By July, I had turned 44 and seemed to be approaching the upper limit of maternal age. I had frozen five of my eggs in 2012, thinking egg freezing was the perfect insurance policy against time.
But after the breakup, I began to read more about in vitro fertilization. I learned that five eggs are hardly adequate and that eggs are less viable than embryos. So I made the decision to do another round of egg extraction in August 2016.
Despite being traditionally South Asian in many ways, my dad was also quite progressive. He knew that life does not always go according to plan. For instance, he never expected to break his neck at age 62, paralyzing him from the neck down when he was supposed to be enjoying his well-deserved retirement. Maybe that’s why he steadfastly supported my decision to have a baby on my own and become a single parent.
A physician himself, he did extensive research about IVF and would call me every day about the daily injections, asking how I was feeling. My dad was my best friend.
There are many reasons women wait to have children. For me, it was the priority of caring for my dad and my mom, his primary family caregiver since the injury in 2006. Career, dating and mommy aspirations were all sidelined. Society and a poor medical, social and institutional structure do not give one the latitude to do it all, especially during an acute long-term family health crisis. I was busy researching spinal cord injury, learning to use a ventilator, trying to handle life-threatening emergencies, training caregivers, dealing with theft and even caregiver abuse, fighting wheelchair and social security denials, arranging respite care for my mom and, well, trying to enjoy my 30s. The years went by, but I have no regrets.
Still, I knew I always wanted to be a mom. So I opted to execute Plan B: baby now, relationship later. I chose the sperm online. It was not very different from browsing candidates on Match.com except the added bonus of medical information and baby pictures. I liked the donor’s personal essay and in some ways it felt like I knew more about him than the guy I almost married.
The clinic managed to extract six more eggs and went ahead and fertilized all of them along with the ones extracted in 2012. None of the eggs from 2012 survived the thaw. Of the six eggs extracted in August 2016, only three successfully fertilized and made it to “blastocyst.”
Given my age and the prevalence of miscarriage, I sent all three embryos for genetic testing for the most common chromosomal abnormalities. Of the three, only one came back healthy and viable for transfer. My one chance. They told me the sex, too — a girl. I told my dad he had a granddaughter waiting in the wings.
My dad gave the impression he was invincible. Until that point, he had lived as a vent-dependent quadriplegic for over 10½ years. In November 2016, we celebrated Thanksgiving and had a 49th wedding anniversary celebration for my parents. Despite his disability, my dad looked so young, so handsome, with a full thick black head of hair at 72 years old. Two weeks later on a Saturday he told me he had a cold. That Tuesday he was dead. I wasn’t even home.
Dad had once told me that when he dies, he wanted his ashes to be sprinkled in the Himalayas. I put the embryo transfer on hold and in May 2017 prepared to take his ashes to Nepal, India and Tibet.
But before the Himalayas, I called my fertility clinic and asked whether I could bring my dad’s ashes to have a symbolic “meet and greet” with the embryo. I thought the request would be met with an “Are you crazy?" Instead, a kind staff member organized the meeting. I was not allowed inside the lab, but there was a “viewing window” where one can look in on the embryologists doing their craft.
I arrived with the bag of my dad’s ashes slung over my shoulder. A man in scrubs wheeled over a canister on the other side of the window, nodded at me and then walked away. And there I was, with my past and future in front of me in two containers. How I wish my dad were standing next to me looking through the viewing window in awe at his newborn grandchild. But if an embryo is a life and the soul never dies, they met, right?
They were just two feet away from each other. Two boxes. One contained human matter cremated at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The other contained human matter cryopreserved at negative 321 degrees Fahrenheit. One contained 72 years of stories and love. One contained my love and dreams for the future. One life was exiting and one was entering. There, I had my coveted moment with my dad and my daughter, together. Ashes, meet embryo. Dad, meet your granddaughter. Soul, meet soul.
Having an embryo wasn’t a guarantee that I would have a baby, but it was a chance. I figured if she made it, she would have met her grandpa. If she didn’t make it, she would join him.
The statistics were grim. At 45, the chances of getting pregnant are about 1 percent, according to one Healthline report, and the risks of complications are many. However, I’m not one to believe solely in statistics. My dad was given six months to live after his accident. He wound up living 10 years, 8½ months.
Transfer day finally arrived on Nov. 3, 2017. Seven impossibly long days later, I took a pregnancy test. HCG level: 86. Pregnant, with my one embryo, at age 45. Silent tears streamed down my face.
As my belly grew, I often looked at the photo that was taken of my dad’s ashes, the embryo in the canister and me. I will tell my daughter — now a cooing, curious, almost-5-month-old bundle of wonder — everything about her kind, loving and resilient grandfather. My dad may not be here on Earth anymore because his body no longer served him, but he is a grandfather. And I know he is watching.
Malini Goel is a lawyer, writer, documentary filmmaker, environmental policy analyst and disability advocate, and the founder of an eco-friendly toy company. She is also enjoying being a first-time mom to a baby girl born July 18.