Best of the Net 2015  

Vas Deferens, Bears & Jacob: Why I Listen to My Children Breathe

Halfway through my vasectomy I look down to see the wide-eyed intern whom I agreed could watch the proceedings poke something into my groin and say, “Oops.” The lead doctor, a calm, motherly presence up to this point, purses her lips and whispers loud enough for me to hear, “You never say ‘Oops.’ Never.”

I grimace and clench my hands.

I hear the slow tick of some hidden clock.

The doc’s words don’t seem to bother my wife Sarah and my squirming one-year-old daughter, Abby. Against my initial protest, they’re sitting inches from my left shoulder, because, as my wife put it, “You watch me push kids out, I watch you get snipped.” They glance around the room with the calm faces of the unsliced.

This scene occurs in a tiny “minor surgery” space in the bowels of the Pentagon, performed by a doctor and intern that, by military and legal rules, cannot be sued for malpractice, no matter the error. As an Air Force officer, I normally work a couple floors above the room where I now lie, legs spread-eagled. Every other day in the building, I wear a uniform of dark blue dress pants, a freshly ironed buttoned-up light blue shirt, dark blue tie, and an assortment of badges, but at this moment I sport only a green North Face T-shirt, white ankle socks, and a recently shaved groin.

Smiling at me with a practiced I’ve-seen-worse look, the doc says, “Everything’s just fine.” I want to believe her, but I hear the intern’s loud breathing. Over by a row of blue cabinets, he stares at his fingers.

Suddenly, I realize I should have asked more questions when the doc said that knocking me out wasn’t an option on account of this only being “minor surgery.” For a split second I consider slamming my head on the table. With enough force, I might buy myself a couple minutes reprieve from this world-class awkwardness.

I recall the seemingly well rationalized “Are we done having kids/who gets the operation?” run down with Sarah: we have all the kids we want (three); they’re healthy; the operation is easier, safer for the man; it shouldn’t hurt at all; this particular doc has performed thousands of these ops; it’s free while we’re in the military. I didn’t offer any counter arguments, only a pause to remember that my mom was the one who had her tubes tied after my brother Jacob and I were born, and to wonder if she regretted that decision.

I peek over at Abby, her Disney-sized blue eyes and four teeth. I reach my hand out to her. I don’t know what I’m searching for exactly, perhaps a brief respite from the nightmare moment, to acknowledge the power of progeny, of unconditional love, but she begins to fuss and slaps my hand away.

My breathing quickens and the white operating room flexes and narrows. For the first time I realize there is no ambient noise, nothing to cover up the sound of little metal tools hitting the tray, tennis shoe squeaks, a whisper to a first-time intern. All of my other operations had music: right hip in ’95 – The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman”; left foot in ’99 – U2’s “Mysterious Ways”; and, memorably, just before going under in ’02 for my wisdom teeth, a vision of my surgeon nodding his head to Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang.” But here, vas deferens in ’13—nothing.

Up to this point, although uncomfortable, there hasn’t been much acute pain to note, more of a weird expectation of pain combined with never-before-felt internal pressure; perhaps, even a tentative acknowledgement that it should hurt when someone takes a scalpel to my nerve-bundled testicles; also, the mental weight of knowing I’m voluntarily doing this to myself. Still, I can request another numbing shot to my groin if any of this is too much, but I would be asking for an additional shot to my groin. I consider asking for the shot in the abstract only.

Despite my best intentions, for the remainder of the operation I can’t keep my body from jerking every time I feel the slightest pinch or pull. I had been a relative statue up to the “Oops” moment, and the doctor grows annoyed with my newly discovered gyrations during the cauterizing phase of our dance. She keeps saying, “That shouldn’t hurt,” but offers no options.

The cauterizing machine makes a beep about two seconds before each hot pulse to my testicles, and after a couple of jolts I fight the battle of my life in repeating two-second increments. I close my eyes and beg my body to calm down, to forget the timing, to think of a white beach, the Rocky Mountains in autumn, anything to take me away from here. It’s in this pleading moment that my devil mind flashes me an image of a naked Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business (blonde, healthy, Nordic-looking goddess), the effect of which triggers some sort of apocalyptic irony/coincidence/confusion mash-up within my now melting brain and body-rushing blood. Simultaneously, I fear the cauterizing pain and the possibility of a mid-operation erection. Amidst the chaos I open my eyes and tilt my head up to make sure my taped-to-my-belly penis is still there. It is. Small and scared, thank God.

Then, I hear the cauterizing machine beep—one Mississippi, two Mississippi—and I feel my hips and butt tense and lift as the machine pulses me with fire.

“That doesn’t help,” the doc says.

Finally, an hour after walking into the room on not enough Valium, I’m all sewed up and lightheaded, starting to find my legs. I carefully step into a gauze diaper. I’m offered a wheelchair, which I accept. They all appear surprised. Apparently, most men walk out on their own. But I don’t care. I’m way past pride.

Once seated, I’m told to masturbate as soon as I’m ready.

“But I can wait a few days, right?”

“You’ll know when you’re ready, but don’t wait too long.”

My chest tightens.

The doc adds, “You’ll need to masturbate at least twenty times in the next month and a half.” She hands me a clear, plastic cup with lid. “Bring a sample in at the end to make sure there’s no more swimmers.”

I cringe and place my hands on the top of my head.

The doc throws me a tired, half-smile.

“Sorry for the twitching,” I say. “Just not used to sharp things near that area I guess.“

It’s an earnest offering because I do feel bad about moving around so much. Still, I can’t be the only twitcher she’s encountered in her line of business.

“Yep,” the doc says.

Sarah stands up with Abby and thanks everyone. The intern cleans something in the sink and keeps his back to us. I wait for him to turn around, but a new silence lingers long enough to signal our exit, so we start for the door.

“You know,” says the doctor, reaching for Sarah’s shoulder and nodding at me. “He’s the type of person that would faint in a bear attack. The bear would eat him.”

We wait for the doctor to laugh, but there’s nothing. No tonal meanness or levity or smirk or head nod or pat on the back or middle finger.

“Oh,” Sarah says.

*       *       *

Fifteen minutes later on the way home, I ride shotgun and pray for smooth roads in our Honda Pilot as Sarah weaves in and out of Washington D.C. traffic. Our daughter naps in her car seat.

“Did she say a bear would fucking eat me?” I ask.

“She said you would faint.”

“Who says that?”

“She just meant the twitching, I think. Maybe being lightheaded. Who cares?”

“I wouldn’t faint.” I say. “I’d fight back. Shit, I’d try. I’d jam a stick in its eye or kick or something. I wouldn’t just fall down unconscious.”

There’s a traffic jam over the Potomac River and Sarah slows the car to a stop. She looks over at me.

“I know you would. Relax. Besides, aren’t you supposed to ball up?”

“What does she know about bears?” I say. “I grew up around bears. Bears don’t even like to eat people. Black bears a little. Grizzlies will kill you, but don’t eat you. Does she know that? And I don’t know of anyone who faints. Fainting isn’t even on the table for reactions. And she tells me that after her intern welds my testicle in the wrong place. Shouldn’t I get jumpy? Does she just want me to lie there and let them Picasso my shit?”

“But you’re supposed to ball up so they play with you instead of kill you. I’ve heard that.”

“There’s a big damn difference between fainting and purposely balling up on the ground. If you ball up on the ground and the bear starts to eat you then you can fight for your life and stab it in the eye. But if you’ve fainted, you aren’t in a ball and it can just eat you. If it wants to eat you, which it doesn’t.”

“You’d wake up,” she says.

“Do you know what unconscious means?”

A police car edges by with lights on, but no siren.

“Why do you keep saying stab it in the eye?” my wife says. “The bear will be moving around. It’s not going to stand still and let you find a stick and stab it.”

“Jesus, I mean do anything to live. Stabbing it in the eye seems like it would hurt.”

“There might not be a stick nearby.”

“You can use your finger, whatever. If you’re fighting a bear you are probably going to lose anyway. But our brilliant doctor doesn’t know that it most likely won’t eat you.”

“If you’re dead who cares if it eats you?”

We move, but only a car length.

“The bottom line is I wouldn’t faint.”

“I don’t think you’d faint.”


*       *       *

I’m a fourteen-year-old Mormon kid who has never masturbated, and our family gets this free six-month HBO trial at our house, so I start staying up late. It’s 1992, and my buddies tell me Cinemax has the good soft-core stuff, but still, I hold out hope HBO will bless me with at least partial nudity. One night, Risky Business is on. Everyone’s asleep; still, I thumb the volume down. As Tom Cruise starts fondling Rebecca De Mornay on screen, I feel myself go hard and debate ending my self-love celibacy. I don’t know if there’s actual no-masturbation doctrine anywhere in the Bible or Book of Mormon, but there’s enough context clues in Sunday school to guess that God would be pretty upset at a young man jobbing himself a few hours before taking the sacrament. But still, I’m teenaged, and De Mornay is ungodly hot, and I think I might come even if I don’t touch myself. I wonder if there’s a concession between release and salvation somewhere in the night, and within ten seconds I think I’ve found a compromise as I grab my penis, but don’t move my hand. If something happens, I think, then it happens.

I feel myself hard and pulsing. I let the pressure build and overtake me as De Mornay straddles young Cruise, smartly sliding up and down, up and down, and I think I may suffocate, but I manage to breathe. I consider dry humping the new couch, and I hate myself and absolve myself: I didn’t seek out the I-want-to-do-this-beautiful-woman-all-night-long urge but here it is, undeniable and strong. And yet, this sensation collides with the vision of a white robed, muscular, Caucasian God, looking down, shaking his head, shaking a tiny bottle of White Out, taking out the little White Out brush and painting over “Jesse Goolsby” on the “Welcome to Heaven” list. And then, too quickly for me and my racing insides, the sex scene ends, and fully clothed actors talk on screen in daylight and my blood slowly settles and a dull ache ebbs forth from my testicles. I think about how I’ll be okay if I’m asked to say a prayer in front of people in ten hours. I’m still clean.

*       *       *

Sir Astley Cooper performed the first vasectomy in 1823 on a dog.

*       *       *

My childhood dog’s name was Nephi—a golden retriever named after one of the leading prophets in the Book of Mormon. According to scripture, the prophet Nephi was a Grade A faithful badass. He beheaded a drunk king, fled Jerusalem, hung in the wilderness with his deadbeat brothers until he built a ship, hit the seas, and landed in the Americas around 590 B.C, where he ruled as the patriarch of the God-fearing folks kicking it in the West.

My dog of the same name shared none of the prophet’s piety. So prolific were Nephi-the-dog’s sexual encounters that word spread in our tiny California logging town, and, just for fun, a local pair of sketchy identical twins would lure strange dogs over to the Goolsby house knowing that Nephi would take on anything: Labradors, Dalmatians, Boxers, big dogs, small dogs; once, a massive orange cat.

When my mom suggested to my dad that we get Nephi fixed, if nothing else but to stop the sex show on our front lawn, my dad adamantly refused.

“Neutering makes them weird,” he said.

*       *       *

When I call my dad and tell him I’m going in for a vasectomy he says, “Oh.” It sounds like “Oooooohhh.” Just one word, that’s all I get, but the tone, the extra time he gives the one syllable, sends me back to my childhood, watching Nephi pace back and forth on our driveway, the twins lurking somewhere. Later that evening, I pick up the vasectomy pamphlet the doctor gave me, and case the “Possible complications include” section for any behavior-related issues.

A week later, my dad and I talk again.

“Before you tell me about the kids,” he says, “just tell me, this thing you’re having done is voluntary, right?”

*       *       *

Nephi dies on a Saturday morning while I work my high-school summer job at an old-fashioned soda fountain. I’m wiping my shirt clean of a strawberry milkshake accident when my dad comes in and tells me that he’s buried the dog out on a forested hill east of town. For a few moments I can’t move, then I place my hands on the Formica counter, instantly conjuring the memory of the first time I stayed home alone for a few hours – how darkness came and frightened nine-year-old me and Nephi curled up by my side. My dad gives me a quick hug and leaves.

The following day I go to pay my respects, but I’m too late. Nephi has been dug up and largely devoured—we think—by a bear.

*       *       *

I’m a fifteen-year-old Boy Scout at summer camp, and the rumor is that the California Department of Fish and Game tranquilizes trouble-making black bears from Yosemite and transports them up for a second chance in my backyard (and summer camp location), Lassen Volcanic National park. It’s a calm July afternoon and I’m napping in my tent when the shouts of “bear” arrive. I jump out of the tent, my mind spinning images of gargantuan, blood soaked beasts. I peer towards the spot where everyone points, across a yellow grass clearing, maybe fifty yards away. The bear is smaller than I feared, a gorgeous, glowing blonde with its nose in the air. I hear my inner voice say black bear, my mind already trying to reconcile the description. Our scout leaders blow into small whistles and one idiot kid steps forward and unsheathes his camera before being yanked back. The blonde bear starts slowly in our direction, and it’s then that we’re rounded up quickly and led away. As we trudge our way up a hill, the two camp counselors who had taught us black powder shooting and hatchet throwing earlier in the week come screaming by us, heavy rifles and black powder horns in hand, headed for our camp and the bear. They are dressed as frontiersmen: buckskin pants, thin, half-buttoned shirts, wide-brimmed hats. Earlier, during the hatchet lesson, they proudly claimed that they hadn’t showered in two weeks, “like mountain men.” As they pass I hear one of them say, “Goddamn.”

A safe distance away, near the rudimentary showers and chow hall, our group is told to sit in a circle. Our fidgety Scout Master passes melting chocolate chip granola bars around and then folds his arms.

“Must be an asshole Yosemite bear,” he says. “Our food was up in the trees.” I’m not sure whom he’s talking to because he stares down at the dirt between his feet. He puts his hand to his mouth.

“We’ll hear the shot,” the kid next to me says excitedly. “We’re close enough.”

No one says anything, all of us chewing as quietly as possible, waiting for the echo.

*       *       *

After the Risky Business episode, I decide I need an answer on the possible masturbation-makes-you-go-to-hell situation. The HBO free trial is running out and my desires aren’t on any down slope that I can perceive. I work up the nerve and finally ask the bishop. He tries his best, and walks me through some lust tangents that seem to all center around the idea that sex is the most beautiful thing in the world, but only in the missionary position with a wife trying to bear children. The advice is to the effect of, “Have sex like Jesus is watching.”

Even today, I’m not sure what that means, or, more terrifying, what that looks like. Christ at the footboard keeping score? Worse yet, suggesting improvements? When we get to it my trusted advisor tells me my masturbation question isn’t addressed directly in scripture. That doesn’t prevent him from saying, “Go check out the story of Onan and pray about it.”

*       *       *

Onan’s story in four sentences: (1) Onan, son of Judah, has a brother named Er who God kills because…well, it’s not specified. (2) Judah (through God) tells Onan to sleep with Er’s now widowed wife, so she can produce offspring. (3) Onan is rocking and rolling with said widowed wife, when he pulls out and “spills his seed on the ground,” pissing off God. (4) God slays Onan.

Fourteen-year-old mind translates: So, don’t pull out early if you’re having sex with your dead brother’s wife, or God will kill you.

*       *       *

It’s 9 A.M., and I’m twenty-one-years-old. It’s the morning after I’ve lost my virginity in a Colorado Springs hotel room to my college girlfriend. I walk through a parking lot, swinging my car keys in a small orbit around my index finger, now convinced that all the songs about making love until the sun comes up are full of shit. I take in the front range of the Rocky Mountains—sky-high Pike’s Peak with its pockets of green pine, and to the south, some nasty, dark gray weather moving in fast. I consider the fact that I now live in a world where I’ve had sex; I’m a little surprised I feel good, but mostly the same. I try my hardest to focus on the joy, the fun awkwardness, the fact that I may get to do it again, and push away any thoughts of spiritual doom, but as I get to my car the weather arrives: a massive dust storm blanketing the sky in a dizzying mash of spinning brown. This is no regular storm; it crescendos into a reckoning of earth and sky, dry lightning pounding among vortexes of zooming grit.

I sit in my car and turn off the radio and wait. I hear the wind and dirt pounding at the windows; I feel the car oscillate, and although I believe myself 100% deity-free (for years at this point), my first thought as I slide the key in the ignition: I picked the night before the apocalypse to piss off God.

*       *       *

I’m twenty-eight-years-old and Sarah and I have been trying to start a family for six months with no luck. The sex is getting tense and our conversations about sex are getting tense so we decide to lie to the doctors. We tell them we’ve been trying for a year so we can get an appointment to see what’s going on. One of the first things they have me do is provide a semen sample. I comply with the request in a specially furnished hospital room with clear plastic on the couch and drawers full of oddly titled pornography (Nugget? Lemon People?).

Soon, we learn that my sperm have “square heads,” and that this could be an issue going forward. As we get the news I picture mini hammerhead sharks swimming around in my testicles. I say, “Like mini hammerhead sharks?” but the doc shakes his head and Sarah is crying into her palms so I shut up after that. It’s here that I realize Sarah wants this more than I do, or at least is more serious about it. I want to be a dad, but I’m not sure why except that I think I’d be a good father. I visualize Little League games and bike rides, skinned knees and goodnight stories. But this optimistic collage is all I have, and I worry that it’s not good enough.

I reach to rub Sarah’s back and she lets me. The doc lets her cry for a bit before telling me to avoid saunas and hot tubs, and to eat more fruit and test again in six months.

Two months later Sarah finds out she’s pregnant; we celebrate with Chinese food and water, but it’s too soon. A few weeks after our Sweet and Sour Pork, on a cloudy Monday morning, she doubles over outside the gym. The abdominal pain twists her, forces her knees and hands to the sidewalk: an ectopic pregnancy.

Back from the hospital, Sarah rests her head on my lap as I run my fingers through her hair.

“We have to wait three months,” she says. “Three months from today, we’ll try.”

*       *       *

Ella, our eldest daughter, was born on a Monday.

*       *       *

I’m two-years-old. My brother Jacob is born on a Monday.

My mom has her tubes tied immediately after the delivery. She’ll tell me later that she decided it was time because she had all the children she could ever need: two healthy boys.

One day, a few months after Jacob birth, my parents grow worried after he refuses to feed. My mom repeatedly coaxes his mouth to her nipples, but nothing. By evening, his tiny body turns a shade of purple. My parents drop me off with my grandparents and drive the three hours south to a special children’s hospital in Sacramento. A week later, Jacob’s heart and breathing stop there.

Amidst the emotional devastation is the fact that my parents have little money. Funeral and transportation arrangements will be difficult.

The morning after his passing, a nurse my parents have grown close to comes into the private waiting room and shuts the door.

“You do what you want,” she says, “but I know you live a couple hours away. It’ll be hundreds of dollars to transport Jacob to the mortuary. I want you to know that there are options.”

“Can we take him?” my dad asks. “Can we take him to the mortuary?”

“You can do what you want. He’s your child.”

After some legal paperwork the nurse hands Jacob, wrapped in a white towel, to my parents. The nurse has taped the seams so it won’t open in the car. She leads my parents to the back freight elevator and presses the ground floor button. My parents ride the elevator down alone and walk my brother across the parking lot. It has just rained and the car’s door handle is wet. My dad places Jacob in the backseat of their car, but my mom tells my dad to put him in the child seat, so he does, trying to locate Jacob’s back in the bundle to position him correctly. Dad stretches the safety harness across and snaps it together. When my dad starts up the car the radio comes on loud, and my parents both shoot their arms out to turn the volume down.

*       *       *

I don’t remember Jacob. Calling him my brother sounds right and honest and healthy, but here’s what I have: (1) two photographs: one of his months-old body spidered with clear hospital tubes trying to keep him alive, another with the whole family at Christmas; (2) rumors of a tape recording of his funeral held by a cousin in Utah; (3) my father telling me one night, unprompted, that the nurse all those years ago smelled like baby powder, that it was raining when she wrapped Jacob up, that he thinks Boz Scaggs was on the radio when he and my mom reached to turn the volume down.

*       *       *

I’m thirty-three-years-old, walking home from the bus stop, off a little earlier than normal from Pentagon duty. It’s early autumn and the first Halloween decorations have just begun to appear in doorways and front lawns. As I near my home I see Sarah and our three kids from across the street. They have yet to see me, and I pause for a moment and watch the four of them—Sarah on the front door steps cradling our newborn, Abby, and Ella and Owen scribbling with sidewalk chalk, not yet slugging one another. It’s in this completely routine moment that I realize I’m a father. Why this fact hasn’t felt as incredibly powerful to me before, I’m not sure—there have been thousands of similar scenes, more telling moments of responsibility, minor hardships, and moments of extreme pride—but this Wednesday afternoon the epiphany overtakes me, and I drop my computer bag and sob on the street corner.

The next day three-year-old Owen bounds from the sidewalk and chases his bouncing ball into the street, right in the path of a speeding mini-van. The sound of screeching tires and my scream freezes Owen in the middle of the road. I know I’m watching his death, and the van’s slow-motion stop gives me time to see Owen’s wide eyes on me, his arms at his side, his blue “I’m the Big Brother” T-shirt, an elm tree in the median, the heavy, red van closing and closing in and closing in, but somehow stopping just in time, the front bumper gently nudging my son’s shoulder.

*       *       *

Still fresh from the vasectomy doctor’s he’d-faint-and-the-bear-will-eat-him zinger, I haul Ella and Owen to the zoo. As we stroll the grounds I find myself sizing up the various animals, trying to determine which ones I could take down one on one. It’s stupid, but my vascular prowess has been questioned and I need a theoretical win. From the animals we see that day, the no-way-in-hell list includes (but is not limited to): lion, elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, tiger, gorilla, moose, anaconda, oryx, and cheetah. I give myself a fighting chance against a beaver, a smaller ostrich, prairie dogs, and most salamanders. I let it slip to the kids that I think I could take an otter one-on-one and Ella asks, “How about a giraffe?” I want to say yes, but among the other issues (stomping feet, massive frame, neck swings), I wouldn’t know where to start: bite the leg? Still, I say, “Probably.”

Finally, I mention seeing bears to the kids, but they show little interest. I offer cotton candy and soon we’re standing in front of a pair of slobbering grizzlies. They’re impressive enough, but what really catches my eye is another exhibit off to the side that no one’s paying attention to: speckled bears.

If a large sloth and raccoon mated, it would look something like a speckled bear, with its small frame and beige mask-like markings across its face. Reading the small plaque, I learn that their natural habitat is exclusive to the Andes Mountains of South America. They’re non-confrontational, solitary animals that just want to eat some plants and be left alone. The two in the enclosure may go two hundred pounds each, if that. They’re lounging in a thin rectangle of shade, and I search for sizable teeth or claws, but there’s nothing of note. I don’t tell the kids and they don’t ask, but I mentally add the speckled bear to the fighting chance list.

*       *       *

A week and a half after my vasectomy I decide to stay up late and masturbate for the first time post-op. Around midnight, with Sarah and the kids fast asleep, I head downstairs, grab a couple tissues, and sit in the dark. I’m terrified. I pull down my shorts and place my hands on my legs. The two days of frozen peas on my groin, slow decrease of meds, and pain-free days of taking it easy have given me a shallow confidence that this will go well, but now, sitting in the night, I feel my heart working inside me as I consider my rerouted testicles. I close my eyes and begin to sift through my go-to visions: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Angelina Jolie in the unrated Original Sin, some blonde beauty in a porn about pirates, but nothing works. I will my hand to my penis, but I can’t move. I’m melting with nervous energy, listening for creaks on the stairs, and searching for any way out of this. It’s then that I send out a wish for a way to come without touching myself, some on-demand, waking wet dream. I open my eyes, but there’s only darkness and heartbeat.

I attempt a silent pep talk: Everything is okay! You can do this! You are a man! You’ll soon be able to make love to Sarah consequence-free! It will be fun! You can do this! Basic Instinct! Basic Instinct! but I hear the intern’s “Oops,” and I keep seeing his back to me as we leave the room. I run my hands down my thighs and breathe. Then, a miracle: my mind flashes me an image of a topless female pirate. I summon enough courage to grab my penis, but I don’t yet move my hand. If something happens, I think, then it happens.

*       *       *

A little over a month later I wear my Air Force uniform and ride the D.C. metro into the Pentagon with my laptop, a book on the history of airpower, my notebook, a few pens, and a small plastic container of my semen. I’ve accomplished my twenty masturbation sessions, and it’s time to see if the operation has taken.

At the clinic I hand the container to a smiling man behind the counter.

“Sample provided within the last two hours?” he asks loudly.

“Yep,” I whisper and glance over my shoulder.

He studies the cup then wiggles it.

“It’s like the opposite of a pregnancy test,” I say. “You know, hoping for nothing.”

He nods.

“Someone will call you soon,” he says.

Nine hours later my doc calls me and starts out, “Everything’s just fine, but we can’t clear you yet.”

The doc is still talking, but the voice goes white noise for a few seconds as I imagine re-entering the minor surgery operating room, a new intern, the cauterizing machine warming up.

“You still have a few swimmers.”

I hold the phone to my ear and feel the sweat squeezing through my forehead pores. I come to and there’s a chuckle over the phone line.

“Ten more times, and then bring in another sample.”

*       *       *

Just to be sure, I give it fifteen times then head back to the clinic. No jokes as I hand the sample over. Nine hours later, “All clear. You’re good to go.”

*       *       *

One of the identical twins that used to lure prospects to Nephi now works for the Forest Service. On a recent trip home I run into him on Main Street. He’s a shouter.

“Remember Nephi?” I ask.

“Dude was crazy! Cra-zy! I mean, anything, man!”

I tell him about my operation, the doc’s bear quote, Boy Scout camp.

“First of all, screw Yosemite!” he says. “They’re still sending us their crap. Second, you’re wrong. Bears will eat you, man! Why wouldn’t they? It doesn’t matter. Black bear, Griz, little bear, big bear, whatever. If it’s hungry it’s going to feed! I’ve seen ‘em eat metal! They’re sure as shit eating a person. That doc was right, man. She was right!”

A pause.

“Oh,” I say, but it sounds like, “Oooooohhh.”

*       *       *

For the record, I’ve only fainted once: after giving blood. I had just stood up when the world went dark. I woke up to someone tapping my cheek, saying, “Breathe. Breathe.” They gave me low-grade orange juice and sent me on my way.

Since then, I never look when they stick the needle in.

*       *       *

Every now and then, Sarah will be out somewhere with our three kids and I find myself home alone. I revel in the arresting silence—a few minutes of precious peace. But when they’re late getting home with no call, no text, my mind allows about an hour cushion, and then begins the murmurs of worst-case what-ifs. The whole scene flashes by: the dreaded call—auto accident, mass funeral, depression, insurance money, survival guilt, changing everything, moving (would I have to move? yes, definitely), different career, different clothes, new music, keep the photos, and later, me dating or not, the guilt accompanying either option, a second try at a family, reverse vasectomy?—and I can’t help but take note of everything around me.

I track the physical details of the moment, possibly the last where my world remains intact, the smells, the weather, and it’s all too much and I feel lightheaded, but then the garage door grumbles open and they all saunter in screaming at one another. Sarah simply forgot to turn her phone on again.

*       *       *

I’m thirty-four-years-old and a close friend comes over to the house. He’s prone to exaggeration. After a few Yuenglings, he skips the question most have asked (why a vasectomy?) and asks me why Sarah and I decided to have children in the first place. Still debating starting a family himself, he wants an answer outside the majority of predictable replies: joy of teaching and nurturing and learning, ready to give and receive love, societal/familial/personal expectations. Nothing comes to me. The list he mentions pretty much covers the bases. I tell him so, and he seems disappointed.

“Not enough reasons?” I ask.

“So much can go wrong,” he says. “Yes, a lot can go right, but it’s easier for it to go wrong. You got diseases, drunk drivers, molesters, tornadoes, Republicans, drowning, drugs. And what if they just turn into jerks?”

What he wants to ask, but doesn’t, is—Is it worth it?

Late that night I show my buddy out and circle back to the refrigerator. On the freezer door, Ella’s crayon drawing of our family shows me as a stick figure tall in the center, with blue hair, blue eyes, blue arms, blue crotch, blue legs, and a green “Daddy” haloing above. It’s a moment ripe for epiphany. If it were a movie scene, this is when the soft piano would bleed in as I wipe the gathering tears from my eyes. But there’s nothing new this night, no realization or enlightenment, perhaps just some pride at how tall I’m rendered and that I’m smiling, and that’s enough. I just want someone to remember me.

I hear the hum of the heater and note the microwave clock’s 1:24, so I walk to each of my kids’ rooms and bedside pause for a few seconds. I look at them and listen. I make sure they’re all wrapped up tight and safe and breathing.

–Jesse Goolsby (from The Journal)