BOOK SA’s Johannesburg editor Liesl Jobson came away from the event – which she liveblogged – raving about Jowell’s talk on her subject, or subjects, chief among whom is Lynette Langman. For forty years, Langman waited to hear news about the son she gave up for adoption when she was virtually a child herself. Then one day the phone rang…
BOOK SA is pleased to bring you this excerpt from what by all accounts is a sterling work of non-fiction.
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The phone call of a lifetime
He is a doctor, accustomed to confidence. Yet his hand shakes slightly as he dials the South African phone number now committed to memory. These people are strangers. What will he say? How will he introduce himself? The well-rehearsed words seem hollow and he is tempted to put down the receiver. No, he’s done that twice before. Fortune favours the brave.
Antony Egnal takes a sip from a bottle of mineral water, swallowing quickly before the call connects. It is Sunday morning on a sweltering Seattle summer’s day. Outside, his wife René is rearranging the garden furniture, leaving him in private. Antony’s face, usually broad with a distinctive gap-toothed smile, is firmly set. He beats an impatient rhythm with his fingers.
A few months ago, he could not have imagined making this call. He had no need, not even a desire.
But things have changed. Now he’s 40 years old, an established family man, about to speak to his mother for the first time.
You don’t find your child, your child finds you
My correspondence with Antony takes place via email, telephone and dicta- phone. To him, I am a stranger: he did not ask me to tell his story – his mother did; he did not ask me to dredge up the facts of the past – his mother did. Yet he answers my questions readily, setting aside time to respond.
Antony grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, the adopted son of loving parents to whom he was a ‘gift’. He studied medicine in Cape Town, a city in which he felt happily at ease, but he and his wife René ultimately settled in Seattle on the USA’s west coast. It is easy to see why a man who loves Cape Town would love Seattle. His Table Mountain is replaced by Mount Rainier, sky-high and capped with snow. As yachts and boats cruised his Table Bay, so they glide through Elliott Bay and Seattle’s myriad waterways. He gives up melktert and Kirstenbosch Gardens for coffee and Rose Gardens. Here he can canoe, hike and jog with the same outdoor abandon.
The city is renowned for being wet, but Seattle embraces its rain. On days when even the 605-foot-high Space Needle can’t poke its eye above the clouds, locals prefer to swim, climb, dive and cycle happily in the mist. The cobblestones of Pike Place Market glisten with a constant moisture; you can almost hear the clatter of erstwhile wagons making their way to the farmers’ market where bargains on leeks and lettuces persist even today. Antony loves this city, and has made it home.
I found Seattle in January 1992. At the time, René and I were living in Wilmington, Delaware. I had finished my residency in family medicine and was teaching in Wilmington’s Department of Family Medicine. Ren worked as a radiographer at the same hospital. We spent three and a half years there and we worked hard. Ren hated the politics at the hospital but she stuck it out while I slogged through my residency. There was a small Jewish population and we did have a few friends who became like family. I only had one weekend off a month which we used to see as much of the Eastern seaboard as possible. We travelled to Maine, New England, New York, Washington and Baltimore. But we knew we couldn’t live in Delaware forever. It wasn’t the place we wanted to have a family.
On that trip to Seattle, when the airplane touched down at Tacoma International Airport, I could see the most beautiful view over the water. I headed to the downtown area, crossing the bridge over Lake Washington, and spent the afternoon on the Eastern shore. I called René that evening. ‘Ren,’ I said, ‘I’ve found our new home.’ The place instantly felt right. I was offered a job in that week and we’ve never looked back.
The move to Seattle marked the beginning of the most trying and fascinating years of my life. For quite a while, even since the latter parts of my residency, René and I had been trying to have a baby. We kept hoping that Ren would fall pregnant and then kept being disappointed when she didn’t. It became evident early on that it wasn’t going to be easy. About six months after arriving in Seattle, René fell pregnant. But within six weeks she had a miscarriage and we had to keep on trying. The miscarriage brought such a sense of loss, but we knew we had to focus on trying again. We had so much hope and expectation, yet we also knew that pressure would only make things worse. It was a tough process of hope and disappointment.
Eventually, after a whole year of trying without luck, we knew we had to seek treatment. We consulted a fertility specialist and realised that our best chance was in vitro fertilisation – the process whereby René’s egg and my sperm would be harvested, fertilised outside the body and then implanted in her womb. The whole procedure was expensive and it was something we thought long and hard about, but we were desperate to have a child. At that stage, adoption was not something that we spoke about; we still wanted to believe that we could have a child of our own. So we had our hearts set on the testtube option.
Every patient undergoing fertility treatment is different in terms of age, weight, medical history, and so on. A fertility specialist evaluates each patient and makes an educated decision on what medications should be used to treat her. There are a few different drugs which can be used, but they may need to be adjusted in the case of successive attempts. When we were going through the process, each cycle of in vitro cost about $10 000. Before treatment begins, the specialist sets up a ‘protocol’ – specific for that patient and that particular cycle of treatment – which outlines what drugs to give, when to administer the drugs and what doses to use. So we had our protocol drawn up and went through our first cycle, nervous and excited. But it failed.
After a failed cycle, one should ideally give one’s body a break and take a month off before starting the next cycle. René’s doctor was going to be away, so he offered us the option of working with another physician or waiting yet another month, which we decided to do. Before undergoing a new round of fertility treatment, the specialist always checks to make sure the patient hasn’t gotten pregnant on her own already as the drugs can cause problems. This is called the ‘baseline pretreatment pregnancy test’. I wasn’t sure when René was having her baseline test, but I tried to keep a logical, physician’s perspective. It was difficult. This was an emotional experience and it was hard to stay objective.
One morning in August 1994, I went in to work as usual. I remember it was around the time of my birthday which is the 9th of August, and we were making plans to go to a free outdoor concert to celebrate. In summer, that is one of the perks of Seattle: concerts take place weekly on the shores of Lake Washington in a gorgeous setting.
When I arrived at the clinic that morning, one of my staff tapped me on the shoulder and asked if she could speak to me privately. I assumed this was to do with clinic business because part of my role was to manage personnel. I showed her into my office and sat down. She was a delightful single lady in her mid-40s, one of our frontdesk workers. She was working temporarily in my department at the same time as putting herself through school to become a social worker.
She sat down across from me, clutching a brown envelope, and began totalk. ‘Dr Egnal,’ she said, ‘I have something to tell you … It might sound strange, but I have been given a gift. The gift of seeing. I am of Indian descent and we believe strongly in things such as dreams. But seldom are my dreams as clear as this one I had about you.’
‘A few weeks ago I dreamed of your wife with a baby. I was not able to see the baby’s exact features, but I knew it was a girl. I knew she was a small, beautiful baby girl with dark, dark hair.’
‘I woke up the next morning and went for a walk,’ she continued. ‘On the ground, I noticed a beautiful duck feather. When I bent to pick it up, I realised that this feather was unique because it was perfectly formed. Did you know that? That those feathers which are shed are easily damaged so it is unusual to find one that is perfectly intact?’
I shook my head.
‘Well I took the feather home and put it next to my bed. And that night, I dreamed once more. Again I dreamed of you and the baby. Again the small girl child with dark hair. Again you and your wife. The dream was so vivid and so clear. I knew I had to speak to you. And I want you to have this feather.’
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