At 15-and-a-half, boys can be a variety of shapes, but this one seemed to come from central casting. His hoodie advertised an athletic brand and was pulled down low over his face. He slumped in the chair, his enormous sneakers protruding into the aisle. He was 5’ 10” and probably growing as I watched.
Unfortunately his recently-discovered cancer was also growing. That day I had the odd, awkward, sad and scary task of navigating him through the process of preserving his sperm in a canister of liquid nitrogen. At least, that’s how I saw it.
“Dad” — I’ve noticed that the social workers tend to refer to family members in this way — was 50ish; a quiet, pale man who was described in the medical record as a white collar worker. He’s the first family member I spoke with, and only after a few aborted attempts. When you learn that your kid’s body is harboring a heinous cancer, you have a lot of calls to make. I get that. I stuck to the script. His questions were few.
This was not my first cancer-patient's-dad, but it was the first time I would meet the dad of a teenaged boy who wanted to preserve some potential fertility in the face of upcoming chemotherapy. Perhaps because I’m a woman he didn’t ask me to explain the process, and I was glad. At that point I still didn’t know the right nouns and verbs. Is it a “sample?” A “specimen?” Does one “produce” it, “provide” it or something else?
In the end I don’t think anybody got hung up on semantics. Dad accompanied Son to the clinic at 8 am the day after we spoke. They also brought a small woman I assumed was Mom (or at least, Stepmom) whose body language telegraphed fear. I introduced myself, kneeling to meet her eyelevel. She nodded and attempted a quick smile.
All four of us seemed uncomfortable, but I steadfastly proceeded to welcome them, getting us situated in a private corner of the clinic. “Anybody get much sleep last night?” I asked quietly, pitching my voice to a lower-than-usual register. “Some,” Mom said. Son just shrugged. Son was not interested in being drawn in conversation and none of us wanted to prolong the process.
We quickly flipped through the pages of a consent form. I did my best to be respectful as I pointed out the linchpin clause: disposition of the sperm “in case of…” I was forced to use the phase, “in the worst case scenario, of your demise…”
I had never said this to a teenager before.
I know that what this family actually embarked on, of course, was not merely freezing some random teenaged cells. Their assumptions about Son’s future had been tossed into the wind: they were being forced in that moment to face momentous, scary unknowns. It felt to me as if they were at risk of overwhelm in all domains of life. I hope I held that moment adequately for them, and I hope it helped.