‘It’s no more a miracle than eating food and a turd comin’ out of your ass…‘
Bill Hicks on childbirth
I’m starting to think the late, great Bill Hicks got it wrong. Childbirth is a miracle. And children are, too. Or my son is, at least. I laughed at the time, sure. After all I wasn’t the target. I was no sentimentalist like the bright eyed and bushy tailed newbie parents he lampooned, and he had a point, right? ‘There’s too many fuckin’ people in the world. Someone needs to say that…’ And I was glad it was Bill. To my mind, teetering as it was on the cusp of adulthood – it hasn’t stopped teetering yet – kids were like bad news on the TV. It happened alright, just to other people.
And now it’s happened to me, I’m back in the grip of childlike wonder. As a boy I’d gaped at textbook pictures and TV documentaries filmed in utero, agog at conception, a scene from inner space. In my febrile pre-teen imagination, it seemed utterly alien. Not hostile alien, not deep-space-stomach-bursting-humans-must-die-alien, but unknown nevertheless, wondrous and shockingly beautiful. Something from nothing. A Big Bang no less cosmic for all it’s incalculable frequency.
Soon of course, the mechanics of reproduction became apparent, and not through textbooks or the BBC. And in the wake of physical and sexual – if not mental and emotional – maturity, soon I, too, like Bill before me, was ‘wiping entire civilisations off of my stomach with a grey gym sock’. Nothing miraculous about it, quite the opposite in fact…
Leo’s eventual arrival, along with my simultaneous separation from his mother, was as tumultuous as a planetary collision and as the debris coalesced and our orbits realigned I found myself happily revolving around him, and once again in touch with the awestruck child inside me.
His very existence owed a deal to fortune. The timing couldn’t have been tighter. After seven months of trying, his conception coincided almost exactly with his mother meeting her new partner James. There’s a significance to that I’ve long since given up trying to unpick. That coincidence, entirely unbeknownst to me, accounted for the odd ambivalence in Ellie as the test brought the news, a fluctuation in her that registered with me immediately. Leo was on his way, but it felt like a ghost had entered the room. Another presence, someone other.
When, three months into the pregnancy, that presence finally revealed itself in the person of James the task at hand, even as the world swum around me, was to establish whether or not I was in fact Leo’s father. Cue tortuous phone conversations, consultation of dates and reassurances from the GP. Leo had been conceived only days before his mother’s life changed. My final act. I’d been only days from a life without him, and possibly a childless future. A parallel life now, of course, a life unlived, but one I can still catch a glimpse of on occasion. It’s the only reminder I need that Leo is miraculous. For the remaining six months there was very little sense of the miracle to come; the day to day wore in even as the seismic shifts between myself and Ellie played out. Any youthful fantasies of introducing myself to Leo as he grew inside her remained just that, as the space between us grew. I knew full well Ellie was conducting her new relationship away from home and across the city – and indeed at home when I was away – and could not bring myself to talk to him when she asked me to. What game were we playing? How was I to act? When she offered me her belly to feel him curiosity swayed me, but I reached out as a gynocologist might have done. The gesture was automated; informed by interest but joyless and robotic. All intimacy between us had evaporated, leaving me artless and clumsy in my own home.
But as I stop to consider Leo, the miracles stack up. Putting aside his conception, sadly miraculous in itself for so many less fortunate couples, what were the odds that, of all the bars in all the world, I’d walk into the one his mother worked in back in 2001? For that, indeed, was how we met. What then the odds of compatibility, never mind the lightening strike of love, intimacy – all of which seem chaotically random when you’re on the outside, however naturally they fit when you’re part of a couple? And the odds of our own respective existences? The chances that my own parents, both perhaps anxious of being left on the shelf, should run into each other in fifties London, or that two divorces would pave the way for Ellie’s parents to cross each other’s path and start again?
The existence of humanity is, in itself, a miracle of almost ludicrous magnitude when one starts to unpick the clusterbomb of coincidences that facilitated our rise. That this hunk of rock we’re still struggling to value should find itself snug in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of a star of just the right size, power and age to enable the creation of exactly the atmosphere required to help cook up the primordial soup and begin the evolutionary journey to us, a species capable of music and mutually assured destruction, Bach and bombs.
All coincidence, of course. Even the creation of the universe itself may be best understood as nothing more than coincidence. The right quark in the right place at the right time. Why, after all, would we describe anything as miraculous when it’s already happened, when it’s fact, when we can reach out and touch it and it’s and all we know? But if we are simply the products of maths, that’s a realisation that has limited appeal to our innate sense of story and our intuitive feeling that we’re special. In turn, that sense of our own specialness is challenged by sheer weight of numbers. We’re back to Bill and overpopulation. How can we believe in billions of miracles? Surely it’s counterintuitive…
And shrinking the scale once again, what else would I say about my own son, other than ‘he’s a miracle?’ Even if I can’t see it in the faces of all the other kids in the playground, even if they’re blobs in buggies to me, what else would I think of him? When you’re 44, innocence is a miracle. And when you can see, however fleetingly, your father in your son’s face, when that father wreaked havoc and the boy before you is bursting with all the possibilities of life, then it’s a miracle.
We forget that we’re miracles, each and every one of us. It’s necessary, even – a defence. But having a child weakens that defence, and sometimes I wonder if we’d be better off remembering – lifting the scales off our eyes, as it were, choosing love over hate just as Bill Hicks exhorted us to. He never had kids himself. He left too soon, returning to his parents home to die aged only 32. And he didn’t mean it, of course. By telling us our kids weren’t special, he was simply asking us to open up our tired eyes. He knew just how special we all are. He put it better than I ever could, ‘…the eyes of love …see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now… Take all that money we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.’ Amen.
For myself, as I sit on the edge of the sandpit with the all the other mums and the dads – pushed to the sides of our lives, as Philip Larkin had it – pushed out of my old life, out of my old future, and into this new life with nothing between me and the stars, a glimpse of the miraculous helps light the way…