In December 2013 my husband and I had just completed another failed IVF cycle. This failed cycle made celebrating the holidays a bit more challenging than usual. We continued several of our holiday traditions but there was “something” missing. I put up a few decorations but found it difficult to be festive when the hope of having a baby of our own seemed unattainable. In fact, I didn’t even send out Christmas cards that year and although we played our usual holiday concerts and attended church service on Christmas Eve, the music didn’t move me as it usually does. That Christmas we simply went through the motions.
One of our Christmas traditions is driving through the “Way of Lights” at Our Lady of the Snows Shrine in my hometown of Belleville, IL. Although I was feeling down, seeing millions of white lights illuminating the night sky and hearing the story of Jesus’s birth lifted my spirits. I even said a silent prayer for hope and internal peace as we passed the Grotto. As we neared the exit, my husband threw some money in the donation bucket. Every year the Lady of the Snows Shrine gives people who donate a certain amount a small gift. That year it was a stuffed elephant. We didn’t need to exchange words for me to know that my husband wished he had a child to give the elephant to. But the fact that he got the elephant showed me he hadn’t given up hope and his act was an illustration of his love and devotion.
Days after receiving the stuffed elephant my disposition shifted. I commenced the new year with a positive outlook and was filled with the inner peace and hope I had prayed for. I began to sleep with the stuffed elephant as it reminded me of that magical night filled with sadness, love and hope.
The elephant also reminded me of two special people in my life who had a profound impact on me. Both are elephant collectors. One person was Dr. Otis Miller, history professor, politician, coin collector and loving father. He was the father of my childhood friend and since I spent a lot of time at the Miller house growing up, he was like a second father to me. Sadly, he passed away from a battle with cancer but the memory of his laughter, kindness and love of family, brought a smile to my face and filled me with happy childhood memories and true joy. The other person is Joyce Bluett, educator, union leader, child advocate and friend. She is a strong independent women who helped me navigate my first years as a kindergarten teacher and also happened to be my husband’s kindergarten teacher. When I looked at the elephant I was reminded of Joyce’s inner strength, her ability to stand up for her beliefs and her passion to fight for justice and equality. Both of my mentors began collecting elephants for drastically different reasons. Dr. Miller collected them because of his political affiliation to the Republican Party and Joyce collects because she is a member of Delta Sigma Theta (whose unofficial mascot is an elephant in memory of the sorority’s founder Florence Letcher Toms). Although elephants reminded my teachers of different ideals, when I look at an elephant I feel like my mentors and their strength, courage and passion for life are walking right beside me.
The elephant was there when I had surgery on New Year’s Eve to remove a polyp. A few days after the surgery we had a consultation with our fertility specialist and I noticed he had several elephant statues adorning his office. I did some research and discovered the elephant was a symbol for fertility. Our doctor advised us to give IVF one more try and the elephant was there throughout my last IVF cycle, during the dreaded two week wait, and then throughout the nine months of my pregnancy.
When my mother hosted a baby shower for me she used elephants as the theme. There was even an elephant made out of fondant on top of the cake! During my pregnancy I was drawn to decorate the nursery with elephants. Pink elephants dance on the walls, there is a grey rocking elephant in a corner and an elephant mobile was placed above my daughter’s crib. There is a shelf in her room that contains an elephant figurine, bank and a toy elephant. Gifts my daughter received as a baby and the beginnings of her own collection. When sweet little Lillian Clare arrived she had a special photograph taken with the stuffed elephant my husband lovingly got us on that cold December night. The stuffed elephant that represented hope and now belongs to the child we silently prayed for.
My mentor, Joyce, recently came over for lunch. She met Lillian for the very first time. I hadn’t shared my elephant story with her and she had no idea Lillian’s room was decorated with elephants. She brought a small bag for Lillian to open that day and what do you suppose was safely tucked inside?… an elephant of course!