Halfway through my vasectomy I look down to see the wide-eyed intern who 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, and perhaps, even a tentative acknowledgement that it should hurt when someone takes a scalpel to my nerve-bundled testicles, and 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.