Laurie, and I started trying to get pregnant a month before our first wedding anniversary, and, about a year later, we started looking for help. Laurie had dreamed her whole life of becoming a mother. She got her first babysitting gig when she was eleven – the type of parents who would hire a preteen to babysit is a mystery to me – and she even went to college to study child development. When we met, she had already received her bachelor’s degree and was a nanny for a two-year-old boy. By the time we married, bought our first house, and were ready to build our family, the boy had started kindergarten and Laurie was working in a candle shop.
We had no idea how to get started with infertility treatments, so we asked our gynecologist who recommended the most recognized and expensive clinic in town. She told me they’d probably start by taking my sperm count, and I asked how were they going to do that. She stared at me blankly for a moment before she said, “They’re going to analyze your semen.” And I was about to ask again how they were going to do that when Laurie touched my arm.
When I called the clinic and asked for an appointment, the receptionist asked, “For what purpose are you making an appointment?” I had no idea what to say and I panicked for a moment, wishing I had prepared something discrete to say. The lady on the phone must have had experience with embarrassed men and bailed me out. “Do you need a count?” she asked. And I quietly said yes.
I arrived at the clinic early for my appointment and sat in my truck for a few minutes psyching up my courage to go in. I tried to prepare something to say to the front desk. Was it like a bank? “I’m here to make a deposit?”
When I finally went in, I told the lady at the front desk that I had an appointment. She pointed to the electronic screen on the counter, which directed me to sign my name. After I signed in, my name and info immediately disappeared. I thought, “This is innovative. In case my mother or a busload of nuns or any other symbol of purity comes in after me, they won’t see my name and ask me what I was doing there.”
I sat down across from a sad-looking couple; the man was reading a sport magazine, and the woman’s head lay on his shoulder. She had a look of utter despair on her face. Normally, I would break the awkward ice with a joke, but something told me that asking the couple, “So what are you here for?” wouldn’t inspire a genial response.
A nurse called my name and led me to a private room in which a small cup sat on a cabinet. She told me I could leave the specimen in the room when I was finished. Then she shut the door and I sat in the room, staring at the lock on the door. I got up, checked the lock, and sat back down – I did this three or four times. Then I looked up to make sure there wasn’t any recording equipment mounted to the ceiling. There was a cabinet beside me with some drawers, and I wondered if there were men’s magazines in there, but I didn’t look. I heard telephones ringing and voices outside. Why hadn’t they soundproofed the room? I got up and turned off the light switch, thinking this might provide me some illusion of privacy. But the darkness only amplified the ringing phones and voices. An inch of light glowed from the bottom of the door, so I crouched down to make sure anyone who just happened to put their cheek to the floor wouldn’t recognize my shoes.
As I sat in the room, flipping the light switch on and off and delaying the inevitable, I remembered that our gynecologist told us to start with a sperm count because it was the easiest and least invasive test we’d take. While I worried that my count might be too low, I also worried that if it was fine that the next few tests would all involve Laurie and be much more painful and intense. I thought about the sad wife I saw in the waiting room and wondered what kinds of procedures she had already endured. Months later, after I got to know couples who had struggled for years with infertility, I would recognize couples like them as common, in which the wife’s dreams of becoming a mother had been annihilated by years of unfulfilled promises from doctors and the husbands walked around in a confused daze wondering what had happened to the woman he’d married and the happy marriage they’d once had.
When I exited the room, I looked back at the cup sitting on the cabinet and felt relieved that I didn’t have to carry it around the office and hand it to the lady at the front desk. I walked down the long hall, turned a corner, and approached the front desk where a new receptionist sat. I thought, “This lady has no idea who I am and what I’m here for.” I worried I’d have to explain, but I first assumed she knew the situation. So I cleared my throat and asked, “Anything else?”
The receptionist said, “No, thank you. We’ll call you in a few days with the results.”
On the drive home, I wondered if people could tell that I’d just undergone a sperm test. It was as if I’d crossed a threshold in which I stood on one side and the rest of the normal, fertile world stood on the other. This became a harsher reality when my count came back normal and the clinic invited Laurie to return for a series of treatments including regular blood tests and sonograms. They injected dye into her and prescribed daily doses of golf-ball-size pills. And when I refused to give her shots of hormones into her stomach, she injected them herself. After a very painful, expensive, and unsuccessful IUI, we quit infertility treatments and began the process of becoming foster parents.