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    This story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

     

    Screaming downriver, did you hear it? Desperate, louder than the church bells that clamored that Saturday morning, Oct. 5, 1985, must’ve been 8:58 a.m. 

    Those bells never rang, not that Mama knew. She lived two blocks from that Baptist church; surely she would remember hearing them before. The bells rang, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and she walked toward the Bellepoint football field to watch her boy Compton play, thinking, How weird, how beautiful.

    She was running a little behind. Normally, she woke excited for the pee-wee games, but this time it was damn near impossible to get out of bed. She wasn’t sick. It’s not that she’d exhausted herself the day before. She hadn’t. Drove to Louisville for a work seminar on child abuse, then stopped by her buddy Howard’s house to say sorry, she wasn’t going to make his soiree that night — something didn’t feel right. She drove east on I-64 toward her riverside home in Frankfort, rain on the windshield, wind strong, car rocking, swaying, unsettling.

    The bleachers reflected the sun. Mama joined the other mothers and looked to the field. Where was her scrawny little prince? Would he make a superstar catch like he did last week, so surprising, spectacular? Well past nine o’clock now, where was her brown-eyed 10-year-old? When Mama’d called her ex-husband Frank’s house the morning before — like she never did — to make sure the plans were still the plans, that Compton wouldn’t be staying with her this weekend, her son answered, excited: “I’m flying to New York, Mom! With Dad! To work on horses!” How could she deny that wonder? “Really? Wow! Up and back in a day? OK! See you tomorrow?”

    Maybe they were just late. Maybe they were off with the aunt who was in town from California. Maybe they’d already gone to Keeneland for more horse work; her ex would do that, hot on the shoe farrier scene. Maybe they were still in Saratoga, business unfinished. Who knew? Time grew, and the moms trash-talked: “What a jerk.” “The dads sign the boys up for this shit and never want to show.” “We’re at all the games...practices...”

    Home again, no word, half past livid. 

    Three o’clock, and ringing. Not the church bells but the home phone, ringing. The phone ringing, and a stranger’s voice saying “cop” and “crash” and “Compton” and “sorry,” and Mama thinking, “What kind of sick motherfucker are you?” She pictured a big commercial plane, bodies scattered, scorched; how could they be sure it was her boy? Then Frank’s mom, Betty, was on the phone, saying, “Barri, it’s true.” 

    Does time stand still? Does time shrink? Does the heart collapse? Did the heart stay on the floor when Mama ran downstairs, out the front door, into the middle of the street screaming, “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”? Or was it the heart screaming, and echoing? Did you hear it? 

    In the mountains, silence. The tiny Cessna 337, a push-pull plane with its loud rattle-buzz engine, down and done. At the time of takeoff, Frank and the guy he hoped to buy the plane from were advised not to fly. Big storm ahead. Best to stay grounded. But what’s it mean to listen? The men flew north and then west into Massachusetts thinking they could avoid turbulence. Compton strapped in the back seat. When the swelling storm hit, it knocked visibility, screwed radars, split the plane silent. Breathing silent. Bodies smashed silent. The Mayday call, 8:50 a.m., then eight minutes of static until the frequency went flat. 

    As much as this is an ending, it has always been a genesis.

    Whenever the loudest questions rung in Mama’s head — Did my boy hurt? Had he been scared? — I believe I answered. Whenever she put herself in that shaky cabin, I was the oxygen mask placed to her face, whispering, Breathe, Mama, breathe, Mama, breathe

     

    Everyone a wreck on U.S. Route 60, lots of slips despite the crawl. The road frozen from an ice storm that mid-December morning. The naked trees lining the stretch from Frankfort to Lexington encased as if in glass, as if to stay preserved. Limbs coruscating as if jewel. Otherworldly, really, life like this. 

    Mama must’ve been going 15 miles per hour in her little black Camry, heat on blast. She looked at the car-strewn shoulders, some of the drivers having given up, having surrendered to the cold, but she was persevering. Ovulating. She was ovulating. She couldn’t miss the appointment, and, nearing 10 a.m., damn it if she was going to be late. Little clinks of sleet layered the windshield, turning visibility a bright blur, and on she inched toward Dr. Muse.

    Muse, Mama mused. This will always be funny to her. Kenneth Muse was the head doctor at the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine in 1989, and soon he’d head into Mama with a catheter full of sperm. Already she had receipts in pink, yellow and blue, some typed by typewriter, one written by hand. The consultation was over a month before, initial tests to make sure her 39-year-old clock still clicked. Already she’d held the clinic’s “Artificial Insemination by Donor” synopsis sheet in hand. On it, someone had circled a phone number for the clinical nurse and in the bottom left-hand corner wrote in a cursive that isn’t Mama’s: $95 specimen (underlined), $50 procedure (beneath), $35 lab prep (beneath that), $35 LH (a hormone that triggers ovulation and is measured by blood test — also underlined). Already she’d picked the sperm: one of the University of Kentucky’s medical students, then the center’s main source of donated semen. She chose one with blond hair, brown eyes. Like her, like me. 

    It must’ve been around the anniversary of Compton’s death when Mama finally woke. Time is not meant to be sped through, but four years had gone by, and in them: escapism, movement, too-gray England, Florida and the sea extending forever, her mother’s Alzheimer’s, a move to Louisville, her dad’s death, a move back to Frankfort, the thought that enough’s enough and pressing a gun to her own head, a friend pulling it back, and a whole historic-home renovation project she says saved her, put her mind to work, at ease. Finally, somehow, a distancing from the depression, a sort of calm. The October morning Mama woke in her paisley-blue wallpapered room, shutters open, sun on, and thought: I’m not a mother anymore.

    No last-night’s dream to steer her here, just the realization. Other avenues had flunked. The two foster kids she hosted: teenagers and troublesome. Adoption meetings at a human-resource center: baby-less. She wanted a baby. Even asked a friend to impregnate her with no ties to filling in as father, but his wife did not grant permission. Because of the mess of years, Mama had no lover, wanted no man. It was Planned Parenthood, where she got her annual Pap smears, that suggested artificial insemination when she’d called asking for options. Here, in the past of chaos, was a defined decision, all hers, a yes.

    On the examining room bed, lying flat post-squirt, the procedural 30-minute wait said to improve sperm mobility. Mama was on the second or third floor, and lying there, couldn’t see the ground, only sky. There was the closed door and silence and light. The room totally white. Walls white. The sheet draped over her: white. Sun reflected off ice and there was so much brightness through the window reflecting off the white. The light shone in at an angle and Mama was within that angle. Mama’s imagined heaven. Mama thinking, It’s working. Thinking, God. Thanking God. Reassured, knowing, Yes. Feeling me, and all the hope for me.

     

    I’ve never much questioned the DNA. Never dramatically cried to chromosome: Y? Only jiggled the jigsaw once, and that was only kinda, only a couple weeks ago. There I sat, zooming in on a hoard of black-and-white photos of University of Kentucky med school graduates, years 1984 to 1994. (I’m unsure of when exactly the donor came, or the sperm. Was it fresh? Had it been stored?) I looked for Mama’s requested light hair, a nose like mine. Wondered if he’d even look like me. If he’d even graduated. I can be a little lazy, sometimes apathetic, a mule to push to project (including my stubborn pull from womb). Had he skipped the field? Squinting squinters, I wrote down the first initials and last names of likely candidates (there weren’t many), did some him-then-to-now searches, found some, found none, threw the list away. 

    The prompt for the search? Research. Part of an exploration into the world of artificial insemination — what it is, why people use it. A dive into the science, the stories. I don’t much question me but do wonder about others, wonder about their wondering. I was curious about that I-want-a-baby determination, sometimes desperation. How other A.I. babies came to be.

     

    Take your arms and hold them adjacent to your sides. Pretend you’re holding a small barrel under each arm, or like you’re a monkey scratching its pits. Make fists with your hands and fold your wrists up, tucked. Look down to your torso and repeat after me: “My body is a uterus.” 

    Your body is a uterus. Your arms, fallopian tubes. Hands as ovaries. Your legs a vagina, and your pelvis a cervix. 

    You hope for normalcy, for the path to be easy, clear. Sometimes it is. Sometimes the sperm, those mighty swimmers, steer through the cervical mucus into the uterus like a cruise ship on calm seas, full speed ahead. Most sperm drop off in this marathon, but the especially good ones move into your arms (the fallopian tubes, remember), on to tickle a hand. Your hands, the ovaries, hold follicles that hold eggs, the other half of this grand experiment. The sperm will slip into the space between your fingers’ curl, and you’ll grab, latch on. Voilà — conception, embryogenesis. During a six-day journey, the embryo slides back up your forearm, through your bicep, and into your chest, the uterus. Then: pregnancy tests and months and ultrasounds and growth and kicking and, eventually, a real, live, crying baby.

    We know this process. We remember the awkward giggles and shuffles in middle school sex ed. It all seems fairly simple, and for 85 percent of couples it is. As for that other skinny wedge of the pie chart? Those who have difficulty getting pregnant? Those diagnosed with infertility issues because they haven’t been able to conceive after a year of unprotected sex? Those who’ve gone to the generalist or OB/GYN to seek treatment to nada results? All my single ladies? All my same-sex couples? All those whose feelings of family are frustrated? Where to turn? Whose hand to hold?

     

    Dr. Henry C. Bohler holds out his arms, says, “My body is a uterus.” He’s the reproductive endocrinologist at the University of Louisville Physicians Fertility Center downtown, open since 1977, “Where Hope Comes to Life” and where more than 310 inseminations occurred in 2014, more than 145 in the first half of 2015. It’s one of three fertility clinics in Louisville, the other two being Fertility First and Fertility and Endocrine Associates in the East End (where the U of L clinic will move by year’s end).  

    Bohler joined U of L’s team 11 years ago. He’s an always-thinking-the-best-route kind of man, waking up before the sun at 5 or 5:30 to his alarm — the surprise of a Taylor Swift song — then kids up, then sit-ups, then coffee and Cheerios or oatmeal, sometimes studying his big in-vitro fertilization binder or watching a bit of Charlie Rose until it’s time to get in the car, drive downtown, either listening to NPR or lecturing his cello-and-viola-playing girls. He’s got an impressive stack of experience under his doctor’s coat — Columbia, Yale, Vanderbilt, the National Institutes of Health (“Where all the rules are made,” he says), and more. Sometimes he wears a lavender button-up, and he won’t say how old he is, but his sideburns curl and gray a bit like a Brillo pad. Bohler says that 90 to 95 percent of his job is helping single women, same-sex couples and heterosexual couples with infertility issues get pregnant.

    Within this range are the infertility rarities. There’s the couple trying for more than five years to conceive. There’s polycystic ovarian syndrome. There’s endometriosis. There’s the woman with no uterus. But Bohler says the two main infertility factors are: 1) the woman’s age, and 2) a male factor. 

    “A woman’s chance of conception starts to decrease at age 32 with another nice drop-off at 35,” Bohler says. The longer a woman waits to have a baby, the lower her ovarian reserve, the quality or number of eggs stored in the ovaries ebbing. It makes me think of the biological clock, evolution, teenage mothers in the native days or the 1800s, and the show 16 & Pregnant. It makes me think of my older mama, and all the independent or career-focused women who choose to wait. I think of the way time steals, in this case, an ovary’s eggs. I think of the cage-free eggs in my fridge, and how the longer I don’t eat them, the worse they’re gonna get, an ugly expiration.

    The other factor is the male factor, which Bohler says accounts for 35 percent of infertility issues. He insists when couples come in that the male must be checked, every time. A semen analysis will show sperm abnormalities. Is there a low count? Less than 100 million motile in the ejaculate? Is there no sperm? (Likely caused by genetics, a Y-chromosome flop. Or too much testosterone — watch out, boys.) How’s the quality? Are they pushed by a strong tail? Do they move but swim sideways? Is the what’s-normally-oval-shaped head crooked? Is there no head? Are there two heads? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, the man needs to get to a urologist. Bohler mainly sends guys to Dr. Schrepferman at First Urology, the city’s only specialist in male infertility.

    “The uterus is shaped like a light bulb,” Bohler says. He says that during intrauterine insemination, or IUI (the most common A.I. procedure), the sperm — either the husband’s or a sperm-bank donor’s (likely from the Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia or the California Cryobank in Los Angeles) — is inserted directly into the uterus with a skinny catheter, bypassing the cervix, giving the sperm a head start. (I’d need help before a 10K or any marathon, too.) Before insertion, the sperm is vigorously pre-washed to rid it of chemicals that may cause pelvic cramping, and to weed out dead sperm or the worst swimmers. (I remember as a kid trying to hold my breath underwater for the distance of the Juniper Hill Park Olympic-size pool, my lungs tight, then tighter, several hundred feet in, my ears angry, my brain giving up, then floating up. I’d be a bad sperm.) IUI has a 20-percent success rate, which is close to regular bump-and-grind’s chances of 25 percent. 

    Then there’s in-vitro fertilization, or IVF, which has up to a 45-percent success rate. An egg is, or multiple eggs are, removed from a woman and put in a petri dish, then given to an embryologist. The husband’s or donor’s sample is added, sperm around each egg. One sperm winner will get the prize, fertilize. Then the successfully fertilized egg goes back inside the uterus, grows and grows. Sometimes two or three will be inserted depending on their quality, how they look, but Bohler tries to avoid this because of the risk of twins or triplets, which can make for a more dangerous pregnancy. 

    Mary Mallick with Fertility and Endocrine Associates — which performed 450 to 500 inseminations last year, and approximately 350 so far this year — gives me numbers. The base fee for an IUI procedure is $674 and includes the sperm preparation (the wash), an ultrasound to document ovulation, and the insemination. The office visit is an extra $65 to $91 dollars. Also to be added in: one round of a fertility drug (about 20 bucks at the pharmacy), or a $144 “trigger shot” injection that that stimulates ovulation. 

    IVF is a prettier penny, a shinier penny, heavy, more like base fee of $10,123. (This price can move up to $20,000 or more, depending on the place.) The base fee includes the ultrasound, the lab work, the embryo transfer and the egg retrieval. Much stronger ovulation-stimulation injections can cost up to an extra $2,000. Most insurance plans don’t cover either procedure or help with the baby steps.

    Dr. Johanna Archer at Fertility First, which she opened on her own as a private practice, says infertility is a medical condition like any other and that artificial insemination shouldn’t be taboo. “I’m not God by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m helping out,” she says. 

    She hands me what looks and feels like a wall calendar — same shape and smoothness. But it’s the California Cryobank donor catalog. Instead of months full of days and pictures of playing puppies, it’s a tiny-font list of some 400 anonymous dudes — donor after donor after donor — with their basic characteristics charted. She says it’s not easy to be a donor. A 2011 article in The Atlantic reported that becoming a donor is like getting into Harvard. 

     

    We all die. Frank died. Father Figure Frank died when I was 13. He was there at my birth, when 10-pound, C-section me came screaming out of Mama. Mama was glad to see a baby out of her belly, not the monkey she was convinced was somersaulting the womb (now she knows I was dancing hip-hop), but Frank saw me first, held me first. Frank was just a friend of Mama’s. When Mama didn’t heal right after what she describes as the “Ginsu knife surgery,” Frank helped take care of me. Attached, he loved fat little me, and stayed, thinking me his daughter.

    In pictures I’m too small to remember being taken, he sits sweatered and calf-socked, big-rim glasses on, helping baby open first-Christmas presents, or me sitting applesauce-faced on his lap. Time grew, and memory: trips in the big blue truck to Mama’s farm out Devils Hollow Road, riding horses, planting potatoes on the bush hog, catching creek crawdads; trips to eastern Kentucky to see his family in the farms and hills beyond the mines of Harlan (I remember swimming and cornbread and closeness; I remember the running dogs); Mama’s work trips to California and Montana and U.S. exploration; spending hours in the downtown library; 10 and eating a bunch of junk like McDonald’s hotcakes or quarter-pounders (I kinda blame any fat on that; Mama says she would’ve never taken me there); for a while bowling every Tuesday (I was so surprisingly badass I had my own ball); on and on and et cetera until Frank’s time quit ticking. (It was the secret drinking.) I remember being sad, but I was also 13, preoccupied with cool, and unsure what it all meant. Now I feel no void except peace.

    Maybe donor dad likes history, likes the show Cops. Maybe he does woodworking, builds desks, is good with his hands. Maybe he has a goofy laugh or maybe he complains too much, a bit negative, like I can be. Maybe he mixes vodka and orange juice, donor dad a drunk. Maybe donor dad is dead under a concrete stump. Maybe the ghost is a ghost. 

     

    It’s not an easy world to move through. It’s a sensitive world. A personal world. A world that wants to keep quiet. I about went crazy trying to find folks to talk to me for this story. Even with a doctor’s help, an A.I. couple’s contact info (their permission given), I’d call and call and call to no hello. So much kept secret. Names. Some only wanted to use first names, some no names. Most calmed when I offered anonymity, pseudonyms. Is it the attempt to combat the zealots’ opinions? To keep things secret, anonymity extending into the parent-child relationship? The shame of choosing this method, deemed “untraditional”? 

    There’s the donor who’d have sex with his wife, give the sperm to asking lesbians or infertile couples he trusted. He’s glad nothing ever worked out on account of what could be his current kids’ future dismay, learning about half-siblings this way. 

    There’s another dude who quit donating after he read the book Evil Genes, by Barbara Oakley, and considered passing down his narcissism, lack of empathy. 

    There’s the mom who tried every at-home insemination trick she could Google — hips elevated, Softcup menstrual cup full of semen inserted, an orgasm before insemination (to, she said, you know, vacuum the sperm UP) — then the blue-dye test at the doctor to make sure her tubes weren’t blocked, the cyst-checking laparoscopy. Her baby Haven will probably never know the struggle in this secret. 

    There’s the woman whose daughter — shhh, she doesn't know — grows and grows and she takes her to Lake Erie.

    There’s James, whose mom used a California sperm bank (he’s not sure which one) in the mid-’80s, requesting someone of Iranian descent. James, whose crazy grandma once at Walmart screamed to a stranger, “This is my artificial baby!” James, who says he never really understood dads: “To me, the dad was the old fucking grumpy beat-down guy that had to get up and go to work every day, and came home, had a beer, didn’t want to be messed with.” James, who was always quiet and timid and shy, the opposite of his mother. James, whose personality was shaped by his mother’s, or an attempt to reject it. “It’s like those things you do to reject the nurture also shape your nurture,” he says. James, who grew to find mecca in his Jeffersontown home since childhood, renovated and clean and sleek — his doing, now his mortgage. James, who is 30 now, whose mom is dead. James, who doesn’t think that feeling of loneliness will every really subside. James, who’s driving down Billtown Road to work, NPR on the dial. James, who hears “the Iran nuclear deal” and pauses. Usually unquestioning, unthinking about his father, except for in that one moment, that moment quickly gone.

     

    How does it go again? One is the loveliest number? The loneliest? One is the loneliest number. Other numbers. There are other numbers. There is 37. Thirty-seven is a magic number. For Leia it is magic, a number that’s stuck. 

    Leia has a friend she calls her “Magic Number 37 Friend.” This is the friend who gave Leia the lowdown on artificial insemination years ago when Leia was still in her late-20s, still in an internal-medicine residency at the University of Louisville, and still in a five-year relationship, her first. This was back when Leia almost settled down, in the house with her loving lady and room for a longed-for baby. Back when Leia started tracking her menstrual cycles. The Magic Number 37 Friend — 37 years old at the time and a single mother with two sperm-bank babies — walked Leia through the Fairfax Cryobank website, full of donors and face-matching and scroll bars and click and click and click. 

    Story short, cold feet. Leia ended the relationship because she couldn’t lie; it wasn’t love. Comfortable, but love? She wasn’t ready to settle down. Wasn’t ready to have dinner with her girlfriend’s parents every Sunday for the rest of her life. Leia had only fully realized herself as a lesbian in college at Bellarmine University, where she says she ran with the English-majoring, beret-wearing, pot-smoking hippie folks because she couldn’t stand the pre-med Wasps. Sure, she knew before. But raised in a small town and Catholic, she was terrified of that truth. In high school she busied herself: joined basketball, track, cross country, the diving team. Tried to dribble and run and splash the gay away. Was this really it? Wasn’t there anything better? 

    Portland, Oregon, and the freedom of the West. A surge of independence, terror. New city, new job. Forest Park and the Wildwood Trail became her refuge. Then, without warning, homesickness. Leia missed her tight family, lightning bugs, thunderstorms, the way Kentucky smelled. “You know how it is. You go out on a hillside in the middle of a Kentucky summer and it’s all hazy and humid and smells like fresh cut grass. It just has that smell,” she says. “Oregon just smelled like pine trees.” 

    Leia tried to control the homesickness. Got really into work at the hospital, really into dating people. So afraid to be alone, she didn’t know how to be alone. Time grew. She now was magic number 37 and single. One is the loneliest number, so Leia decided to up it to two. 

     

    It’s kind of like Match.com. Numbered sperm donors instead of names. It’s kind of like shopping. Like Amazon. You can plug in exactly what you want. There’s even a little shopping cart in the shape of an antique stroller. The basic search is free. That gives you ancestry, blood type, physical characteristics, occupation, interests, college degree, etc. There’s a free detailed medical profile (current alcohol use, check marks for epilepsy or coffee-colored skin spots and way more, blanks for how the donor’s dad died or if he’s still alive), and a link to a free donor essay (answering questions like, “What is your most memorable childhood memory?” and “What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you?”). There’s other free stuff, but if you want photos or a full audio interview with the donor, you’ve got to pony up. Got to add to that shopping cart in the top-right corner, fill that baby buggy. 

    Leia went down the baby rabbit hole. She must’ve searched through 20 or more donors on the Fairfax site before narrowing it down to the final two contestants. She didn’t mind anonymity; didn’t want to use a friend for fear that some legal matter would pop up down the road. “I wanted someone with a clean medical history, especially psychiatric, ’cause there’s a bunch of psych shit in my family,” she says. (Her dead mother was a severely depressed, unpredictable alcoholic.) She wanted to guarantee the donor was smart, a college grad, but didn’t need him to have a Ph.D. (That sperm costs more.) She’s a mix of German, English and Irish and wanted her kids to look like her, so she opted out of other ethnicities. And: “I didn’t want to get some butt-ugly dude who’s heinous — come on, you get it,” she says. She could tell when she listened to the free “Staff Impressions” that a man was unattractive when the different nurses could only say, “Uhhh, he’s polite. Yeah, he’s always said hello.” To be sure, Leia bought full-access pictures of her final two donor options, pics from ages six months old to adulthood. (“Full access” currently costs $194.95 and includes a donor personality test — “Are you a guardian?” — and the audio interview.) 

    What made baby daddy baby daddy? Donor X (Leia didn’t want to disclose the donor number; anonymity for anonymity) had already impressed Leia with his photos (one clearly an acting headshot) and his theater degree. She liked his voice, light and upbeat. She could tell he smiled while he talked. Donor X: day-dreamer, a creative, a reveler in solitude. Donor X ran around barefoot as a kid with a sparkler in hand. Donor X wanted to go to Greece, feel the ancient stage beneath his feet. Donor X liked to say, “If you close off your mind, you close off the world.” Donor X didn’t putter around with God. The staff said Donor X was quick to make a joke. And the thing that nailed it for Leia: When Donor X was asked, “Tell us something about yourself that is a surprise,” he responded, “Well, I’m a wicked dancer.” 

     

    Leia assumed she wouldn’t have any problems. She’s one of six kids. “And I have sisters who get pregnant if they look at a man cross-eyed,” she jokes. 

    She had regular menstrual cycles. Kept healthy, running about 40 miles a week. Felt young. But the world went old after Leia’s reproductive endocrinologist in Oregon reviewed her blood tests and hormone levels and scanned her ovaries. Leia paraphrases her doctor: “You’ve got a low ovarian reserve, meaning your chances of conceiving are shitty — less-than-1-percent kind of shitty. You should consider using donor eggs.”

    Her hands. Leia looked at her hands and these things that always looked like freckles suddenly became age spots. “All I could see were old lady hands,” she says. “My grandmother’s hands. Nanny’s hands, all thin and veiny.” Leia had had stray gray hairs since her 20s and they never bothered her, but now they seemed to be everywhere. Now they mattered. Leia thought she had all this time, and now she had no life to give? 

    The endocrinologist expected to see a lot of follicles and a lower level of the follicle-stimulating hormone, but somehow Leia’s body got the numbers reversed. The normal number of follicles ranges from six to 10, and Leia dipped below that. Her FSH levels registered at 19.9 milliliters — almost menopause-level high. She’ll never forget the nurse’s alarming pitch: “We need to be very aggressive.” Leia’s pituitary gland had to make more and more FSH to get any response out of her ovaries, to get her follicles to give a damn. They needed more stimulation. “It’s like trying to get a horse to go, but you have to beat the shit out of the horse for it to move,” she says. Or give it a million carrots, instead of, say, two. Instead of a Derby horse, Leia’s ovaries were old mules.

    Leia had already bought the sperm from Fairfax before the fertility assessment. Naive, perhaps. She thought she wanted three kids and figured she’d purchase six vials, thinking two chances per kid, but the sperm bank offered a deal: eight vials, plus one free year of storage (which usually costs $395). Leia likes a bargain, so she said sure, eight vials, about $700 per. 

    The doctor felt sorry for her, she’s sure of it. Thinks the doc gave her the fertility drug Clomid for closure. She took the Clomid for five days beginning one menstrual cycle, tried IUI, nothing. And again the next month, November. During this round she used two vials. The first vial’s sperm count was low, so she used two, and this, she jokes, makes her a “reproductive ho.” Again, the eight- to 10-day wait, the blood test to detect pregnancy. But nope. 

    Every time Leia got that sad call, she wondered, over and over, “What is the meaning of my life?” Negativity grew, and doubt. Was this her fault? Was she being punished by the world, God, whatever? “I felt like I had fucked up my chance at being a parent,” she says. “This is what I got for messing up a good relationship.” Each time she wasn’t pregnant, she wanted more and more to be pregnant. Were babies just meant for her sisters? Were they the lucky ones? Would she not know that gentleness, that mothering? She thought she’d give it one more try and then quit. 

    December, the money shot. December, the charm. December, the winner. Baby Mace, the winner. Three. There is the number three. Three is a number that means “to try.” 

     

    Leia’s first thought when Mace was born was, “He looks just like the baby daddy.” For a while it was Leia and Mace against the world. They moved back to Louisville from Oregon when Mace was seven weeks old, to be closer to Leia’s dad and most of her siblings. She wanted that large, loud chaos for her son, especially with baby daddy’s ancestry so silent. 

    When Fae was born, Leia’s first thought was, “She looks just like Mace.” She used the same donor sperm for her second (and last) child. No doubt they’re related. “You think that maybe they just give you any ol’ sperm in a tube, but nah — it’s the same dude,” she says. This pregnancy she trusted to Dr. Bohler of U of L Physicians Fertility Center, and the IVF technique (Leia says she was able to save about $14,000 because she’s a hospitalist with U of L). Worked in one try. 

    Five-year-old Mace has blue eyes like Leia and a temperament like Leia, easily angered but active. He’s the first one up in the morning, and he places Little Debbie doughnuts on the pillows in the bed they all share for closeness. “I just wanted to give you a doughnut,” he’ll say. Mace always banging the drums, crazy glitter frenzy at the art station Leia set up in the house. Two-year-old Fae definitely looks like Leia’s side of the family, but is very subdued, more of an observer. At the YMCA’s Calypso Cove in the East End, Fae will watch others splash around before she finally floaties in. She’s quiet during Uncle Grandpa, that kid’s show with the giant realistic flying tiger who shoots rainbows out of his butt. 

    Sometimes the questions come. Mace asks, “Do I have a dad?” or “Can I see my daddy?” Or it’s a statement: “I wish we had a daddy because then someone could wear the Boba Fett costume.” Fae sometimes plays on her toy phone, says, “Hold on, I’m talking to daddy.” 

    Leia’s waited for this. Knows it’s natural for them to wonder. She’ll show the pictures, say, “This very nice man donated sperm so you could be born.” Mace will say, “I have a donor daddy.” Or, “Oh, OK.” Leia always thinks it’ll be this profound discussion, but so far it’s simple. If she throws too many words in, it’s, “Mommy, will you not talk so much?” 

    She knows that as the kids get older, the conversations will get deeper. They’ll want to know who Donor X is and she’s sad she won’t have the total capacity to say, but she’ll openly give them all she can. The essays, the pictures, the audio clips, whatever. “I can’t imagine my kids won’t one day plug his face into Google Face Recognition or whatever and figure out who he is,” she says.

    For now, the kids go to St. Joseph’s Children Home on Frankfort Avenue, a progressive daycare that plays up nontraditional families. Leia, Mace and Fae read books on all different types of families. The one about two mommies, one daddy. Mace memorizes some, repeats them out loud. Lately, when Mace asks about his daddy, the conversation turns to fascination, embryogenesis, old ultrasounds, and gasping, “Can you see my tail!?!?”

     

    Mama and I have this Thanksgiving tradition. Not much family (most dead now, or distant with state lines), and lazy with post-feast fullness, we go to the movies. A couple turkeys ago, we went to see Delivery Man, this flick that stars Vince Vaughn as a sperm donor. In the cinema seats in Shelbyville we watched on the screen as 142 sperm-bank babies demanded daddy, one daddy, the same daddy. One-hundred-and-forty-two rioting out of the larger number: 533. The movie ends heartwarmingly — Vince Vaughn meeting and making “daddy” time for most of the kids — but to me, it was still a messed-up concept. That many babies by the same donor, really? Are there that many more of me? 

    After the movie, Mama and I sat on a lobby bench, in the popcorn warmth, the cool of other folks bustling in. She held my hand, told me my genesis story again — it had been a long time since the last time; somehow the details slip — and I listened. Mama told me she was sorry if I ever felt wronged by not knowing. Sorry I didn’t have all those siblings, knowing I’d always wanted an older sister. Sorry if she somehow cheated me, if I felt incomplete. I gripped my hand tighter, and pulled my sweater tighter, and probably said something like, “Mama, don’t be a freak.” 

    Now I’m on the Donor Sibling Registry as a byproduct of writing this story, feeling somewhere between odd and intrigued. Wendy Kramer, the founder of the DSR, a website around since 2000 to help donor-conceived babes mutually connect to those who share genetic ties, waived the $75-a-year membership fee for me to click around for a bit, make a posting, see if I had any matches. In my profile I wrote something like, “Hey, if you’re out there, let’s cheers over beer!” Felt it best to keep casual. I scrolled through the list, landed on my donor dad’s facility. I wrote all I knew: UK med student in 1989, blond hair, brown eyes. 

    Zero. Zero is a number that means no donor or half-sibling matches. Out of 47,308 registered on the DSR (of them, 175 Kentucky families), I match none. But there is one other entry that pops up. A parent of a 17-year-old teen whose donor started contributing to the same clinic in 1990. A year missed. A brother missed. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps this is lucky. Better this than the surprise of many, right? 

    Because there are many with the surprise of many. Searching DSR, many forums, articles and testimonies lead to the larger truth. One surprised sperm donor on the site keeps track on an Excel spreadsheet of the 70-plus children he has helped create, which, he says, isn’t exactly what he signed up for. (Advertisements, many posted on college campuses, emphasize profit, make sperm donation seem that it’s without repercussion: “Make $1,400 a month doing what you would normally do for free!”) There’s one crew of more than 150 half-siblings, a number that grows and grows. These babes are Fairfax babes with mothers who called Fairfax when the group hit 50, then 75, then 100 half-siblings, told them to stop selling the sperm. (Fairfax denies ever receiving the calls.) This bubbles up again and again. The well bubbles over. (And we wonder: Why the stigma, the jokes of incest, the movie Delivery Man...) 

    How do these sperm banks limit or track births when there’s no accurate recordkeeping? How do they know how many same-donor half-siblings are running around, how close they are in age, physical proximity? They don’t. Mothers who have successful births are not required to report this to their cryobank, and only an estimated 20 percent to 40 percent of them do. No one knows how many kids are born in this country each year using sperm donors. Thirty thousand? Sixty thousand? More?

    There are other incongruities. Sperm banks not keeping up with their donor’s updated medical histories like they’re supposed to. Sperm banks providing inaccurate records to begin with. Example: A California court case alleging several kids inherited autism from the donor daddy. Other passed-down genetic diseases never mentioned by sperm banks and only realized after pregnancy: cystic fibrosis, heart defects, spinal muscular atrophy. 

    Kramer, who has a donor-conceived child herself, says cryobanks and their fertility clinic counterparts are “unregulated for-profit industries.” Kramer’s biggest push is one toward no more donor anonymity. “A child should not be cut off from half of his or her genetic roots, medical background, ancestry,” Kramer says. “It can be damaging. Parents lie to children. Parents forbid kids from searching for answers.” Already nine other (mostly European) countries have made anonymous donation illegal. “In the U.S., the industry claims if donor anonymity isn’t an option, there won’t be enough donors,” Kramer says. “But there aren’t enough organs for people either.”

    Family, what is family? There’s all this family, meant to be, not. Here I am, Arielle: without family. Have no living grandparents. Don't think I'll ever marry. Desire no damn babies. I’d be sent into panic attacks with all that worry in my hands, probably up and down the street with stroller, crying. Can barely keep my cool when the cat starts her crazy calling in the mornings.

    Closest to family for me, my best friends like sisters. They're my clan, my tribe. Though sometimes I feel rootless, instead like I have wings.

     

     

    Frankenstein. He’s always been Frankenstein. Sam nicknamed Ken, her big brother’s best friend, Frankenstein when she was just a girl, crushing and googly-eyed. Frankenstein because of the disease, the Charcot-Marie-Tooth muscular atrophy Ken was diagnosed with when he was eight years old. It’d send him limping, falling, keep his legs lagging behind. Sam would hang while the boys played video games, tag along to an Indiana target range, joke: Frankenstein, Frankenstein. Ken didn’t mind. He’d laugh and call her Walrus and everyone had a good time.

    Way back then Sam told her mom she’d marry Ken, and eventually she did. But first, he grew, she grew, 10 years between them. Sam grew into a teen and watched Ken marry. Watched him have one, then two, then three, then four, then five kids with the mean/cheating/divorcing woman, the same woman who led Ken to drink. Time collapsed and Ken collapsed, and from afar, Sam watched him binge bars and fall and fall again. When Ken offered, she did not accept his invitation for ice cream, not until he straightened up, turned his life around. 

    Sam knew from the time they were dating — now past the joked “jailbait” years; she 19, he 29 — they’d never have a kid of their own. After Ken’s fifth from the last marriage, he’d had a vasectomy, closed off the door to that world. Semen retrieval not an option because of the risk of passing on his CMT. Already some of his now-grown kids in a wheelchair or with the tripping. The two didn’t want to risk the leg braces stretching from ankle to hip, like with Ken. The weekly falls. The not being able to drive far distances, or stand too long — in the shower or while cooking, wheeling around the kitchen in an office chair. 

    Adoption was an option for Sam and Ken. Didn’t work. They tried. Had a baby girl from when she was two days old until nine months old, but then the biological mom started demanding her baby back. This? After helping the baby out of its withdrawals from what the doctor determined was heroin? Weeks and weeks of the pained crying? After first words, “mommy” and “daddy”? Tucking her into her pink fleece blanket? The slowly beginning to stand? 

    There was so much tension in the Indiana courtroom that day. Sam dressed in her button-up blouse; she says the biological mom dressed for the bar. The tension filled for five minutes, then was dismissed. Judge gave Sam and Ken three days to prepare for the baby’s transfer. 

    All that sadness, questioning God. Worst thing Sam has ever been through. “For me, it was worse than death,” she says. “At least when somebody’s dead, there’s not hope of them coming back.” 

     

    Frankenstein found it first. On accident, clicking around in a search for sperm. He called Sam to the computer’s glow. She read the screen — the Free Sperm Donor Registry — gave a look that read, Are you sure? 

    Sam clicked around, dug deeper. The Free Sperm Donor Registry (now officially the Known Donor Registry, or KDR, with more than 22,000 users) is a site advocating the turn away from donor anonymity. A movement toward the legitimacy of private sperm donation. And free. To Sam, it seemed way less impersonal than the sperm banks they’d looked up. More natural than insemination at a doctor’s office. More legit than Craigslist. They didn’t trust Craigslist. When Sam’s stepdaughter tried to help, making the unknowing couple a Craigslist ad, so many creeps responded. All wanting to do it the good old-fashioned way. 

    With her husband’s encouragement, Sam made a profile. Checked the box for “artificial insemination” only. Wrote, “Happily married couple of 11 years.” Gave ages: Sam, 29; Ken, 39. Checked: “limited contact” and “uncle role.” Checked the box: Find donors within 100 miles. Two-hundred miles. Signed out. 

    In the inbox three or four days later? 

    Ralph. 

     

    It’s a road that Sam’s driven many times before, Indiana State Road 60. Her in-laws own a cabin on down that road toward French Lick. She’s familiar with how the scenery turns from fields into Hoosier National Forest, December then and leafless. Familiar with the Dairy Queen where she and Ken were to meet Ralph, about a 45-minute drive from home in Mitchell, Indiana. There was a different feeling than those other drives, though, a nervousness that not even Ken or silence or Garth Brooks could cure. What to expect when you’re meeting someone for the first time? The prospective donor of your unborn child? The sky darkening, Sam kept breathing, kept her grip loose on the wheel. 

    Ralph was there first, waiting in his car. Not new, but not a junker. Sam pulled in a spot beside him, a blank space in-between. Out of the cars and into the cold, shaking hands, saying hello. Sam wondered what Ralph thought of them — Sam a bigger woman, tattoos (one a green heart with Frankenstein bolts); Ken with his stiff walk, leg braces connected to his boots. 

    May have been three or four other tables of people in DQ. Sam and Ken walked ahead, ordered a chicken strip basket to share, with an extra side of gravy. Cash out, ready to hand it over when the cashier announced the total, but Ralph said, “No, I’ll get this.” Would it be rude to say no? Ken took the booth seat because it stays still, easier on his legs, which he stretched from his outer-booth position. Squished in, Sam looked up.

    Here was Ralph, in the fluorescence of the vanilla light. Way more real than his profile picture, taken in the mirror and a bit blurred. Sam was weary of that picture at first, didn’t really think he was that great-looking. Older — 50-something, Sam would guess — with a head full of dark hair starting to recede. There was that big caterpillar mustache that Ken called a “pornstache”; Sam disgusted when he said it, unable to get that out of her mind. But you have to think of more than the physical, more than the belly, plain ’ol T-shirt and jeans. More important: the health history, the accomplishments in life, the communication art degree, the STD-free analysis from a local hospital that he was then handing over the table. The tenacious heart they had yet to see. 

    Before the STD sheet, Ralph asked to see Sam and Ken’s drivers’ licenses, some form of ID. Like a cop. Ralph wanted to make sure what he was giving was going to the person who said he or she was that person. 

    After the STD sheet, the donor contract. Basically: The recipient will not use Ralph’s donation for anything besides the recipient’s pregnancy. Ralph has no parental right to any child conceived. The recipient can’t go after him for child support, medical expenses, nothing. Must be signed by everyone. Notarized. Very matter-of-fact. Can’t blame him. One of the first couples he helped eventually came after him demanding child support. Now he’s got his papers. Plays it safe. 

     

    Eight months trying to conceive. Ralph would come over in the evenings, take a specimen cup Sam bought on eBay, maybe a bottle of water, and then be off to the light-blue guest bedroom. Sam trusted Ralph now — after running a background check, further solidifying health history, talking more motive (Ralph single and childless, this was a way to leave a piece of him behind) — but she’d still get nervous each time. She’d sit with Ken in the living room, watch Animal Planet, tap her leg, pet her Sphynx cat, try not to think about what Ralph was doing in there, if he was looking at the elephant on the wall, if he was standing or sitting. 

    All done, he’d leave the sample on the nightstand, maybe stay and talk deer hunting or rental properties with Ken for a minute after discussing if the couple would need him the next day (the more you can do it in the ovulation window, the better; Ralph would sometimes come over two or three days in a row). Then he’d leave. Never accepting money — for gas, a drive home’s cup of coffee. Only giving — the sperm, a smile, and once the eagle-covered book he wrote on federal taxation.

    They’d let the sperm sit for three to five minutes, let it liquefy. Then Sam was in the comfort of her bedroom, feet on the headboard, pillows under her hips, her husband — who says A.I. is like adoption at an earlier stage — sometimes directing in the syringe she bought from Tractor Supply, the syringe usually used to orally medicate animals. (Sam remembers these from her childhood on the farm, feeding stray kittens. She has always been a caretaker.) The “turkey-baster method,” she’d laugh, hips up, waiting, no pelvic cramping. Trying not to stress, she’d sometimes watch TV or read a mystery. 

     

    Two years old now and Libby is their world. She’s a toddler-sized LEGO-dumper-outer. She talks and yells and throws things, but, hey, she sleeps through the night. Sam’s mom says Libby has Sam’s nose, and Sam knows Libby’s got her short toes. All the family knows how Libby was conceived. The 85-year-old grandma doesn’t ask questions, is just glad they had a baby. Ken's dad excited someone in the family finally looks like him. 

    Sam sends pictures to Ralph every couple months or so, always to a simple “Thank you.” Sam asks random medical questions every so often, like if he has any strange allergies. Other than that, Ralph is never around, except for in the big brown eyes Libby has, neither Sam’s greens or Ken’s blues, but the eyes Sam wouldn’t trade for the world. Maybe Ralph will be around in 10 years or so, swoop on the scene like a long-lost uncle, something the couple wouldn’t mind, the truth kept un-secret. Or maybe they’ll use him for a second baby somewhere down the line, if they decide to try another time.

    Each Sunday, the family goes to church twice, and no one there gives grief. On the way home from the late service, the sun falling, fall approaching, night cool. Libby is tucked into bed in the nursery that was once the guest bedroom. Somewhere far, stars are born that will guide one to the other, and rock the cradle goodnight. 

     

    With all of it, I try to keep light. I’ll tell anyone I’m an A.I. baby. No one gives me any guff. Rather, it’s this amazement, this pondering, this “Wow,” this, “I’ve never met a sperm-bank baby before.” People usually have more questions than I do. I joke possibility daddy. Keep light. Every year, it’s a double celebration: Happy Mother’s Day, Barri! Happy Father’s Day, too!

    Perhaps it’s because I’m more emotion than reason, more nurture over nature, more circumstance than technicality, that I don’t unfurl the double helix. I feel born from one person, Mama’s helix. Perhaps that’s ignorant. We are what we know. We are what we don’t know. And not to get too existential (though, I mean, I kinda have to, right?), but my question is: If I had an actual father, would I (me — like, wild-ass Arielle with the circling mind) even exist? Would I still be in your hands, like this?

    Now that I’m 25, well out of the gripe of teen years, moving into frontal lobe, I see Mama and me as fundamentally the same, with few differences. Mama is quicker to make a decision, yes; I sometimes get stuck in the sand. She knocks at the ancestry tree, pulls the roots all the way back to the Lawd-who-knows-when-hundreds, while I stand in future’s star-covered fields. Mama will probably always be more headstrong than I am — her childhood with alcoholic parents and her need for responsibility; me, the miracle baby, a little scared, a little spoiled.

    Mama and I are on the other side of the river now. A concrete bridge pillar is now where Mama’s old house was, near where she once stood screaming. We sit on the couch in the room where she thought to have me. Maybe NBC’s The Voice is on (we’re suckers); maybe we’ve been talking for an hour, Mama with all my answers.

    Somewhere upstairs, Compton rests in a flowered box of memories. Downstairs, we are singing impromptu. Mama starts with a verse of “Brown Eyed Girl,” off-key Van Morrison with each “skipping” and “jumping.” She leans forward with her right shoulder and then left shoulder, fingers snapping, then, taking turns grooving, points at me. I join with a MAD TV Ms. Swan-like voice, feeling like a grateful cheeseball. Mama yanks at my hand, and I am up without resistance and we are spinning in a sloppy waltz, together, Sha-la-la-la-te-da-ing. I try to hear the trio in our voices, some daddy. Maybe there’s someone else, somewhere else, singing. I listen for the bells — are they ringing?

    I finish the song off with a dumb dance, which sends her cackling into tears. Mama says I’m the only one who can make her laugh, and I laugh with her laugh, I cannot help it. Mama says we were meant to be together, and I agree. I’m her little Arie Rey, and she’s my Barri Gene.

    Born from one person, and there is so much more that makes me think: We are the product of our experiences, aren’t we? Moving through life with Mama. We’ve circled roundabouts together, those road trips, lost, laugh-screaming. We’ve gone to Harrisburg through Josh Ritter’s lyrics and know it’s a long way to heaven. We both goose-bump Bob Dylan, Ben Sollee. We’re both moon gazers, sunset swimmers. We both move through life freely, observantly. Both hold horses in our hearts, though if she goes flying off one, she’s more likely to get back on. (I’ll never be as brave as Mama; I got my hesitations.) We both crave story — talk to you and you and you. More. Listen. We both have an eye for the ancient and travel. We’ve mazed Maya; we’ve desert-rode among pyramids, Mama toting Easter-colored Peeps (a long tale); we’ve roared the African bush; we’ve Moulin Rouge-d.

    Thank you for all the world, Mama.

     

    This article is courtesy of the October 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.

    Illustration by Douglas Miller

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