My only son, Little Bloke, is 10 years old. A few days ago, we were having some spirited discussion round the dinner table. (Our favourite adage, ‘the family that eats together, argues together’.) Little Bloke raised his voice to make some point and….he squeaked. Just slightly, but an unmistakable squeak all the same. Mrs Bloke didn’t register it at first but, as a man of many years standing I recognised that sound from my own tortured youth. He’s beginning the change, his voice is starting to break. My little boy ain’t gonna be so little anymore.
He was a miracle baby, our Christmas miracle. (His birthday is late September so do the maths and you’ll see what I mean.) For the real miracle though I have to take you back to August 1999 (I warn you, this piece may get a bit…..fluidy.) and a couple of extremely awkward conversations.
In August 1999, I was admitted to Leicester Royal Infirmary for tests, as I was, to indulge in hilarious understatement, a bit under the weather. It took two days for a formal diagnosis but, as soon as a blood sample was slid under a lens it would have been obvious. I had a rare form of Leukeamia, and was pretty close to circling the drain. I was 25 years old and really not prepared for that kind of news. My consultant, a kindly man named Dr Hutchinson, explained the illness and the treatment to me in very simple terms. (The exact analogy he used was that my blood was a garden, and that it had become choked with weeds, so they were going to inject me with weed killer so that healthy plants could start growing again.) Blood transfusions had already begun, as my red count was dangerously low and they would soon be followed by large injections of Chemotherapy, that would blitz my system and wipe out any short lived, fast growing cell. The targets were my traitorous white blood cells, but it would also attack my hair follicles, taste buds, red cells, platelets and, yes, those little swimmers I might one day want to use to spawn progeny.
Doc Hutch, as I never called him to his face, really was a sweetheart. Once, when prodding around my chubby stomach he drily commented that ‘there was a rather a lot of muscle there’. Bless him. I was moved into a side room for treatment to start and I saw Doc Hutch everyday. I thought it was just good care. I later learnt/realised that you only get that kind of care when they consider you a touch and go case. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and the awkward conversation.
It was late afternoon on the ward. I had been told the day before I had life threatening cancer and would soon be injected by a gigantic syringe full of bright red liquid. (Incidentally nobody warned me it would turn my urine bright red. That was quite a surprise, I tell you. Told you there’d be fluids.) I was actually feeling physically better than I had for weeks, the blood transfusions had ramped up my red count and I had a little energy back. A nurse, I forget her name now, but they were all pretty wonderful on that ward, approached me with a petri dish and asked if I wanted to do a sample before we started Chemotherapy. Being on the thick side it took a moment for me to catch the drift as I had already given every sample imaginable.
The chemo I’d be given was strong stuff. With Leukaemia there is no tumour to cut out or zap with radiotherapy; my illness was rushing around my veins getting up to no good. Odd as it may seem it was so aggressive it actually helped me. It was killing me so fast it had no time to spread to any other organ. So my treatment would be strong chemo and lots of it. That has all sorts of side effects, some temporary, some potentially permanent but trivial and some permanent and not so trivial. So, yes, the chemo would kill off my sperm for a few months (Sorry, had to use the word eventually.) And there was also the chance it would kill them off for good. That petri dish, before the first injection, might represent my only chance of having children.
My nurse suggested I try the ‘Relative Room’s’ bathroom, for some privacy. Long story short and without getting into detail, I was not able to provide. Something about NHS antiseptic, an almost critically low red blood count and a cancer diagnosis less than 24 hours before left me feeling, well, not especially randy.
Bless her though, when Mrs Bloke arrived to see me later that evening, the nurse approached again with the petri dish in case we wanted to try together. Yeah. Really hard to imagine a more awkward conversation. We declined. Probably much to everyone’s relief, as not a single person on that ward needed that mental image.
Neither do you I imagine. Sorry.
Fast forward several years. My treatment was successful and I’m well into remission. I don’t want to be glib about it, treatment was hellish for all of us to go through and has left many, many scars, physical and emotional. But it’s 2005. Mrs Bloke and I got married the year before and we were giving it the 6 months we’d been advised before investigating me further. Time for some more awkward conversations with GP. Now, I’d been led to believe by TV that, ahem, providing a sample, was done at special labs, with a room set aside for the purpose with certain materials on hand to help. Not in Wisbech apparently. I had to take a pre-prepared sample to the path. lab, along with everyone else queuing up for blood tests. It was a cold day, and I’d been told to keep ‘it’ warm until I dropped it off. I walked down to the hospital with a sample jar held firmly in trouser pocket, 100% certain that this was the point I would be stopped and searched by an over zealous copper.
There was a queue at the door of the path. lab for opening time and, with some trepidation and with a dozen embarrassing scenario’s running around my head, I joined. As you process in you have to take a number on a little ticket and wait to be called for a blood test. I however, had different business, so had to speak with the little old lady behind the counter. She didn’t look like my granny, but she could easily have been someones gran. ‘I’ve got a to give a sample’ I said nervously. ‘Take a ticket’ she replies without looking up. Horribly aware of the people waiting behind me I try again and explain I already have the sample, I just need to hand it in. At this she looks up. In my memory she has a steel gaze over half moon specs, but that’s properly not true.
‘What kind of sample?’ She asks with, what I think was vicious glee. Oh please I think, don’t make me say Sperm in front half of Wisbech’s old age pensioners. I hold out the sample jar, wrapped in the little identity slip to hide its contents. The letter ‘S’ is forming on my lips as I have a brainwave.
‘A fertility sample’ I mutter, fooling absolutely nobody but at least I wouldn’t hear a toddler asking his mum what semen is. As the penny drops her eyebrows raise and she takes the jar and drops it into a little box with practised indifference and I escaped to the frosty morn with a load off my shoulders. So to speak.
It wasn’t good news. I had to do the whole thing once again and the results were the same. If a normal man’s sample was a sell out screening of Star Wars, mine was a showing of a Bolivian Art House film about failing grain harvests and existential dread. Not much there. My GP was unambiguous, it’s extremely unlikely to happen naturally. We’d have to look at IVF.
But, small though my squad may be, they got the job done. Special Forces clearly. It took us longer than it should have for us to join the dots and realise Mrs Bloke was pregnant after Christmas 2005, and to say it was a shock is an understatement. What should have been a surprise birthday trip to a suite in a lovely hotel at the sea side, turned into a morning sickness tour of Norfolk as we tried to work out how we’d ever cope with a baby in our lives.
But here we are, ten years later, and the tiny baby, (Well, hulking nine pounder of a baby) has learnt to walk, talk, potty trained, started nursery, started school and now heading for secondary school.He no longer wants to cuddle, doesn’t need us to dress him, doesn’t believe in, well, anything much any more. He’s bright, very bright; in fact I doublecheck my spelling and grammar with him now. He does a mean Trump impression. He’s becoming a man. The hair, the spots, the mood swings are all coming over the horizon. Everyday I tell him I love him, even though he doesn’t say it back anymore.
I never thought of being a father. Then I was told I couldn’t be a father. Then became a father by utter surprise. I never knew, never suspected, that intensity of feeling and connection, having that little guy, stirred within me. Within minutes of holding that baby, I knew I would step in front of traffic for him, defend him, love him unreservedly for ever.
Something I’ll have to bear in the mind as puberty and the teenage years roll toward us.
And of course, it also means, that fairly soon, I’ll be having some more awkward conversations.
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