When “He Looks Just Like You” Kind of Breaks Your Heart

Posted in Features on August 2nd, 2019 by JJ Koczan

the pecan on swing

I have him on the baby monitor. He’s out, which is good because it’s the middle of the night. The Pecan was out of his mind yesterday afternoon, climbing up his toy shelf from the side to get to the bluetooth speaker, climbing up the wine rack, blowing off dinner that was already the compromise position of a slice of pizza. He’s been asleep since about 7PM. He’ll be out until somewhere around 5:30AM. Then the day starts.

Three years ago last week, I was in the hospital in Boston. Not the friendly, carpeted, front-facing part of the hospital, but the behind-closed-doors, old-tile-floor-and-flourescent-lighting part where the nitty-gritty science of medicine happens. We’d been trying already to make a baby for years by that point, and this was the last resort. More doctors than I can count. The GP, the urologist, the fertility specialist, the people my wife went to who told her, “yeah, there’s no way you’re the problem here,” as if I didn’t already know between the two of us which was the one with the problem. No way that wasn’t going to be me.

As I lay on that hospital wheelie bed, I’d been diagnosed as azoospermic months earlier, which was a fancy way of saying “balls don’t work.” Many tears. Tears became kind of the running theme for us. Every pregnancy test. Every doctor visit that led nowhere. I’d put it out of my head for a while, go about my business when I could. There was no doing that while I waited to go in for surgery.

The procedure was this: they’d wheel me into the room, put me under general anesthesia, and as I understood and still understand it, cut my testicles open to see if they could find any hint of viable sperm for IVF.

There was no chance it was going to work. I mean, come on. I’d done everything. I’d gone on a diet to lose weight because my shitty Russian urologist said in his report I was “morbidely” obese — and oh how he bristled when I corrected his spelling. I’d been to see everybody, taken the hormones, jerked off into the cups for tests multiple times, had enough blood drawn to fill another version of myself, and jumped through enough insurance hoops to last me the rest of my life, which sadly it probably won’t.

Before they wheeled me in, the anesthesiologist came to see me looking like he was fresh off the back nine. “I’m guessing it’s not your choice to be here,” he said, intimating that my wife was forcing me. I was too terrified to tell him to fuck off as I properly should’ve done, but I just said, “No, man. No,” and did not speak to him again. It was a shame. His assistant had been kind of cool.

Last thing I remember before waking up with gauze all over my midsection was the surgeon — who was the same specialist who diagnosed me in the first place — coming in and saying a cheery good morning. They told me my blood pressure, but I can’t remember what it was. Then they put the mask on me and I was out.

There are still days I wish I’d never woken up.

What a way to go, right? There are insects who die trying to procreate. To expire during what was my convoluted last-ditch attempt at it seemed like it would be saving everyone a lot of trouble. My wife could’ve I’m sure found another, more viable, husband before she was out of the building — a catch, she is — and it’d just be like I went into a back room and never came out. Fine. Done.

There was a nurse there when I woke up. She didn’t tell me anything. I was groggy but already crying. I knew it didn’t work. Like I said, I knew all along. I went through with it because I needed to. It needed to be done. But I never thought it would work. Still have the scar, which is fun. Got to keep that.

They took me to a different post-op room and that’s where my wife came in. She pulled back the curtain and I said, “No. Nothing?” and she shook her head and burst into tears, confirming. Three years of trying to make a baby down the drain and we finally knew why. It was me. Hi! Me. Just me. All me.

A piece of me died that day, and left the rest to mourn it. Over the next few months, I did what any self-respecting suburbanite 35-year-old gentleman would do and developed an eating disorder. A couple of them, actually. I’d starve myself, maybe eat one meal a week that wasn’t protein powder-based, if that, and I’d pop laxative pills by the fistful every two hours. It was nice to control something. People on the internet said I looked good. I did for a while. Then I looked sick. Which I was.

Before we were out of the parking lot of the hospital, though, I said to my wife, “Okay, so we get donor sperm and get you pregnant.” It was the wrong moment to talk about it, maybe, but I had to be doing a thing other than going the next day to see Star Trek Beyond all hopped up on opioid painkillers. She said she’d already looked into it, and I knew then that if I hadn’t said it, if we didn’t do it that way, I’d lose her. Maybe not all at once, like she’d leave, but that over the years, our life together would disintegrate and what Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night called the “nation of two” would crumble away.

Her sister and her then-wife in Connecticut had two kids by the same donor. Good kids, whom I love dearly. My only niece and my second-youngest nephew. Fine. There was so much paperwork involved. “Imagine some people just do this by having sex,” I said to my wife, at what I’m sure was one of my more helpful moments, which I doubtless followed up by popping more pills.

Our son is beautiful and incredible and tiring and I love him like I’ve never loved anything. He’s worth it, and I’m privileged to know him. He looks just like my wife. And his cousins. Her whole family, the same nose.

She got fertilized in a Boston-area doctor’s office on one of those at-least-it’s-not-snow rainy days in January 2017. The woman, who wore a New England Patriots sweatshirt, offered to let me do the actual insemination, but I said no. Leave it to the professionals. Clearly if I’d been capable of such a thing, it would’ve happened already. Seemed unfair for me to step in at that point. Plus, I’d invariably screw up and make that paperwork a waste of time. We’d wasted enough time.

I cried almost every day, even for just a little. I cried while I didn’t eat. I cried shitting my brains out in the bathroom at Hasbro when I worked there. I cried writing. I cried all the time. Cry cry cry. It didn’t fix anything. Nothing did. Cry cry cry.

Before insurance would cover the final fertilization process, we had to go see a social worker who asked, “How are you going to speak to your child about where they come from?” and we answered firmly, “There are all kinds of families.” We seemed so sure of it, so righteous in our NPR world of forward thought and the up-front, nouveau moral righteousness of progressivism. Why would I feel shame about that? You mean because I failed at the thing that’s literally the most basic function biology has — to reproduce and make more of itself? Not me, lady! I read the Times!

Then it happened. Oct. 25, 2017, he was born by emergency C-section after 40-plus hours of labor. There was part of me that didn’t believe it was real, even afterward. Like, “Yeah, okay,” and then someone blows a slide whistle and the whole thing is a prank. Hasn’t happened yet.

I’m the “other parent,” genetically speaking. This has its ups and downs. When I think of myself, and even when I thought about making a baby in the first place, there aren’t a lot of traits I’d want to pass on. I can’t think of one. Say one good thing about yourself. I have nothing.

That’s the upside to having gone with the donor in the end. I’m off the hook, genetically. He won’t get cancer because of my family history. No doctor will ever write “mobidely obese” about him because of me. Men in my family die young. Aside from my grandmother’s brother, who is 95, my father is the only one to my knowledge who made it past 70, and I’ve already said that if I do, I’m going to eat ice cream every day, because that’s bonus life as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t. But my son will. He’ll be better off without me in his bloodstream.

For all our “all kinds of families” talk — which is true, by the way — it all got kind of quiet after he was born. People see a man, a woman, and a baby together and they assume that the two parents produced the child. I let it happen. Not something you can really fault someone for, if you think about it. Maybe it bothers me letting it happen. Maybe I feel like I deserve the asterisk: Dad*. I don’t know.

He’s mine, one way or the other, but when someone says he looks like me, I’m back there, wrapped in gauze, wishing my life had ended. I’m back there trying so desperately to control anything about my body or about myself, even if what I’m controlling is its obliteration. All the better, really. Let me go.

Cry cry cry.

My favorite response is, “All white people look alike.” Sometimes I say, “Nah, he’s all my wife.” Every now and then I’ll break out, “Let’s hope not,” chuckle chuckle. Lately I’ve just gone with, “Yeah, well…” and left it there. Feels like a coward’s way out, so fair enough. Maybe if I had the hormones to put someone right, we wouldn’t have needed the donor in the first place. And people mean well. They don’t know.

I’m still grieving, even as I chase my son around the house trying to get him to eat his packet of apple sauce, or as I booby-trap his shelves to deter him from climbing them. Sometimes when I think of how amazing he is — and he is — and how much I love him, I wonder how it would be different if he was of my blood. But grief changes with time. It never leaves, but it’s different now than it was that day. You live with it.

We’ll try to acclimate him to the “all kinds of families” thing once he’s old enough to ask where babies come from, at some point tell him about his “special cousins.” He’s not yet two. It’s all comfortably in the future now. Until then, we’ll just sing Beatles songs and share beautiful photos on social media, like what’s normal anyway? Looks so easy. But it’s not, which I know because I still think about it every day, and because we’ve already gotten so quiet talking about it.

I don’t want to be.

Or maybe I do.

Thanks for reading.

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