More than three decades ago, I suffered testicular torsion (which, on a lighter note, would make a great name for a cocktail). This is where the spermatic cord rotates, cuts off blood supply and causes severe pain and swelling. My stoic father insisted it would sort itself out, but luckily my mum insisted on calling an ambulance – a quick bit of surgery later, leaving the faintest of scars which remain visible to this day up my upper thigh, and it was all sorted.
I recovered well, they assured me – just probably a chance of a lower sperm count. And, interestingly enough, perhaps anti-sperm antibodies which affects the sperms behaviour.
None of that meant a great deal to me at seventeen. I didn’t even have a regular girlfriend, let alone considered the prospect of having kids. I’d cross that spunky bridge when I came to it. There was only a slight chance of lowered fertility, after all, so it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference, right?
And then you’re fifty, and wondering what could have been different.
Tara dreamed of loads of kids. I’m an only child so have no real concept of what having brothers or sisters was like, and I enjoyed that lifestyle perfectly, so I was happy with just having one. But, as everybody does, we’d just wait and see what happened. You have to start with one first, right? And then, despite a healthy sex life, nothing. The odd delayed period and pregnancy scare when we weren’t looking to have kids, of course, but when we thought, “Yeah, having kids wouldn’t be so bad, really”, nothing.
So, we booked an appointment with the fertility clinic at the local hospital. Lovely, lovely people who couldn’t be nicer and kinder and all so, so encouraging. You get used to not being embarrassed walking into that oh-so-specific room and emerging clutching your vial of freshly launched spermatozoa.
(A little heads-up for the majority of you who’ve never had to produce on demand, as it were. The room is – as you’d expect from a hospital – clinical, ultra-clean, but is the only room on that annex. Unless you’re in hospital gear and work there, everybody knows exactly why you’re going in that door. The hospital-provided stimuli to achieve said goal is from the style of European magazines you used to find in canal sidings in the seventies and eighties. My advice? Take your own.)
And a few years go by and still there’s nothing concrete. Sperm count is a bit low, but nothing to worry about. The boys are still in the barracks, it's just that the military budget is just a little underfunded, is all. Tara has some similar issues, but they’re all so confident of a result and you get carried away with it a little, starting to conceive (poor choice of words) of the future this little miracle could bring.
And then you’re fifty, and wondering what could have been different.
We could adopt, you think – and you start the process, and it’s a gruelling four and a half interview in which they ask you if you’d get rid of your cats (!) and then an innocuous question catches you out, and the previously helpful woman couldn’t get out of that room quickly enough. Are you undergoing fertility treatment? she asks, and because you’re honest, you say yes. And then, you’re suddenly not viable for adoption anymore.
And then the hospital loses your records, and you have to go through the whole thing with a whole new doctor. They’re just as lovely and as confident, with the same advice, varying for each of the two of us; “You should probably take these vitamins”, and “You could do with losing a little weight” and “you should alter your diet.”
And you’re starting to get concerned, because there are timescales. Less so for the man – but to be honest for a lot of the meetings it felt as though I were an unnecessary part of the equation, anyway- but more so for Tara. Time is literally running out, and there are things to achieve before certain deadlines.
And then the pandemic hits, and the fertility department closes. As if the setback of having to start everything again because they lost the records wasn’t enough, now they’re just not open at all.
And, because your age goes over a certain threshold, you miss the window for NHS treatment. You always both confidently said, “IVF is so expensive, and such a bad gamble” and you always promised you wouldn’t go down that route, but the hospital sound confident, and you’ve had friends for whom IVF has worked, so it’s worth a shot, right? You were only saying it confidently because you hoped the option would never be necessary.
And parents help with the huge amounts of money involved. The hospital takes a healthy semen sample and, despite only having a few eggs to work with, that turns out to be un ouef. (See, I’m made to be a dad – I can even do the jokes). And the initial results are great – fertilisation. You dare to get excited, tell your folks the good news – your stoic dad, who has only cried twice – once when he was scared having been diagnosed with cancer, and the other when Mum died – sheds a tear of happiness.
And then the results come in early one morning, and that happy buoyant music that’s been your life’s soundtrack for the past few days screeches to a halt as the needle noisily scrapes back to empty air. Like when Mum died,a celestial mechanism in the universe shifts in place, a fucking lock clicking noisily to a new position, one that can never be undone. Something’s irrevocably lost, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You hear a deafening hollow wracking sob, like the keening of some distressed thing, and you realise that its you making those noises. They’re coming from the two of you, and all you can do is hold each other. The world spins on with all those parents and all those kids, but you’re left stuck in place.
We decided to hold off for a while, because it was too painful. We couldn’t do IVF again, because we were both destroyed, Tara taking it particularly badly. We’d wait a little while, and then consider adoption again. But then a month became six, and six months became a year, and you realise that you haven’t discussed it in all that time, haven’t even considered restarting the process.
And, out of nowhere, over cosy drinks in a lovely pub, you both agree not to. Better people than us (dear, dear friends way less screwed than us who’d make perfect parents) have been denied adoption, and if you don’t try, you won’t get turned down and have to go through that pain. We’ve no fight left, and there are practical reasons. I’m feeling old, and simple maths and mortality tells me that I’m not going to be around for a lot of that kids life.
We’ll live vicariously through our friends kids, be the nice auntie and uncle that spoils them, and take some small solace in that our only responsibility is our cat - but secretly - or not so secretly - wish that we had way more responsibility than that. I feel like I’ve failed – I’m an only child, so society tells me that the responsibility for having kids fell on me.
And then you’re approaching fifty one, and wondering what could have been different.