Anngi Sieger StrickFounder & Designer for ANNGI ALYNSAN MATEO, CAPhotography by Lauri LevenfeldStory by Lauri Levenfeld
Last year I featured the amazing survival story of Anngi Sieger Strick on TMP. A dear friend and creative, Anngi has always been one of the most inspiring woman in my life. When Anngi was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer 3 1/2 years ago and started her journey towards survival, my respect and love for Anngi skyrocketed. Her battle to health was/is courageous, positive, and honest. And her ability to be open and connected to not only her dearest, but to the world around her is meaningful and extraordinary. In my eyes, she’s a hero. In part two, Anngi’s story continues to unfold and inspire as she becomes the mother to a new baby boy via another amazing woman, her gestational surrogate.
Three and a half years ago I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. I have been in remission since my surgery and chemotherapy. We discovered the cancer while I was trying to get pregnant with a second child and every day I think about how fortunate I am that we found it.
With each passing year, I hit a milestone. I am grateful and filled with hope. It does get easier. I still try to take it day by day. I still say– to others and myself– “so far, so good.” But isn’t that what each of us can only say everyday? Isn’t that what each of us really knows? Even so, there has always been a nagging thought stuck in my head– a small but prominent voice pounding.
I still yearned for another child, a sibling for our son, Kaenon. The cancer may have postponed my dreams of having another baby but more than anything, it fueled my determination now to have one. Why should I let cancer take me off course for fulfilling one of my dreams?
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
After I finished my chemotherapy, we tried to get on course again with having another child but had repeated miscarriages. My husband Roland and I decided to try a different route. Even if we failed with this last attempt, at least we failed knowing we tried something different. Words cannot express my appreciation and respect for my husband during this time of figuring out the direction for our family. Once again, he was by my side, riding shotgun on a winding and unclear road. He believed that somehow, someway, we would figure things out together and find a way to have another child.
After months of research and exploring the many different options, we decided to try gestational surrogacy—find a woman to carry our baby. We worked with a surrogacy agency that helped us navigate the challenging waters and many details of the process. Quite quickly, we found our match. Reading her profile, we connected with her instantly. We just knew she was “The One.”
“Susan” lived in Southern California and had a family of her own. She was married, worked full time, and had two children. I discovered she also designed jewelry. And ironically, her mother had colon cancer too. Sadly, she passed away from it several years ago. In addition, “Susan’s” good friend had cancer and had asked Susan if she would carry her children since she was unable to do so. Susan was thrilled about the chance to help.
Tragically, Susan’s friend passed away before she had the opportunity to be a surrogate for her. She told me it was like she lost two people that day: her friend and the child that might have been.
Susan felt the pull to be a surrogate and now wanted to help another family achieve their dream and she would be honored to do so.
As I continued to learn more about Susan, I connected with her on many values and interests— right down to our shared love of sushi and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
I will never forget the look in Roland’s eyes after he read her profile. Smiling, he just stared at me and said, “Wow!” Feeling like we were connecting with a long lost friend, we knew we had our partner in this journey.
When we met Susan, we clicked. Looking into her eyes only confirmed our feelings about her. After ironing out months of contract negotiations, phone conversations, mutual expectations, legal documents, insurance requirements, financial obligations, psychological testing and medical appointments, we were ready for the embryo transfer.
I remember meeting Susan for lunch just before our big day and we exchanged gifts. I designed and crafted a turquoise ring for her. Power, protection and good luck are channeled from turquoise. She presented us with a moss agate stone, which channels fertility. Marveling that we both gave each other mystical stones, something in my gut told me this time, finally, I think it might just work.
We did our last round of IVF with Susan and ten long days passed. Then the phone rang. The doctor’s office was calling. With heart pounding, I answered and was told our result: a positive pregnancy. Words can’t describe our joy, excitement and yes, relief.
But our journey had just begun. We flew to Southern California monthly for doctor appointments, check-ups and ultrasounds. Having faith, letting go, trusting someone you didn’t know a few months ago with your most precious and coveted dream– these emotions and challenges were all new to us. We had to learn how to believe and trust in the surrogacy process. Maybe everything wasn’t going to be done the way I would do it if I was carrying our child, but that didn’t mean that it wouldn’t be done right.
With time and each passing milestone, we built our faith. This woman we entered into a formal contract with was becoming so much more– a friend, a partner, a hope, a path to our dreams– we formed a special relationship and friendship. Finding our mutual balance, boundaries and expectations, we bonded over this journey and baby.
Soon after our positive pregnancy result, we told our 4-year-old son, Kaenon, that we had a surprise for him. “Our family is going to have a baby!” we exclaimed. During our family dinner we explained that babies come from lots of different places and in many different ways. We told him that mommy’s stomach wasn’t working right so we have a nice friend named Susan who is going to help us grow our baby in her tummy. “That’s my surprise?” Kaenon asked in a somewhat confused voice. I think he thought we were taking him to the movies or some adventure—he definitely wasn’t expecting a baby! When we pressed him for a reply, he simply shrugged, “OK, cool.” I chuckled at my 4-year-old’s response.
Nothing was strange to him and he accepted our situation as the way it was. No further questions. We were having a baby and that was that. He was back to eating his macaroni and cheese. Weeks later we decided to find out the sex of our baby. We wanted to know if Kaenon was getting a little sister or a little brother. Kaenon wanted to know too. With the reality that we didn’t observe a growing belly daily, our family needed to feel closer to the baby and the process. We thought knowing the sex would help. The doctor wrote the answer on a piece of paper and sealed it in an envelope. On Christmas Eve, while on vacation with all of our family, Kaenon, Roland and I shared a special moment as we sat on the rocks next to the beach. As the wind rolled the waves, Kaenon tore open the envelope. Our little threesome laughed and hugged as our result was revealed. Moments later we presented our family with Blue Hawaiian cocktails as the answer to the question. Our little boy was the best Christmas present we could hope for.
As her belly grew, our confidence in the pregnancy grew. Then another hurdle confronted us down our path. At the 20-week ultrasound testing, the doctor noticed a slight VSD—or a small hole in the baby’s heart. Explaining to us that it could close up on it’s own or worse case scenario, we would need heart surgery at some point, the doctor’s words once again felt like muffled sounds. It brought back a rush of emotions and that sickly feeling I recalled when I was sitting in the cold hospital chair being told I had cancer. The crushing words swirled my fears to the surface once again. “Heart” and “hole” are never words a mother wants to hear in one sentence when it comes to her baby. Once again, I found myself distraught and scared.
The doctor noticed the tears well up in my eyes. She assured me that this is “fixable”—one-way or the other. Doubt, fear and anxiety all came knocking once again. Susan and her husband gave me a compassionate and warm hug. Their calm and gentle demeanor carried us much through the pregnancy. Although they lived 500 miles away, their assuring and encouraging voices always kept us close.
The flight back from Southern California to San Francisco that night felt like I was flying across the planet. With a heavy head and a broken heart, I thought we would never land. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I gazed out of the plane’s window. Staring out at the grey clouds and dark sky, I wished upon a star. Wished this would go away. I was angry and wondered why this was all happening. After all we had been through to have this baby, why- why- why can’t this just be easy?
“I created a mantra: “The doctor said this is fixable.” I repeated that sentence in my head over and over.”
We had an ultrasound appointment every month until birth to check on the status of the baby’s heart. There was a special silver lining here: we got to “see” our baby once a month. It’s not typical to have an ultrasound every month after 20 weeks. Every four weeks we witnessed him flipping around and playing “acrobat,” as the technician laughingly remarked. I couldn’t feel him in my tummy but every month I did get to see him move and once it looked like he was waving to us. To keep sane with regards to his heart condition, I concentrated on what the doctor had said Many things in life are not fixable, but this problem was. Instead of the common saying, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” I told myself, “If you can fix it, it isn’t broken.”
Over the weeks, Susan would text us a picture of her and her growing tummy. Every month or so, we would receive a picture of her, standing proud in her kitchen with a profile view of her belly and a smile on her face. After the first few pictures, I noticed she always had the same purple sweater on. When I told her this, we laughed, for it was unintentional. I asked her to keep wearing that purple sweater every time she snapped a picture and that purple sweater pregnancy picture was something Roland and I looked forward to seeing. It documented how our baby boy was stretching that purple fabric, bigger and bigger–and eventually to it’s max– month after month. He was growing, he was coming, and this was real.
To ease our nerves during the doctor appointments, Susan designed and made rosaries for Roland and I. Beautiful beads twisted around the silver chain and cross. “Each time you want to feel close to your baby, squeeze the cross,” she assured us as she handed us each a rosary. I remember the sunlight reflecting off the metal cross and the chain as it sparkled in the bright warm light. After she gave us this sweet gift, I would say a prayer every single night before I went to bed and clench the rosary in my hands. Hoping to channel some strength, positive energy and some of that sunlight, I prayed that everything was going to turn out just fine with our baby.
With each passing month the hole in our baby’s heart looked like it was staying the same. We wore our rosaries to each appointment and I kept the moss agate stone close, in my jean’s pocket. Finally, near the end of the pregnancy, it looked like the hole was getting smaller. At the last ultrasound before birth, the doctor concluded that it closed on it’s own. Gratitude filled my heart as our baby’s mended.
Although we had met for many lunches and doctor appointments, in the last few weeks before our due date, we wanted to have a “family day” with Susan, her husband, her children and Kaenon. Her children met the family that belongs to the baby in their mommy’s belly. Kaenon saw Susan, met her family, and touched her belly. Laying his tiny hand on her round stomach, he understood that his brother was inside. With a picnic on the beach, we played in the sand, and looked out at the water. Gazing up at the blue sky, we laughed and marveled that we were weeks away from meeting this special boy.
On Mother’s day, the three of us flew down to Southern California because Susan was having contractions. Smiling ear to ear the plane ride down, I couldn’t help but think about the irony that our baby would be born on Mother’s day. But our boy was not ready to come just yet. Two days later, on May 13, 2014 at 3:05pm, Nixon was born.
Our families, who supported our decisions from day one, flew in for the big day. Roland and I were in the labor room and I squeezed my moss agate stone as both my husband and I wore our rosaries.
Taking deep breaths, holding hands, and praying everything was going to be OK, we waited. Finally, his little cry burst out and he was immediately put on my bare chest—skin to skin. Roland cut the umbilical cord as once again the tears streamed down my face. But this time, it was tears of pure joy. Finally, at long last, our baby was here. Those tears reflected the years of determination, adversities, frustrations and then hope and faith that we would have another child—somehow and someway. Tears that we did it. Those were tears of love and longing as I looked into Nixon’s slate blue eyes for the very first time.
A few hours after Nixon’s birth, Roland and I sat with Susan and her husband and through smiles and tears expressed our thankfulness. But there were no words powerful enough. We never thought we’d be going down this path but now that we did, we couldn’t have imagined doing it with anyone else. They showed us how to open and stretch our hearts, wonder and trust in ways we didn’t know possible.
“I hope you appreciate how hard everyone worked to get you into this world little one,” Susan told Nixon before all of us left the hospital the next day. She handed me the purple sweater, which I would later make into a baby blanket, per her suggestion. Beaming with gratitude, admiration and appreciation for them, I gave her and her husband a strong hug.
I looked down at Nixon and realized that once again, “it took a village” but dreams can come true if you just keep trying and searching for the door that will open. All you need is to find one open door. As I floated out of the hospital with Roland, Kaenon and Nixon, I was ready to make the long drive back North– to go home, and be home– with my boys. But a piece of my heart will always stay in Southern California.
With love, xo TMP