“There are some magazines in the box if you’re interested.”
It’s the kind of thing a pubescent boy might dream of being told by their older brother (accompanied by a nudge and a wink). But coming from a male embryologist on a Monday morning in the centre for reproductive medicine at Bart’s Hospital, the suggestion of naughty pictures did not have the same frisson of excitement.
This was my second semen analysis for investigation into why my wife of seven years and I had not yet conceived. The first time round I had left the box unopened. ‘I don’t need magazines,’ I thought. ‘I can do this.’ But this was my second semen analysis. Maybe I’d done it wrong before…
It’s a weird feeling at the beginning of what’s meant to be a working week, sitting in my work clothes in a plain room, being asked to masturbate. For science, for progress, for the good of my marriage. The hope of parenthood. Years of associating wanking with naughty bad things had not prepared me for the oddness of being here now, thumbing through lad mags, hoping beyond hope that my semen would be normal, getting the thumbs up from my GP a week or so hence. Not an average Monday morning.
But then again, in the journey of infertility, average is a long lost relative. The absence of average is precisely why you sit in rooms made available for NHS sponsored masturbation. It’s not average to worry about your FSH level (not something you’re usually asked for in a form at the post office). At least that’s one level that I’m above average in (not necessarily a good thing).
The resulting news came bluntly like a dead leg. ‘You have absolutely no sperm.’ The doctor, one I’d not seen before, didn’t sugar-coat it, leaving me no way to know how to respond. A new word entered my vocabulary: azoospermia. Sitting afterwards in the waiting room, numb and uncommunicative, I did what any modern man would do and Googled it. I scrolled through words I little understood, none of which could answer the only question I had: If I have zero sperm, how are we supposed to make a baby?
Science very quickly can point you in alternative directions, avenues of assisted conception that deftly get around the blunt finality of the azoospermic male: donor sperm, adoption, and what we went for, which was a quest (under microscope) of several dissections of the testes extracted under general anaesthetic.
But then there’s the other avenue, the one that involves miracles, prayer and God. God doesn’t deal in averages, I’ve always thought. Does one dare to pray for sperm where tests have shown there to be none? Do those prayers fall on deaf ears, or is azoospermia God’s plan for me, for us, for a greater purpose? Should I accept it, and deny the in-built desire to be a father? Is this anything to do with how good I am, how much faith I have, if I deserve it?
So I guess I have more than one question. I have asked them all. I have almost run out of breath with tears. I have tried to avoid it. And eventually, after the desperation has faded and the answers failed to materialise, I have learned to accept azoospermia as part of me. I have chosen to trust God nevertheless. A bit like the disciples when many had deserted Jesus, my response remains ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)
So my hope, once simple, has become more gnarled and weather-beaten, hope that can look childlessness and spermlessness in the face and ask new questions: what now? what next? what else?