"Your mother and I have been talking," my father began, looking straight ahead at the icy road as he drove, both hands on the wheel. "I know you're not really thinking about this right now, but we think you should cryogenically preserve some of your sperm."
"What?" I asked. Even with all of the discussions of biological issues occasioned by my recent diagnosis, I never expected my father to mention the fact that I produced sperm. Ever. "Oh, God," I muttered as I realized that the statement had begun "Your mother and I have been talking," and looked out the window at the snow falling from the night sky.
Although I knew that sterility was a possible side-effect of the chemotherapy regimen that I would be starting in just over a week, it wasn't something I tended to worry about. I was much more concerned with simple survival. And besides, according to the research I'd done online since the diagnosis-many hours spent in front of the computer, late into the night, long after everyone had gone to bed -- the drugs I would be taking did not usually have long-term effects on reproductive health. Since I was only 21, I had bigger things to think about; I hadn't been laid in months anyway, and at the rate I was going-sick, far from school, living with my parents again, soon to be hairless -- I couldn't imagine that the opportunity to have sex would come my way again.
This was, apparently, of much greater concern to my family, since my parents had discussed it. In fact, now that I thought about it, as my father cruised down Washington Street cautiously, this entire trip to the grocery store was obviously a set-up. I had been downstairs, watching a Seinfeld rerun, and my parents had been upstairs, talking. And then he'd appeared and said, "I'm running to the grocery store to get some more Diet Coke. Want to come with me?" And I -- like a fool -- had turned off the TV and put my boots on, anxious for the chance to escape the house for the first time that day.
"I know, "he said. "This is awkward. But, just... You never know." But I did know -- I knew that sterility was rarely a side-effect of these drugs, and I knew that I did not want either of my parents involved in a conversation about my reproductive material.
"Okay," I said quickly. Please shut up.
He was silent for a moment, then added, "It's easy."
"I know." I did not want my father to explain to me how simple it was to jerk off into a cup; that might be scarier to hear than Dr. Short's pronouncement that the strange lump in my neck looked "suspiciously like a cancer" when the CT scan came back. My father is, after all, the man whose sex talk to my brother and me before my sister was born consisted solely of, "Men put sperm in their wives, and now your mom has a baby in her stomach."
"I'm not going to say anything more about it," he said as we pulled into the parking lot.
"But we'll pay for it."
"And I think you want to keep your options open."
"You're still talking about it."
He shook his head, at a loss, and sighed slightly. I knew the conversation hadn't ended the way he'd hoped, but I think that he at least shared my relief that it was over. And to my father's credit, when I discovered much later to my shock and disappointment that the chemotherapy had-against the odds-left me unable to have children, he didn't say "I told you so." He did not remind me that I chose a childless existence over temporary awkwardness. My stubborn embarrassment that night-the stubborn embarrassment that left me sterile-never comes up in conversation. It's the kind of thing that one just doesn't talk about.
William Bradley currently teaches writing at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, NC, and his work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Brevity, The Normal School, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Bellevue Literary Review, and other magazines. His thoughts about literature, politics, pop culture, and life in general can be read on his blog, The Ethical Exhibitionist (http://ethicalexhibitionist.blogspot.com). This spring, he'll be on a panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference concerned with humor writing about serious illness-- because when you get right down to it life (even the part that kills us) is kinda funny, isn't it?