I wish I had had a choice
April 9, 2004
"I donít want to do this." It had become a mantra, over and over again in my mind, during the forty days of Lent, 2004. I made myself promise to write this story as part of my penance, and I offer the suffering the retelling entails to the fight to end abortion. I pray to God to make something good come out of this evil.
"I donít want to do this." These are also the words I said to my mother in the days before she took me to Las Vegas from our small Arizona town to have an abortion. It was twenty-five years ago, at very nearly this same time of year. I donít remember the date, and many other details have been successfully repressed, but not enough of them. My mother and I were driving into town for shopping a few days before the abortion when my doubts and misgivings came pouring out, in a plea, "I donít want to do this." She was being as cold to me as she had been from the first moment she learned I was pregnant, but I didnít have time to wait for her to forgive me. The decision had been made by all of the interested parties, the appointment was scheduled, and the adults had divided the cost as they saw proper. It was all so very civil and sane. But in my mind, the refrain was constant, "I donít want to do this. I canít do this."
I know I agreed, at first. I was only sixteen years old, what did I know? The father was in favor of the abortion, claiming it would "drive him mad" (such melodrama) to know he had a child somewhere in the world that he couldnít see. I asked him once how happy he would live knowing his child was dead. He said it would be better off that way. Prophetically, this discussion took place long before it was necessary. I donít remember the exact details, because it didnít matter at the time. It was all theory. We resolved that I should not get pregnant. We didnít, however, resolve just how we were going to prevent that. So there I was, pregnant, and trying to withdraw my assent to an abortion. I had been rehearsing the speech, and had prayed to God. I knew having the child was the right thing to do. All I had to do was tell my mother how I felt, and she would help me tell everyone we were going to do something else. She was a mother, so she would understand why I couldnít go through with it. I would tell her I loved my child the way she loved me.
Iíd barely spoken when, with a huge outburst of air, as if sheíd been holding her breath for just this exercise, she started in, "You donít know what you want. Youíre only upset because youíre thinking about David, that itísÖ.well that itís like David." David is my little brother, who would have been about eight months old, riding in the backseat during this exchange. It had been a difficult birth for her, so while she recovered I spent his infancy getting up with him in the night, feeding him, doing his laundry, and essentially acting as a surrogate mother. I was still shouldering most of the load, because my mother had to work. So, of course I was thinking "it" was like my little brother. In fact, I was starting to feel very fond of "it." "It," who I have since renamed Michael, (after Saint Michael the Archangel) was an infant, too. I had read all of the baby and birthing books in the house during her pregnancy, watching Davidís development with fascination. I had felt him kick when he was in her womb, and had seen him move from one side of her belly to the other in an unforgettably funny incident. It doesnít take a rocket scientist to recognize that independent movement as an independent life. I remembered my mother staying in bed for the whole first trimester, in spite of the financial hardship, because she had conceived while she was wearing an IUD, and there were fears of a miscarriage. The expression, "Duh," was not yet popular, so I didnít say that to my mother in the car. Instead, I started to explain what I was feeling, but she wouldnít let me speak.
She may not have had energy enough to care for David, but she had energy enough to deny my appeal, in spite of tears, anger, begging: all of the limited tools at my disposal. I was never an assertive girl, then. She told me she knew what was best for me, and while I donít remember the exact words, I believe she told me the proverbial, "some day youíll thank me for this." [We had a conversation once, over a decade later, and she was actually surprised that, not only wasnít I grateful, but I refused to agree that my life had been better because of it.]
The childís father and I had broken up before I learned I was pregnant. When I began to get sick in the mornings, well....duh, again. I had just finished witnessing a textbook pregnancy. One day at school, I confronted the ex-boyfriend, and insisted he obtain a home pregnancy test for me. I had no driverís license, no car, no way to get this on my own. I remember he complained about the cost when he finally brought it to school. Why do we remember the most inane things?
I took the test, and failed miserably. There was the perfect little circle at the bottom of the test tube. For the young reader, the first home pregnancy tests were like little chemistry experiments for the bathroom. The tube of urine and test chemical had to sit undisturbed for a lengthy period of time while the results evolved. I had to scheme to find a place to keep it undiscovered. If there was a perfect circle in the bottom of the tube, the test was positive, and my circle was perfection. I told the father in school the day after I read the results. I donít remember much of his response, except that he went home that night and confessed all to his parents, who apparently forgave him for his indiscretion ("boys will be boys"), and immediately began to make plans to ensure his future freedom. His mother questioned whether I had performed the test properly. I recall being offended by that, of all things. I had never even met her before, but I suppose she had reason to assume I wasnít very bright. Anyway, I could only have erred on the negative side Ė the perfect circle couldnít be a mistake. Abortion was the only option they would consider. I donít remember if this is where I agreed or not. I know I needed their help, because I was afraid to tell my own parents.
His parents knew my motherís general practitioner, so they scheduled an appointment for me and the babyís father to talk to him. We discussed the options, options I had gone over in my own mind over and over again. I am convinced the doctor was motivated by kindness, but in hindsight, I wish he had been less neutral.
Even before the positive test, I knew I was pregnant, so I had been scanning the Phoenix newspaper classified ads. At work in my parentís restaurant just before the summer break from school, I wrapped myself in fantasies of getting on a bus to Phoenix, and answering a classified ad for a nanny. I could do that, since Iíd been taking care of my brother. And I could have my baby, and take care of it along with someone elseís children if I felt I couldnít give him up for adoption, after all.
It was a scene from one of the books I loved to read, and just as fictional. Within days of getting off the bus, I would meet this benevolent family who would fall in love with me before they knew I was pregnant. Then when they found out, it would be too late to kick me out because they would love me too much, so they would love my child, too. A sort of Nanny & The Professor scenario with Donna Reed as the kind woman of the house played out in my mind. I could get a GED, enter state college, and life would be wonderful. Then the splash of the deep fryer would wake me up, and I would look around that dingy little restaurant kitchen and realize that I was much more likely to end up dead in a desert wash or strolling Van Buren Street, which was renowned throughout the state as the capitolís red light district. Where would I really go? I had no family who would take me in. My father had abandoned me years ago, when I was eight. My motherís family was in the Midwest, and I was close to some, but they were too far away, too poor to take me in, or too unforgiving.
It should be clear that I did not believe that continuing to live at home was going to be possible while I was pregnant. My stepfather had a good buddy whose daughter had become pregnant. I knew her by sight at school, but we werenít close friends. So I was shocked when she started to "show." When I told my parents, I learned that they had known about it for some time. It was such a shameful thing that they had never intended to discuss it in front of me. My stepfather looked embarrassed for his friend, and whether they verbalized it or not, I remember feeling Iíd better never do anything like that to them.
I also knew what happened to kids in my family who were difficult. I have an older brother who suffers from schizophrenia. He is just two years older than I. When my parents divorced, they bounced him back and forth between them because of his behavioral problems, until he was thirteen, when my stepfather decided my brother was no longer allowed to live in his house. I donít remember his offense. Iím sure he was guilty of it, but Iím equally sure he deserved more mercy than he was shown. By the time I was 16 and about to be a difficulty, myself, my brother Steve was already living on the streets which are his home to this day.
As I said, the family physician probably thought he was being very wise by conducting an interview with these two wayward teens to help them resolve their adult problem. He asked me how I would feel about having had this abortion say, in ten years, if I suddenly learned I would never be able to have children. I have to say that was a stupid question to ask a teenager. I hadnít been able to plan ahead enough to prevent a pregnancy, even though I was one of the "gifted" kids [and I knew Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* because I had read it cover to cover at the age of eight. Obviously, knowledge was not power in this case, because even knowing exactly how reproduction worked, I had carried on with the usual adolescent oblivion, "this will never happen to me."]
I was devastated by this unplanned pregnancy, and felt like a miserable failure. How was I going to decide how I would hypothetically feel in a decade or two? I needed help at that moment. I answered him by saying I was going to have to live with the consequences of my decision regardless of my age or fertility, and it was the present time with which I had to contend. There might have been enough maturity in my answer to mislead the physician, but I was really too young to know just what those consequences would be. The father recited his "my child is out there somewhere and Iíd go mad" story, and the doctor agreed to call my parents in to tell them the awful news, and discuss the solution. At this point, the solution was an abortion, so I must have given my assent. He was removing a burden from me by breaking the news to them in my place. I needed that help.
I donít know what my mother and stepfather expected, but they went when called without questioning me. My mother later told me that they were "floored," particularly because my stepfather didnít even know I was "dating" anyone. He had forbidden me to date, probably hoping to prevent just such a tragedy. The doctor was not nice to my stepfather, which made me feel even more burdened by guilt. My mother later told me the doctor coldly informed him that girls who have a loving home donít need to look outside of it for love. I still feel bad that he had to hear that, but it was probably accurate.
There were no abortion clinics in Arizona then, so we had to endure a three hour drive to Las Vegas. It was closer than Los Angeles, the only other available site. I would not learn until I was in my mid-twenties that my mother refused to consider taking me to Los Angeles because she had had an abortion there eight years earlier. She became pregnant by a man she was casually dating in between my father and my stepfather. In her telling of this to me, it was clear that she considered her own abortion a horrible, emotionally-scarring event for her. I still donít know why, knowing what was going to happen, she sent me anyway. I think some part of her must have hated me very much, or resented me for making the same mistakes she had made. She was 16 and pregnant with my oldest brother when she married my father. I guess she expected more from me. To be merciful, my mother had been raped as a child, and carried more than her fair share of emotional difficulties.
My parents insisted the ex-boyfriend accompany us. They actually had the idea that it would be a "just" punishment. He slept in the back seat, my mother drove, and I sat in silence, as the thought, "I donít want to do this," kept rolling through my head over and over again. Please God, I canít do this. Please God, make it stop. Please God, make it stop. But it didnít stop. The Mojave Desert kept rolling along with my thoughts, and eventually we reached our destination.
I donít remember the clinic, except that it was a large brown building. I think I would have remembered seeing protesters, though, so Iím pretty sure there werenít any. If they were there, they werenít holding any signs that would have been helpful to me, like "come to us, we can help you." I already knew that abortion was murder, so signs of that nature would have been no help. Iím pretty sure I would have remembered a face in a habit or wearing a white collar, showing any sign that he or she could offer safe haven. It was close to what I was praying for, anyway. Where were they, I wonder? It was just about three years after Roe v. Wade, so very close. So close, in fact, that there were no clinics allowed in the state of Arizona at that time. The defenders of the innocent probably had not had time to organize.
The waiting room was large and crowded, and the staff perfunctory. I was now in a state of panic, because I was reaching the point of no return. What was I going to do? Could I tell them both to forget it, and take me home? They would want to know what I was going to do instead. They would certainly refuse to help me do it. They might even leave me in Las Vegas. I wondered if the doctors or nurses could help me. I didnít really know the "protocol." I had never even had a gynecological exam before. The only times my mother took me to a doctor as a child involved uncontrollable bleeding, like scraping open my knee. I had been severely injured in a car v. bicycle accident, celebrating my 12th birthday in the hospital, in traction, but other than that, I wasnít a sickly child. It wouldnít have mattered if I had been. We were poor, and we had no health insurance. Up to then, most of my experiences with medical people had been positive, caring ones. But there were no compassionate faces in this place. Strangely, there wasnít much eye contact at all.
I took the clipboard, and filled out the unfamiliar forms. I donít remember what most of them said. I read the paragraph about complications out loud with a severe tone and side-glances. Neither of my "companions" responded, although for the most part I was ignoring the babyís father. I had already, correctly, concluded that he was useless. I kept shooting looks at my mother, looks that I prayed she would understand, looks that said, "I donít want to do this, you know I donít want to do this, why do I have to do it this way?" She avoided my eyes entirely. I signed the consent form and returned it to the desk.
I donít know what anyone else in the place looked like. I couldnít see faces at all. I suppose I was quite scared. When the door opened and the white-clad nurse called my name, I stood up and that moment in time froze, just like you read about. I looked at my mother, and in desperation, I even looked at the babyís father. He wouldnít meet my eyes, and had actually turned to face the wall. My mother gave me a familiar, closed look that said, "You donít know what pain is. You deserve to suffer for what youíve done to me, look at MY pain! Go Ė go get yours." I turned away from them both, and I was blinded by the darkness from that moment on. I thought I died, then. I thought that was death. I didnít really know what death was, not yet. She was right; I didnít know what pain was, either Ė but I was getting closer.
I followed the white dress. I was entirely "blind" now, and there were only blurry shapes crossing my field of vision. They pricked my finger to type my blood. Someone told me what it was, and that it was rare, but I didnít care, and for years couldnít remember my blood type no matter how many times I was told. I finally had to write it on a card in my wallet. The ghastly white female told me I was anemic. She said it with an accusing tone, as if I should have told her about that. "Didnít you know youíre anemic?" What did she think that I had had a prenatal consultation? Of course, Iíd been tired, but it wasnít exactly at the forefront of my mind. They did a pregnancy test. I remember wondering if they thought I was that stupid, but I suppose it happens. I had a few minutes of outlandish hope that the test would suddenly be negative. Maybe I had made a mistake Ė but, no, it was positive, of course. They asked me again how far along I was. I had guessed that I was in my third month. I actually didnít know how many periods I had missed, because I never kept track of them. This haunts me now. I had morning sickness for two months, and in fact it had leveled off. As time went by, I realized, too late, that I had to have been in my second trimester. But there was no ultrasound or pelvic exam to confirm my guess. They would not have performed a second trimester abortion, whether it was because of the law, or their own rules Ė I donít know which. I wonder if some dark and evil part of me made sure I would "qualify," although it could have been an honest mistake, and I am only indulging in self-hatred when I attribute ulterior motives to my miscalculation.
Beforehand, while I was still awake, they gave me birth control pills and iron tablets. They hadnít asked me if I wanted birth control pills. I told her I didnít want them, because I wasnít having sex anymore, but she told me I had to take them with me anyway Ė it was a Rule. I didnít want the iron tablets, either. I already knew I wasnít going to care whether I was sick or not. Most of the details are gray now, because from the moment I had turned my back on my motherís stony face in the waiting room, I had started praying to God to do something. He was all I had left. Please God, make the building fall down. Make the lights go out. Set the place on fire. Strike me dead. Make this ghostly-ghastly woman notice that I DONíT WANT TO DO THIS. I waited, and did everything I was told, but there was no reply from God. The earth didnít move in the slightest, no one met my eyes, and the machines kept rolling on.
So, God, where were You? No, donít get me wrong Ė I donít blame You. You arenít required to supply me with miracles-on-demand. I have spent the last two and a half decades overcompensating for the weakness in my character that allowed me to be coerced into murdering my child. Instead of strength of character, though, all I truly cultivated for years was self-hatred, hardness, and the ability to shut people out. I steeled myself with rage for years.
They started the IV, and gave me sodium pentothal for the "procedure." The doctor came in, and a cart was rattled into the room. I was grateful when the drug hit me in a wave and I drifted away. There was noise. I donít think about it. The next thing I remember is hearing the doctor barking to the nurse in a sharp, strained voice. Something was wrong. I began to move my head. Was it going to be impossible to do it? Could I just leave? The nurse pushed me down. I felt high again, and drifted back under. I suspect she gave me more IV sedation at that moment. As time passed, I would hear details about abortions in spite of my best efforts to avoid the subject entirely (outside of a flat "against" if asked my opinion). There was a problem, and surely it was because I was much further along in my pregnancy than expected. Recently, I heard (I should say I finally paid attention to) details about partial birth abortion procedures. Without God, I could not live with myself today. I canít write about that, and will leave it to the reader to learn for him or herself my childís true fate.
Back in 1979, at some point the noise was over, the excruciating and pinching pain had stopped, and the white-clad nurse was shaking me into a more wakeful state. I was groggy, but all I wanted was OUT. I sat up and started pulling my feet out of the stirrups. The nurse was standing in front of my spread legs, with her back to me. She turned around just as I saw the cart to her left. There, finally, was some sign of humanity in her face, too little, too late. Yes, it was much too late.
I thought of iced tea in big jars. Sun tea. We made sun tea at the restaurant in glass gallon pickle jars. Thatís what they looked like, but that wasnít iced tea. No, not iced tea. It was a blood bath. It wasnít entirely liquid. I was drugged, but I remember thinking, "thereís so much bloodÖ.someone has to be dead." There was a hose, like a vacuum cleaner attachment, and some metal instruments, all clotted with blood, but I couldnít take my eyes off the jars: two of them, over half-filled. Blood isnít just red, and it wasnít all just blood. Blood is bright, and compellingly deep, like a ruby, I suppose, but I wasnít reminded of gemstones then. Is there a biological hardwire for recognition of real blood? It was an obscenity. My heart races just in recalling the evidence of violence all over that cart, and all over me, the blood was also on me: on me, and in me. Here was the pain my mother had promised, and the death she hadnít wanted to consider. The death was in the jars, and now it was in my soul, where it has stayed.
The nurse rushed at me in a whir of white, and I smelled her perfume for the first time. She pressed my shoulders down to the table, and covered me with blankets. "Youíre not supposed to be up yet." It did feel better to lie down, and I started what would be years of repression. My mind could not absorb this. What was it I had seen? I was starting to feel sleepy again, but I mumbled to the nurse, who seemed suddenly like all of the other nurses I had known, solicitous and kind, "what was thatÖ..?" I heard her move the cart out of the room, and she gave no reply. I didnít deserve it, but I was grateful for the drug pulling me back into oblivion at that moment. Somehow, I was cleaned up and discharged. I donít remember any of it.
I remember two things about the drive home: the look on their faces when I was wheeled out (and thinking, "Good. I hope I die from it, and then youíll look even worse"); and the fact that I slept or hovered in that half-waking state the entire way stretched out on the back seat. Someone at the clinic had let me keep a blanket. I threw it away the next day, with the birth control pills. In the car, I woke several times to hear whispers, "is she asleepÖ." "Why did she look likeÖ.?" Deliberately, I shut them out, for the duration of the ride, and then some. Shutting people out soon became my forte.
I spent the next week at home on the couch, taking pain killers, drinking chocolate milk to stave off the violent nausea caused by the iron supplements, and the pain killers, and trying very hard to die to the world. I needed to die to the world. My mother took me to her OB-GYN, as required, at the end of two weeks. He was a short, bald little man who had overseen my motherís pregnancy. His hands were rough, and his voice was sharp and short. He hated me for what I had done, I could tell from the way he looked at me, the way he treated me. He thought my mother was a delightful person, and I had done a terrible thing to her. I wanted to die to him, too. He didnít have to treat me that way, even if I knew I deserved it.
Before that summer was out, I was sent away anyway, to live with my great aunt. She knew why, but no one else in the family was allowed to know my shame. One day shortly after I moved in, she asked me what had happened to change me so much. I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Iím not exactly sure what it is, honey, but you have a hard look about you. Itís as if something inside of you died." What did we say before the word "Duh?" I didnít answer, of course. I couldnít speak, so I just stared at her. Something in me did die, and not just my child. I died as a mother forever. I wonít fault her for the question, though. She recognized the truth of what she said as soon as it left her lips, and she did the only thing she could think of: she took me to the Church as soon as possible. There, I made my first Confession and told this story for the first time. God blessed me with Fr. Clare, a "cookie-jar" Franciscan, round in stature, and a most compassionate man, with a great heart and great faith. At some point in the retelling, I fell from the chair to the floor, to my knees. The grief and anguish were bearing down on me, and I could no longer hold myself up. The tears flowed non-stop, out of control, unnoticed by me, tears pouring out of me until I was a dried husk, but still my body convulsed with dry sobbing. I keened, wailed, and rocked myself. I asked him if my child would go to hell because there had been no Baptism. I donít think Iíd seen a grown man cry before, either, but he wept freely as he did his best to comfort me. He explained how mortal sin required full consent, and he told me about the kindness of God. It has taken more than two decades for me to believe what he told me then.
Unfortunately, the abortion never really ended, because more than one life was lost that day. Eventually, I earned my college degree, the "future" for which my child was sacrificed. I also got married and divorced twice, because I longed for punishment and often entered into abusive relationships. I abused alcohol and flirted with promiscuity in between husbands. I was a "cutter" for awhile, slashing at my arms and legs with glass broken in uncontrollable rage that was directed inward. The scars trail up and down my left arm and leg. The inside of my left forearm is a battlefield. There is one substantial scar underscored by a cigarette burn that looks very much like an exclamation mark, for emphasis, I imagine. For some reason, during that dark time of drinking and cutting, I had to wear my pain on the outside, to show my scarred and ruined soul. Yet I could never bleed enough, not enough to even line the bottom of a small jar. I could never bleed enough to stem the anger and self-hatred.
I fell away from my faith. Regardless of the absolution I received in the Sacrament of Penance, I was convinced I was not good enough to be a Catholic. I had ruined my chances with God. Sinners like me could never be good Christians, and if I had already ruined it, there was no point in going through the motions. Jesus did not want me anymore. Being ignorant of Scripture, I was pretty sure He hadnít forgiven any murderers in the New Testament. I identified more closely with Judas than with any other disciple, and to this day I wonder if there was ever any hope for his salvation, because I tie it to hope for my own. I felt, and often still feel, that I had betrayed God just as surely as had Judas.
In my mid-twenties I lost a second child to miscarriage very early on in pregnancy because I was using birth control pills. I was terrified of another unplanned pregnancy, but resolved to have the child if it ever occurred. Did it keep me celibate? Of course not, because celibacy is for those who respect themselves. It is possible I miscarried because my then-husband had thrown me down on the bed and crushed me with his 240 pounds of dead, drunken weight the day before, trying to smother the fight out of me during an argument. Sometimes I think God allowed this tiny child to go home early, because she did not want to be born into that scene. I donít blame her one bit. When I discovered her, I keened and wailed, crying over her tiny but unmistakably human form, and apologizing to her for having failed again. It was exactly what I had wanted to prevent. I told her that if I had known she was there, I would have cared for her, cherished her, and provided for her future. But I knew I did not deserve to be her mother, or anyoneís mother, and that is the way it is today.
Now I am 41 years old, childless, and very likely to remain so for the rest of my life. Motherís Day is approaching, and I will never know what itís like to be on the receiving end of that day. Now that my own mother is dead, I really donít have any use for this commercial holiday. I donít know how many times I have been told by other women that there are things I will never understand because Iím not a mother. They often treat me like a child myself, as if I havenít gone through the proper rites of initiation into adult womanhood. Women who have borne children have a private club, and we childless freaks are not allowed to enter into the inner sanctum. I will hear this, and similarly unkind remarks, for the rest of my life. I will grow old and die alone, with no progeny, and no one to visit me (or even slight me by neglect) if I live that long.
This was my "choice," and these are my consequences. When I dare to visit this memory, which isnít often, I think about how I would answer the doctorís question from todayís perspective. Every moment, I fight the urge to despair of Godís forgiveness, and I fight the urge to scourge myself for having been weak and selfish. I am disgusted that I still have no courage. Knowing what I know, I should be screaming from the rooftops to stop this abuse of women and children, and this bloodbath of the innocent. But I am still immobilized by my shame, and find it so difficult to approach the subject of children at all stages of life.
They do surgery in utero these days on babies as developed as was my poor aborted child, to save their lives, but only if the child is wanted, loved, and from a financially secure family. If a mother kills her child at any age after birth, or allows it to die upon its birth, she will be prosecuted for murder, particularly in my conservative home state. That same mother, though, could have paid someone else to deliver and murder the child at an earlier point in time, and she would have been exercising her freedom of choice.
It is past time for me to make an attempt to prevent more horror. All I need is one woman to read my story and find the courage to avoid these consequences for herself and her child, and this retelling would have been worthwhile. If they arenít already doing so, I also hope to compel even one pro-life protester to change a sign from "Abortion is Murder!" which is something we all know, to read, "Come to us, we will help you." For all I know, they do, and I have just been too weak to look. I am in no position to criticize the pro-life crusaders. They do my work, for which I am insufficient. And there are many of them out there trying to embrace women in need with Godís love and compassion. I would give my life, and everything in it, if there had been one caring and trustworthy face penetrating the darkness and blindness that covered me the day I aborted my child.
There was a march in Washington, D.C., recently, by the pro-choice crowd. Women I had once considered intelligent and worthy of my respect (because I was denying the abortion issue entirely) were screaming from a podium about reproductive choice. They sicken me with their talk of freedom, and their coat-hangers, and if I wanted to stoop to that level, or perhaps if only I had enough courage, I would wave my vacuum cleaner attachments in their faces, and scream back at them, "I wish I had had a choice!" Instead, though, I want them to read my story, and then come talk to me about this reproductive "freedom" they love so well.