I’ve recently been reminded that back in my very earliest days, I was both a sperm and an egg. I had forgotten that small detail, but I don’t feel too bad about it, because it’s something most men have difficulty comprehending. We have a hard enough time interpreting road signs that say “No Turn On Red,” so the idea that we were once two separate cells from two separate people can be elusive. If you think about it, the fact that we all started out, in part, as a single egg should help men accept their feminine side with a lot less squirming and meaningless explanation. And maybe that’s the problem: we just don’t think about it enough to completely grasp the concept. So I decided to do a little research into my own personal history, and here’s what I discovered.
My father took two months to produce the sperm that began my life. Had it not been sent on its crusade, that sperm cell could have lived up to two weeks inside his body before being broken down and reabsorbed. This is another one of those things I’d never thought about, that sperm have short lifespans. And if I really push my mind to go where it would rather not, I confront the notion that I could have been reabsorbed, like some Buddhist raindrop falling into the Pacific. To be reabsorbed is to cease existing before anyone even knew you were there. Close call.
My mother, meanwhile, had been born with two million eggs in her ovaries. Given the fact that sperm cells go out in mobs of two or three hundred million, this number of eggs shouldn’t be a big surprise. But it was. I’d always believed that there was one egg for each month of a woman’s reproductive years. That would mean fewer than five hundred. So now I know there were a million of us in each ovary, and we’d all been in there right from the beginning. In other words, my egg half was already thirty-three years old by the time that two-month-old sperm cell showed up. This seems a little creepy, so I’m trying not to dwell on it. But some stubborn part of my brain clings to the inaccurate belief that the egg is innately female, while the sperm is male. And that causes me to wonder if this is why girls tend to mature faster than boys: they had such a big head start.
Here’s another thing I’ve never been able to pin down in my mind. Ovulation happens when an ovary releases an ovum on the fourteenth day of the woman’s menstrual cycle. (Ovum is Latin, and sounds much more serious than egg. In fact, it sounds as though there should be monks chanting in the background, their solemn voices echoing off marble floors and down dark, shadowy passageways.) Fertilization takes place when a sperm cell manages to penetrate the ovum. Sperm cells can live for up to seventy-two hours, but the egg survives no more than eighteen. This would seem to suggest that actual conception can occur only during those eighteen hours, but the potential for a baby covers a longer range of time, because the sperm are capable of waiting around up to three days for the egg to show up. Just to completely banish any traces of lingering clarity, pregnancy is said to begin on the first day of the mother’s last period before conception, even though the egg won’t be fertilized for another two weeks and the future father may be off at an all-male retreat for small appliance repairmen, with no inkling of his impending entrance into parenthood. The only men who understand any of this are gynecologists, or people who majored in advanced calculus. The rest of us spend our entire lives wondering how we got here, especially those of us who, as full-grown adults, can’t make sense of a bus schedule, or have trouble gaining entrance into a bag of pretzels.
What was it like when I was an egg, one of a million others patiently waiting for a chance to get close to the door? We have a saying in English that describes being squeezed together with too many people: “We were packed in like sardines.” That’s a strong image, but there are only eight sardines in a can. At least that’s what I’m told, because I have no real interest in sardines. But at some point in our past, we were all crammed into an ovary with a million other eggs. For decades, nobody moved and nobody said a word. Every month, thousands of the eggs died and were, I assume, reabsorbed. By her mid-teens, my mother was down to about 400,000 eggs. Still a pretty good supply, and more than enough to give me the feeling that I was doomed to sit forever in the dark stillness of that reproductive warehouse.
Then, when hope was all but gone, I found myself near an opening at the edge of the crowd. I was drawn across a gap, and before I could even identify this new experience of empty space and aloneness, something pulled me into another place, like a tiny dustball being sucked into a vacuum cleaner hose.
And soon, madness.
Swarms of swimming things, crazed, out of their minds, trying to get at me. But why? What did they want, these strangely aggressive young creatures? All those years of quietly waiting for something to happen, and suddenly I was the finish line in a special version of the Boston Marathon, designed for runners with absolutely no sense of direction. Signs advising against turns on red would have been pointless. Order had been replaced by chaos.
As a former egg, I have no memory of that sperm getting in, or of being fertilized. And if I did, I certainly wouldn’t be talking about it in public. But apparently, the sperm’s nucleus merged with my egg nucleus, combining chromosomes and beginning the process of cell division. The one united cell split into two, then four, then eight. Now I am made of many trillions of cells. And so are you. The journey from there to here has been unlikely, on a scale that’s impossible to measure. But we are here, you and I. And there’s a question that follows us wherever we go: What do we do now? What do we do with this improbable gift, this chance at life that escaped so many millions of our tiny roommates? What do we do before we are, at last, reabsorbed?