine Clam Chowder. Just absolutely simple but delicious.
So we’d sit down to eat and we would just kind of go over our day. So my sister and I would talk about school. My dad would bore everyone with some stories from the office. And then it would be my mom’s turn. She would just kind of talk about what she had been going through that day.
So there was the 300-pound guy that got out of surgery and was in his bed and felt like he was strong enough and healthy enough to get out of bed by himself. So just get up and then really, really bad fall. So tons of bruising, loads of internal bleeding, really bad situation.
Or there was the woman who had to go into surgery and she had to be intubated, which means to put a breathing tube down the throat. For a variety of really interesting reasons, she couldn’t have it go down her throat so she had to be a nasal intubation, which is a really cool technique that my mom just didn’t get a chance to do very often so it’s kind of a cool experience for her.
Or there was the woman who had a really bad wound that just refused to heal. And that required maggot therapy. So just a quick primer on how that works, what you do is your first step is to order the maggots from the lab. So you don’t just use any maggots. You use clean maggots from the lab.
But then you got to put them on the wound. So you put them on the wound then you got to put their dressing on. There’s two things that the dressing needs to do. The first is it has to be breathable. You don’t want to kill the maggots. The second thing is it needs to seal really tightly because you don’t want the maggots getting out.
Anyway, you put the dressing on, you send the patient home for forty-eight hours. During that forty-eight hours they go to work, they could eat, they could sleep with the maggots on them. Forty-eight hours later they come in. What’s really cool is during that time the maggots have eaten all the dead flesh. That’s actually what’s so neat about it. They don’t eat the live flesh so it’s pretty painless.
Anyway, so they come in, you take the dressing off and at that point they've grown eight times larger than when you put them on. You get rid of the maggots.
So at this point in the dinner, my mom she’d be eating and talking and she’d sense a change in the room. There wasn’t a sound of like silverware on bowls. There were no signs of active listening. There wasn’t “Uh-huh,” “Oh, really,” “You don’t say.” So she’d look up and she would see three just ghost-white, completely blank faces staring back at her.
I would look at her and I would look down at my soup and I would think, “You know, it doesn’t matter how good of a cook you are. Your nursing ruins everything.”
The thing is it didn’t just happen to the immediate inner family. This spread out. I remember as a kid running around outside with a bunch of friends and my mom would call us in to have some lemonade or iced tea. We’d sit down at the table and we’d be kind of drinking and hanging out and she would just reach over to my friend’s arm and give it a slight turn.
She’d be like, “Ooh, look at that vein. I could easily get a needle and IV in that anytime. That’s a great vein.”
My friend would just look over me completely shocked and I would just try to melt into my seat and disappear. I mean, she stalked our house with surgical grade shears, Band-Aids, gauze, stuff to make a cast. She had the entire place stacked with hospital stuff. I’m pretty sure that ten wounded union soldiers could have shown up at the house. We could have kept them alive for a month on just what she had in the bathroom cabinet.
She banned the terms ‘crap,” “poop” and “number two.” If you were sitting down to go to the bathroom, you were having a bowel movement. BM if you want to be really casual.
So this was like the nurse-level living. And moms leave notes around the house a lot. They put them in your lunch, they leave them everywhere. So many medical abbreviations and just straight-up Latin. They're like no one could read them.
I grew up, I spent a lot of my time not really appreciating that my mom was a nurse and a lot of times being grossed out and not really wanting to be around it, but that all changed when I was about twelve years old.
My sister and I had some friends and we were outside playing in the yard. For a reason that we’ll never know, my dad, who has kind of a ride-on tractor lawnmower thing, was letting us use it and drive it around. One of my sister’s friends was driving and one of my friends was doing this really fun thing where you kind of like it’s like a slow-speed accident waiting to happen and you're just kind of out in front of it like, “Don’t hit me. Don’t hit me.” The funny thing is that she hit him.
So the front wheels rolled over his body and then at that point she realized something wasn’t right and so she took her foot off the throttle. So the tractor is just sitting on top of my friend and it is just mayhem. You have like twelve little kids screaming and crying and pointing. No one is really handling the situation very well.
My mom comes out of the house and she triages the shit out of the situation. “So kids, get away. You, call 911. You, two strong neighbors, come over here. Lift the tractor at these two points. Pick it up.”
My friend is about to start moving. She jumps on him, tractions the legs, stabilizes it. The EMTs arrive. She briefs the EMTs on the situation, pack him up on the stretcher, she's in the ambulance, gone. And she just leaves behind the scene of like tear-stained cheeks and trembling kids in her wake. And I was like, “Huh, okay. Having a mom as a nurse is a pretty cool thing.”
Then there was the time that I had to have penis surgery. Yeah. So quick primer on how that works, most penises have an arrow-straight urethra. That’s where the pee comes out. Mine had this really funny little difference where at the end where it should be straight, it just curves down. Just a tiny little difference.
It actually makes a really big difference, though. Basically, I'd stand up to go to the bathroom and aim right at that toilet bowl but it would just shoot right at my feet. I got a little bit of a prank penis situation, which is really fine. So I had to get that fixed.
My mom was with me from the moment I started this process to the time that I was fully healed. And penis surgery is painful. You might not have guessed.
So I went into the hospital. First, I was young so I had a consultation and they let me pick out the smell of the anesthesia that I was going to have. Then I had to go in for the surgery and she was with me right until I went into the operating room. On the other end, she was there when I got out.
The amazing thing about having a mom as a nurse in a hospital is she knows… I mean, this was her hospital so she knows all the other nurses. She knows the doctor. She can get things done whenever it needs to be done. So she was with me the whole time.
She was even instrumental when we got home. She worked with my dad on this ingenious device. It’s really painful to have a bunch of blankets on this area after you've had penis surgery so she and my dad designed this basically paint bucket cut in half that made a nice arch that I could put over there for when I slept. So it really did pay to have a nurse in that case.
Anyway, my mom nowadays she's not nursing professionally anymore. She's retired. Then it’s kind of like awkward twist of how life works, she's going to the hospital a lot more than she used to but because she's older, because she needs to go there.
So she recently went in. She had to get a knee surgery which, on a scale of surgeries, is not penis surgery but it’s painful. It’s very painful.
So there's this thing with my mom that really sucks as she can’t take opioids. She can’t take those really powerful pain meds that most people rely on after they have a surgery, but she had to get it done.
So she went in and had the surgery. She went through it and they give you this nerve block when you go in for the surgery so it basically cuts out all feeling in your leg. That wears off after maybe twelve hours then the pain sets in. That’s usually when you take Percocet and Vicodin, all these strong drugs. And she went to just Advil.
So I went in to visit her after she was kind of awake and everything in the hospital. She only let me stay for five minutes then she told me to leave. For anyone who knows my mom, that’s not like her. She's the warmest person and wants people around. But I got to see in her eyes that she was in so much pain.
And I could tell that she was a little bit scared too because this was just the beginning. She had to heal a lot in the hospital and then go home and do a lot of physical therapy. She had to get her knee from just bending ninety degrees, which wasn’t too bad, all the way to 120 degrees, which is what you need for normal function. You're really just grinding away at it until that works.
So she was in the hospital for a few more days. I went to visit her every time and it was again, “Five minutes, you got to go.”
Eventually she went home and she continued the physical therapy on her own on the Advil. She finally went into this outpatient center to do this checkup to kind of check her progress and she is the hero of this outpatient center. She's now the poster child for how to recover from surgery. The doctors are like, anyone who comes in from now on if they're like, “I need more pain medicine,” “I can’t do my PT,” she's like here is Marty Souza and she is seventy years old and she did it on Advil. So I’m not surprised. She's an incredibly tough person.
But anyway, she's healed now. It’s really, really great to have her back. We were home recently for Easter dinner and she's cooking and she's taking care of everyone, running around on this new knee and it’s so great.
So we sit down to dinner and it just feels like when we were kids and everyone is kind of like catching up on what’s going on, and my dad’s talking about stuff, and my sister is catching us up on her kids. Then Marty is kind of just talking about things with her knee and then she lets us know that the rate of death when it comes to flesh-eating bacteria jumps to about 75% when the scrotum is involved. And I couldn’t be happier about it. Thanks.
Part 2: Michaella Thornton
My husband Brandon and I got married later in life. We met in our early thirties and we didn’t get married until our mid-thirties, and this is like later in life by Midwestern standards, okay, folks. Just so you all know. Other places in the world it’s not a big deal.
So when we got married we’re like, “All right. This is awesome!” And we’re like, “Let’s have a family.” We’re like, “Yeah!” And that’s the really fun part, right? The practicing to have a family part. The sex, right? That’s good. That’s really good. But after a year of really, really awesome good, unfettered, fun times, I started to kind of get really nervous and really fearful and really kind of like, oh, fuck, what’s going on? Is there something wrong with me?
Mind you, I’m not the kind of person that’s like I’m tying my worth to my ability to have a child. It’s never been my gig. It’s never been my thing. But I started to get really fearful and, I don't know if you guys are like this, but I go to that darkest, deepest ‘what if’. And as I’m there in that darkest deepest ‘what if’ and we tried for a year and nothing is happening, I finally get the ovaries to call a reproductive endocrinologist.
I meet with her. My husband comes with me. It’s one of those awkward moments that you feel like maybe a Coen brother film shit like option. Oh, wait. They did in Raising Arizona.
But so you're there in the office and then they say okay, we’re going to refer you to have an HSG. An HSG is this test where they have this radiographic dye and they put it through a catheter and it goes through your vagina, through your cervix, which is like this little beautiful donut, and boom, it illuminates all your lady bits. And you can see if there are any problems with your uterus or your fallopian tubes and it’s really trippy. I mean, you don’t expect to see that part of you on a screen ever. Like there's a lot of things you can watch online now but that’s not one of them typically.
So I think, “Oh, this is no big deal. This is like flushing a car’s break lines. This is something I've seen my father do.” And so I’m like, “I can do this. No problem. I’m a boss lady. I’m going to go in there and do this by myself.”
So I go and there are, I kid you not, three male doctors, one of whom I think is a resident and they're the gentlemen that are down with the bit in this area, and there's the one that’s telling me in very monotone this is what we’re doing next. I’m on this stainless steel table and my bare ass is cold and you’re angling your hips in the most vulnerable of positions and, oh, by the way, I start to realize, “Oh, my God. They're going to see if there's a problem. In this moment, when I’m in this room with these three men, none of whom know me or have had sex with me, they're going to tell me what my problem is and why I can’t get pregnant.”
And I start to tear up because you realize in this moment oh, this is real. We’re really doing this.
The resident just grabs my hand which, bless his heart, someone taught him good bedside manner. And he starts asking me about baseball and about weather and what I do for a living and I’m trying not to hyperventilate and answer his questions at the same time. Then the other two business-end gentlemen are saying, “Oh, the dye is flowing through. I don't see any blockages. Everything looks healthy.”
At that moment I squeeze the other resident’s hand even tighter, like probably really tight, and I just kind of sigh this huge exhalation of breath. They leave.
A nurse’s aide comes in and helps me clean up. Then when she leaves I allow myself a moment to cry. I just thought, Jesus, if this is the first step to trying to have a baby with science, I’m in for one hell of a ride. Like seriously.
So I walked out of that room after I took my ibuprofen and just left.
One of the things that’s so difficult to explain about infertility and loss is that it underscores your mortality. More than anything, you don’t really know what you're missing until you don’t have an opportunity to do it or have it. So I was watching my friends having babies and I felt this not jealousy but sorrow. Here, me and my husband were ready, ready to have a family, loving and kind and we had the resources to bring a child into the world but it wasn’t happening for us and we felt left behind.
So as we’re going through this, we start going through more and more of a wait. We have a miscarriage. We have two failed intrauterine inseminations. For the uninitiated, it’s what the sexy talk of artificial insemination. People often talk about turkey basters, which is actually inaccurate. I need you to all know that no turkey basters are involved.
We have timed-sex craziness. Anyone, it’s like, “My ovulation. I’m ovulating. Wooh!” That’s not sexy talk, just so you know. It doesn’t really make men real excited.
I was on a drug called Clomid. It is by the devil. If you're not familiar about Clomid, it is an ovulatory drug that made my husband want to dump me in a lake.
And so finally he said, “Let’s get a second opinion,” because at this point we've been trying for two-and-a-half to three years and still no bambino. So we get a second opinion and this doctor who’s very compassionate and thoughtful says, “Okay, your diagnosis is diminished ovarian reserve.”
And you're like, “Okay. What does that mean?” It means I don't have a lot of eggs, folks. There's not a lot of possibilities here.
So we’re like, “What do we do next?”
She's like, “If you want a biological baby, you need to do in vitro fertilization, IVF.” The big guns of reproductive medicine.
So I’m like kind of in this bittersweet Zen zone because at least I have a diagnosis. There's a reason for why I’m not getting pregnant, why we’re not getting pregnant. And also great. It’s not because I can’t relax. I can’t tell you how many times people will say, “You just need to relax.” Let me just say to you that’s the shittiest advice to give to anyone going through a stressful situation. Please write that down. I know Zack said not to but, seriously, it is the worst advice to tell someone going through a hard time.
So I realized let’s go for this. Now we've got next steps. But convincing my husband was another process, was another story. So I said to him, “Why wouldn’t we try this? Why wouldn’t we do this?”
He said, “Kella, it’s not that I don’t want to have a baby with you. It’s not because I don’t love you and I don’t think this is good. But what if it’s just not meant to be?” Like very fatalistic.
And I said, “Why would you say that? IVF is a door. Why would you not open it?”
And he said, “It’s just a lot of expense, it’s going to put your body through hell and back and it possibly won’t work.”
And he's right. Two-thirds of IVF cycles do not work on the first time.
And I said, “Yes, it’s still worth it,” to the person that waxes poetic about science.
But despite all the medical advancements in the world, if the one you love loses hope, it’s hard. So in thinking about this I thought it would be a great idea to tell my dad what we’re up to.
So my dad and I are at a diner because we bond over not just cattle but also greasy spoons. I've ordered him a vanilla milkshake and I’m drinking it and I’m telling him, “Dad, it’s taking a little bit longer but, you know, we’re thinking about some other options.”
And my dad says in the most tone-deaf way of trying to comfort me, “Well, sometimes genetic lines just die out.”
And I feel the frozen sweet cream of this milkshake go down my throat and I think he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand. He has no earthly idea how hard his words hit me. And I just think he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what to say.
So I said, “Dad, we’re trying IVF.”
And he said, “Well, try whatever experimental process you want to try.”
I kind of recoiled at the word ‘experimental’ because I’m like, okay, man, this has been used, IVF, in the United States since 1981, two years after my birth. So at this point this is a thirty-five-year-old medical procedure. This is not experimental.
And so I’m asking myself, “Are you going to refer to my child if I have one as an experiment?” I’m really, really wondering about that.
Finally, I convince my husband. He's on board. We’re ready to rock and roll. It’s June 2016. At this point it’s been three years of us trying to have a baby. I’m also not really being super open about it largely because, for some people, especially in this day and age with social media, it’s really natural to share your progression to want a family, whether it’s through biology, adoption, surrogacy or reproductive medicine. But for me, I was pretty much a closed book. I felt like my grief was amplified by not getting to that point yet.
So here we are, we’re doing this procedure. We’re ready to rock and roll. If you're not familiar with IVF there's a lot of medication involved and so much so that I have to take it for a month-plus before they can retrieve my eggs.
So the doctor’s office gives me a color-coded calendar that they update frequently and I have daily bruising injections and a host of different types of hormones, some to suppress, some to encourage ovulatory conditions.
So we do it. We retrieve five eggs because, remember, I have diminished ovarian reserve. I’m not a super producer. I’m not like eggs, eggs, eggs everywhere. It’s just five, man. Five.
And of those five, three fertilized. So you're like… any math people here, you're like, “Whoa.”
Three of those fertilized eggs, only two make it to day five, and five-day embryos are known as blastocysts. They're like the holy grail of awesomeness. Like you want the five-day embryos. They're the ones that are going to be much more likely to implant. So of those two, one is really badly fragmented. That leaves one.
But the heavens part and this is the Grade AA, beautiful, golden embryo of my dreams. And so my skilled and super compassionate reproductive endocrinologist implants this one - nothing left, remember – one beautiful blastocyst into my uterus on July 28 of 2016 and then I wait, we wait.
We wait for approximately two weeks. I get blood work. The first test says you're pregnant. I don't believe anything yet. Second test, still pregnant. Still not really believing. Because if you've gone through infertility and loss you're like I'll believe it when I see it.
So almost a month later I go to the doctor’s office with my mom. My husband had a work trip he could not get out of. And this time I’m holding her hand and not some strange resident’s hand. And this time on the screen we see this beautiful, flickering, teeny tiny, like the size of a poppy seed heartbeat. And then the reproductive endocrinologist turns up the volume, like “phump” and you see and hear like the whoosh of the ocean. That’s the heartbeat.
It’s like making contact with another world. I just lose it. I start to cry. Cry and cry and I keep saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
But I wish I could say that was like my ‘Wooh!’ congratulatory I've made it. I’m pregnant. But you know, it never felt like I was in the safe zone through my whole pregnancy. I was never the chick in that prenatal yoga class who wore a t-shirt that said, “I’m so pregnant.” I didn’t buy maternity clothes until I was twenty-two weeks along because I thought something could happen. I didn’t want a baby shower until she arrived. So I think that’s one of the first lessons of becoming a parent, especially after infertility. Nothing is a given.
So my dad and I are back at a greasy spoon, this time we’re not debating the Me-Too Movement or why my father thinks soccer is a socialist sport. True story, by the way. This time my seven-month-old daughter is sitting in his lap and he's feeding her scrambled eggs and he keeps calling her Baby Kella because she has a passing resemblance to her mama, and he is smitten. I mean, he is soft, he is cuddly. The gruff and the direct exterior that he exhibits with me is not on display. There's no talk of cattle.
We’re drinking our coffee and enjoying each other’s company and there might be biscuits and gravy and I say to my dad, “You know, dad, I think sometimes I just feel like I have all my eggs in one basket.”
And he said, “You know what, Kella? It doesn’t matter if it’s one or four. You'll always feel that way.”
And I thought, “Yeah, I’m starting to get this.” I’m starting to understand a little bit where my dad is coming from.
And by the way, my daughter’s name is Lucinda. I named her after my father’s grandmother and her name literally means graceful illumination. My daughter’s existence has shown a light on so many things in my life, but especially in terms of thinking about my relationship with my dad.
I have to think what it must have felt like to hear your child tell you about a challenge that you have nothing to offer in terms of guidance, in terms of understanding. I think about how perhaps the thing that he really struggled with wasn’t that genetic lines are going to die out potentially but that his own genetic line is going to end, that his own mortality awaits.
And so I make this moment in my mind while we’re in this little diner and I look at my daughter and I make a silent promise to myself. I say to her, “You are not your ability to procreate. You are loved and you are whole.” Thank you.