Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Once upon a time

(Originally posted 11/16/04)

This happened many years ago. It concerns two people I know, whom I will call Annie and Bill (not their real names). They had known each other since high school. Annie had gone on to college and graduated, after which she worked in radio. Bill had tried college but had quit after only one year, after which he went back to work the family farm. He was drafted into the Army, and while he was in the Army they were married.

Their first son came during their Army days. After Bill got out, they went back to the farm, which he shared with his older brother. It was hard for the place to support two families, but they did their best to make a go of it. Bill and his brother ran a variety of businesses on the side to make extra cash. Annie became a farm wife. Their second son was born, and then their third.

The third pregnancy, which had not been planned, was pretty dicey. Annie's blood pressure would drop and she would pass out with little or no warning. She taught her oldest boy (now five years old) to dial the telephone and call for help when this happened. The last months were pretty tense, but in the end their third son came and was handsome and healthy.

Soon after this, Bill decided that there was not really much of a future for him and his family on the farm. So he sold his share to his brother and went back to college to get his degree. Annie and the boys moved in with her mother, a widow who now lived in the old family home down south. Bill enrolled in the State University three or four hours away, majoring in agricultural economics. He worked long hours at the university farm and drove home for the weekends. Meanwhile, Annie did her best at her mom's house to raise the kids.

But it wasn't easy. After a couple of years, money began to run short. Annie's mother had very little money to contribute, and the money from Bill's scholarships and university farm work just would not make ends meet. So Annie prepared to start working full-time. She took a couple of courses at the local junior college to become certified to teach in the state. She found a job to start teaching in the fall. Then, in the spring, she learned that she was pregnant again.

In those days, of course, abortion was not legal. But by modern standards, in retrospect, it seems to me that an argument could be made that an abortion was justified in this case. A new baby would probably wreck the family's plans to get Bill through school. They already had three little boys, all under the age of nine. Annie's last pregnancy had been risky. Her doctor was telling her that this time she would need to stay off her feet and take extra precautions. And at one point, the doctor, listening to the fetal heartbeat, suspected that she was carrying twins.

As I said, abortion was not legal in those days. More to the point, however, Annie and Bill would never have considered an abortion, ever, even if one had been available. The unborn baby laid an obligation on them -- an obligation that they did not choose, but one that they willingly embraced. They shifted their plans, figured out how to cope, and before Christmas they had, not twins, but their fourth son, whom they loved very much.

The fourth son was me.

This is why I have never been able to bring myself to agree with the pro-abortion people. How could I? I owe my own life to the fact that, for the society I was born in and for my parents, an unborn baby brought obligations that could not simply be ignored, even when they were heavy, even when they threatened your own dreams. I can't bring myself to say that my parents were wrong about this. And if they were right, then that fact affects everything.

How can anyone, faced with the mysterious contingency of his own existence, approach this subject with anything but awe and reverence? I can understand someone who, as a matter of sober and tragic judgment, thinks that society must permit abortion. But how can such a person suppose that those who come to different conclusions are simply intolerant bigots who are seeking to oppress women? Yet that is exactly what many "pro-choice" people do think, including some of my best friends and a great many of my academic colleagues. (Whenever possible, I keep my mouth shut. You may chalk this up to moral cowardice, if you like.)


As for my story, it had a happy ending. Indeed, it had a ridiculously improbable happy ending. My maternal grandfather had in the 1930's bought the mineral rights to a piece of land in Oklahoma, telling my grandmother that she should never sell it. There is oil there, he said, and this will take care of you when you are old. (He worked on oil pipelines for many years and knew a thing or two.) Years after my grandfather died, during the summer before I was born, oil was indeed discovered under that land, and the royalty checks began to come in. They paid for my birth and for the rest of my father's college education. (He took a double load of classes to finish as quickly as possible.) The checks supported my grandmother for the rest of her life, and they continue to support my mother, who is now in her seventies.

The crucial decisions about me were made well before the magic oil money showed up. The Lord, we are told, works in mysterious ways. I suspect that sometimes, just for fun, He indulges in the obvious.


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