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Personal Essays

The Age of Mechanical Reproduction

When it comes to IVF, in-vitro fertilization, nothing is normal. Your world is upside-down. Your doctor compliments your wife on her monkeys. Then, when every dollar and exertion has gone toward a single hour of hope, it begins to snow.

Jeremy Dean, Wealth of Nations, 2011. Courtesy the artist and {CTS} creativethriftshop, NY.

When I tell people what we are doing, they want to hear about the room where you produce. I tell them that there is a lot of paperwork. That they take your picture and look at your license. Then they walk you back to the room. You are handed a list of instructions and some stickers and a plastic cup. The cup has a forest-green lid.

In the room is a VCR. I like to write down the names of the videos so I can share them with my wife and friends: Ass Angels #4, Original Black Queens of Porn (Afro-Centrix #113), and Chock Full of Asians. The latter features a woman with enlarged breasts so swollen they look luminous, like the sense apparatus of a recently discovered deep-sea fish.

No one sets a clock, but there is a sense of time passing. You get to work and try not to think about things.

The things not to think about are: the money you are spending. How they can’t find the problem—my sperm is better now, once I quit hot baths and Diet Coke, and my wife’s plumbing looks normal on the hysterosalpingogram. Don’t think about the other dudes jacking it five feet away. Just try to keep the chair from squeaking. Try to hit the cup.

When it is complete you screw on the forest-green lid, write your name and your wife’s name on the label, put it all in a biohazard bag, and ring the buzzer. Along comes a woman, another nurse. She takes the bag and holds it up to the light. If you read the paperwork there is a request that you don’t make any jokes during this moment.

The worst thing that can happen in that room is “failure to produce.” They warn you about it. Men go in and hours later have not come out. They’re sobbing and their arms are sore. Their wives or partners are out in the waiting room, surly from hormone treatments. No one has sympathy for a man who can’t produce. They should have sympathy but they don’t. You do not want to be that guy. And so far I have not failed. Just in case, I have special videos on my phone.

The nurse will take the biohazard bag to a room filled with machines. They will run the sample through a centrifuge. I will join my wife, who is filled with chemicals that encourage ovulation, in a treatment room. A doctor will use a plastic syringe to inject my purified and enhanced semen into my wife. Then we will wait.

My wife has purchased a half-dozen pairs of lucky socks that she wears to the clinic. They have monkeys, ninjas, and moustaches on them. The doctor likes them.

Three years of waiting. Everywhere around us there are waves of bouncing sons, bounties of daughters, stroller wheels creaking under the cheerful load. Facebook updates, email messages, and Christmas cards arrive with pictures of tots, their faces smeared with avocado or cake frosting. Babies on rugs, babies in hats. Invitations to baby showers with cursive script and cartoon storks. Over a beer an expectant father—another expectant father—gives me the news, tells me that his wife will soon have her second or third. Am I happy for him? What else can I be? Once again I put out my hand, close my eyes, and wish them joy.

Every day at least once our cat Desdemona, a pretty green-eyed cat, carries a pair of clean socks in her mouth as if the pair of socks was a kitten. Then she drops them to the floor and yowls in anguish, as if she is dying. She looks at me and yowls some more. I go to her and stroke her ears and say, “I know, sweetie.” Sometimes we come home and find three or four pairs, three or four sock babies, scattered around the house.

My wife has purchased a half-dozen pairs of lucky socks that she wears to the clinic. They have monkeys, ninjas, and moustaches on them. The doctor likes them. My wife gets into the stirrups. The doctor puts things into my wife’s vagina—they are always putting things into my wife’s vagina—and the doctor says, “I like your monkeys.” I watch, leaning on the cabinet that contains gauze and syringes.

We don’t tell many people about what we are doing. When we do some say: “Well, it must be fun trying.” Or: “Are you sure you’re doing it right?” I laugh with them; after all, how many times have I said something insensitive while trying to be funny? I don’t talk about the large doses of medicine that I inject into my wife’s buttocks that cause her to inflate like a hormonal balloon. Nor do I discuss how intimacy itself has become such an awkward, uncomfortable thing that it’s scheduled on a Google Calendar named “LadyStuffings” with events that show up in pink.

 

I lose some weight. I go to parties and drink too much red wine. More than one woman taps my knee and laughs. Perhaps, to them, I look like a reasonable compromise. I have several lesbian friends who tell me they are trying to conceive. I wonder, should I insinuate myself into their lives? Would they want the semen of a heavyset, nervous depressive who has consumed five tanker trucks of Diet Coke?

I have thoughts while my wife is in the stirrups with the doctor poking her uterus with the sonogram wand. I think about knee taps and I think about lesbians.

My wife and I talk about this. We talk about the protocol of the fertility clinic. We talk about her support group, and failure to produce. We talk about adoption, which is expensive and ambiguous. We talk about giving up on the process and living our lives without the ghosts of unconceived children (the most adorable ghosts there are). We talk, and talk, and wait.

 

Three years, 11 negative results. Finally they said, “Well, in this case here is what we do. We bring out the big guns. It’s IVF, in-vitro fertilization. Test-tube babies. We use hormones to stimulate egg release, we harvest the eggs, and mix them with your sperm in a dish. Then we transfer the eggs directly to the uterus. It costs about $15,000. But there are discounts available.”

We had vowed never to get to this point.

We asked: “Is this what people do when they get to this point?”

The doctors nodded.

So we became people who try to have test-tube babies. Pill after pill, shot after shot, exhausted but hopeful. Following the protocol. My wife grew eggs—perhaps dozens of eggs—that hung from her tubes like clusters of grapes. She was sore and walked with difficulty.

On Christmas night my wife took one last, massive shot. We were visiting with friends and asked if we could use their bedroom for a moment so that I could inject my wife with drugs. They said of course.

As I’d been taught to do at the clinic, I filled the syringe with human chorionic gonadotropin and flicked at it. A nurse had drawn a circle on my wife’s ass to help me aim. In went the needle. The shot would ripen the eggs. Exactly 36 hours later there would be a one-hour window—and only one hour—for timed egg retrieval. It’s a minor surgery. They put you under.

There were no cars or cabs. People were confused. Buses had stopped in the middle of the street. We heard rumors of trains like it was wartime.

We didn’t do anything on the day after Christmas besides wait for the next day. We live well out in Brooklyn, below Prospect Park, and the surgery was scheduled for 9 a.m. in midtown Manhattan. We decided to set the alarm for 5 a.m. An hour to get ready, an hour to travel, and two hours for something to go wrong. At midnight we finally fell asleep.

In the dark of the morning of the 27th we awoke to two feet of snow. The streets were silent and beautiful. I nervously checked the Transit Authority website but all the trains were running. Our apartment was a half-mile from the closest subway, so off we went at 5:45 a.m., stepping through tall drifts. Nothing had been plowed.

Arriving many minutes later we found that the B and Q trains weren’t running. There were no cars or cabs. People were confused. Buses had stopped in the middle of the street. We heard rumors of trains like it was wartime.

According to the Transit Authority website, loading slowly on my phone, the G train was running. We were now a mile from a G stop. We doubled back. My wife limped, teeth clenched, ovaries aching and distended, holding her stomach.

We waited for the G but no trains came. By now it was 8:30. We needed to be in the city. My wife dialed car services but they refused us. Finally someone came out to the people waiting in the station and said “no trains—no trains in Brooklyn today. The A is running at Jay Street, that’s all.”

But Jay Street was miles away—a two-hour walk even without two feet of snow, or without a limping wife. The clinic itself was more than 10 miles away, an impossible distance. I didn’t know what to do. Life before this morning was all planning, percentages, and optimism, but now all hope left me. I leaned against the wall of the station, thinking of the trudge back to the apartment, the thousands of dollars in chemicals slowly leaching out of my wife, all that health and all those eggs wasted. I thought: We didn’t get to try.

“All right,” said my wife, furious and exhausted. “Let’s hitchhike.”

I was skeptical but did not say so. At least it was a plan. We walked the blocks toward the expressway. My wife had to stop and double over to breathe. Finally we made it.

My wife stuck her thumb out. Better chance someone will pick up a lady.

We walked up to cars that stopped at the intersection. “We’re going north,” we said. In the blizzard New York City was reduced to cardinal directions.

Most people were kind. “I’m not going that way,” they said. “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” we replied. But then came the tenth car along Ocean Parkway, a minivan driven by an old man, an ultra-orthodox Jewish man with a big beard.

“We’re going to Jay Street,” I said. “But we’ll go as far north as you can take us.”

“Sure,” said the old man. “Get in.”

We took our seats. My wife’s face was pale white; her eyes half-closed.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”

Off we drove into the freezing whiteness. We nearly crashed many times. Cars buried mid-street, cars going the wrong way, people wandering without direction. Parts of the expressway closed. The old man screamed at people on the street and people in other cars, the minivan sliding across intersections.

He told us he’d driven to work, and once there they had looked at him like he was crazy and sent him home. Then he rolled down his window to yell at a tow-truck driver who was driving the wrong way down Smith Street. This was a very difficult person who was doing us an unbelievable kindness.

After making dangerous and slow progress through the obliterated, barely-plowed streets of Brooklyn, timer running down, the old man dropped us at Jay Street. I helped my wife out of the van, over the snow banks, and into the station.

Then came the A, the only train running. And it was running well and fast. Despite those hours in the wilderness we arrived at the clinic 40 minutes late, gasping and wild-eyed, jumping over snowbanks. Still within the window of possibility. A nurse took my wife away to her minor surgery.

All we wanted was this chance. I saw that my hand was shaking from anxiety, and I realized, I need this hand. I have to produce.

They signed me in and walked me to the room. I sat on the vinyl-covered seat, but all I could think about was the old bearded man driving us through Brooklyn. I could not get his face out of my mind, in particular the moment where we got out of his minivan.

I had said, “Here, please take this.” It was $60, what I had in my wallet.

“No,” he had said. “It’s OK.”

“Give it to someone,” I had said. “Sir, you have done us a mitzvah.” An act of generosity, a deliberate, non-judgmental kindness. An act of moral duty, inspired by God.

 

Alone in the room I thought of that moment. I thought of my wife, stretched on a table one floor below, unconscious from anesthetic, her ripened eggs extracted with a needle, her monkey socks soggy from the snow. Wanting this thing with me so badly that we were spending all of our money, were risking disappointment, were willing to accept the judgment of the world.

I sat on the squeaky plastic couch and turned on the VCR. I wanted to close my eyes and sleep, but instead I pushed everything out of mind, all of it: the blizzard, the minivan, the old man’s face, the three childless years. I turned the room’s dimmer switch to a low, moody light.

Will it work? The odds aren’t great, but I will follow the protocol. There is some machine moving now that I do not understand, and I won’t be the one to stop it. I have chosen this particular person, only ever, with whom to try for a child. Goodbye to the possibilities of knee tapping. Goodbye to all of that. If I am to become a father I have no choice but to forget everything outside of this room. And to produce.

And I did.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of Ftrain.com (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford