Tuesday 11 December 2018

The anonymous letter

Maria Duffy on the emotional joy of rediscovering an old letter, and why it beats a text or email any day

Maria Duffy

When did you last receive a letter? I mean a real, honest-to-goodness, written-in-ink, delivered-by-a-postman letter? It seems that all the postman delivers these days are bills and reminders for the bills we've yet to pay.

I'd forgotten about how precious and revealing letters can be until one day last year.

During a particularly rainy day, I decided to do a spring clean. Before long, I found myself immersed in old pictures, school reports and various other memorabilia. That's when I found the letter. I'd cried when I received it a few years before. It had made a huge impact on me at the time and seeing it again made me remember.

Some years ago, my husband and I sat watching a programme on RTE about fertility. It was a fly-on-the-wall documentary, following couples who were having difficulties conceiving. It was heart-breaking to watch.

Having four healthy children of my own, I was hugely moved by what I saw. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to want children so much and to be deprived of the chance. I'd been through two miscarriages myself and knew how awful that was, but some of these women had tried for years, been through IVF and had still never even experienced a pregnancy.

It played on my mind for days after watching and one thing that kept coming back to me was the shortage of egg donors in Ireland. To use a donor egg seemed like the best route for a lot of couples, but the waiting list was about five years. I felt I needed to find out more.

So, after a trip to a fertility clinic, I found myself at the start of a process that would be one of the best things I ever did. I had the tests: I was suitable to become an egg donor. I had the counselling – because the clinic wants to make sure you understand completely what you're getting into. If a pregnancy results from the egg donation, the child will biologically be mine. I understood and wanted to proceed.

Everything about the egg donation is anonymous. The clinic took the next suitable couple from the waiting list and just gave me basic information about them, such as how long they'd been waiting and what they said when they heard the news. They were told basic information about me, such as hair and eye colour, age and interests. And then the process began.

There were drugs, nasal sprays, injections and lots of scans over the space of a couple of months. Then the day came when my eggs were sufficiently matured and ready to be harvested.

The procedure itself was painless and, although it was just a local anaesthetic, I found myself drifting off to sleep. I woke just as they finished and was thrilled to hear it had been successful and they'd retrieved a number of fine-looking eggs. So that was my bit done.

It seemed strange in a way to head off home and know that the couple who were to receive my eggs were just beginning their journey. The eggs were to be fertilised by the husband's sperm that very day and left for a few days. If that part was successful, one or two of the resulting embryos would be implanted into the woman at that point.

I remember closing my eyes and praying that it would work for them.

The clinic told me that I'd be able to find out the outcome, so roughly nine months later I made the call. It had been a success. A baby had been born as a result of the donation. I remember ringing my mother to tell her. She cried and said she was really proud of me.

It was all very emotional, but strange at the same time, because we didn't know these people and would never hear any more about the child. One thing was for sure, I'd never regret doing it for one moment.

The letter I found was one that the recipient had written on the night before she went in to have the embryos implanted. It was anonymous, of course, sent through the clinic, but I felt a connection with her and knew she'd always be in my thoughts.

It was this very letter that was the inspiration for my new novel, 'The Letter'. In a world of fleeting communication – texts, emails, social networking etc – it made me realise how important written correspondence is.

What untold stories would emerge if we had a chance to look through somebody's old letters? That's what happens when Ellie Duggan is looking through her late sister's belongings. She finds a letter that sends her world into a spin and makes her question her own life and values.

I've decided that I want my letters to be things that are found in drawers and attics in the future, so I've bought myself some good old-fashioned writing paper and have stocked up on pens.

My children will probably laugh and wonder why I'd be bothered when email is so much quicker. Yes, it's quicker to email, but a real, honest-to-goodness, written-in-ink, delivered-by-a-postman letter is so much more precious.

'The Letter' by Maria Duffy is published by Hachette Books Ireland

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