by Christopher DeFilippis
DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 25
(First Appeared: June/July 2001; First Light E-zine, Issue 104)
(NOTE: This column was especially hard to post, dealing as it does with our failed attempt at In Vitro Fertilization–my disclosure of which spoils the optimistic ending, I guess. My wife did eventually have the hysterectomy and we’ll never have biological children. And though keeping my dad’s advice in mind helps, I still can’t help but get choked up when I think about the five who may have been. So this is dedicated to the memory of my peeps. How I wish I could have known you.)
There are four words guaranteed to stop the heart of every male alive. If you hear them while still in high school they may well kill you. Even if you think you’re prepared for them, they’ll still sear you like that nuclear flash in those old 1950s Cold War “Duck and Cover” public service announcements. You come to, dazed, making a futile effort to blink away an afterimage branded to the insides of your eyelids: the realization that life will never be the same again. Only a woman can say these four words, and all men live with an innate apprehension of the day they will be uttered.
No, the words aren’t “Time to go shopping!” They’re even more chilling than “Buy me some tampons?” and fraught with more danger than “Do I look fat?” When strung together, these four words have all others beat: “I missed my period.”
I’ll give the guys out there a minute to crest the collective wave of sweat and nausea that is now sweeping over them. I shudder to think of the impact the words must have on the woman who is saying them. In fact, there’s only one thing more ominous than the effect these words can have on your life, male or female: the realization that you may never hear them. Unfortunately, that’s how things seemed to be shaping up for my wife Laura and me.
Lord knows we’ve never been in a rush to have kids. Together for ten years, married for seven, we’re just having a ball in a life that seems filled with good friends, good coffee, restaurants, bookstores, antique shops, and ever-broadening possibilities, answerable only to each other. The choice to forego children thus far has caused some people to brand us as selfish, which has always been inexplicable to me. I’ve always figured it would be more selfish to bring kids into the world just for the sake of having them. And it’s not like we never intended to have any; they were the specter of some nebulous point in the future when we both felt “ready.”
For me, that was age 35. For some odd reason, 35 has always been a focal point in all my grand schemes. When I turned 25, I vowed to be rich by 35. I’ve foreseen having two residences (an apartment in Manhattan and a nice house somewhere) and a full-time fiction writing career by then. No matter that I’m 31, still renting and have a puny (albeit glacially-growing) bank account. I’ve always had an odd assurance that I’ll have the world by the balls in 2005. Kids, naturally, fell into the pattern.
But no. For some reason, life has chosen to slap me upside the head. And I can’t even claim that I didn’t see it coming. Since I’ve know her, my wife has had a condition that I now must share with you, much to her eternal mortification, I’m sure. It is a disease known as endometriosis, which causes abnormal tissue growth on the ovaries and the walls of the uterus. In Laura’s case, it’s been accompanied by a healthy dose of ovarian cysts. She’s had four surgeries to clear the tissue away, but it always comes back, seemingly with a vengeance.
After the most recent surgery last July, the news was not good. One tube was completely blocked, and its ovary shot. The other ovary had to be reconstructed, again. The doctor gave her a choice: have kids or have a hysterectomy. After about a nanosecond of discussion we chose kids. We were told that we had a window of about six months. In other words, if Laura wasn’t expecting by Christmas, we should start to worry. So we got busy, so to speak…
Come Christmas morning, Santa left me an awesome telescope and Laura got a nice necklace. But there was no baby in sight. Still, we kept trying and waited, maybe in ignorance, more likely in denial. All the while, Laura’s cycle was becoming more erratic and frequent. Eventually, it seemed to me like she was constantly bleeding. When she finally made the dreaded trip to the doctor, our worst fears were realized. The endometriosis was back, along with a bumper crop of new cysts. The doctor sent Laura to see a fertility specialist the same afternoon.
I was at work when she called me with the news. I rushed to Long Island IVF in time to hear the diagnosis: despite the tissue growth, we were still candidates for In Vitro Fertilization. Things began to happen with startling swiftness. Within the week, we had a meeting with a nurse and were given a crash course in alternative reproduction technology.
Stripped to its basics, the procedure has five steps, followed on a strict timetable:
- Suppress the woman’s natural cycle;
- Hyperstimulate the ovaries to produce as many eggs as possible;
- Harvest the eggs;
- Combine the eggs with the husband’s sperm;
- Implant the resulting embryos (if there are any) into the womb and hope for the best.
Sounds simple enough right? Wrong. You wouldn’t believe how complicated it is to conceive a baby if you can’t do so by natural means. Everything is accomplished with a battery of drugs so complex that I still don’t really know what all of them were supposed to do. And I have the benefit of a few months of reflection to temper my perspective.
When you first begin, the means seem entirely contradictory to the desired end. After yet another surgery to tame the endometrial tissue, the first thing Laura had to do was go on the pill. Sex without a condom was forbidden. Within a couple of days, a box arrived from the pharmacy with the aforementioned drugs—about ten different varieties—and bags filled with different gauges of needles. Most of the drugs would have to be administered by injections given by yours truly.
Laura is a nurse, so the needles themselves didn’t bother her. The fact that I’d be the one sticking her did. The prospect was no less daunting to me. The orientation session designed to teach me how to give the injections only made me more nervous. The needles didn’t seem real until I was forced to handle them. I spent weeks with two practice needles, administering subcutaneous and intramuscular injections to one of those Iso-Flex balls that people use for stress relief and hand therapy.
After giving Laura her first actual injection, though, my trepidation disappeared. I guess not killing her with a stray air bubble had a calming effect on me. After a day or so I was administering injections like it was old hat, and had become, in Laura’s nursing parlance, “a good stick.”
In fact, my needle apprehension turned out to be the hardest part of the entire experience for me. As with so many other things in life, men get off surprisingly easy in the whole In Vetro Fertilization process. As bruises began to spread across Laura’s stomach, and she became increasingly bloated and moody with all the drugs coursing through her system, I found more and more reasons to thank God I was born with a penis. In all, I only had to take four pills of some antibiotic. The only real pain I suffered was the embarrassment of the specimen cup.
Early on, after one of our initial doctor visits, I was forking over some money for my insurance co-pay. Along with my change the receptionist handed my a little cup with a white cap, sealed in plastic.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked.
“We need a semen sample for analysis.”
According to Laura, I turned scarlet and said, in a small, strangled voice, “Right now?”
As it turned out they needed it for the visit we had scheduled the following week. The sample, they said, could not be more than an hour old. Since I would be leaving straight from work and heading to the doctor’s office on the day of the visit, there would be no way for me to produce a sample beforehand, short of performing a live sex act in my cubicle for the amusement of my coworkers. I explained as much, but they insisted I take the cup home anyway.
As I drove home, I became increasingly baffled as to why they forced me bring the cup with me. What, was I supposed to get to know it? Maybe take it to dinner? I decided to name it Shirley.
Shirley just kind of hung around the house for a week, reminding me not only that I had an appointment to go jerk off, but that I would be doing so in a place where everyone knew I was jerking off, and were eagerly waiting to whisk away the end results.
But still, I arrived at the appointed hour, Shirley in hand, ready to swallow my dignity and crank one out for the team. From everything I’d ever seen on St. Elsewhere, I expected to be secreted to a room comfortably appointed with a couch, television and a few potted palms, and be given access to a wide assortment of porn to assist me in fulfilling my needs.
Instead, they led me to a largish sized bathroom furnished with an old waiting room chair. As I locked the door behind me, I realized the conspicuous absence of all the accouterments I had heretofore imagined. I eventually found some issues of Playboy in a magazine rack by the door, hiding out behind some copies of Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal. Despite this blow to my expectations, I managed to persevere and get the job done.
As it turns out, my guys are “fair to good” swimmers and would easily manage their end of the work.
So that was that. Laura’s eggs were hyperstimulating, I was saving up another fleet of X- and Y-chromosomes, and life was winding inevitably toward the big day. It was during this time that Laura asked me a question that somehow brought this whole surreal experience into focus. “When you were a kid, did you ever think you’d be having a test tube baby?”
Until that point, I hadn’t really thought about what we were doing at all. It had simply been a case of “now or never” followed by a regimen so complicated that it defied thought. It certainly had never occurred to me to label it as “having a test tube baby” even though that’s what we were doing. I was in grade school when I had first heard the term, and in my young mind it immediately conjured up images of a sterile lab somewhere with tiny fetuses gestating in rack after rack of test tubes until they were ready to go home. And I guess that’s the image I’ve had ever since, never having the need to update it. In my head, it was the stuff of science fiction, as remote and fantastic as a trip to the moon, as futuristic as George Jetson’s flying car.
Oddly enough, when Laura put it into these terms, the whole experience suddenly became real. Then it occurred to me: I am Sci Fi. This phrase, a promotional tag line for the Sci-Fi Channel (which I apparently watch entirely too much of) popped into my head and took on new pertinence. And not only am I Sci Fi, but my children will be as well. It may sound corny, but as a lifelong Science Fiction devotee I find it wonderfully fitting and comforting to think in these terms. It’s inspirational.
Shortly after my revelation, I had a strange dream in which Laura had given birth. We were the proud parents of five (!) kids. I was carrying them wrapped in one enormous blanket because they were lined up in a row from biggest to smallest and stuck together like those marshmallow Peeps that you get at Easter. I was just unwrapping them and preparing to separate them when I woke up, unable to stop smiling. Since then I have referred to my possible future children as the peeps, and now so does everyone else. I envision a day when I can embarrass them in front of all their friends with this story.
Harvest day came quickly. Before I knew it, we were in the hospital, Laura preparing for egg retrieval, me steeling myself to give another deposit. They wheeled her away and made me return to the waiting room. After an eternity, the doctor came out and informed me that he had been able to retrieve ten eggs. I was ecstatic, but felt increasing panic. I had yet to make my contribution.
When the nurse finally called my name, she laughed and said, “Sorry about the wait. We sure are busy around here today!” This right before she led me to the masturbation chamber. Thanks to her little snippet of information, I got extremely weirded out by the thought of all the guys who had probably been in there before me. At least the room was much better appointed than the doctor’s office had been. I was confronted by a staggering array of porn, including videos and a magazine rack that covered the entire wall. This was more like it! Upon completion, I had but to push a button to have someone collect my sample, like some sort of perverted reverse room service.
The next day we were informed that out of the ten eggs, they had been able to get five embryos (just as many peeps as I dreamed of!). We had decided long beforehand to implant three and freeze the rest. Since I plan to cryopreserve my head after I die, I figured that my unborn progeny could join me upon my revival in the far future.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. On the day of our embryo transfer, the doctor told us that of the five, only three had survived. That meant all three were going in and no second chances unless we began the whole process over from scratch. But by all accounts, the transfer was a success—though the embryos will likely grow neck in neck with the cysts that are even now developing in Laura’s uterus. Looks like we did this just in time…
The end result? Drum roll please… We don’t know. As of the deadline of this column, our pregnancy tests are still a week away. And even if they come back positive, we won’t know for a while how many kids to expect. I’m just praying for a positive result. I’ve even begun hoping that all three peeps take. Laura has confessed the same hope.
Don’t ask how we plan to manage our instant family. As I said at the outset, it’s a heart-stopping proposition, even after all the extraordinary effort we’ve expended to make it viable. All I can do is heed a bit of advice that my Pop gave me years ago that has never failed to put things in perspective:
“Life doesn’t have to get along with you; you have to get along with life.”
I guess I’m just now learning that that applies to the good stuff just as much as it does to the bad.