Buying Dad by Harlyn Aizley, Alyson Publications
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
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
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
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
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
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
Faith is sitting across the desk from a used car
salesman. I hear her say to him, "Give me one
"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
"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.