Boot Camp: New Cars, New Sperm, and A Chemo-Embolization

Buying Dad by Harlyn Aizley, Alyson Publications 2003

At age thirty-eight, faced suddenly with the death of my grandmother and the imminent loss of my mother to ovarian cancer, I decide I want a baby. I want to keep love alive, to have a mother somewhere in my life, even it means that mother was going to be me. Fortunately, my partner of eight years wants a baby too. Unfortunately, we both are female and family-planning, therefore, is going to require a little figuring out, a little biological networking; it's going to require a really nice, fertile guy, or a sperm bank. A year worth of blood, sweat, tears, and therapy later, we opt for the sperm bank. Seven months of unsuccessful intrauterine inseminations after that, we land in a reproductive quandry unlike any we ever could have anticipated. It's the same week my mother is scheduled to undergo a chemo-embolization (the infusion of chemotherapy via a catheter directly into her liver), the same week Faith's (my partner's) car dies, the same week the space station Mir is scheduled to fall into the sea. Look out below!

When a thirty-nine year old woman is not getting pregnant via doctor-assisted inseminations, the next step on the fertility assembly line is for her to start taking hormones and other various injectable, oral, and insertable compounds designed to whip her reproductive system into shape, specifically to get her ovaries working overtime and produce say, a year's worth of eggs in one month. The sperm ñ if swimming in great number, at great speed, and in the right direction - is assumed to be fine.

And though all I want is to get pregnant and have this baby, I can't do it. I can't jump on the fertility bandwagon. It's because I've spent the last four and a half years watching my mother battle ovarian cancer. It's because I work in the field of medical research, so I know that even unsubstantiated theories are theories, that ideas come from somewhere. Not everything exists as an unsubstantiated scientific finding. Some things don't worry us at all. For example, nobody is doing research on the potential link between saltines and ovarian cancer, between classical music and ovarian cancer, between Tylenol and ovarian cancer. It's because many people are doing research on the potential link between fertility treatment and ovarian cancer.

So, as we gear up to help my mother survive yet another debilitating round of chemo I find it harder than ever to consider taking fertility hormones for which there is even the slightest shadow of association with you-know-what. If there's no other way to get pregnant, I will do it. (Wouldn't it be awful to decide not to have a baby because I don't want to take hormones that might cause cancer and then wind up getting cancer anyway?) I will take them if I have to. But before I do, there's one thing I need to know. I want to know whether our sperm donor has gotten anybody else pregnant. I mean maybe, just maybe, it's not me.

"I was just wondering," I ask the women at the sperm bank from which we are purchasing sperm. "Have any other women gotten pregnant from donor number 232?"

The woman pauses before responding, "Funny you should ask."

Funny you should ask?

Apparently just a few moments ago, this very same morning, another woman called to ask the very same question about the very same donor.

It feels as if the floor in my kitchen is dipping and swaying, like the walls have come alive. Everything seems to be moving without me. I grab the back of a chair to steady myself, to feel something solid in my potentially very fertile hands.

"So," I manage to say. "It seems there are two of us who have not gotten pregnant with the sperm of donor number 232."

"Actually, there are five," says the woman at the sperm bank. "If you ask me, statistically, somebody should have gotten pregnant by now.

Faith and I sit at the dining room table and make a list of all the things we need to get done in the next week. We need to see my mother through the chemo, get Faith a car, and find a new sperm donor. Faith takes the car project, I take the sperm donor and the letter. We will split getting my mother well three ways with my sister, Carrie, who is due to arrive from Los Angeles in two days. We also must get to work, feed ourselves, and remember to bathe.

The hour-and-a-half chemo embolization takes three-and-a-half hours because my mother's artery has a curve or a bend or an unexpected detour due to construction. Thankfully, nurses periodically emerge from radiology to update my sister and I on the progress. They know enough to smile as they make their way down the hall. They maintain fake, deliberate smiles the entire length of the hall, until they're close enough so that their words are audible. "She's doing fine." Then their facial muscles relax into bland indifference and they continue down the hall to the cafeteria or to the bathroom or to the outside lobby for a smoke.

Carrie and I pass the time gossiping and eating Balance Bars. When finally our mother is wheeled out of radiology on a gurney, we are emotionally exhausted and she is in deep drug-induced fog. The procedure, much like an angiogram, involved threading a tube up through an artery in her groin all the way into the left side of her liver and then injecting chemotherapy through the tube and into her liver. It's gone well. But "What a route we had to take!" the doctors and nurses keep saying. "What a detour." As if my mother, at some point in her life, had chosen to have her artery curved and tangled much like one might choose to have breast implants or a perm. They all keep shaking their heads and looking at our unconscious mother: "That's quite an artery!"

The next day at dawn, our mother is wheeled back to radiology to have a CAT scan. The scan reveals that the doctors and nurses took the right detour. The chemo has filled the left side of her liver and penetrated the tumor. In three more weeks we will know if, in response, the cancer cells have waved a white flag and declared defeat. In the meantime, my mother will be too exhausted to take care of herself. Loads of liver cells are dead and, apparently, that can really wear a person down, not to mention the effects of the chemo. Carrie and Faith and I arrive at the hospital after the CAT scan, in time to hear all of this news. We are instructed to cook for our mother and clean for her, to make sure she drinks two liters of fluid a day and that her temperature does not rise above 101. Then we gather my mother's belongings, load her into the car, and take her home.

Several friends with children have described returning home from the maternity ward with their newborn, opening the door to their home, looking at their partner, and thinking, "Now what the hell do we do?" It's much like that with our mother. She folds herself into the corner of her sectional sofa and closes her eyes. The three of us, not one of whom is a trained care giver, exchange worried glances.

Carrie has the first shift: week one. We figure we'll play it by ear after that. The doctor has told us that our mother really will only need twenty-four-hour care for the first week. In three weeks she should be up and about. After Carrie returns to Los Angeles, my mother's younger brother will arrive for a four day shift. That takes us to the weekend when, free from work, I grab the baton and take my mother through until Sunday when, voila!, ten days will have passed and she will be on her toes.

By 9 p.m. on the evening of my mother's first day home she's running a fever of 103. Carrie and I bundle her into the car and spend the next five hours in an emergency room watching numbly as she receives two liters of I.V. fluids and much attention from nervous residents who seem to think that her heart rate of 180 beats per minute is a terrible thing. Fortunately, my sister and I don't realize how terrible a thing a heart rate of 180 is until the next day when a cardiologist explains why our mother will remain in the hospital under careful surveillance for at least two more days. Then we freak. We can't stop asking each other the horrible and unnecessary question, "What if we hadn't taken her to the emergency room? What if we hadn't taken her to the emergency room?" It's a useless, pointless, torturous question but we play it over and over again for no reason other than to make ourselves sick. It reminds me of the time Simone kept pressing the repeat button on the stereo playing "You Are My Sunshine" over and over again to make herself cry.

"It's such a sad song, Mommy," she explained to Tory who had come in to see why her three-and-a-half year old was sitting in front of the stereo sobbing.

I'm not sure if my sister and I want to cry like that, or somehow want to keep feeling the weight of what has happened, but we need to stop asking ourselves this question. We need to stop pressing the repeat button over and over and over again.

It's incredible how totally and utterly over are the days of looking for a Jewish donor. In the beginning, as two Jewish women seeking to start a family, it seemed obvious that we would look for a Jewish donor. Now, it's not just that there is not a decent Jew to be found in any of the sperm banks we are willing to use because we remain hell-bent on providing our children with a "yes" donor (in who agrees to meet them when they are eighteen should they so desire) and there are only two sperm banks in the nation that offer such an option (both of which seem to be running specials on Jews with mental illness) - it's not just that. Seeing how far our last Jew got us, I find myself wanting the seed of someone entirely different from him, from myself, from us. I imagine Baldie (our blank shooter) to have been so genetically similar to me as to be almost invisible, like part of the problem was that my eggs didn't even notice his passive little sperm were there. Like spoiled, lazy familiar brats they entered my womb, sat down, and waited for my eggs to make the first move. So, no way. I want foreign sperm, sperm that shouts, "I'm here!" and looks so utterly different from my Ashkenazi eggs that they perk up and take notice. I want action. And I want anyone I can find with a clean medical history.

Faith agrees. We communicate all of this via cell phones. Faith has a cell phone with her at the car dealership. My sister has one at the hospital, and I have one with me at the sperm bank library at the Fenway Community Health Center in which are stored donor profiles from every sperm bank in California. All day long we trade information regarding my mother's heart rate, front-wheel-drive four-door sedans, and the medical histories of anonymous men.

The first problem is that our guilty sperm bank has offered us five free vials of new sperm but not one of their other identity-release donors is in any way appealing. The tide has turned and suddenly it's slim pickin's at the sperm orchard. The only men available seem to be right out of one of my research studies on the genetic components of mental illness: paternal uncles who've been hearing voices for twenty years, grandmothers who have jumped off cliffs. At least they are honest. Maybe it's the donors who deny any such history that we need to worry about. I pore over every profile the sperm bank has to offer, stretching our limits, erasing a standard here, a preference there. Does it really matter that not one of a donor's relatives has ever gone to college? Boston has a great medical community, so do we really need to be concerned that most of the males in another donor's family suffer from mild hemophilia? Still, I cannot squeeze one of them into the realm of possibility.

It seems there's no alternative but to switch sperm banks. That means lawyers and letters and all sorts of effort to obtain some other form of compensation aside from five free vials of psycho-sperm. Just one more item for the list: heal mom, find donor, buy car, threaten sperm bank.

But on the way from one file drawer to another, something catches my eye. It's a manila folder with Baldie's donor number on it. It's his medical profile, the one I dreamed the sperm bank sent us for free. I haven't seen it for months. I told myself I'd order it the moment I became pregnant. Then we would store it in some special baby file for our child to see in years to come. In my memory it says Baldie is kind and caring and loves to cook, that he donated sperm to help unfortunate couples who could not otherwise have children, that he is sweet and smart and talented.

What it really says is the reason he has decided to donate sperm is because it's a way for him to create offspring given that his wife can't get pregnant!

At the time it must have seemed so innocent an explanation; an educated man committed to his girlfriend wants somehow to get his genes into the next generation. At least he had a committed relationship, at least he was literate, at least he was honest. Never had it occurred to us--or to the sperm bank--that he might be the reason his girlfriend could not conceive. His counts were good. It never crossed anyone's mind. Or did it?

It's slim pickin's, too, at the only other sperm bank in the country to offer identity-release donors. There are about seven of them total at this bank and that includes men of all races. There is one Jew who reports a family history of depression so pervasive that I feel my own serotonin levels dip just thinking about him. There's a man who suffers from what the sperm bank insists is a clinically insignificant penile irregularity, a man whose mother and father both were drug addicts, and a man who's made a living doing something with boxes and trucks and international borders that is just too mysterious for my taste. I find myself sneaking peeks at the profiles of "no" donors, men who will not allow their offspring to contact them. Would that really be so bad? Maybe laws will change by then or maybe the donor's mind will have changed. Maybe our children won't care.

I call Faith. "What about switching to a 'no' donor?" I explain that the country is filled with "no" donors. Maybe we're limiting ourselves to strange men and strange sperm banks by insisting we have a donor our child can someday meet.

Faith is sitting across the desk from a used car salesman. I hear her say to him, "Give me one minute."

"We have to have a 'yes' donor," she whispers into the phone. "It just doesn't seem right not to."

I remember. The "yes" donor was our compromise. It was the next best thing to Faith's first choice: a known donor. It is the middle ground, the place where we laid down our swords and shook hands. We have to remain on that territory. If we shift, we risk one of us forever resenting the other and a million years of couple's counseling.

"Okay, but there's hardly anybody. How do you feel about social phobia?"

The car dealer interrupts with some vital information about alignment and warranties and body integrity. For a second I think he's referring to a sperm donor. I imagine sperm brokers, salesmen who sit down with you and bombard you with SAT scores, neuropsychological ratings, and hand size.

"Listen," the sperm salesman would say, "if you were my daughter I would insist you take donor #9873. Personally," he'd lower his voice to a whisper, "I'd rather have a kid with social phobia than one who'd run out of the house not giving a damn about anything. Know what I mean?"

"Find one," Faith says.

Two days later, between visits to the cardiology unit and the sperm library, between conferences with doctors, interns, and nurses, I've found us a new sperm donor and Faith has found a new car. As luck would have it, both are Japanese.





© 2003 Harlyn Aizley