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The message came on day four of walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain. It was time to make a decision. Northwestern Hospital needed to either move my partner’s sperm to long-term storage or destroy it.
It was a decision that I had been wrestling with since Jeff died in June of 2018, so it was, perhaps, well timed to receive such a message while embarking on the most physically and mentally challenging thing that I have ever done.
On Day Four of walking the Camino de Santiago, my body was still in the resistance phase. Sometime around the second week, it will go into straight-up survival mode, giving in to the reality of walking over mountains and along coastlines for 12 to 22 miles every day. It will conserve all of its resources so that I will move on autopilot, needing less food, less water, and less sleep.
But that wasn’t the case as I walked from Markina to Mendata across Basque Country four days in.
I was exhausted and, when I allowed myself to think about it, every step rubbed hotly against the fast advancing army of blisters on my feet.
My walking partner, Lizz, and I got lost that day. Hopelessly, completely, can’t-turn-back-now-we’ve-gone-too-far lost. At the top of a huge hill that was so overgrown with bushes and thorns that we had to cut a path through with our walking sticks, we met two other women who had taken the same wrong turn and who, like us, stood some miles off course with nothing but farmland in every direction.
I didn’t know it then, but those women would become an integral part of our journey along “The Way,” a living sign that sometimes a wrong turn leads us in the right direction.
Once back on course, we walked through a monastery where a Monk approached us and gave us a hug, thanking us for making the pilgrimage.
It was then that I received the message about the sperm — during a moment when I was in high spirits and feeling full of the sheer guts and complete idiocy that it takes to walk across an unknown country. I don’t know whether our loved ones send us support from beyond when we really need it, but I would like to think so.
Sperm banking is just what you do after a cancer diagnosis
A cancer diagnosis for a childless man in his child-bearing years means sperm banking before chemotherapy treatments begin.
Jeff was still reeling from his diagnosis when he walked through those doors, but he never doubted that he — that we — would use that sperm. That after chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, he would live to see his child born.
It’s radiation that really puts a damper on the swimmers for a number of years, but Jeff didn’t even get to do radiation. Even writing that sentence makes me shake my head at the way that cancer turns the world upside down.
Jeff was gone before chemo, radiation or anything else had a chance to stop the spread of his cancer. In his last days, Jeff gave me permission to use his sperm to create the child we had dreamed about.
Walking the Camino set the world back on its axis
Somewhere out there on the Camino, things started making sense to me again. There was a gravitational pull toward home that I hadn’t felt since cancer turned my world upside down. Out there, hard decisions seemed simple.
Don’t get me wrong, making a decision like whether or not to use that sperm, wasn’t an easy one. But walking miles and miles with nothing to think about but putting one foot in front of the other, creates space and clears the clutter.
I got to know my body and my mind really well. I knew when I had pushed my body to its limits and — as was more often the case — I knew when it was my mind and not my body that I was contending with. And when I finally figured out how to calm my mind, it was the silence that created space for the answers.
Day Four on the Camino was the first time that I felt that silence.
Keeping or destroying my late partner’s sperm: the factors
There were a few things I had to clear out of the way before I could make a solid decision about what I really wanted in that moment and in my life.
The first was the guilt. It was guilt compounded because, for one, I knew that Jeff wanted me to continue his legacy. That was one of his wishes in those final days. But would it be his wish for me now? Honestly, I don’t think so.
Compounded guilt because, for two, I am a woman in my late 30s with single friends in their late 30s. And they are starting the process of freezing eggs and artificial insemination. But just because they are doing it, does that mean that I should do it, simply because I have this gift of the sperm of someone who I loved?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course, but the guilt and the fear of losing my last chance were real. However, with the soles of my feet landing softly against the dirt paths of Spain, I alleviated myself of this guilt and literally and metaphorically walked forward.
This brings me to the part about really diving into my own heart to figure out what it is that I want. The answer always lies somewhere within us, but sometimes it’s buried really deep.
But there it was once I started digging: My dream is less about having a child of my own and more about building a family with a partner.
And then there was the last thing to think through. The word “destroy”. To destroy Jeff’s sperm was to destroy the last physical part of him left on this planet. Certainly, the last part of him that could give life.
As I walked toward an unknown future, but toward a future that I am lucky to have before me, I realized that Jeff has given me life. The life that I lead now is one that I only dreamed of in the world before cancer. It is a life that is inspired by him.
The life that many of his friends and family live now is inspired because he lived.
In the end, he inspired me to walk forward. Alone for now.
And so, I replied to the message from somewhere out there on the Camino de Santiago with my decision: Please destroy the sperm.
about the author
Hi! I’m Jen. I’m a freelance writer and travel blogger who quit my nine-to-five after my fiancé, Jeff, died of cancer at the age of 40. When he died, I realized that life is just too short to delay our dreams. Since my dream was to travel and write, I now travel and write full-time. Today I wear hiking boots instead of heels and collect experiences instead of things.