[Paleopsych] WP: (Sperm Banks) Family Vacation
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Thu Jun 23 14:28:17 UTC 2005
Why would Raechel McGhee fly her two beloved children across the
country to stay with a man they had never met? Because he is their
By Michael Leahy
Sunday, June 19, 2005; W12 (the weekly magazine)
His name is Mike Rubino, but until recently none of the women who
bought his sperm to get pregnant had ever seen him or known him as
anything other than Donor 929. Rubino left the sperm business for good
a few years ago, thinking it would be another decade at least before
any children found him. Now he is standing inside the Los Angeles
International Airport, staring at an arrivals gate, awaiting the
appearance of two children he has fathered but never met, along with
their single mother, a Massachusetts psychotherapist named Raechel
At that moment, 44-year-old McGhee and her children are descending
toward him in blackness and rain. "It is kind of unbelievable that
this is about to happen, but I'm relaxed," Rubino says, not looking so
relaxed, fidgeting with his brown hair, anxiously surveying an airport
monitor until he's found a status report on the McGhees' flight. "On
approach," he reads, craning his head toward the arrivals door. "I
think their mother said she'd have the kids in slickers," he says,
"and she said that she would be in a raspberry slicker." He falls
silent. "Maybe this is going to take a while," he says, but then he
glimpses a sliver of a raspberry-colored garment moving amid a horde
of travelers, spotting a tall woman. He mutters, "There she is --
there they are."
He hurries forward, calling out to the woman, "Hi, hi."
The woman changes direction, veering toward him, smiling. McGhee looks
Rubino up and down as he gets close, hugging him casually. She turns
to her kids, gesturing at Rubino, and says, "Look who's here."
The children -- a brown-haired boy one month shy of 7 named Aaron, and
a 3 1/2-year-old blond girl named Leah -- stare up at him, mouths
agape. Rubino turns to the boy, crouches, and hugs him gently. The
boy's arms hang stiffly at his side. He tentatively wraps a thin arm
around this man's neck, glancing up at his mother for some sign of
approval. But she hasn't noticed his glance, open-mouthed herself,
drinking in the 45-year-old Rubino, this slender, fair-skinned artist
in jeans and a gray T-shirt. Rubino comes out of his crouch,
simultaneously lifting the boy a few inches off the floor, then
putting him down the way he would a fragile package. Everyone is
smiling, the boy broadest of all. "Do it again," he mumbles. Rubino
reaches out for little Leah, who jumps back as if his arms might
swallow her up.
"What do you say to this guy?" McGhee asks her daughter. "Who is this
"This is California," the little girl says, dancing away from him
toward baggage claim.
Rubino watches her, thinking, This is my daughter -- the moment so
extraordinary for him as to be slightly surreal. This all began for
him a decade ago in a small locked room of the California Cryobank,
where, amid soft-porn tapes and magazines, he produced semen that was
sold around the world. Only in the late 1990s, about five years after
he had made his first deposit, did he acquire any sense of his sperm's
appeal, when he was lured out of donor retirement by the flattering
news that at least two unidentified women had contacted the cryobank
and requested that Donor 929 provide additional semen so that they
could have more children by him. This was done successfully -- his
final specimens enabling McGhee to bear her second child.
"She's cute," Rubino says, pointing at Leah.
"Well, thanks," McGhee responds brightly, "but those aren't my blue
eyes she has."
There is silence for a few seconds before Rubino fills it, glancing
sideways at her, looking at her hair, which is the color of wheat.
"You're very pretty," he says.
He turns back, looking at the children. McGhee can't get out the words
she wants to say, which are Thank you. She has self-esteem issues when
it comes to her appearance, having been obese once -- and her hair is
a dye job, and she can't remember whether she's mentioned that to
Rubino. By contrast, she tells herself, he is beautiful. She
unabashedly checks him out in profile, though she already knows his
physical features without having to look -- 5-foot-11, 145 pounds,
blue eyes with long lashes, a cleft in his chin that she likes, strong
cheek and jawbone. "You're a good-looking guy," she says, and this
hangs there. Her next words come in a rush: "And why should anybody be
surprised. Look at the kids. They're gorgeous."
She has committed to spending a week at his home, which some of the
single donor-inseminated mothers she knows have had no problem telling
her is nuts, nuts. They hit her with questions: What if this guy is a
What if he wants custody rights? Are you crazy -- staying alone in his
Rubino grabs the heaviest of their luggage, simultaneously reaching
for Aaron's hand, carefully guiding him through the rain. Pleased,
McGhee walks alongside her daughter, who then skips ahead of everyone,
turning around every few seconds to stare hard at this man, scrunching
up her nose and giving him funny looks.
It is a short ride to the Rubino Gallery, where Rubino's living
quarters -- one long room alongside a bathroom -- rest on the other
side of a wall from his small gallery, separated by an opaque,
sea-green glass door. Once inside, Rubino surprises the kids with
gifts -- pillowcases with their favorite cartoon characters, special
bathroom lights adorned with more cartoon characters and, a reflection
of Rubino's hope that they might take an interest in one of his
passions, two bags of fossils. "Some of these fossils came from 100 to
600 million years ago," he tells them. "There were no people on the
The boy yelps then, having just seen frogs moving near a wall, inside
Rubino's glass terrarium. He runs over, rapping on the glass to get
the frogs' attention. On the other side of the sea-green door, there
are Mike's paintings. Aaron is an aspiring artist himself, having sent
Rubino, before he left home, one of his crayoned drawings -- a serpent
with a human head. Rubino telephoned to say it was good. Immediately,
Aaron sent him another drawing, inscribed with a note: "You are cool."
McGhee calls out to everyone: "We have a present for Mike, don't we?
Come here, Mike."
Leah hands him his gift -- a T-shirt inscribed "BEST BUDDIES." Beneath
these words is a drawing of three stick-figures, accompanied by names:
Aaron, Dad, Leah.
"Hold it up," McGhee tells him. "You can wear that when we go to
Disneyland. The kids have shirts just like it."
"That's sweet of you," Rubino says, looking at all of them.
Aaron is screaming from the other side of the room. "Mommmm, can we
"You have to ask your Daddy."
"Is it all right, Mike?" Aaron asks Rubino.
Rubino looks at McGhee, who nods.
Rubino sits on a tan sofa, Aaron plopping alongside him. They watch a
cartoon, and immediately Aaron gets sleepy. He rests his head on
Rubino's shoulder, sidling closer, so that most of him lies splayed on
Rubino's lap and chest. Enough for one night, decides McGhee, who
calls out to the kids to get ready for bed.
Aaron is whispering to his mother, asking whether he can sleep between
her and Mike. She tells him that Mike will be sleeping in his own bed
across the room, with his dog and cat. She points. Mike's bed is about
25 feet away. In a few minutes, McGhee steps into the bathroom, where
she changes into her sleeping garb, a pair of gym shorts and a black
sleeveless T-shirt from Gold's Gym. She has spent only three hours
with Rubino. But when he flicks off the lights, she is ecstatic: They
are spending their first night together as a family.
Mike Rubino was married in 1985, and by the early '90s, he and his
wife were frustrated over their inability to have a child, as he tells
the story. "We'd been experiencing fertility problems," he says, "and
she had had surgery, but nothing had changed."
A hard truth took hold. "We finally realized we wouldn't be able to
have children of our own," he recalls. "It was hard, though probably
not as hard on me."
He tried to console his wife, who bore most of their sorrow, he
remembers. Rubino was disappointed but not heartbroken. For starters,
he'd wanted only one child, and besides, he'd never been excited by
the prospect of diapers, late-night feedings and crying jags. Still,
he felt something missing over the next year. He and his wife were
watching the news one night when a story appeared about sperm banks
and their use of paid donors, who bore no financial or any other legal
responsibilities, it was said, to the women who used their purchased
sperm or to any children born as a result. The absence of obligation,
however, was accompanied by a caveat: The donors enjoyed no rights to
see any of the children conceived with their sperm. "We listened to
the report, and I said, 'What the hell?'" Rubino remembers. "It was a
chance, if nothing else, to be part of the gene pool. And we thought
we could help some people. My wife was very encouraging."
He liked imagining himself as a 55-year-old man answering his doorbell
someday to discover a charming, good-looking 18-year-old on his
doorstep, a young adult whose long quest to find his biological father
had brought him to Rubino. "I could imagine all of the advantages and
see no burdens," he says.
In 1994, after tests and assessments, Rubino became a sperm donor at
California Cryobank, regarded by many as the largest sperm bank in the
country. It opened in 1977, an era when gynecologists generally
contacted the cryobank on behalf of their patients, who typically had
no idea of their anonymous donors' physical and academic
characteristics. The cryobank relied then on a small siring stable,
which included several medical students from nearby UCLA. Much had
changed by the time Rubino arrived. The small stable had given way to
donors -- from 150 to 200 at various times -- who had walked into the
cryobank to apply for donation work. The proliferation of sexually
transmitted diseases had long since made the testing and screening of
sperm routine. The "Cryo" in the company's name -- from the Greek kryo
for "cold" or "frost" -- was suggestive of an industry built around
freezing the donor sperm so that clients could become pregnant when
they wished. It was a new world, and perhaps the most important
advance was the advent of a computer-friendly, online culture in which
California Cryo-bank's clients could learn about both the donor
screening process and the intimate details of the donors themselves.
The cryobank purports to select only 3 to 5 percent of its applicants,
based on sperm potency and an assessment of intellectual, physical and
emotional characteristics. Each applicant must be from 19 to 39 years
old and a college graduate or an enrolled student at a four-year
university. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley,
Rubino filled out a questionnaire detailing his educational background
and appearance. His attributes meant that his semen would be regarded
as prized sperm -- his 3.75 grade-point average as an art major and
his blue eyes, slenderness and the cleft on his chin were all traits
the cryobank's informal surveys indicated were attractive to would-be
Add to this his cryobank-produced audiotape -- on which he etched his
artistic ambitions, mentioned his fluency in French, soulfully offered
his hope of helping the infertile, and rhapsodized about his love of
travel and Puccini -- and what the cryobank had in Rubino was an
alluring bon vivant. Welcomed into the program, Rubino fell into the
donor's standard routine. Receiving a plastic cup from a technician,
he would enter one of the five small locked rooms that the cryobank's
co-founder, Cappy Rothman, jokingly dubbed the "masturbatoriums."
There Rubino became Donor 929. He generally produced semen twice a
week for about a year at the cryobank's offices, where each acceptable
specimen (anything that would yield a minimum of one vial of sperm for
shipment) brought him $50 -- which translated to about $400 or so a
Abiding by instructions, he always walked into the cryobank the same
way, off an alley and up a rear flight of stairs, so as to avoid
crossing paths with the sperm-buyers. From the beginning, cryobank
officials told Rubino and other sperm donors in the program that none
of them would receive information about births attributable to their
sperm. But, increasingly curious, Rubino tried coaxing them to hint
how many children he may have fathered: 10? 20?
They'd smile but never answer.
He was retired from the program at 35, after the cryo-bank said he had
provided all the sperm it needed from him. But he took the unusual
step of giving cryobank officials a letter in which he expressed
interest in meeting any of his children. The letter obligated the
cryobank to do nothing, he knew. The cryobank refused to contact
donors on behalf of any biological children not yet 18. But back in
Massachusetts, Raechel McGhee was pondering ways to circumvent the
cryobank's policy and, for the sake of her children, track down Donor
McGhee didn't match Rubino's image of the donor-inseminated mother.
She was neither married nor involved with a man experiencing a
fertility problem, but rather was a 300-pound single woman who had
decided in 1997, at age 36, to have a family on her own, finding a
sperm donor through the cryobank.
The cryobank's clientele had undergone a dramatic change since the
early 1980s, when the vast majority of clients had been married women
and their infertile husbands. McGhee was representative of a new wave
-- a highly educated, unmarried professional able to afford donor
sperm and related insemination costs that would
ultimately cost her about $6,000 for her two children. Single women
and lesbian couples, most of whom bought the sperm online and had it
shipped to them or to their doctors' offices, were on their way to
becoming 60 percent of California Cryobank's sperm-buying clients.
Having been disappointed for years that no slim, attractive men wanted
to date her, McGhee could, for the first time in her life, she says,
choose from an abundance of fit, intelligent men. "Selecting a donor
was empowering," she remembers. "Suddenly I had my pick of these
incredible male specimens. I was the one with the power to accept or
reject. I loved looking at those donor profiles; I mean, I could have
any of these guys."
Eventually, she received the audiotape of Donor 929, whose written
profile interested her. She scoured the personal details on his pages:
Artist. Blood-type: O-positive. Heavy eyelids. A fondness for
classical music, but eclectic enough to enjoy Billie Holiday and Roy
Orbison. No interest in sports.
McGhee listened to his tape. Donor 929 referred to the fertility
problems that he and his wife had experienced and the disappointment
they had weathered together, noting that the accomplishment he was
proudest of was his marriage. He sounded so kind and giving. "I'll
probably never have a child of my own," McGhee heard him saying. "I
feel privileged to help someone do that."
"That was when I began crying," McGhee remembers. "I told myself,
'He's the one.'"
On March 1, 1998, she gave birth to Aaron in New York, where she was a
social worker counseling at a group home for children. "Some women in
my position wanted nothing to do with a man," McGhee remembers. "That
was never me. After I had Aaron, I thought it would be important for a
child to develop an important relationship with a male. More than
ever, I wanted to meet [the donor]. I just didn't know how I was going
to do it, and I had other things on my mind."
Her weight had become a serious medical problem, soaring to 330 pounds
during her pregnancy with Leah. Sometimes she had difficulty
breathing, leaving her to wonder how she'd possibly be able to handle
two young children.
In 2002, a year after Leah was born, McGhee underwent a gastric-bypass
operation that would help cut her heft roughly in half. She turned
into a workout junkie whose entire life had undergone a makeover.
Before the operation, she had become a licensed psychotherapist in
Somerset, Mass., building up a practice successful enough for her to
buy a house and pay for day care. "I'd become so grateful for
everything I had, particularly my family, and I wanted to express my
gratitude to the man who'd helped me to do it," she remembers.
McGhee regularly reminded her children about their donor-father,
recalling personal characteristics of Donor 929 as if he were an
absent loved one. "Do you know your donor lives in California?" she
would ask them when a television program mentioned something about the
state. She would hold up a drawing and say brightly, "Hey, this is one
of your donor's favorite colors: red."
On Father's Day, she made it a habit to gather her children and say:
"Let's send lots of hugs and kisses to your donor. Let's think of your
donor. Let's send our love."
Her children, as she recounts, happily chimed in: "Thank you, donor.
We love you."
She began to correspond over the Internet with an organization called
Single Mothers by Choice. There she found another buyer of 929's
sperm, a Southern California woman who exchanged photos with McGhee of
their children. But all of McGhee's networking and new friends had
brought her no closer to 929. Then, in 2003, while watching an episode
of "Oprah" devoted to donor-conceived families, she heard of a Web
site that invited donor-inseminated women to log on and send out
messages in an effort to locate their children's donors and half
siblings. Called the Donor Sibling Registry, the site also invited
donors to search for mothers and children.
Within a month of the show's airing, on June 1, 2003, McGhee posted a
note on the Donor Sibling Registry site, alongside a reference to
California Cryobank Donor 929: "Message to donor: THANK YOU! These
children are the greatest gift of my life. They are beautiful,
brilliant, talented, kind, absolutely delightful." She added, "We are
very open to contact with the donor and/or siblings . . ."
Three thousand miles away, Rubino heard about the "Oprah" episode,
too. He logged on, he recalls, to the donor sibling site, but he
logged off before coming upon the message to 929. Early last year,
McGhee asked the cryo-bank to forward a letter to 929, in which she
asked for his baby photograph. The cryobank declined her request,
insisting that it had already sent such a letter to all donors, and
that 929 had not responded (Rubino says he never received the letter).
"I said to myself, 'Forget it, he doesn't want to meet these kids, and
he never will,'" McGhee remembers. "I thought, 'Get ready to tell the
kids they will never know this person.'"
Shortly before last Thanksgiving, a still curious Rubino logged on to
the donor sibling site again, this time noticing partial lists of
donors, who were grouped according to their sperm banks and identified
by their donor numbers. Then Rubino discovered McGhee's message for
929. Teary-eyed, he couldn't stop looking at two lines in particular:
"THANK YOU! These children are the greatest gift of my life."
Having no name or address for his messenger, he left a note on the
site: "Hi. I'm Donor 929. I'm Mike and I live in L.A."
That same day, McGhee received an e-mail from a woman who ran the
donor sibling site: "Check the site now."
McGhee logged on and saw 929's message. "My heart pounded when I read
it," McGhee says. "I cried. I sent him a message, and we exchanged
numbers. We were on the phone together in an hour."
In their first conversation, she learned that he had divorced since
Aaron was born. She told him a bit about her work as a
psychotherapist. The talk turned to the future. As McGhee remembers,
Rubino told her: "I don't want to be intrusive. I don't want anything
from you." She assured him she wanted nothing from him either; she was
simply grateful, she added, to have made contact and to have the
chance perhaps of someday introducing him to her children. Within a
few minutes, each was extending the other an invitation to visit.
Their first conversation could not have been more auspicious, McGhee
thought, though she remembered then that Rubino was not hers alone.
She knew that, in Southern California, another woman would be thrilled
to learn Donor 929's name, the first step to introducing him to her
own son. "I have to admit that I had thoughts of keeping the
information from her since she didn't know about the [Donor Sibling
Registry] Web site," McGhee recalls. "I thought, do I want to share
Mike? But, I thought, there's no way I could do that to a kid."
Soon McGhee was seriously contemplating a trip with Aaron and Leah to
see Rubino, buoyed by what she had learned about him through a series
of phone conversations and e-mails. He was easygoing and respectful of
her feelings, she told friends.
Aaron and Leah mailed him holiday cards that addressed him as Daddy
and sent along drawings bearing inscriptions of their love for him.
Rubino sent presents of fossils and minerals to the children and, on
Christmas Day, called the McGhee family to say hi to everyone. McGhee
described at length their holiday plans before saying that she should
let him go so he could get on with his own day.
As McGhee remembers, Rubino answered, "I have no plans." She was
surprised. "I thought it wasn't right that he didn't have someone to
celebrate with," she says. "But it made me feel that talking to us was
very important to him."
The day after Christmas, she turned on a television to learn of the
tsunami that had killed hundreds of thousands in Asia, sweeping whole
families to their deaths in the Indian Ocean. "I thought that you just
don't know when the next disaster could strike or where," she recalls.
"There are earthquakes in L.A.; there are disasters all over. I
thought: What am I waiting for? . . . I bought the plane tickets for
L.A. the next week."
Not wanting the emotional stakes of the visit to become too high for
her children, she subtly downplayed their get-together with Rubino.
She told the kids that their trip would be "a wonderful California
vacation," careful to make Rubino sound like just one more part of the
itinerary. They'd spend a day at Disneyland, she told Aaron and Leah.
They'd see the Pacific Ocean.
This had the calculated effect. In the last couple of weeks before
leaving for Los Angeles, the kids sounded more excited about seeing
Mickey Mouse than meeting Rubino, thought McGhee; thanks to television
and videos, Disneyland and Mickey were more real to them.
She took one final precaution: finding a list of L.A. hotels near
Rubino's home, in case staying with him proved to be troubling or
awkward. She already knew how she would say goodbye to Rubino if he
turned out to be a disappointment.
Still, McGhee was excited, especially about the possibilities for her
son, who had not had a chance to bond closely with a man. Her own
father had died many years earlier, and she had no brother or
brother-in-law. A T-ball coach had been kind to Aaron, as well as a
hockey coach and a playmate's father, but none of the men could
possibly be more than a pale substitute for a committed and
unencumbered man, thought McGhee.
Early this year, as the days ticked down toward their flight to Los
Angeles, McGhee was reading Aaron a bedtime story, she recalls, when
she noticed his eyes growing heavy, the boy falling into that state
between dreams and consciousness, where people are at their most
truthful, thought the psychotherapist, who sought an answer to a
question nagging at her.
"Aaron, have you ever wished you had a dad?" she remembers asking him.
"I wish I had a dad to play with me," he murmured drowsily.
"How come you've never told me that?"
"I don't know," the boy said softly, his eyes closing.
The moment affirmed her conviction that she was doing the right thing
in bringing her children to see Rubino. And, deep down, she did not
rule out the possibility that maybe something miraculous would happen
and she and Rubino would become a couple. "I'd be lying if I said that
my mind didn't go to that fairy-tale ending, and that it ended with
all of us living happily ever after," she says. "But, at the same
time, as a responsible adult, you realize that such a [scenario] is a
fairy tale, and unlikely."
One night, as McGhee and Rubino remember, Rubino called to say that he
had placed photos of Aaron and Leah in his home, asking whether she
minded that he had referred to them as his "children" around a few of
his friends. She was pleased, and then asked what he would like the
children to call him when they arrived in L.A.
"If I could choose, I'd love it if the kids called me 'Dad,'" he said.
Despite the good feelings all around, Rubino couldn't be sure what he
was getting into with McGhee and her children. He had his own secret
plan if the visit became uncomfortable, knowing of a hotel where he
could take refuge while politely urging his guests to stay in his
home. And, as much as Rubino looked forward to seeing Aaron and Leah,
he did not want McGhee to misunderstand the future he envisioned for
himself. "I'm comfortable with my current situation," he told her,
shortly before she and the children flew to see him. "I don't see
myself as a family man ever staying home raising kids 24/7. I don't
ever see myself having a family in the conventional sense."
Yet now, after just one full day together, Rubino is having a very
conventional moment with his new family. Aaron again rests his head on
Rubino's shoulder, watching another cartoon.
"Aaron, do you want something to eat?" his mother asks him.
The boy doesn't seem to hear.
"You're happy right there with your Daddy?"
The boy nods, burrowing into Rubino's shoulder. Rubino puts an arm
around him, drops his chin on the top of the boy's head. For an hour,
they don't move.
Aaron McGhee has inherited, it seems, his father's ability to shut out
the rest of the world in favor of his passions. He sits on the
hardwood floor across the room from everyone else, head buried in his
artwork, studying his drawings. His mother, his sister and Rubino
sometimes call out to him, but he doesn't answer. "He's
concentrating," says Rubino, who understands the feeling.
Since spending the first few hours of her visit so raptly watching
Rubino, McGhee has turned her attention to her children's activities,
trying to monitor their moods. Leah is prancing and dancing like
Tinkerbell, still avoiding Rubino's efforts to pick her up. Aaron is
working on a drawing of a smiley face. He says he wants to do a smiley
face drawing for each day he's in Los Angeles, happily showing the
latest face to Rubino. It is surrounded by swirling patches of red,
orange and violet that Rubino interprets as reflections of Aaron's
Rubino has told McGhee that he sees much of himself in the boy,
particularly a need for time alone. McGhee has wondered about some of
her son's inclinations, since he is not nearly as outgoing or
comfortable around groups of people as is his sister, she thinks. Now,
listening to the man who accounts for one-half of her son's genetic
makeup, she believes she is hearing the reasons for Aaron's
personality. "I was a lot like that as a kid," McGhee remembers Rubino
telling her. "I wanted to be off by myself. I was pretty quiet . . . I
just didn't need a lot of people around."
That explanation alone is worth the price of a plane ticket, thinks
On a Saturday morning, they all drive in Rubino's old blue Buick
LeSabre to Long Beach and one of his favorite places, the Aquarium of
the Pacific. Rubino takes the children's hands and leads them toward a
family of sea turtles swimming behind glass. "This one here can hold
its breath underwater for more than an hour," he says. He reads a
placard: "On extra-long dives, the sea green turtle is able to absorb
oxygen through its anus. Now that's weird!" Aaron cackles. He thinks
he has figured out what this word anus means. He makes a face at the
sea turtle and turns to his mother. "Did you hear that, Mom? Anus."
For a while, the day only gets better for Aaron. Rubino brings him to
the petting tank, where the boy touches stingrays and small
brown-banded bamboo sharks the size of trout. "Don't hold their
tails," Rubino says, watching Aaron grab. "Just pet the tops with your
Aaron is stroking everything that swims by. "I am petting sharks, I am
"Yes, you sure are," Rubino says, laughing.
"You pet them, too, Mike. Pet them."
"Okay." Rubino's hand reaches into the water. "You notice how they
feel a little rough, like sandpaper?"
The boy isn't really listening. "Can I come back here with you again?"
"Sure you can."
"We'll do it again, sure."
The idea of "again" is still on the boy's mind as they grab lunch in
the aquarium restaurant. They're sitting at a table, eating
sandwiches, when Aaron blurts to his mother: "Can we just stay here?
With Mike? We could live here."
She smiles at her son, pondering how to make him happy without
misleading him. In the back of her mind is the conversation she had
with an old friend, the actress Ellen Burstyn, whom she met in the
'90s while Burstyn was researching a role and McGhee was counseling at
a New York group home for children. Burstyn is now considering making
a film about the McGhees' experience with Rubino, McGhee believes.
"Sweetheart, if Mommy sells the screen rights," she says, "maybe we
can buy a second house here someday, and you can come here a lot to
This isn't nearly good enough for the boy. "I want to stay here,"
McGhee rubs his arm. "This is a fun time, a vacation time, a
fantasizing time. But, day to day, we would have work to do, and it
wouldn't be as fun, wouldn't be the same. And you have school."
The boy looks down at his sandwich. "I could skip a day of school," he
says firmly. "I could."
"You can't, sweetheart."
"That's life," Rubino interjects, rubbing Aaron's head to soften this.
"Right," McGhee says, "that's life."
On their way back to the gallery, Leah asks her mother, "Do we really
have a Daddy?"
McGhee understands the challenge posed by Rubino's presence. It is
early in their stay, but even when Rubino has invited Leah to sit on
the couch next to him, the little girl usually dashes into Mommy's
arms. It's the consequence of never having had a close relationship
with a man before, McGhee thinks. Her instinct and her work as a
psychotherapist tell her that Leah may see any Daddy as threatening.
"Maybe Leah thinks if it happens, I get squeezed out and there's no
more Mommy," McGhee tells Rubino later.
Nonetheless, she is delighted when later in the day, back at the
gallery, she sees Leah resting on Rubino's lap. "Who are you sitting
with there?" she asks Leah.
"And who is Mike to you?"
Leah beams, delivering her answer, "the donor."
As the children tire and rest late in the day, the attentions of
McGhee and Rubino turn to each other. They sit on opposite wings of
the sofa, sharing a little wine, talking about their tastes and
interests, and usually, in the end, finding something to rib each
other about. "Turned out to be a gorgeous afternoon," McGhee says,
fingering a plastic octopus that Rubino bought for Aaron at the
"I promised California sun for Leah, and it finally came," Rubino
says, "after you Easterners had your great Eastern blizzard of 2005 --
all that snow falling."
"Rubbing my nose in it again."
"Falling all over that bunch of tiny states you have out there," he
"Which we call New England."
"We usually leave our windows open out here -- fresh air," he says,
Aaron grins, enjoying this banter between his mother and father. He
plops on Rubino's lap, nuzzling there. Leah is resting alongside
Rubino's dog and cat. Rubino refills McGhee's wineglass.
At night, after the kids have gone to sleep, each of the adults has a
martini. They watch a retrospective of one of their favorite
television comedies, "Saturday Night Live," howling at the "land
shark" skit from the '70s, in which a talking shark knocks on an
apartment door and tries to entice an unsuspecting woman to open it
up. "Candygram," the shark says, and Rubino and McGhee laugh like kids
when recalling how cast regular Laraine Newman excitedly answers, "Oh,
candy," and then opens her door to be ravaged. "We've discovered that
we grew up liking much the same things," McGhee says later, "and that
we came of age at the same time, being attracted to the same cultural
and political ideas."
Watching television, they talk and laugh, but they don't sit near each
other, remaining on separate wings of the sofa. McGhee doesn't think
it would be appropriate for her to sit next to him, believing this
might suggest an uncomfortable intimacy. "We don't want to give even
the impression of lines being crossed," she says later. "And I'd never
screw up something for my kids because of some romantic fantasy."
Their emphasis has been in slowly forging a comfortable connection so
as to make Rubino a member of the family. "Part of what's wonderful
right now with Mike," she says, "is that we have no negative baggage
between us -- no marriage, no divorce, no custody fight, no emotional
She spends much time looking around his gallery. One night he points
out perhaps his most arresting painting, a work called "Photo-Op," in
which a nude couple lords over a virginal jungle filled with exotic
birds and, bizarrely, human fetuses. The woman is pregnant, and her
own fetus visible, while a roughhousing baby at her feet dumbly chokes
a native bird to death. Rubino tells her that the birds depicted in
the painting are extinct, and that the work serves as his personal
statement about the evils of overpopulation. "I know that's kind of
ironic," he says, "because I'm probably responsible right now for a
lot of kids in the world."
Rubino takes the McGhees to California Cryobank, where they receive a
tour. For Rubino, the visit is a sentimental, even triumphal return.
He strolls around the lab and tells McGhee and the children: "This is
where they drew my blood for testing. That is where they put the
donors' sperm under the microscope." He pauses at the five
masturbatoriums and grins. "I remember some of these rooms," he says,
chuckling. Surrounded by Cryobank administrators, he gestures at the
fruits of his seed. "These are my children, Aaron and Leah," he says,
rubbing Aaron's neck. "My ready-made family."
The administrators are beaming, too. It is the first time in the
cryobank's 28-year history that any of them can remember a mother, her
children and their sperm donor gathering together in this office.
Someone takes photos, and McGhee asks Aaron if he wants to see where
the sperm is kept; Aaron has grown up hearing about sperm. Everyone is
led into a chilly room, where vapors are rising from six liquid
nitrogen tanks that store the semen of hundreds of donors.
"We expect a lot of beautiful children will be born from what you see
in the tanks," says the cryo-bank's Cappy Rothman. He points at a
small portion of the semen vials being readied that day for a FedEx
shipment -- headed to Nacogdoches, Tex., Chesterfield, Mo., Panama
City, Fla., Sacramento and Boston, in addition to shipments going
"You have wonderful-looking children," he says to McGhee.
"I have to go to the bathroom," Aaron announces.
"Daddy will bring you," McGhee says.
Rothman nods, looking impressed. "Daddy will bring him, huh?"
Looking to entertain the kids, Rothman asks his lieutenants to find
souvenirs for everybody.
An assistant chimes in: "May I answer any questions for anybody? About
This sounds like a formality, but Rubino takes advantage of the offer.
"I've asked this question before," he says. "But I'm going to try
again now, though I know you probably won't answer. Could you tell me,
roughly, how many kids of mine are out there?"
Silence in the room.
The assistant sweetly smiles, saying nothing.
Rubino smiles wanly. "You can't tell me?"
Rubino shrugs. "Okay, I understand."
The souvenirs have arrived -- silver sperm pins. "Oh, cool," Aaron
says. "I got a sperm, I got a sperm."
"Sperm for everyone," Rubino says.
He drapes his arms around Aaron and Leah. "It is amazing how good it
feels to be with them," he says to Rothman, bidding the doctor
goodbye. Rothman shakes his hand and tells him that the cryobank is
moving to larger quarters and that maybe Rubino could paint a mural
for the new building. McGhee clasps his elbow on their way out,
whispering as they step into the rain, "Wow, you might even get some
work out of this."
In Colorado, the woman whose Donor Sibling Registry Web site enabled
McGhee and Rubino to find each other keeps a curious eye on their
developing relationship, hoping it might serve as a model. Wendy
Kramer has made a cause of helping women search for donors, but few
women, says Kramer, have been as lucky in their searches as McGhee.
Kramer herself is still trying to connect with her donor, thinking how
much that meeting the stranger would enhance her 15-year-old son's
knowledge of himself and his background.
Kramer didn't choose her child's donor. In the late 1980s, she and her
then-husband delegated the task to her gynecologist. Then, as now,
there were about 20 sperm banks in the country, and Kramer had had no
idea where to go. "I just said to my doctor, 'Here is what my husband
looks like; please find a sperm donor who matches him,'" Kramer
recalls. "People ask me now, 'Didn't you think your child would be
curious to know about his donor?' I was only thinking in that moment
about how lucky I was going to be to have a child . . . It wasn't
until later, after my husband and I divorced and my son started asking
me about his donor, that these questions started occurring to me . . .
Then when I started asking, a lot of cryobank people didn't want to
have anything to do with me."
No one on any side of the discussion about the rights of American
donors, mothers and their donor-conceived children, has any doubt over
who shapes the rules of the industry. The sperm business in the United
States has always hinged on the wishes of the adults paying for the
semen and the desires of the adults providing it. If any party wants
anonymity in a transaction, then anonymity reigns. The child created
by the process has no voice, particularly over when or whether that
child will ever be able to meet the donor.
"Looking historically at it, kids have been the ones left out . . ."
says Ryan Kramer, Wendy's precocious teenager, who co-founded the
Donor Sibling Registry site with his mother and who is a freshman
engineering major at the University of Colorado. "[Sperm banks] and
parents are happy to produce children through the use of sperm donors,
but then a lot of children's interests are ignored."
The Donor Sibling Registry has brought him no closer to any contact
with his biological relatives. Ryan knows that his donor is an
engineer, but it is what he doesn't know about the man that
preoccupies him. He feels stymied over having to wait until he turns
18 before California Cryo-bank will formally contact his donor and ask
whether the man wishes to speak with him. "If I had the chance," Ryan
says, "I'd tell him, 'I want to meet you now because there's a half of
me -- mental, emotional and physical -- that I'm not sure about, and
also because we have a common interest -- engineering.' To see him
would complete me."
Nobody knows for sure how many donor-conceived children are out there.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's estimate that 80,000 to
100,000 inseminations with donor sperm are performed annually suggests
there may be a large group of kids like Ryan seeking to meet a
biological father. Complicating their challenge, says Wendy Kramer, is
that California Cryo-bank and other U.S. sperm banks do not have
records of where all their donors live. Nor for that matter, the sperm
banks acknowledge, do they have complete records of how many
sperm-purchasing women have given birth, or where their children live.
One school of international medical ethicists, pointing to legal
reforms in several foreign countries, argues that the only realistic
means for guaranteeing that children be able to contact their donors
is to prohibit anonymity in the donor process. In Britain, where a
national registry keeps track of sperm donors, a new law gives every
child conceived with the aid of donated sperm the right to learn the
donor's identity upon turning 18. Switzerland, Sweden, the
Netherlands, and New Zealand have similar laws requiring varying
degrees of donor identification.
A rival of California Cryobank, the Virginia-based Fairfax Cryobank,
has announced its hope to institute a voluntary donor identity release
program next fall, though a Fairfax spokeswoman reported that so far
only about 10 percent of active donors indicate they are interested,
about the same level of interest as among California Cryobank's
Rothman knows that such numbers will not please critics of the sperm
banks. But he says that the openness activists among donor-inseminated
mothers have forgotten about the goal that had once been their
priority: giving birth. "I know Wendy Kramer would like Ryan to be
able to meet his donor by the time he turns 18, and preferably
before," Rothman says. "I know she thinks she didn't get the right
deal. But she signed a paper [before purchasing sperm]. She knew what
[donor] anonymity was. And she knew that our donors wanted anonymity
and trusted they would receive anonymity. Here's a question: Ask Wendy
Kramer and Ryan if they would take their kind of 'openness' if it
meant Ryan would never have been born?"
On their last full day together, Rubino takes Leah, Aaron and Raechel
McGhee to Disneyland. Leah is wearing her sperm pin, and Aaron his
Best Buddies T-shirt. By 1 p.m., they've already been on several rides
and had their pictures taken with Mickey Mouse; Leah is humming "It's
a Small World." Now they're in Mickey's Toontown, and a beaming
McGhee, noticing everybody relaxing on a bench, says she'll use the
moment to visit the restroom.
"Stay with Daddy," she orders the kids.
"We'll all sit together," Rubino says, asking Aaron to stay put,
please. Just to test the situation, Aaron walks off a few steps.
Rubino retrieves him, tickles him, and the kid laughs.
"Where's Leah?" Rubino asks.
Leah's not around.
With Aaron staying close, he checks the nearest attraction, the S.S.
Miss Daisy boat, scouring both the top and lower deck. Nothing.
She's been missing two minutes, maybe. Now he's running, headed toward
the next attraction, Goofy's Bounce House. "Leah?" He steps over a
barrier, ignores a Disneyland employee, cuts through a line, and there
she is, her blond hair making her stand out among a pack of kids. He
swoops her up, calls for Aaron, and they trudge back to the bench.
McGhee reappears. "Hi, everybody." She turns to Leah. "Where's your
Rubino scurries back to find the jacket.
McGhee watches him, smiling. "A little parental mishap, I see."
Aaron says grimly, "We have one more day, and then we gotta go."
"We'll be coming back, sweetheart."
After Rubino returns with the jacket, McGhee says, "We're all going to
work hard and maybe make lots of money, and maybe Daddy will make the
big mural for the sperm bank."
By 5 o'clock, Rubino looks a little tired. With the kids trolling for
souvenirs, he sits, chewing on a big piece of red licorice, watching
Leah trying on princess crowns, wondering how much of this day she'll
be able to recall in a few years. A determined McGhee, trying to
bolster the chance that Leah will remember this week with him, has had
the girl sitting with Rubino on all two-person rides today. "Leah,
take your Daddy's hand, and let's go," McGhee says, and they bound
down Disneyland's Main Street, looking for a spot from which to watch
the afternoon's last parade.
The little bit of sun that is left falls out of the sky, and the
temperature plummets. Rubino and Aaron sit on a curb, and the boy
looks up at him with a serious expression. "I want to stay here late,"
"Sure, sure," Rubino says. "We don't have to go anywhere for a long
The next morning, Aaron lies on the tan sofa, not moving. His mother
has changed out of a long T-shirt from California Cryobank that she
has been wearing on these last nights as a nightgown, the front of
which has an illustration of swimming sperm headed into eggs, and the
back of which offers a slogan: "All Of The Tomorrows Are In The Seeds
Of Today." She is scurrying around, calling out over her shoulder:
"What are you doing, sweetheart? We have to get ready to leave for the
Aaron just stares at her. Zero more days. He has packed away his art
supplies, finished with the last of his smiley face drawings. As his
departure day has approached, he has colored steadily less around the
smiley faces. Today's smiley face has no colors around it.
They eat muffins out on the backyard patio. McGhee turns to Rubino and
taps his shoulder. "I want you to get yourself a cell phone," she
says. "You need one, because you don't have the best car in the world.
You're a father now . . . And you need to get a vent in this place so
that when you paint you won't breathe the fumes . . . And you're going
to stop eating all that crap you like, right -- all that food with the
MSG in it? And you'll get to a gym?"
Rubino chuckles and nods compliantly.
Aaron walks over to Rubino, holding a milk-rimmed, disposable plastic
cup that he has wrapped a rubber band around and turned into a
present. "I made this for you," he says. "So you'll remember me."
Rubino bends and tousles the boy's hair. "Hey," he says, trying to
summon his happiest voice. "I have so many memories of you that I'll
remember you all the time. Oh, my gosh -- I'll be sending you tons of
e-mails and calling you."
The boy just looks up at him.
"I better grab your things," Rubino says to McGhee, his eyes welling.
He hauls their luggage to the car. Then he walks inside to join the
boy on the sofa, lifting him and depositing him on his lap, tickling
him as Aaron watches a cartoon.
"Don't do that, Dad," Aaron says.
"What did you call me?" He's seen the name in notes and holiday cards
from the children, but he's not sure he has ever heard Aaron call him
"I just want to sit here. No tickling, Dad."
But, finally, it's time. Aaron pets Rubino's dog and says goodbye to
the frogs. Then everybody gets into the car. The sky could not be
"Wouldn't you know the weather is finally perfect on the day we're
leaving and headed back to a snowstorm," McGhee says.
Once at the airport, everything moves so quickly. Lines are short
today. McGhee gets their boarding passes, and they're walking to the
security line, Leah skipping in front of her mother, Rubino holding
"Hey, stop," Rubino says to him. They've reached the security line. "I
have to say goodbye here. Give me a hug."
He bends and hugs the boy. "'Bye," Aaron says, hugging back, staring
"See you next time," Rubino whispers to him.
He looks up. "Bye, Raech." He embraces her, kissing her on the cheek.
He turns and hugs Leah. Then the three are walking through the
security scanner, looking back at him, waving.
In the days ahead, he will remember keenly what this parting felt
like, the swift desolation of it. By the time he will leaves the
airport parking lot, however, he will already be thinking about other
things, pondering his work, refocusing his attentions, vowing to spend
long days with his canvases. He will realize over the next month that
some things about him have not changed. "I guess the future is wide
open, but I still can't get my mind around the idea of a traditional
family," he will say. "I've told Raechel . . . that I'll be there for
[her] and the kids. At the same time, as an artist, I seem to do
better and be more creative alone. I need solitude often. I can't
ignore that fact. On the other hand, every moment I spend with these
children I cherish."
By then, Raechel McGhee will be taking early steps to uproot her
psychotherapy practice and move with her children to Los Angeles,
talking about it from Massachusetts to Rubino. With his support, she
will have begun the process of redoing her will to give custody of her
children to him should she die, and of changing her children's names
to Aaron Rubino McGhee and Leah Rubino McGhee. She will say that she
still sees, in her mind's eye, her children's expressions as they are
hugging Rubino goodbye. "They couldn't stand letting him go," she will
say. "I can see the looks on all of our faces during that week -- the
happiness. I know this: Those looks are on Mike's mind, too."
Back at the airport, those looks during the last moments in Los
Angeles freeze Mike Rubino. Leah turns and blows him a kiss from the
top of a stairway beyond the security scanner. McGhee smiles at him
and mouths slowly: Love you, love you. It is only Aaron who hasn't
looked back, already well beyond the stairway and gone, it seems. But
then he's back, standing on the top step and looking down at his
father, his small hands jutting out, waving slowly. He has waited his
whole life to wave at the former 929.
Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding
questions and comments about this story Monday at 1 p.m. at
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