IIt is the hottest week of the year and I am sitting in a windowless room on the ground floor of University College Hospital in London discussing the precise temperature of frozen sperm. At -196C, these glacial swimmers are biologically inert, they told me, when they hand me two accessories: a thin plastic straw that bends at the will of my fingers and a cylindrical cup segmented by colored tubes: blue, green, purple. , orange, red, giving this storage container the look of a rainbow colored toy, a fun wagon wheel you could buy for a child.
“Is this how you imagined it?” the fertility lab manager asks me – “is” the posthumous sperm storage process. I can’t find the words to answer that, no, this is not what I imagined at all because when I close my eyes I think of poppy seeds and ice cubes. And that, at the age of 38, this is not the way my story was supposed to go.
I am writing this article from an ambiguous place. A few feet from this ordinary patient room, my late husband’s sperm is stored in a cold, dormant subzero container, awaiting instructions, and that instruction can only come from me. Seven years ago, two years after he was diagnosed with a oligoastrocytoma brain tumor, and four years before he died of brain cancer in his hospice bed, my newlywed husband walked the same hospital corridors as I did this afternoon and dumped his sperm in a plastic cup. This fluid was quickly divided into 23 plastic straws and filled into kaleidoscopic cartridges before being placed inside a tank of liquid nitrogen, a ghostly vaporous process known as cryopreservation.
When I caress the PVC straw in my hand, I feel a hair’s distance from the man I lost; the man who sat in this basement lab seven years ago, whose gametes are now frozen in a thermos next door. Maybe that’s why I’m here. There was no need for me to physically come today, I tell the lab director. And yet here I am, with a notepad and a pen. “I need to know where it is,” I told my friend Zoë on the phone a few days before, before instantly correcting myself. I know these samples are not him, but they are part of him, and I suppose a part of me wants to acknowledge this in a physical way before deciding whether to glue or twist, or to cite the lab correspondence I received. six months ago, to “discard” them entirely. This visit to the hospital could be called a pilgrimage, an expedition to the site of a sacred relic, and although this sanctity feels at odds with the scientific reality of vacuum cloaks and cryoprotectants, when the laboratory manager describes the cup it contains the sperm of my late husband as a “Chalice”, I imagine a precious metal, enameled and jeweled.
The letter from the NHS arrived in late January at the height of a global pandemic that my husband never witnessed. I will continue to receive these annual letters as long as the lab stores his sperm, an expiration date that I know with an accuracy that defies the unpredictability and uncertainty that has followed me since his death. The legal consent forms you painstakingly filled out with a black pen will expire in 2034. The biological absurdity that I’ll be 51 when I do is not lost on me.
During the three years since my husband died in 2018, I have thrown away a lot. Books have been donated, cufflinks have been given, socks have been thrown away and photos have been sent to nearby drawers. However, now I have to ask myself, what do I do with this? It’s a question that swirls around me as I step out of the hospital’s main entrance and maneuver slowly through the hustle and bustle of Tottenham Court Road. It’s a question my friend Andy asks me three hours later, as I sit on his plot of land sipping a bottle of beer. “How sure are you that you are not going to use it?” he asks as I watch him tug at a cluster of radishes, loosening their threadlike roots from the ground. “Ninety percent,” I respond instantly, giving him an impression of confidence and certainty when I know that in my messiest days, the remaining 10% still blinks somewhere. A little flash of a “what if?” That keeps me loosely tied to the past
I would like to say that our decision to store these samples in 2014 was well thought and considered, but when my husband and I were told that his radiation therapy had failed to control his tumor in the way we expected, and that chemotherapy was now ours next viable option, we had just a few weeks to prepare for all eventualities. At the time, storing these samples was a quick and sudden insurance policy, a backup option so that my husband’s sperm was not permanently damaged by the temozolomide capsules he swallowed every day with his breakfast. A year later, we made our first policy claim when I embarked on IVF in the summer of 2015. We sat on a park bench and when he told me that any potential family we could have using this sperm would be mine, not ours, that He would probably not live long enough to fulfill that role, those 23 straws were instantly transformed into alchemical vials to be safeguarded and preserved.
Sometimes in my toughest days, I imagine the children we could have had. An occasional flash on my way to the grocery store and then it’s gone. We had two near misses in the course of our five-year marriage. One was medically chased with follicle stimulating hormones; the other came by surprise, of course, two years before he died. I still think of that miscarriage from time to time, the dull ellipse of an empty gestational sac on an ultrasound screen, and when I do, those poppy seeds and ice cubes are never far from my mind. Deep down I suspect that by giving up the latter I will make peace with the former. And yet even now, as I write this, I cannot say when this decision will finally be made.
My determination to Writing about my late husband’s sperm is really fueled by the desire to moderate it in some way. I want to challenge the drooping jaws and gaping mouths that too often follow any mention of these samples. The astonishment of the open eyes, a cartoonish reflection, that never fails to make me feel as if my life is beyond what is considered “common” and therefore “normal”. Posthumous conception is a rare occurrence, I am well aware of this, but there is something in common in the things I have been wondering about lately. Which is, in essence, a millennial dilemma. The deeply painful question of what you hold on to and what you finally let go of.
Is a seed still a seed if it cannot be sown? I have also pondered this question. My husband’s are not the only ones hiding in a cryopreservation tank on the ground floor of University College Hospital. More than 8,500 men undergoing infertile treatment, such as chemotherapy, have been referred here for long-term storage from the 1970s onwards. Some have been recovered, but most will never be used. It is difficult not to consider the potential for semi-permanent cooling within this laboratory. The beakers of possibility that reside in a tank of liquid nitrogen. Thousands of stories that, for now at least, are collectively frozen in time.
At one point in our conversation, the lab director calls my particular situation a conceptual challenge. Perhaps this is the most succinct way to articulate the decision I am facing as I sit in this hospital chair, three years after my husband’s death, clutching an empty plastic cup. At the age of 38, I am well aware that my time to conceive is shrinking. And yet, I also know that despite my hopes of having a family, this biological factor is not enough to push me along that existential line. The dilemma of whether or not to retrieve my late husband’s sperm is an intersection where too many paths converge at its core. It’s too complicated a place, even for me.
“I think the real question here is the one you haven’t mentioned,” my friend Miles asks as we sit outside a busy bar. “And the question I want to ask is why you seem to have ruled out the possibility of having a child with someone else. Someone who is not him and who is not an anonymous sperm donor. “Diana, I think to myself. The next day, I jot down this query in a notepad along with all the others: a numbered list of existential concerns that don’t have a ultimate resolution. The pressure on a child to embody the person I lost is one. The foreknowledge that I hit my body for many years to try to make a new life with that person is another. And then there is the theoretical weirdness of time itself The haunting realization that despite our six-year age difference, if I were to use these samples now, I would be a year older than my husband at the time he deposited them.
A few days before visiting the laboratory I dreamed that I was giving birth in an empty white room. The contractions kept increasing, but the baby never came. We talk about the stages of labor when it comes to delivery, but we rarely acknowledge the labor of trying. I tried for many years: both to make a new life and to nurture the man I loved. To retrieve these samples now would be to reanimate this past in some way; To try to resurrect the husband, and the pregnancy, I lost it. If I’m honest, I think that would also be a kind of surrender. Surrender to the idea that history is all I have now, when I know this is not true.
When I leave the hospital that afternoon, I feel a widening gap between the things I have seen and the things I have yet to be. Over the past year, these jolts of motion have often felt confusing and strange. But when I pass family cafes and department stores on Tottenham Court Road, memories of my previous life surround me, and I remember Angela Carter’s principle that stories are seeds too. They are planted from one place to another, and some of us carry them as “invisible luggage” when we leave the house.
Not all seed dispersions follow a conventional route. Orchids are like dust, so they can be carried by the wind; burdock can cling to fur, and pine seeds have two narrow wings to help them fly. My husband remains motionless in a cylindrical cup on Euston Road, and for now, at least, that is where he will remain. Until, I suspect, those ice cubes start to melt a bit more. Released, not discarded. From solid to liquid, dissolving in air.
The Elements: A Widowhood by Kat Lister is published this week by Icon Books at £ 14.99. Buy a copy for £ 13.04 at guardianbookshop.com
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism