Why?: A Riff

Today, a walk in the sunshine. Squash. Rick and Grandpa Arthur took Ronan to the museum, and I picked up my medical records with all of my prenatal testing results. A thick stack of blurry ultrasounds, acronyms, numerals and decimal points. Illegible doctor’s notes. Turns out I did have the Tay-Sachs blood test (Rick and I could not remember.) The results? NO MUTATION DETECTED. Pre-natal screens test only for the nine common mutations of the gene, but there are hundreds. The gene, in other words, is everywhere. Why in this person or that person? Why in one and not the other? My mutation might be brand new, or hard to find — elusive, slippery, and all this time it’s been lurking. Here, in Ronan, the great unveiling of what, if odds (75%!) had been in our favor, I might have never known. I had to pull the car over on Calle Navidad (and for a brief, surreal moment, thought about the biography of Jesus I’ve been reading, and the different sources for the divergent infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew), feeling both relieved and enraged. I wanted to know everything. I know so much now, but the story is just beginning.

At least we don’t have to stay in that genetic counseling room at Cedars-Sinai, wondering if we made the wrong choice. (Relief.) Many of my friends didn’t even bother with prenatal testing — they simply trusted in the odds. Never having been one to believe in odds or statistics (my own congenital birth defect is so very, very rare), I did everything to cover all the bases, get the results, to know. A genetic “test” now seems to me about as foolproof as a weather prediction. (Rage.)

Today, a poet who was probably not thinking about genetics, but she was absolutely thinking about survival, and she was certainly interested in the paper thin concept of luck and what if and how do you know and what might have happened and coulda shoulda woulda. I read it as a hard-edged take on the idea of being blessed, and survival of the fittest, and the odds are slim, and other things people believe in or say or misinterpret; phrases we live by, mistake, and perhaps (who knows?) grow to understand.

Could Have

It could have happened.

It had to happen.

It happened earlier. Later.

Nearer. Father off.

It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.

You were saved because you were the last.

Alone. With others.

On the right. The left.

Because it was raining. Because of the shade.

Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck – there was a forest.

You were in luck — there were no trees.

You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,

a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant.

You were in luck — just then a straw went floating by.

As a result, because, although, despite.

What would have happened if a hand, a foot,

within an inch, a hairsbreadth from

an unfortunate coincidence.

So you’re here? Still dizzy from another dodge,

close shave, reprieve?

One hole in the net and you slipped through?

I couldn’t be more shocked or speechless.


how your heart pounds inside me.

-Wislawa Szymborska

2 responses to “Why?: A Riff

  1. I loved this poem from the first time I met it (not long ago). It reminds me of what my Dad said (Bagby humor) when a Soviet satellite was going to come apart and crash somewhere near or on the West coast (probability theory). The extended family was staying at a beach house on the coast and the kids were worried that some big hunk of debris would wipe us out. “I’ll look up, check which way the satellite is coming in, and jump either left or right.” Maybe that’s the way we live every moment.

  2. Em – I’ve been reading Parker J. Palmer’s book, “Let Your Life Speak”, these last couple of weeks. A gift from my Dad, who knows I’m trying to work out how to make sure I’m doing some serious talking. I read this today which has really made me think:
    “If we lived close to nature in an agricultural society, the seasons as metaphor and fact would continually frame our lives. But the master metaphor of our era does not come from agriculture – it comes from manufacturing. We do not believe that we ‘grow’ our lives – we believe that we ‘make’ them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, make love.
    “I once heard Alan Watts observe that a Chinese child will ask, ‘How does a baby grow?” But an American child will ask, “How do you make a baby?” From an early age, we absorb our culture’s arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere ‘raw material’ that lacks all value until we impose our designs and labour on it.”

    Reading the Szymborska poem makes me wonder if we use ‘luck’ as a way of trying to explain that we aren’t manufacturing everything, if we aren’t in control, that bad or good things happen to us. It’s like a rubbish attempt at explaining away the much much greater wheels of the universe, which attempts to keep ourselves at the middle of it (With AGENCY, With POWER) and anything that we didn’t have control of is ‘luck’ or ‘bad luck’. It’s like thinking that the earth was at the centre of the universe, when in fact really we revolve around a little sun in a far corner of it.

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