My first observation was the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door, ironically an image of a man with a giant hand. My second observation was that the pornography left a lot to be desired, in that the clinic staff actually left me nothing to be desired; not a 15’s certificate movie, not a National Geographic, not a nipple. It’s no wonder they asked my girlfriend Saron if she wanted to come in with me, an offer she hastily declined.
This was the third time I found myself in a room like this. The first time was for analysis, the results of which brought the news that I have ‘average sperm’ – not super sperm, like I had always assumed (think tadpoles wearing capes and their underpants on the outside) – just plain old bog-standard, common or garden variety, ordinary sperm. (I am at least comforted by the fact that they have great personalities once you get to know them.) The second time, my sample was mixed with five of Saron’s eggs in vitro. Four of them fertilised and two survived to day 5. They were genetically tested but neither were chromosomally normal.
So there I was for the third time, sitting in a strange room in Prague, ‘producing a sample’. It’s such an odd phrase. Maybe they use it to make the man feel like what he is doing is momentous, lending a sort of gravitas to the mucky affair, like he’s tapping into the Zeitgeist like some poet or artist. I just can’t get away from the fact that, as a man, my part in all this is less epic poem, more haiku, less Sistine Chapel, more Jackson Pollock. Saron does the heavy-lifting as it was Saron who suffered physically over and over again.
The prescribed three days of abstinence (still a personal best) meant that despite the absence of pictorial assistance and the off-putting, audible conversations of doctors and nurses in the hallway outside, I was, shall we say, efficient. In fact, I was possibly a little too efficient, so I sat there trying to calculate the right amount of time to remain in the room. Too long and it might seem like I was struggling. A premature re-appearance and the staff would look at Saron with pity.
In the room was a hand-basin so I took my time washing up. Staring in the mirror, I let a few minutes tick away and as I did, everything started to sink in. I thought about all those scans, those heartbeats, those kicks. I thought of that first time when Saron spent the night alone in hospital miscarrying through the night while I lay awake in bed, useless, in a hotel room across the road. I remembered us leaving the hospital the next morning, stopping on the island in the middle of the road, Saron asking me why and me saying that I thought we left something behind. I remembered the tears that followed and so many other tears that we had shed. I thought about how in this moment I was there and Saron was on the other side of the door.
Next week, Saron and I will return to that same clinic in Prague. It’s been two and a half years since the day my sperm fertilized six eggs, two of which survived to day 5, one of which was put into Saron, a blastocyst that grew to become an embryo, a fetus and eventually a baby we named Hunter Sebastian, a little boy who put his parents back together again. Six miscarriages and one failed fertility treatment had taken its toll on us. I honestly don’t know if we could have withstood much more disappointment, much more pain. I hope we could. I hope our relationship could have endured. You just never know. Words give a shared vocabulary, but not a shared experience. Saron and I grieved differently. We felt differently. We coped differently. And that experience of difference had a way of of making us both feel so alone.
Now Saron and I feel lucky. Hunter is the love of our lives and sitting in a freezer in Prague is a 5 day old blastocyst, it’s life suspended in stasis, just as ours had been. We hope that it might grow to be an embryo, a fetus and eventually a brother or sister for Hunter. If that doesn’t happen, we will be sad and we will grieve but it will be different. It will be different than before because we are truly grateful for what we have. Today is the fifth anniversary of our first scan, the first time we saw what we believed would be our first child. Our calendar is filled with dates of what could have been, what should have been. But we know that other couples go through what we have gone through and worse, never to become parents. The whole world is pregnant when you’re struggling to have a baby. Just as we were envious of others then, we know that we are those people to others now. We will never forget that.
On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.
(from Parliament Hill Fields, by Sylvia Plath)