Ultrasound technology, particularly when used on pregnant women, is nothing short of a wonder.
Rub some gel on the stomach, roam the ultrasound stick around there a bit as well, and – boom! – up on the computer monitor pops an image of junior all tucked away cuddly and secure inside the womb.
Ever since its invention over half a century ago, ultrasound has made it possible for technicians, doctors and parents to know and tell so much... including the fetus’s gender. And that’s where things get a bit dicey; that’s where you have that ultimate clash between the miracles of science and the mysteries of the universe. Ultrasound technology rendered one of the great mysteries of the universe no longer a mystery.
In the old days, much of the conversation during the nine months of pregnancy had to do with speculation over gender. If the mother got a bad case of morning sickness, it was a girl; if she didn’t get that nauseous, a boy. During the later stages of the pregnancy it depended on how the mother was carrying: if the stomach tilted one way, it was a boy; the other way, a girl. But nobody really knew. It was all just guesswork.
Ultrasound took all that guesswork away. Now you can know with certainty.
But what if you don’t want to know? What if you just want to keep guessing until the day of birth, and then be dazzled by whatever appears?
I didn’t want to know, ever. I wanted to be surprised, and for the first three of our four children, I succeeded in remaining in the dark. But by the fourth child, The Wife insisted on knowing. So we compromised: we would go to the ultrasound appointment, and the technician would write the gender on a piece of paper and hand it to her.
But this is not something easily kept under wraps, and eventually, a pronoun slipped out.
This dilemma – to know or not to know – is very much a predicament of a bygone era. This is not even a question for my children. If science provides them with the ability to know something, they are going to want to know it. Mystery shmystery. No dilemma here whatsoever.
When I told my second son, Skippy, whose wife gave birth last week to their third son, that I used to argue with his mother over this issue, he looked at me as if seeing an alien.
“What’s even the question?” he asked. “How could you argue over something like that? Of course you want to know.”
My spiel about the universe’s last great mystery did not appeal to my son or his very pragmatic wife. I might as well have been speaking Greek.
“I don’t want mysteries,” he said. “When I want a mystery, I’ll watch a movie.”
BUT I NOTICED that this is not exactly the case, because the boy does like mysteries, or – rather – keeping others in the dark.
How else to explain the veil of secrecy that dropped whenever the subject of the new boy’s name would come up?
“Have you thought of what you’ll call the boy?” I asked the Skipster in the hospital after he welcomed his newest son.
“No,” he replied.
“Liar,” I retorted.
Of course he and his wife had thought of a name. But they would not be revealing that name until the brit. I knew that, of course, but wanted to hear him say it. I wanted to hear him say that the name should be kept a mystery, a secret, until the brit, after which I could then reply: “Aha, the name should be kept a mystery, but the gender should be known to all before birth? So you do appreciate mystery. That seems a bit inconsistent, no?”
But I held my tongue.
I realize, of course, that there is great wisdom in keeping the name a mystery, a secret, until the formal naming ceremony. Why? Because it neutralizes pressure; torpedoes lobbying attempts to get the kid named after one relative or another; reduces efforts to get your child to give his or her child a name that you like and want.
Deciding on a name can be a tense exercise. It can cause uncomfortable post-birth friction between the parents. What happens when the mother likes one name, and the father something else entirely?
And if that tension over names emerges between parents, as it often does, imagine what it would be like were the issue to be opened up for a group discussion to include grandparents on both sides, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and even siblings. In my family, we couldn’t even decide on what to call a pair of pet gerbils; we’re all going to agree on the name of a child?
No, it’s better and much wiser to keep everyone in the dark. You can’t kvetch about what you don’t know; if you don’t know the name, you can’t complain about it. At least before the naming. Afterward, after the name has been given, all the complaining is useless.
Ah, the utility of mystery.
This last birth, however, has provided me a mystery of a different, more compelling nature, one tethered neither to ultrasound technology nor to names. My newest grandson was born the same day as my late father – just 91 years later.
So what? one may think. There are only 365 days in a year. Odds are that, from time to time, great-grandchildren are going to be born on their great-grandfather’s birthday. Surely it happens all the time. What’s the big deal? Where’s the compelling mystery?
The mystery is that my last grandchild, a granddaughter, was born on the day of my dad’s funeral. One grandchild was born on the day my father was buried, another grandchild on the day my father was born.
The ultimate bookends.
Coincidence? Maybe. Mysterious? You bet. But unlike knowing the gender of a fetus, or the name of a child, this is a mystery upon which I will ponder over and over, but whose meaning I’ll never be able to ascertain with absolute certainty.