Her living room was immaculate. Exactly what you'd expect from a professor of literature and the head of a liberal arts university's English department. When she entered the room, she handed me a cup of strong tea, with just the right hint of peppermint. Even in her own home--out of the classroom, away from the university campus--she looked sophisticated and polished. She drew her legs beneath her in the high-backed paisley chair opposite of me and studied the fireplace.
"I know you're struggling with your project, Lilee. That's why I invited you here."
She wasn't my academic adviser, and I had only taken two of her classes. I was genuinely surprised she'd taken an interest in my studies.
"I heard your talk in Hagen's office. You're worried about your Statistics project." Her eyes were soft, no judgement.
"I'm not good at numbers, things like that confuse me. I'm not sure I'm going to pass the class." I was worried about my grade. I was worried that I was too stupid to understand how I even needed these statistics in my future career. And with the final project looming, I was making myself sick over all of it.
"Lilee, I have a son," she said, her gaze was intent on the fire.
I didn't know this. She had never mentioned this in class. I knew she was unmarried--and I had wrongly assumed she also childless.
"Oh?" I think I said. Or something else equally inane.
"His name is Thomas. He's 24--only a few years older than you."
I didn't respond. The way she was talking made me nervous. I immediately sensed there was something...different about Thomas. I waited for her to unfold the story.
"I was young when I got pregnant. My college boyfriend didn't stick around to help care for Thomas. To him, to the doctors, to everyone, Thomas is an incredibly rare statistic. One in four hundred thousand."
I was starting to see where this was going. I swallowed. "I'm so sorry."
"Thomas was born with a rare disease. He's improved from birth, but there are still complications." She paused. "One in four hundred thousand. Those are pretty good odds, right?"
I studied my hands in my lap. "I guess."
"Of course they are! I'd take those odds any day. You see, Lilee, statistics are tricky things. For you, you've probably never heard of cloacal exstrophy, because you're young, and it's rare. Why would it even be something you'd worry about?
But for me, and for Thomas, being the one in four hundred thousand, it's everything. It was our whole life for many years, through many procedures and surgeries. Most people wouldn't worry about a statistic like one in four hundred thousand. But I do. And it's made me view all statistics differently now. Does this make sense?"
It did. My project took a new turn. I passed the class. And I've never forgotten Thomas.
I still worry about statistics, and that fear has been compounded once we started trying for a baby. I'd google everything, but anecdotal evidence on TTC forums, stats on WebMD, all of it was basically worthless. Apparently, I was the 1 in 8 that it takes longer than a year of unprotected sex to conceive. I was on the wrong side of "average" for my period to return to normal within a year of stopping birth control pills. Three weeks ago, my doctor told me the average, healthy couple will conceive within four months. Well, it's been 19 months. That four-month statistic does nothing for me.
I have fears about IVF success-rate statistics, because until a clinic can guarantee a 100% take-home baby rate, it doesn't really matter. It's not like you get 80% of a baby. For some people it works, for others it doesn't. I'm sure the couples with failed a IVF find no comfort in their clinic's 94% advertising sound-bite boasts.
And yet, I still look for statistics. What are the averages for a 25-year-old who's been trying for nearly two years? What is the success rate of monitored Clomid cycles? How many do most couples need? What are the odds my husband's sperm is normal?
I guess I'm still hoping that someday, I'll fall on the right side of these statistics.