Pushed Into the Future When Illness Strikes (in an Unlikely Place)

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Modern Love

There I was, in a drab hospital room with some drab pornography, trying my best to produce a sperm sample. At 24, I wasn’t exactly at an age when a man should be concerned about his fertility. But somehow I had gotten the mumps. And the mumps had caused a rather obscene amount of swelling in a place other than my cheeks. A place that is essential to fertility.

The mumps isn’t something people often get anymore. It’s one of those diseases like polio or rubella that we hear our grandparents talk about when they are trying to convince us that their childhood was much harder than ours. My mother had always made sure I was vaccinated, but after I contracted a mild case of the mumps as a child, we thought that was that.

I was on a vacation in New York City with my best friend, Danny, when I first began to feel lethargic. The vacation started with a night out on the town that befitted two young Englishmen who had been saving for the trip of a lifetime. On Day 2, I felt cold symptoms. On Day 3, my blocked saliva glands had begun to turn me into something resembling a redheaded chipmunk.

While I lay in bed, Danny searched the internet and soon declared, “I think it’s the mumps!”

“The mumps?” I said. “Nobody gets the mumps.”

His face dropped. “Don’t panic,” he said. “But it says here that your testicles could swell up, although it’s very rare.”

I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers that that wouldn’t happen to me.

The rest of the trip was a blur of hospital rooms, random hotels and a best friend who carried me onto a plane home once I was no longer contagious. Alas, I wasn’t so lucky when it came to that final symptom. To accurately describe the effect of mumps on that most delicate area for a young man would involve numerous fruit analogies, more akin to grapefruit than grapes.

Back in England, Anna (my co-worker, friend and romantic aspiration) came to get me at Heathrow. As she wheeled my bags to the parking garage, I limped behind, holding certain delicate parts. After paying the ticket at the kiosk, we made our way to where she had parked the car.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Anna, for all that I loved her, is not someone who could be described as having great attention to detail.

As we stood on the fourth floor looking at an empty parking spot, she turned and told me that her car was missing and must have been stolen. To me that seemed unlikely, given the mammoth security presence at Heathrow and the age of her well-used Volvo. But I was truly appreciative of her driving three hours from our hometown to get me, so I kept my chipmunk mouth closed as I shuffled to the edge of the garage and looked over.

Lucky for us, it turned out that the thieves had kindly reparked Anna’s car one floor below, directly under the spot from which it had been stolen only moments earlier. We were able to laugh about it (one of us more painfully), then went down a floor and I settled myself into the passenger seat, cushion between my legs, for the trip home.

We got as far as the garage exit when Anna realized she had somehow lost her prepaid parking ticket. So there we were, with one potentially large fine, two definitely large testicles and the comfort of my bed feeling farther and farther away.

I took a deep breath, got out and hobbled to the attendant. Quietly (but vividly) I described the state of things inside my boxer shorts. I will never forget the expression of sympathy in that man’s eyes as we held each other’s gaze. He opened the gate.

A few months later, after being nursed to health by my mother, I sat in a doctor’s office awaiting the results of my first fertility test. The mumps might have gotten me out of a parking fine, but as the doctor explained the test results, a heavier price loomed.

A second test confirmed what the first had revealed: It was unlikely I would ever be able to conceive children. I sat on the sofa, phone in hand, confused by news that had no immediate impact on my life but that I knew was nevertheless life changing.

My life, at 24, was one short-term decision after another. Which bar tonight? Are these jeans too skinny? What I had lost didn’t exist in the foreground of my life but somewhere on the horizon.

And yet that horizon had now been drawn close with heartbreaking clarity. Everywhere I looked were babies — in strollers, dangling from hips and carriers. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had always wanted children.

I began to panic. Would I now have to resign myself to being the perennially single guy? Would I have to tell every potential girlfriend about this before we became too serious? How would I bring it up?

For weeks, I moped around, as young men are apt to do when struggling (or refusing) to face up to a situation. I told a few close friends and family members, but every look of sympathy or kind hug only left me feeling more sorry for myself.

I went to see a fertility specialist who told me that despite my less-than-stellar spermatozoa, the field of fertility, as it relates to the mumps, is somewhat of a mystery. With so few cases, there isn’t much evidence to work with, and it is hard to know how fertile a person was before mumps, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause.

His solution was to put me on an extraordinary diet. He basically compiled a list of everything I enjoyed doing and told me not to do it anymore. No drinking and, well, no drinking. That was it.

My weekends would now consist of ginger ale and lemonade. One friend also insisted on ordering me a glass of milk with each of his beers, much to his amusement. I spent my nights trying to learn how to dance while sober.

Every few months, I would quietly leave work, laugh at the cheeky smile from Anna as I walked by, and have my date with the drab pornography in the drab hospital room. Each time, I would learn that nothing had changed.

For almost a year, I lived as healthfully as I could. But with each new negative test result, I began to come to terms with the fact that I would never have a biological child.

Over time, I began to paint a different picture of my future. As my good friend Natasha put it: “This is actually great news. If you still want to have kids one day, you can adopt, and they won’t have to be ginger like you.”

She was right. There is more than one way to walk any journey. If I could never have children, maybe I would travel more. Surely there were plenty of women who didn’t want children. In the short term, it would at least reduce the chances of meeting an unexpected Tim Junior.

Almost one year to the day from my first test, I was still in my regular routine: Three days of abstinence followed by a cheeky smile from Anna followed by a pornography binge and a call from the clinician.

Until one day he said, “This sample we can work with.”

“What does that mean?” I stuttered.

“It’s at the required standard for IVF,” he said. “We can freeze the next one, and you’ll be good to go if you ever want to use it.”

The next week, I had a sample frozen. I was told that my results might continue to improve and I could possibly get back to normal fertility levels in the future.

I went out and celebrated. I may have offered to impregnate every girl I know. A year of worry, anguish and tears dropped away in one night. I was like my young and idiotic friends again, except I also owned a small rental space in a freezer of the hospital. My future was once again a blank canvas, as unknown as it had been before my New York adventure.

That final test was exactly a decade ago. I know that because I recently got home from my 10-year check-in with the fertility specialist.

I realize that a happy ending to this story would be if Anna and I had somehow settled down together and had twins fresh from the freezer. But she moved to Australia shortly after that year and now has two beautiful children with someone else.

As for me? Whether I have children or not, I’ll be fine. When you’ve seen your best friend’s eyes water at the sight of your testicles, every other day is a good day.