Editor’s note: The following is a true story. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Below is a full transcript of “Snow Babies.”
I was DH. In baseball circles that would make me the designated hitter, the guy with the big bat, like David Ortiz or more recently, Michael Morse – Go Giants!
I suppose in a sense I could’ve been called a designated hitter, but not on the baseball diamond. For me DH was a two-letter acronym of endearment, short for Dear Husband, used on Internet forums by aspiring mothers trying to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization (IVF).
There weren’t many DH’s but rather their significant others who were doing the chatting on the IVF forums. They used screen names like BarrenBabe and FriedEggs and Kokeshi in the case of my wife, Yuko. She became a regular in the forums when the doctor told us she would be unable to conceive naturally. She was devastated. Five years earlier a different doctor told us she had cancer.
“You should consider getting her affairs in order in case the cancer has metastasized,” the surgeon said upon receiving the biopsy results.
We were horrified. Yuko was not in the twelfth round of the bout. She needed encouragement to get in the ring, encouragement we clearly would not receive from a blunt man with a sharp knife.
She fought the cancer. We recruited an empathetic oncologist, one who gave us hope. Even her name was Hope. We decided on an aggressive course of chemotherapy.
“You caught it early so chances are low that it spread, Hope said. “Think of chemotherapy as an insurance policy rather than a treatment.”
“How does chemotherapy work, exactly?” Yuko asked.
“It kills rapidly dividing cells,” Hope explained. “And will hopefully kill any stray cancer cells.”
“Seems crude in this day and age,” I said. “When we can send probes to Mars and build machines one atom at a time.”
“Like hair?” Yuko asked, clutching her scalp. “Am I going to go bald?”
“Most patients lose their hair,” Hope said. “But it will grow back. Are you planning to have a family?”
“We’ve been trying,” Yuko said. Her swallow was audible, her eyes wet. I wished I could retract my comment about nanotechnology. It sounded so academic in such an intimate conversation.
“I’m going to recommend you see a fertility specialist before we start the regimen,” Hope said. “Chemotherapy can affect your ability to get pregnant. But there are options.”
We went to the fertility doctor.
“We could harvest the eggs,” he said. “Although that means taking hormones and postponing chemotherapy.”
The other option was a drug in clinical trials.
“It might protect your eggs from the toxic drugs”, he said, “but it could also mitigate chemotherapy’s efficacy against the cancer.”
We felt the risks of trying to preserve Yuko’s fertility outweighed the rewards, and we proceeded with chemotherapy. There was a chance her eggs would survive.
I took Yuko for her weekly infusions. I held her hand as the nurse stuck a needle in her arm. We sat for hours as the poison dripped into her vein. She vomited, grew weak, and began losing her hair. I watched helplessly as her long black mane came out in tufts.
“Cut off my hair,” she bade me one day when I returned from work. She handed me a pair of scissors.
“I’m hardly qualified,” I said. “I might hurt you.”
“DH, cut my hair,” she pleaded. Saline rivers flowed from her eyes and ran down her cheeks. “Please cut my damn hair.” She pulled up a chair and sat facing the mirror. She sighed and forced her lips into a smile as I stood behind her and cut her hair.
“It’s liberating to regain control,” she said. “Thank you.” I smiled back at her even as I was crying inside.
“What if we can’t have children?” Her lips trembled as she asked the question. She had beautiful full lips, lips that seemed even fuller now that her hair was gone.
“We’ll have a family, Yuko,” I said. Her name means gentle, courageous child in Japanese. “The most important thing is that you’re part of it.”
“But I want to have our kids,” she said. “I want them to be a part of us, both of us.” Her eyelids stayed shut a second longer than usual when she blinked, making it appear to be happening in slow motion. I threw my arms around her and kissed her smooth scalp.
Yuko endured the knife and the poisoning. But she beat the cancer. She regained her strength, and her hair slowly grew back. She got her period, a sign that she had not gone into chemical menopause. There was a chance her eggs were viable.
We made love. We timed it around Yuko’s ovulations. Romance yielded to routine. We saw the fertility specialist, who put us through a battery of protocols.
No use. Her eggs were irreparably damaged; she couldn’t get pregnant. Yuko sobbed as the doctor described our choices.
“The next step would be an egg donor,” he said. “Or you could consider adoption.”
“Egg donor,” said Yuko. “The baby will have your genes,” she said to me, “and I can still carry and give birth. What’s involved?”
“We use an anonymous donor egg, fertilize it with your husband’s sperm and implant it in your uterus,” he said. “We’ve made enormous strides in IVF over the years.”
“How much will it cost,” I asked. My face flushed under Yuko’s glare. I wished I hadn’t asked, but I was stressed out. We were not rich, and the medical bills from Yuko’s cancer treatments depleted much of our nest egg.
“The procedure runs about twenty five thousand dollars,” the doctor replied. “Insurance may cover a portion, mainly the drugs.” I kept silent, even as in my head I was crunching numbers.
“How do we get started?” Yuko asked.
“First thing is securing a donor egg,” the doctor said.
The next evening over dinner Yuko said to me, “I have a donor in mind.”
“You have a donor in mind? That doesn’t sound very anonymous.”
“I want my sister to be the donor."
“Are you sure about this?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said. “I was telling her about our situation this morning, and before I even finished she offered her eggs.”
“What about her husband? What if they have difficulty having children of their own?” I asked aloud. Internally I also asked, “How will everyone feel about their relationship to our baby?
Yuko and her sister are very close, and our collective excitement swamped any concerns we had. We flew Yuko’s sister and her husband from Vancouver to San Francisco and the four of us met with a psychologist to chat about everyone’s questions and concerns.
They flew home, and Yuko and I moved on from the psychological to the physical. I attended a training session to learn how to administer progesterone shots. With eleven other DH’s I practiced shooting saline into an orange. In a few short hours I thought I’d mastered the technique: Jab needle, retract syringe, check for blood, push slowly until fluid is absorbed, remove needle, and apply pressure.
Then it was my turn at bat. I checked in at USCF Medical Center. A nurse handed me a plastic cup and led me to a small room with a TV. She smiled and handed me a stack of DVDs. “Hopefully one of these will do,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to avoid looking at the titles - or at the nurse.
“I’ll be back to fetch you shortly,” she said.
I watched actresses with limited acting skills and even less clothing, even as in my head I tried to picture Yuko. And just as one of the protagonists was coaxing a base hit from me there was a knock at the door.
“Occupied,” I said in as low a bass voice as I could muster.
“Sorry,” replied an equally embarrassed DH.
I felt the pressure mount as I self-consciously grabbed the bat for a second swat. I closed my eyes and swung for the fences.
Three days later, Yuko asked, “Was it good for you?” as she lay on the gurney with her legs splayed, her feet in stirrups.
“Let’s just say it was anticlimactic without you,” I said.
Yuko smiled. “Surely there was a climax DH, or else I wouldn’t be lying here with my legs in the air. Did you enjoy the video?”
“Kokeshi, must we discuss this now?” I whispered, as a nurse prepared her for the transfer.
“DH, you ejaculated, the eggs are fertilized, and we’re about to implant,” she said. “If we’re going to have any dirty talk at all, now would be the time.”
“Perhaps we should think of this as an immaculate conception,” I said. The nurse looked at me disapprovingly. “In a secular sort of way,” I said, digging myself into a deeper semantic hole.
Yuko frowned. “Okay,” she said. “But you owe me.”
I held Yuko’s hand as the doctor transferred two embryos to her uterus to improve the odds of implantation. Ten of the thirteen eggs had fertilized and divided into perfect eight-cells. Earlier we had signed papers authorizing the lab to freeze any eggs we didn’t use.
That evening I stabbed a needle into my wife’s buttock. Although I’d mastered the technique on an orange, I realized I wasn’t as emotionally attached to the rind as I was to my wife’s behind. I felt nauseous and had to lie down.
“DH, now I have eleven babies to worry about,” Yuko said, as she applied a cold compress to my forehead.
“What?” I asked.
“Eleven babies. Two growing inside of me, eight on ice, and a one big baby who faints at the first sight of blood,” she smiled.
And there it was - eight on ice.
“They’re not babies, Kokeshi,” I said.
“What are they then?” Yuko glared at me.
“They’re eight-cells; they’re potential.”
“Potential babies, DH. They’re potential babies. Our babies.”
“So now you’re pro life?” I asked her.
“I’m pro choice,” she said. “And I choose to believe these are my babies.”
“We signed papers to allow the embryos to be used for research,” I reminded her.
“Only in case we don’t use them,” Yuko said. They’re our baby’s brothers and sisters, actually they would be fraternal...” She got lost in the thought.
“Are you planning to have ten kids?” I asked.
“I don’t want to discuss this now.”
“Well when are we going to discuss it?”
“I’m the one getting jabbed like a pin cushion while you have fun watching adult videos, and I’m taking care of you,” she said. “Give me a break.” And just like that the conversation ended.
Nine months later Yuko gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Home from the hospital, I placed our daughter on my wife’s bosom as she lay in bed. Naked and eyes closed, like a mole rat, daughter rooted for her mother’s nipple.
Yuko stroked the baby’s wisp of hair as she suckled her breast. “Kawaii,” she cooed.
I pulled up a chair and sorted through the mail that had piled up while we were away. I opened an invoice from the cryopreservation company for embryo storage. I thought of our eight zygotes in their thin plastic straws, with our names on them, plunged in a tank of liquid nitrogen. There they would remain, frozen, in a state of perpetual potential, until we transferred them into Yuko’s uterus. Or until we stopped paying.
“What is it?” Yuko asked.
I thought for a moment. As I looked at my daughter I was no longer sure how I felt about discarding them. “The rent check is due for our snow babies,” I said.
“Snow babies,” she smiled. “I like that.”
I joined my wife and daughter on the bed. There would be time enough for discussion later, and I put the subject of snow babies on ice for another year.
To be continued.