A "wished-for" child


Alex Shapiro

In 1987, my father donated sperm before becoming sterile from chemotherapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 1996, I was born, a product of that sperm.Most kids at my preschool were told they arrived by stork. In this version, their delicate bodies appeared on the doorstep in a shoebox, wrapped with a decorative bow. Other kids, whose parents believed in telling the truth, learned they came out of their mother's bellies, or some other appropriate explanation that a 5-year-old would understand. I, however, was given a more scientific explanation: I was a test-tube baby.Trying to understand this concept, the images my eccentric little brain created included cackling mad scientists mixing bubbling neon substances into vials, creating explosions that somehow resulted in my existence."I was made in a laboratory," I explained to my second-grade class. "I might not even be human."Although this comment resulted in giggles from teachers and confused looks among my peers, the idea seemed rational to me. If I wasn't made like everybody else, then I must not be like everybody else. Simple. However, as I grew older, I learned that what my parents went through to get me here was more complicated.My dad has always said that there are two types of people in cancer patient waiting rooms: newbies and veterans. My grandmother and father played the role of newbies shortly after my father was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 20. They sat in a room awaiting his bone marrow aspiration. Across the room sat a veteran: a stoic-looking woman whose son had leukemia. My grandmother was always an assertive woman and she quickly dove into conversation with this stranger. She asked questions about cancer, parenting, treatment, doctors, side effects, but was caught off guard when the woman brought up a different topic. My father recalls her saying in a really loud voice: "He may be sterile after he starts chemo. You make sure he donates."My dad was scheduled to start chemo the following day, and his doctor was opposed to postponing because the tumor was large and squeezing around his windpipe. But my grandmother held firm. He would bank sperm, and then start chemotherapy. It's thanks to the persistent negotiation by my grandmother and a lucky encounter with a stranger that I exist. But before I was even an idea, my father met my mother. My dad spent the next year and a half battling chemotherapy and radiation while completing his junior and senior years of college at Vassar. By the time he arrived at the University of Florida in 1989 he had had a bone marrow transplant, so it would make sense that he would do graduate studies about the emotional issues of bone-marrow transplant patients. For his research, he arranged a meeting with the nursing supervisor. She was late. He waited and waited until finally, an average-height woman with dark curly hair, light brown eyes and skin tinted by the Florida sun strutted down the hall."We'll go out to dinner and talk all about your little research," she said after he explained why he was there. A few nights later, he found himself accompanying her to a co-worker's going-away party...at a gay bar. There was one thing he found even more intriguing than his first encounter with male nipple piercings, and that was my mother.They began seeing each other exclusively. He had never dated anyone quite like her, she had a house, matching dishes, was fiercely independent and was fearless. He believed she could do anything. He was in love. Fast forward to 1995: Mom and Dad decided they were ready for children and headed to my mother's primary doctor to receive a referral to the infertility clinic. At this point, my father had relapsed twice since his initial diagnosis and received a bone marrow transplant but was three years cancer-free. The doctor responded with disapproval, "You seriously want to bring a child into this world given the circumstances?" My parents said yes without hesitation. Regardless of my father's fate, my mother wanted his children.Next was getting the sperm from Hartford, Conn., where it was being stored to Boston where Mom would be inseminated. When they arrived with a cooler full of melting dry ice to gather their "straw" of sperm, the woman at the sperm bank gasped, "That's all the dry ice you have? You better drive fast."And they did.Alex Shapiro, 16, is the daughter of Dan and Terry Shapiro. She is an aspiring journalist and a junior at Hershey High School in Pennsylvania.

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