“Golly, it sounds like shopping at Amazon,” my somewhat-estranged biological mother said once, in the middle of our agonizing sperm hunt. Her tiny brown eyes crinkled in their corners as she scanned the computer screen in front of her, skimming through dozens of threadbare profiles of men willing to father the child my wife and I hoped to raise together.
“So you can just design your own baby by clicking on blue eyes, blonde hair, 6-feet-tall and Ph.D. only? Hmm. And your child will never even meet this guy?” she asked pointedly.
It was an ironic – though well-taken – point coming from her, a woman I had met only a handful of times before my 19th birthday. My earliest memory of her was a quick lunch in downtown San Antonio when I was maybe 3; she had flown into town for a court appearance to oppose my stepmother’s petition to adopt me.
With each passing year, my brown eyes, full lips and raspy voice take on even more of the shape and sound of this woman I barely knew as a child and still struggle to forgive for removing herself and my only sibling, an older brother, out of my childhood.
Most of my memories of my brother are fabricated from the furtive letters and pictures my mother sent me over the years. I keep those musty, warped snapshots of him in a wooden cigar box. There’s a shot of him as a baby, a wide smile lighting his face despite an awkward leg brace urging his mildly clubbed feet to point themselves outward.
There’s one of him, me and two cousins I barely know, piled into sleeping bags on the balcony of our grandmother’s Arizona cabin. (She was mostly a stranger to me, too.) My arm is outstretched, trying to get as close to my brother as possible during this brief, rare visit.
And there’s one of him at 15, all legs and shaggy blonde bangs, leaning casually against a fallen pine that must have been near his house in Colorado. A lopsided grin plays across his mouth; he’s wearing a shirt from his last Junior Olympics swim meet.
Just a few months after that shot was taken, the mythical big brother I knew from the pictures was lost forever. A drunk in a beat-up pickup slammed into my brother’s car, a crash that shattered his limbs and tore blood vessels in his brain as his frontal lobe careened across the ridges of his skull.
He lay in a coma for 37 days as his brain toiled to rewire itself. I was never allowed to visit him in the hospital – another perceived slight I never forgot – but when I saw him nearly two years later, he walked with a limp, had a hard time discerning right from wrong, and would forever after struggle to understand and complete the more complex tasks of adulthood.
The ambitious blonde teenager who once thought of becoming a journalist or doctor (like his adopted father) would eventually work as a part-time crossing guard and full-time volunteer at a head-injury support group, occasionally resorting to illicit drugs to fill the time and feel fully alive again.
But as an adult, shortly after I told him I was a lesbian, he pulled me aside one Christmas and offered me the most extraordinary and thoughtful gift I could imagine. “I was thinking,” he said in a loud whisper, “I know you can’t exactly have your own kid with another woman. And I probably won’t ever have kids. So maybe I could … you know … help you guys out someday. If you want.”
His offer forced me to spend several years answering the most existential of questions. At that point in my life, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to have children, lest I perpetuate my family’s cycle of abandonment. Like me, my mother’s mother had left her and raised her only sibling separately. And my father ultimately left me and his second set of children after he and my stepmother divorced.
If I skipped having kids altogether, I would never have to face my own shortcomings as a parent and I could forever stand in judgment of mine. Or my wife and I could pick an anonymous donor – enabling each of us to carry a child – thereby avoiding any sense of obligation to my family of origin (and maybe even building a taller, more paper-perfect baby in the process).
Or I could accept his gift – and provide two in return.
Two years after starting the hunt for the “perfect” sperm donor, my wife delivered our first child, a boy with my brother’s flaxen hair and my wife’s family’s crystal blue eyes and tight, thin eyebrows.
My brother’s wife texted me throughout the 18-hour labor, seeking updates and pictures, and providing sisterly words of encouragement.
Today, our firstborn loves to stand on his little 2-year-old tippy-toes and pull that cigar box down onto the floor where he can rifle through the old pictures. He squeals with delight each time he recognizes his “special uncle.” Often, he mistakes my brother for himself.
Almost immediately after she gave birth, my wife pushed me to choose an anonymous sperm donor for myself before it was too late. But it seemed reckless and unjust to deliberately create one sibling who would never know more than a picture or two of his own father.
Instead, I asked for her eggs, so I could give our son the full sibling I had always missed.
Last December, four years after the great sperm search began, I gave birth to a child who is biologically my nephew, but whose love and lopsided smile fulfill everything I could ever want for in life.
As it happens, he came into this world bearing a much more severe version of my brother’s clubbed feet, and his 30-hour delivery left me partially paralyzed for several weeks.
Would I have chosen that scenario from a tidy catalog? Probably not. But the past four years have taught me that it’s our shared imperfections, mistakes and challenges that make us fully human. That’s our true pedigree, and that’s what what binds us together as family in this world.
Melissa Castro Wyatt is a freelance business and finance writer and stay-at-home mom. She blogs in her mind. Her mostly-neglected Twitter handle is @CastroWyatt.
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