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Surprised By Joy: How Weed And An Ultrasound Taught Me To Love Life


Back when life was a theory, something that I experienced but actively didn’t create, I found it perfectly rational to be pro-choice. Babies existed outside of the womb. Inside the womb, they were a magical clump of cells that transmogrified into little people as they entered the world. When the wife called to tell me that, yes, the pregnancy test she’d taken the night before was accurate, I didn’t change that stance. Even when I heard the heartbeat for the first time, I remained a staunch proponent of choice.

I cannot pinpoint the precise moment when I realized that life is really life, that the spark that starts with conception isn’t a choice but momentum. I do know the realization started with a DVD.

It was 2007 and way back then you had to wait till the 20-week mark to find out the sex of your child. “But it’ll spoil the surprise,” they said. Apparently they didn’t realize how surprised I was to find out I was going to be a father in the first place. It’s not that I was averse to the idea. The wife and I had discussed that it was probably something to plan for; we were definitely amenable. But there’s a difference between being amenable to the idea and taking active steps to pursue it. And the secret ingredients for moving beyond being amenable to taking active steps are wine and the heat of passion.

Thus we found ourselves staring into the monitor, waiting on this little squirming skeleton to spread the legs and give us a glimpse. Eventually she did, we found out she was a she, and off we went with a DVD of the ultrasound.

My road from decadent heathen to responsible father is increasingly well-chronicled, so I’ll be honest. In 2007, though I was gainfully employed, I was still prone to debauchery and not too respectful of all laws. I’m still not respectful of all laws, but these days I am more respectful of the ones that could negatively affect my ability to retain custody of and provide for my kids. Back in 2007, though, no one was going to take away my dog if I got caught with a little weed and my employer was a supporter of legalization, so the night of the ultrasound I sat down on the couch, smoked a bowl, and watched that DVD over and over again.

It was a punch to the gut. There was this little person with two arms and two legs. Rolling around. Chomping her teeth.

Life was no longer a theory, an abstraction. It was a squirming, rolling, teeth chomping reality. A squirming, rolling, teeth chomping reality I helped create.

At 20 weeks, Greer, in all her teeth-chomping, rolling, squirming glory, was just outside of the realm of legally being a choice. Did the magical transformation from clump of cells to little person happen because of the ultrasound? Was my wife to give birth to the female Bruce Banner? Or was I, stoned out of my mind, finally realizing that those euphemisms created by penumbras and emanations are just clever attempts at masking the truth, of making us forget how biology works?

No, because my journey was not over. I remained pro-choice, for libertarian reasons, though my perspective had morphed from ball of cells to grisly procedure the government shouldn’t be involved in. But if liberty, the crux of my then-position, is to be protected, if biology is to be immutable fact and not tortured with philosophical arguments about agency and awareness, my position failed on every front. That it took me so long, so many contortions, to get to such a simple understanding is painful. At least I finally arrived. Others, though, are more committed.

Writing for NY Magazine’s Ovaries Week, Alex Ronan detailed her in-depth experiences with abortion with “My Year as an Abortion Doula.” It’s a gruesome read—ignorance sometimes is bliss—but bliss doesn’t help us tackle uncomfortable truths.

The resident begins to perform the procedure as the attending barks commands. “Pull,” she says, “harder.” The body does not want to let go. The resident will not stop. It strikes me as strangely similar to birth, only the opposite word and a different outcome. Pull. Pull. Pull. What’s called the products of conception bucket is mostly filled with bloody gunk. I make out a doll-size arm, fist curled. It feels like I shouldn’t look, but I can’t turn away.

So much inadvertent humanity. Such a huge opportunity for realization denied.

As such, it’s tempting to trash Ronan, to point out that she may not be trying to convince the audience with her piece, but herself. We could write off Ronan’s dogged support because she hasn’t experienced the hazy wonder of seeing a child, her own child, rolling around in her womb, but that ignores the actual question of how she can witness the following and remain committed.

The fetus comes out easily; they put it in the bucket and shove it near me. It is fully intact, curled on its left side, fists closed, knees bent up. He sleeps just like you, I think. Then, a second thought, an act of distancing: He looks more like an alien than a person.

Ronan experienced horror, but she distanced herself from it. She talked through bad decision after bad decision; she remains pro-choice even as she acknowledges that it’s a terrible, gut-wrenching procedure. It’s not the simple in and out proponents present. But then she falls short of getting to the truth. She refuses to believe that life doesn’t move in clean lines and unplanned doesn’t mean unworthy. That, yes, such irruptions are terrifying, but terror can morph to joy.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen sitting upon your couch, even as you are mystified. You don’t arrive at joy upon birth or even during the first couple of physically and mentally draining months. You arrive at joy because you are willing to accept the consequences of your actions, of the risks you undertook in the heat of the moment.

Back when life was a theory, before wine and the passionate abandon caused me to create it, I lived under an illusion—that life isn’t life till we decide it is. That life is defined by plans and control. Since that time, I’ve experienced terror, wonder, anger, and joy. The last one is the most important. That’s the one that surprises you, sneaks up on you, reminds you that there was a spark inside that skeleton rolling around on your television screen. And once you recognize and accept that spark, you accept the possibility for more.

Greer turns 7 in October. Scout, who was created in a heat of the moment but with intent, turns 5 in November. Aoife, who was intentional because we were not happy, but disappointed, when we discovered our suspicions that I’d slipped one past the goalie were incorrect, turned 2 in August. They’re my demon spawn, the unholy trinity, the trio that changed my life in so many wonderful ways. It could have ended differently had I truly believed that life is a choice instead of momentum. Thank God it didn’t. Had it, the journey that began in earnest while sitting on my couch smoking a bowl may not have recently lead me to a different bowl, specifically the Squirrel Festival and Bacon Bowl. Greer and I went for some daddy-daughter time. We ate much bacon. Afterwards, back when we were home, she asked, “Daddy, did I try all the bacon?” “Well, you tried all the desserts, but not all the entrees. Did you have fun?” “Yes…Daddy, can we sit down on the couch and talk about it?”

Yes, honey, we can.

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