The Egg And I
by Katie O’Reilly
The baby’s body was long and slender, and supposedly he had my coloring. Just as I had twenty-six years prior, he came out bald and beet-red on a crisp, October day. But after he stabilized, a well-off married couple, both brown-haired barristers, took him home to their London flat. They named him Sam. Though this child was created from my genetic material, I haven’t met Sam. I haven’t seen any photos of him. And a signed contract provides that I’m never to go looking for him.
Sam’s birth announcement came my way in the form of an email I clicked open in Los Angeles. Such happy, welcome news from the donation agency that had brokered my eggs—especially considering the fact that the most recent missive had borne news of miscarriage.
Initially, Sam’s birth mother—the stranger who’d traveled five thousand miles to a San Diego IVF clinic where fertile eggs, freshly suctioned from my anesthetized pelvis, were implanted into her own—had become pregnant with triplets. Thanks to confidentiality contracts, as well as some nurses’ strategic use of their clinic’s covert back room, I never met or saw this woman. But I did receive prompt word of her impregnation.
At the time, I was procrastinating in the publishing house where I worked as a junior-level magazine editor. At twenty-five, I didn’t want kids of my own. But the news of my biological triplets couldn’t have excited nor charmed me more—not long after learning of this triple-conception, I was busy conjuring visions of some baby Gap-bedecked, Britishism-spewing power trio. I’d sometimes zone out and consider which one would be studious in nature, who would be the ham, how the triplets’ individual temperaments would play off one another’s—that kind of thing. I’d even wonder whether they’d become Jonas Brothers–like superstars, anonymous to me but well known to the world at large.
Then two were lost in utero. This blow came via the curt agency liaison coordinating our team conception—the same woman who’d matched me with Sam’s birth mother and father. She’d also coached me through the subsequent doctor’s appointments, the on-then-off birth control regimen that served to synch my cycles with hers, and then the shots, the prenatal vitamins, and the final retrieval procedure. This same woman had also at some point warned me that losses like this were common once you enter fertility drugs into any life creation equation.
Still, when my eyes got as far as “miscarried,” I closed the email and broke down at my desk. To explain my tears to colleagues—all of who were in the dark about my run at test-tube motherhood—I invented a fight with my sister. To some extent, I was mourning the babies’ lives and my super-trio fantasies. But my despair mainly stemmed from a sense that I’d let down that semi-anonymous entity—the “birth family” I can describe only loosely, grasping at occupations or hair colors. Years later, this same fear still gets me.
I hadn’t gone into egg donation to foster emotional connections, nor to become an “angel donor,” as my agency branded all their harvestees. I didn’t set out with the primary intention of realizing “the indescribable joy of compassionately helping someone” (also agency lingo). I never thought that, long after that two-month bout with fertility shots, ultrasound probes, hot flashes, and celibacy—followed by the miscarriages and Sam’s birth—I would find myself emotionally invested in the lives of strangers living on another continent.
I’d applied to become an angel donor after finding myself at a particularly desperate junction of an ongoing quarter-life crisis. The day I turned twenty-five—several months before the publishing desk job came about—I woke up in the very crowded, cacophonous emergency room of Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. In addition to being concussed, I was harboring a catheter, and was hooked to a tangle of IV cords. The sight of the latter marked my first conscious experience in hours—I’d spent my birthday eve drinking to the point of falling on my head outside of a Hollywood dive bar. After knocking myself unconscious, I had been loaded into an ambulance and sped ten palm-tree-lined blocks to the nearest hospital. At that point I’d been living in Los Angeles less than two months. I was working as a reality TV development intern by day and a cocktail waitress by night—a totally uninsured one—and I was operating under life plans one might describe, at best, as nebulous.
I’d earned a journalism degree a few years prior, but by that fall of 2009 I’d already been laid off from my only ever “real” job, as a media relations research editor. The recent relocation from my native Midwest had been one of those moves you make when you’ve going nothing going and your best college friend suggests renting an LA bungalow and becoming famous screenwriters. Once we arrived on the West Coast, though, we spent a lot more time beaching and drinking than we did writing, and soon I was so broke I was depending on meals of pizza pilfered from bar patrons who were too plastered to notice.
That morning in the hospital, the prospect of quintuple-figured hospital bills hit me harder than the concrete had. As I’d been lying to my mother for months about having health insurance, I wasn’t about to call home for help with what I only assumed would be the most debilitating state of debt I’d experience in my lifetime. A tsunami-sized wave of panic hit, and I gave the administrators false social security information. I even tried to yank the IVs out of my arm and escape out of that hell-under-artificial-lighting ER, untraced. This was not successful. And all I can offer to justify the attempt is the fact that my brain was injured.
Following an unceremonious hospital discharge, I took the bus home with my magnanimous roommate Greg, who’d spent the night in a chair next to my hospital bed. Once there, I tried not to look at the unpaid utility and student loan bills that had piled up on the kitchen table, and Greg helped me put some books and furniture for sale on Craigslist. After that, I looked into waitressing gigs that might yield better tips and less humiliation than seemed possible at my place of employment at the time: a dueling-piano chain that had me “injecting” patrons with Jell-O shots and singing and dancing on stage dressed as burlesque versions of cowgirls, referees, sailors, and Robin Hood.
Trolling the web from my dusty attic bedroom later that evening, an ice pack strapped to my head, I read up on donating plasma. I applied to sell vitamins and knives for start-ups. I thought about hoarding recyclable beverage containers for the cash refund. Finally, after wading through what felt like thousands of mediocre half-options, I hit what seemed like gold: a cryptic ad seeking “very special women” for a “most special contribution.”
I clicked the link and immediately found myself on a site awash in blues and pinks, bordered with cartoon angel wings. The website advertised itself as Southern California’s “premiere” resource for “alternative conception.” I sat back, readjusted my ice pack, and stared into its headache-intensifying pastel glare, my concussion spurring into overdrive whatever level of confusion I might’ve experienced under normal conditions.
But eventually, foggily, my brain started to unscramble the syllables of that phrase.
Egg donation—becoming a vehicle for assisted embryo transfer—was actually something I knew a bit about. As an undergrad, I’d spent twenty to thirty hours a week waitressing and much of the remaining time getting loaded with friends. But when I did venture to the wrought-iron-gated, suburban Chicago campus of Northwestern University, it wasn’t uncommon to see papered to the fat trunks of oak trees fliers that featured smiling, college-aged women surrounded by large-print dollar signs.
Above these perky, wholesome-looking models, the fliers would typically advertise something along the lines of “The Most Precious Gift.” Their small print might spell out how “extraordinary females with high SAT scores, athletic backgrounds, and emotional resiliency” were sought to help “make someone’s dream come true.” Most advertised $5,000 or $6,000 for this “most special contribution.”
Whenever I was feeling particularly broke, which was often—restaurant tips didn’t take me far beyond rent, textbooks, and my rigorous drinking schedule—I’d pause and fantasize about being handed such a check. That boon in exchange for only an egg—that little part of me containing the DNA necessary to create human life? Sign me up, I’d think.
I cringe a bit now to consider that this thought process served as a seedling in young Sam’s origin story—or at least, a fertilizing motive. But as a college student who often found greater kinship with stepparents and far-flung roommates than with actual family members, I had a primitive regard for lineage and genetics.
Subconsciously, egg donation became my fallback, the check I thought I could go claim if I was ever truly in a lurch. One morning, I passed a blue flier specifically seeking Jewish donors—compensation up to twenty thousand dollars.
“Twenty thousand dollars,” I muttered to Greg as we shuffled to class through the biting winds that raged off Lake Michigan. “I’d probably do a lot more than ovulate into a cup for that.”
Greg just looked at me like I’d suggested selling my legs. “I don’t see you as a convincing sell,” he finally said. “With a name like yours, you’re practically the mascot of Ireland.”
“Right,” I said, growing increasingly indignant that this type of funding wasn’t being offered for my lapsed Catholic eggs, “but can you just blatantly discriminate against groups like that? Aren’t there laws or ACLU lobbies or something?”
“This isn’t exactly an affirmative action case,” he pointed out. “And it’s a free-market commodity; no one has to buy eggs, or anything else, from you.”
“Yeah, but I have great test scores, and I’m just as educated as any Jewish girl on this campus who can apparently just call in and get twenty grand.”
I knew I was being whiney—that couples who couldn’t conceive weren’t advertising their barrenness so they could hand out charity scholarships. But as a hard-working, kind-of-hard-studying financial-aid kid from the South Side of Chicago, I felt entitled to these opportunities. At the time, though, I hadn’t a clue how they worked—nor did I have the slightest concept of how couples often spent years poring through donor profiles before making their decisions, how agency administrators relied on professional geneticists to analyze applicants’ family-health histories, nor how psychological evaluations and long conversations with reproductive-rights lawyers were required of all involved parties.
Nevertheless, the topic of egg donation had popped up in enough dormitory cafeteria conversations that I’d gathered that most women were disturbed by the notion of having babies outside of their bodies who would go on to grow up outside their worlds. It was that very notion of mystery little mini-me’s, however, that may have been what I found most intriguing about the whole thing.
As a woman to whom basic life skills had never come easily, I’d always been too overwhelmed by the thought of child-rearing to take much pleasure in the idea. But as a Gen Y-er with four parents and more grandmas than siblings, I’d been told I was special enough times to induce a healthy level of narcissism, and I rather liked the idea of passing along what I assumed were also special genes. That way someone suited to parenting in all but the reproductive ways could get their fix and put forth the labor involved in actually raising the kids, while I simply satisfied the biological component. It almost seemed like a loophole in the system—one for which I could get paid. But on the rare occasion I floated the idea of donating my eggs, those closest to me would scoff.
“Let’s focus on finding a real job,” my mom said over the phone.
“You know that can leave you infertile, and after they take your eggs, no one has any responsibility for weird reactions you could have from being pumped with hormones?” my boyfriend at the time pointed out over beers.
“Didn’t you dislocate your left ovary in Prague?” my sister asked via AIM.
“Don’t you know,” one female classmate hissed, “that women have a finite amount of eggs?”
“How’s the market for earnest writer-types?” Greg asked. “How about for hives-prone gingers with alcoholic tendencies?”
Around this point in the conversation, I would usually just pretend I wasn’t that serious about donation to begin with. But as graduation drew nearer, my own long-term romantic relationship floundered. Meanwhile, the Great Recession loomed larger and darker, dimming whatever career prospects I previously assumed I’d have to look forward to. So I think subconsciously, I held tighter to the conviction that I had to be valuable to someone.
One afternoon toward the end of my senior year, I found myself bored and alone in my off-campus apartment, shirking final projects to indulge in some Chekhov-portioned despair over my financial outlook. Lying catatonic on my bed—just a mattress on the floor—I stared into photo collages I’d tacked to the wall, humming along to Radiohead’s OK Computer.
Summer was approaching, meaning business would be tapering at the college-town diner where I slung pancakes and late-night grilled cheese. To my parents’ disappointment, I had no post-graduation job lined up. What they didn’t know was that I hadn’t even attempted to land one, defeated as I was by the mere thought of going up against my newshound classmates to snag any entry-level print journalism gig that had somehow survived the year 2007.
But a sunny, late-May day in beautiful Evanston, Illinois, is no setting for a self-pity party. I sat up, switched on some beachier music, and snapped open my laptop to search for local bars and restaurants that might be hiring. A few phone calls into this stream of rejections, though, distraction came calling in the form of a shiny mental image. The beckoner was none other than one of those smiling, dollar-sign-encircled “extraordinary women” who had long been taped to the trees. I hadn’t realized I’d actually memorized the advertised web address on those fliers, but then there it was, flowing down from my brain and into my URL bar.
The site that appeared half a second later was white and clinical, not unlike a healthcare insurance website. The company advertised itself as Chicago’s “gold standard” of fertility agencies. I clicked on an “interested donor” link and was immediately prompted to complete a “preliminary online screening” survey.
Despite the heat of the day, I got chills. I’d always been a bit of a new project addict, and here before me lay potential for a totally uncharted adventure—and a lucrative one at that. After mere seconds of clicking around on the site—inputting easy stats like my height, eye color, and SAT scores—it already seemed to be transforming into something tangible and possible.
When I say that, I don’t mean I was considering any sort of actual, physical existence of a baby approximating Sam, nor envisioning any of the thousands of hopeful families that go to such lengths to bring babies into existence. Everything felt faceless and transactional as I began spilling my personal information to the website. l was also too busy fantasizing about how much more smoothly my college years could have gone if only I’d been blasting batches of top-dollar ova all along. As I typed up my extracurricular achievements—ten years’ worth of piano lessons, a couple half-marathon medals, and a plastic “Best Supporting Actress” award from high school—I envisioned myself jetting off on summer study abroad, spending spring breaks in Cancun rather than at the diner, and going out to the slick bars favored by campus cokeheads rather than my usual dollar-fifty draft shacks. At twenty-two, this was my version of a reality commensurate to the greatness I fancied I could convey on paper.
But in a flash, that fantasy was shattered. After about three minutes of rapid-fire typing, the survey folded into a tiny gray box, minimized into an icon-sized speck in the center of my screen, and, with a crackly poof, disappeared altogether—entirely without warning. A new box appeared in its place. It contained a cursory message in bright red lettering: I’d been denied, but the agency appreciated my input.
At first I thought it had to be some glitch—that I shouldn’t be hearing back for weeks, even months. This was like being expelled from a stage audition two seconds into my monologue. I cursed at my laptop and re-entered the egg website’s URL. But Safari was quick to inform me, “This user does not have access.” I teared up, hardly willing to believe that in mere seconds, some computer program could have squelched what I’d naïvely decided was my one-way ticket to the high life. My fingers were slipping on my keyboard as I logged into my email, hoping my inbox might contain some insight into why I was cut from the egg team so early in tryouts. But no, there was nothing.
Rejection is top-shelf self-pity fuel. I turned off the music and sat in silence. My fears that I was doomed to be forever directionless and undesirable manifested into a mental image of myself as a fifty-something career waitress, hair streaked with gray, runners’ calves roadmaps of varicose veins, and my voice unsexy and raspy as I described the contents of a Grand Slam Breakfast. Unable to make my brain stop, I flopped backward onto my mattress and held my breath until I achieved a dizzy, pleasantly distracting haze.
I don’t remember how long I lay like that, but it seems like it was just moments later that I thought of a close friend from growing up who’d recently mentioned interning at a fertility clinic the past summer. Not knowing what had been so wrong with my eggs and me was unbearable—much worse than rejection at a bar, where at least I could be drunk, or from any prospective employer who wasn’t expressly evaluating my DNA quality. Hopefully Melissa, a child psychology major studying nearby at DePaul University, would be able to help me make sense of what had gone so awry. I dried my face on my sheets and dug out my cell.
She picked up on the first ring.
“This is such bullshit,” I said. “Who passes these things, anyway?”
“Generally, women who are certifiably sane and who come from healthy families,” she said.
I had been craving assurance that it wasn’t me who was the problem, but rather the anonymous testers or maybe a server snafu. But I was forgetting that Melissa had always been more of a tell-it-like-it-is type. I could hear her puffing on a cigarette, probably leaning out the window of her high-rise Lincoln Park apartment.
“How much detail did you go into on those fill-in-the-blank questions?” she asked.
“Shit,” I sighed. “I’m so dumb.” Pacing my bedroom’s sub-hundred square feet and thinking back on my input, I was already starting to see how, true to character, I’d been overly earnest, not to mention long-winded. I wasn’t going to admit this to Melissa, but at one point I’d even imagined the testers taking exception to my “refreshing” honesty, remarking to one another that it spoke to doubtlessly “stellar” character.
“I wasn’t even thinking,” I admitted. “I was just, you know, being candid.”
“What is wrong with me?” I smacked myself in the forehead, recalling how, on one of those “I tend to get mad to the point of wanting to punch things”-type questions, I’d answered “sometimes.”
“That would rule you unfit to work as a grocery bagger,” Melissa pointed out. “Did you seriously not learn your lesson about the ‘always, sometimes, never’ format that time we got STD-tested and had to stay afterward for the condom lecture?”
I lay back onto my sheet pile of a bed. “When they asked about family history of depression, I tried to explain my great-grandpa’s suicide, but I’m pretty sure I went into too much detail about why we think he chose the Jackson Park Lagoon to drown himself.”
“Wow, Katie, you are such a dipshit.”
“Of all times to be brutally honest, why did I do it with the egg people?”
“Yeah, look, not disclosing that info wouldn’t have even been straight lying,” Melissa said, her voice rising. “You’re not telling a story at a bar here; you just want to communicate that you’re healthy, reasonably smart, not hideous, and don’t have lunatics in your bloodline.”
“Right, that makes sense.”
“I’m guessing you couldn’t hold back on the story about going abroad and dislocating your ovary, either?”
Melissa was good.
“Katie, it’s really awkward how you talk about that all the time,” she said. “You don’t even know if that’s an actual diagnosis—the doctor was speaking Czech.”
“Yeah, well, his ultrasound equipment still worked,” I shot back, the heat of the room compressing underneath my skin. “I saw that dangling ovary with my own eyes.”
“Whatever, ovaries are supposed to dangle,” Melissa sighed. “You don’t talk about stuff like that on a freaking survey you’re using to get people to pay good money for your reproductive capabilities.”
“So, can I try again as ‘Kate’ or ‘Kathryn’?” I asked. “Or is my IP address blacklisted?”
“Pretty much,” Melissa said. “You’re probably about as desirable as herpes to every egg broker in the city by now.”
After we hung up, I refocused my Google objective to securing the TEFL job that had me packing off to Europe post-graduation to tutor adults in basic business English. And it wasn’t until I was back in the states that I again considered donation. More specifically, it wasn’t until my quarter-century birthday, most of which I spent in my Hollywood attic, panicking.
Two years, five months, and one severe concussion after my first attempt, I figured I was comparatively savvy, and definitely worldlier. Plus, Los Angeles was two thousand miles away from the setting of that particular online disgrace. I also had a different computer.
Now that my neurons are no longer handicapped, it’s puzzling to think back to that hot October day when I gazed into my laptop’s reflective glare, took in my bruised face, frizzy hair, and node-stamped arms, and resolved to bestow my eggs upon the perusing and paying world—and to do it right this time. In retrospect, it’s even stranger to imagine myself considering a drunk, sexless night in a bar and reckoning, It would be best if this ended in pregnancy.
But that day in the attic, as I catalogued my potentially desirable traits—clear skin, thick hair, a reasonable BMI, and pathological can-do-ism—I experienced a chilling rush of adrenaline. It was the first sensation of the day stemming from a place not rooted in shame, dejection, or the fear I was doomed to be a giant loser forever, despite promising, gifted-kid beginnings.
Plus, this new egg site’s “about” section described its agency as the pioneer in egg donation, widely considered to file “the brightest and most beautiful donors in the country.” Joining their ranks would be a move that would surely fill my life with “purpose and compassion.” By the time I’d scrolled down to read that former donors were always calling this agency up in emotive fits of gratitude over the “benevolent experience that had stayed with them for years,” I badly wanted to initiate into this peculiar sorority. And the small-print fact that they claimed to admit fewer than five percent of applicants? This only fueled my drive.
I waited patiently through all ten minutes this preliminary donor-screening survey took to download, determined as I was to maintain focus and not let my eyes get blinded by cartoon dollar signs. I was also set on the idea of my next call to Melissa being a victorious one; I would thank her for her birthday card and also announce that I’d finally managed to do a bang-up job of communicating that I was healthy and smart and not a lunatic.
For a moment, I considered giving her a preliminary call to glean some pointers, but I hadn’t actually seen my phone since before I went to the emergency room and still didn’t know what had become of it. Instead, I tried to imagine what she’d say.
“Focus on the good, not the bad,” Melissa would instruct. “Be honest, but not as open as you might be with a palm reader. Remember, you may be a product of divorce and dysfunction, but you are smart, articulate, hard-working. You have talent and charm; you are resourceful!”
By the time the survey loaded, I was sitting up straight at my desk and stirring instant coffee powder into the water the ER nurses had made me promise to guzzle. In my sweatpants and hospital bracelet, I wasn’t exactly dressed to impress; nonetheless, I was raring to shine. But before addressing intravenous drug use or my sexual history, this agency needed to know all about any incidences of African travel, American-Indian blood, and any time spent in tropical rain forests.
Do you have any blood relatives of Jewish or Mediterranean descent? If so, could you note their relationship to you?
I’m fourth-generation American on one side, fifth on the other, yet every leaf on my family tree traces back along the same Atlantic road: Ireland. Our eighty-years-and-running South Side Chicago dynasty shows an unusually hearty melting-pot resistance and could probably raise questions about inbreeding—my little brother and I are both prone to getting shingles, and every digit on my body is double-jointed.
“Caucasian” was an obvious check in the race box. Asked to elaborate on my glaring whiteness, I typed “Anglo-American,” perhaps throwing my potato-famine-enduring ancestors under the bus in hopes that someone might mistake my eggs and me for classy Mayflower progeny.
Are there any genetic diseases or conditions that run in your family?
I come from a line that includes psych-ward frequenters, chip-wielding detox graduates, and dedicated casters of the silent treatment, typically for reasons unknown.
But I took a swig of sludgy coffee and typed, “No. We generally live until our late eighties, early nineties. Reaching one hundred is not uncommon in my family.” I reasoned this was loosely factual—even the chain-smokers, sugar addicts, and terrifying alcoholics in my brood tended to stick around far past the point where anyone knew what to do with them.
What was your childhood like? How did you interact with your family growing up?
Where to begin with that one? I took another swig and sat back. Like many middle-class kids of the eighties, my siblings and I relished being spoiled when we could manipulate our parents’ divorce to get them to compete at Christmas. The rest of the time we played with hand-me-downs, tried to make one another’s lives hell through mean impressions, and faked sick to stay home from school and play Nintendo. After my dad moved out, my mom was pretty resourceful when it came to managing us. She’d come home from ten-hour-long paralegal workdays and employ tricks such as turning in for the night at the top of the stairs; she figured that way she’d wake up if any of us tried to sneak out of bed and screw around.
In my response, however, I attempted to channel Louisa May Alcott. According to my allotted four lines, ours was a household of dynamic young women who delighted in writing and performing plays for relatives and neighbors. Our dinner table may have served as a forum of “spirited debate,” but we relished each gathering at its helm.
What other skills or talents do you have (e.g. painting, writing, ability to do games, crossword puzzles, handcrafts, etc.) Please describe:
Thanks to being raised across the street from a retired cruise-ship pianist, I’ve had years’ worth of lessons. I also spent much of junior high in a show choir unitard, and by high school was donning Renaissance Faire garb and performing as an alto and occasional tenor in the Madrigal Singers, an a cappella outfit lacking in the male department. Growing up, I also managed to get cast in any school plays that required either a caricatured accent or an old-lady character with unruly hair.
I informed the agency that I was an accomplished musician and actress but was currently focusing my energies toward more literary pursuits.
You get the idea here. I went on this way through the rest of the survey, and then throughout the in-person interview that followed. And a little under three months after my twenty-fifth birthday, Sam and the two unrealized triplets were conceived.
My reaction to my initial mistake as an aspiring donor—to do better next time, to figure out what they wanted and then give it to ’em—can probably be chalked up to human nature—or at least to the overachiever tendencies characteristic to those of us who live in chronic fear of never fulfilling that nebulous sense of our own “potential.” But that isn’t to say that every time I get fall-down drunk—or find out another family member has endometriosis or manic depression—I don’t consider the potential implications for Sam.
The nights that these stomach-twisting thoughts are keeping me up, I try to instead imagine young Sam writing stories, falling in love with music, trying out for plays, and dazzling his parents at every turn. Logically, I know it’s not wise to project my own, only partially realized potential onto a stranger—even if he happens to share a similar set of genes—nor to indulge any sort of conjecture as to “my” Brits’ expectations for their custom-designed baby.
After all, integrating a Petri dish into conception doesn’t make it any sort of controlled experiment.
I wouldn’t be surprised if alternative reproduction technology is creeping closer to that point, even as I type. It’s difficult to find fault in the type of eugenic developments that render a typically less-desirable option more palatable. Perhaps ten years from now, broke, desperate girls will have to submit to in-person polygraph surveys and interview before juries of birth parents who’ve been through it all before. Maybe someday, we really will be able to tailor people à la Boston terriers.
For now, I can only hope that I didn’t gloss over my own messy variables to any degree that’s been detrimental to Sam or his parents. I honestly don’t know whether the agency should have been more scrupulous in detecting my flaws—in sussing out those somewhat disingenuous disclosures. After all, the impulse to frame oneself in the brightest light possible seems normal; I tell myself employers from all manner of industries would be wise to assume applicants have rose-washed their resumes.
I’ll sometimes go for months without thinking about the fact that science and I have trysted to create a person. But then it hits me out of nowhere, and for a night or two, I’ll sit up wondering where among other donors I rank when it comes to transparency. If agencies employ some sort of ranking system to quantify genetic value—as I imagine they must—is there any margin for error, for embellishment, for airbrushing?
Assuming neither my agency nor I made some grave mistake, and that Sam is well and fine out there, I don’t quite know what I’d want to say to the now four-year-old, given the opportunity I pledged to never seek. Of course, the earnest, A-student, people-pleaser in me hopes he’s a preschool wunderkind, and that his parents are delighted with how he thinks, expresses himself, and looks—and by however he chooses to show that that he loves them.
I hope for Sam’s sake that, rather than my tendency toward impulse, he’s inherited the logical reasoning and sound judgment that his birth parents would rationally have to possess as lawyers. On a more base level, I hope their hair is straight, and that it’s proved more genetically dominant than my unmanageable locks. I hope my family’s curse of cab-door ears somehow skipped him. I hope that young, doubtlessly pale Sam always wears sunscreen.
I’m sure many of my Sam-related fancies border on the vicarious. For instance, if he adores animals anywhere near as much as I always have, I pray his parents let him keep pets. And sometimes when I brush past the children’s sections at bookstores, I’ll wonder whether we share any favorite storybooks. This isn’t to say that I want to be reading him stories in the flesh—my drive to become a real, full-time parent is still scant, although as I get older, this consideration does come up more often, more organically.
Of course I don’t know whether anyone’s told Sam, or will ever tell him, the bedtime story about Katie, the biological mother in America. As I see it, the most appropriate rendition would run something along the lines of this: “She didn’t know quite what she was getting herself into, Sam, but she does care about you. She thinks of you sometimes, and often wishes there was a way she could say, ‘Good luck out there, buddy.’ ”
But tonight when I turn off the lights, I’ll try not to gaze London-ward and bemoan the unknown. After all, the boy’s only four. For now, I’ll keep my eastbound intention brief, to the point, and on a level my biological kin could conceivably understand. So before turning in, I’ll try to leave it at this: “Sweet dreams to you, Sam.”
Katie O’Reilly is a journalist, essayist, aspiring memoirist, and creative nonfiction candidate within the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s MFA program. She serves as the managing editor of Ecotone Journal, and her work has appeared in The Onion/A.V. Club, The Huffington Post, Texas Monthly, NPR, and Bustle. A lover of dogs, books, news, and magazines, her turn-ons include complex and funny female characters, flawed protagonists, reliably unreliable narrators, culturally diverse casts, recession-centric scenarios, animals as sidekicks, big messy novels, comic memoirs, confessional poetry, true crime, place-based writing, and essays that read like her favorite short stories. This essay was selected by Nancy Jooyoun Kim.