Like thousands of other kids his age, Ben Sommer was conceived through alternative insemination and raised in a lesbian household. Recently, at 21, Sommer met his ‘dad’ for the first time.
Read the first part of this story here.
After our first email correspondence, my donor, Jack, and I began to talk on the phone some, but I always had it in my mind that I would meet him in person. That seemed like the right way to do it—present myself at his doorstep.
My pilgrimage to the frontier of the modern family brought me over 2000 miles to Sunnyvale, California—across mountains and deserts, through blizzards and rain in a beat up Camry.
My sperm donor left me a message. “Hi, Ben, it’s your father. I love saying that. Just calling about your coming visit. So give me a call.”
The word “father” surprised, even angered me. It definitely gave me a lot to think about while driving to his house. I never said he could be my father. I never signed a contract—which is why when I call him I say, “Hi, it’s Ben,” not “Hi, it’s your son.”
I’m my mothers’ son. I’m already spoken for.
Biologically he is my father, but it’s all about how the word “father” is defined. How I choose to define it will then define the relationship, and advise our interactions.
But I’m not ready to put a label on it; after spending 21 years without a father of my own it’s going to take a lot of adjusting to allow him to become that person for me. And so, I go in blind and open.
I shouldn’t be so harsh on the guy. He is a sweet and approachable man. My ambivalence is more about the idea of him. He didn’t use the word “father” to lay any claim; he was signaling that he was ready to accept me into his home and life, to accept the relationship however I chose to define it.
It’s December, and the Bay Area is soggy. I’m nervous. I park in front of his house at exactly 1 p.m. I don’t want him to worry if I’m late.
He has a truck and a tractor parked in his driveway. Although he owns some property in the neighborhood, he lives in a remodeled carriage house. Inside it’s small, but warm and clean. A cat wanders in from another room and then wanders out again.
On the car ride over I got choked up, not knowing what to expect, what to say, what to feel. But now, neither of us is visibly emotional. Maybe playing it cool is a genetic trait.
The radio is on, tuned to a fashionable station, probably for my benefit. Punk rock Christmas songs provide the soundtrack to our conversation. He is very talkative, but says that he is usually more quiet; the listener among his friends.
We take a walk around his neighborhood, looking at his properties. He tells me how, single-handedly, he cleaned up the neighborhood, formerly a high-crime area, filled with prostitutes and drug dealers. He is proud that he took matters into his own hands—videotaping drug deals, testifying in court. Now the area is much safer, and home to a growing number of artists.
I’m an English major so we talk about literature. He recites a verse from a Walt Whitman poem he is trying to memorize: “I too had been struck from the float held forever in solution.” We discuss its possible meanings while smoking cigars and drinking orange soda. The cat comes in through the front door and leaps up on the table. I’m a little allergic and I begin to sneeze. He shoos it away. We are relaxed and the conversation is casual; it feels more like two men meeting rather than a father and son. The conversation turns to women and booze.
I ask him why he became a donor.
He was sitting in a coffee shop in Oakland and saw an advertisement in the back of a newspaper calling for sperm donors. He thought, why not? Nine out of 10 applicants were rejected for various reasons, but he passed. They asked him to stop smoking pot, so he did, and hasn’t since.
He made his decision seem so nonchalant, but the consequences are clearly a big deal to him. He is proud of his contribution. On his bookshelf is a framed photograph of his daughter, my half-sister. He is her donor, too. There are at least 10 other kids out there who have not contacted him. Ten potential sons and daughters. Ten potential brothers and sisters.
After a couple of hours I have to go. He walks me to the car and I leave with a “see ya later.” No hug. We go back to our lives.
Jack is a very sweet man, thoughtful, and worried about making a good impression on me. I am grateful to him for what he did for my family, and thankful that I got the chance to meet him and initiate a relationship. It won’t be easy. There is no literature or wisdom from a previous generation that my mothers or I could use to prepare ourselves for this situation.
Right now I don’t see Jack as my father, but I can see him as a father figure. Everyone in my family, now that much larger, will need to adjust their notions of what family means.