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Can it be possible that an estimated one billion Catholics—representing a scant one-sixth of the world’s population—actually believe that over 2000 years ago, a Middle Eastern peasant woman named Mary conceived “immaculately”, while supposedly retaining her virginity?
If so, why is it so hard to arouse a modicum of faith in the modern miracle of middle-aged motherhood?
Today, the science of ART (assisted reproductive technologies) has virtually reinvented the concept of immaculate conception, and all but marginalized embryonic production of the more old fashioned, “missionary” kind.
In fact, when any woman over forty conceives the old fashioned way, it tends to be seen as the exception that proves the rule.
Frank and I met after being liberated from our first marriages—both childless. I was forty years old, with my statistical probability of conception plummeting like a two-ton elevator car with a busted motor from the top of the Empire State Building.
And Frank came complete with scrotal varicose veins (varicoceles), a natural form of birth control, along with the ‘comforting’ brochure he’d been fobbed off with at the fertility clinic, featuring a childless couple on an expensive sailboat, smiling blissfully into the sunset.
I wondered, then, if that was all we were: the perfect postcard couple—for childlessness.
But I never took things at face (or fertility) value. Just as I knew Frank was going to be my husband from the moment I clapped eyes on him, I also knew he would be the father of our son.
“I see a little boy on you” I said, amidst the rosy glow of our blossoming courtship.
“That’s funny” replied Frank, laughing like Santa Claus during a prostate examination. “I can’t have children!”
I thought about this. But I could still see Alex, my boy who was meant to be.
“Yes, you can” I stated emphatically. “And I believe you will.”
But like everything else worth having in life—no pain, no gain.(Or, as in our case—no abject torment and suffering, no pink booties and bunting. )
And when it came to enthusiasm, Frank was a warrior, I tell you.
He would soon discover, however, that during the tender administrations of varicocele embolization, resistance was futile.
Frank was a lamb, (if not downright eager-to-please) when they skewered him with a catheter through the jugular vein (http://angioplasty-vir NULL.com/index NULL.php?page=procedures&option=13)—like the Borg (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Borg_%28Star_Trek%29#Assimilation) performing a nanoprobe assimilation—and whipped it down into his scrotum after a brief overture through the heart.
It was Cringe Factor 8, Mr Sulu—enough to make any red-blooded man highjack the nearest shuttle craft, to hole up on a remote mining planet in the Gamma Quadrant.
But my intuition was right. We conceived Alex five months later. When he was born, I was nearly forty-two.
Soon after that, we were trying for a girl. And just like that “deaf, dumb, blind kid” out of Tommy (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Tommy_%28film%29) with his pinball machine, I could sense her even if no one else did.
This time, however, we were in for the faith-rocking shock of our lives.
At forty-three, I miscarried. After that, I was no longer confident in my vision of a baby girl, nor trusting of my own instincts. The egg-timer was down to pinching out its last few grains.
There is a depth of desperation to which women can sink, where they are almost willing to barter a kidney, in exchange for being able to conceive a single, human life. And every aspect of every day is overshadowed by its gloom.
But everyone knows that—unless you are on the black market (and even then)—it’s rare to obtain the spark of life in exchange for human body parts.
So we were prepared to try everything else—from home pregnancy predictors, farmers’ almanacs, and divining rods—to work out the right body temperature, exact planetary alignments, location of meridian lines required to accurately forecast ideal conditions for sex-on-demand.
We might even have thrown in a pagan sacrifice if we thought it would have helped.
At forty-four, just before Christmas in 2004, I decided it was time for the Hail Mary play—a last ditched attempt at conception. And I had to at least consider the possibility of a scientifically-induced “immaculate” conception.
We were scheduled for an interview at a fertility clinic in January 2005. Just before the holidays, we did the triathlon of tests, including the one that had Frank racing across town with a vial of hot sperm in his shirt pocket, hoping he wouldn’t get nailed for speeding. (Yeah, Frank, explain that one to the nice officer.)
We took Alex with us to see a renowned specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility—“Dr Dick”, we’ll call him.
When we said we wanted to conceive with our own eggs, he jammed his coffee cup between his teeth—a token attempt to hide his knee-jerk contempt response—and then rolled his long suffering eyes.
When Frank (understandably) asked: “But what about my varicocele procedure?”, the surgeon glanced at two-year-old Alex (who was expressing familial solidarity by ripping Dr Dick’s office apart, one file at a time) with barely repressed disdain.
“The evidence”, he pontificated archly, “for the efficacy of varicocele embolization in fertility is only anecdotal”.
That was when it dawned on me that the man didn’t even like kids.
I kept a grip on it until we were given the bums’ rush, passing the line-up of women paying for their fertility drugs—the air so pungent with desperation, you could cut it with a scalpel—on the way out.
Once outside, I let go. I sobbed brokenly, like a kid on the morning after the murder of Bambi’s mother.
One month later, my period was late and I concluded that, on top of all else, I was menopausal. Two months later, when my breasts felt tender, I said “What the…?” and tested myself.
And that’s when, against the odds, the pregnant lady sang.
Lizzie was born—all pink perfection on a cloud of joy—shortly before my forty-fifth birthday. I had conceived at Christmas, the birthday of the child who had supposedly been borne by a virgin, as improbably as the goddess Athene springing from the head of Zeus.
But Christmas had been different. It had been the eve of the last resort when we thought it was all over but the fat lady singing, when we did it just for the joy and made love like it was 1999 (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=l9qQRoZtQxQ)….
It turns out I had already been two weeks pregnant during our visit to Dr. Dick.
“Let’s send Dr Dick a baby photo of Lizzie” said Frank, “and sign it ‘Anecdotally Yours’.”
His suggestion set me to wondering how close “anecdotal” came to a downright miracle.
And could there any such thing as an atheist in a fertility clinic?
Notes for this blog:
estimated one billion Catholics (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Catholic_Church)—representing a scant one-sixth of the world’s population—actually believe that over 2000 years ago, a Middle Eastern peasant woman named Mary conceived “immaculately” (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Mary_%28mother_of_Jesus%29)
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