An Awful Day

I looked down at the form on the clipboard, and then up at R beside the bed next to me.

“What if they’re wrong?”  I whispered.

We’d waited in the ultrasound room for nearly an hour before the nurse advised me that my doctor was on the phone for me.  I walked over and picked up the receiver, hoping he wasn’t going to say what I thought he would say.  But he did.

“Your baby has died,” he’d said firmly, but sympathetically.  “It died several weeks ago, that was why it measured so much smaller than it should have.”

“But,” I sputtered, shaking my head towards R across the room, “the technician.  She said she heard the heart beating.   She told us that.”

The doctor sighed on the other end of the line.  “I know she did, and I’m so sorry that she did that.  She shouldn’t have said anything like that.  She was wrong.  She heard your heartbeat, which was probably elevated because you’re worried, and mistook it for the baby’s.”

I had stood there, silent, holding the phone, the rest of the conversation a blur.  He’d told me my options; I could wait it out and let nature “take its course”.   When I asked how long that could take, the waiting around for your inevitable miscarriage, he said sometimes it could take a while; it had already been weeks.  When I asked what the alternative was, he told me that he could perform a D and C.

I knew the term.  I’d read it a million times in my mother’s “Ms. Guide To A Woman’s Health”.  The description of the procedure was in the section titled, “Abortion”.  I cringed at the visuals floating around in my head at that moment, but the thought of carrying my dead fetus any longer made me so sick and so sad that I told him that I wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

Which was how I landed in a hospital bed that Monday morning, with R at my side, looking at the paperwork the nurse had given me.  One was a consent form, authorizing the doctor to perform the “procedure”.  The second, which had literally taken my breath away when I flipped the pages on the clipboard,  was titled “Certificate of Fetal Death”.

“What if they’re wrong,” I repeated to R, who hadn’t heard me the first time.  I showed him the form.  “If they’re wrong, we’re about to kill our baby.”

R touched my shoulder and squeezed it lightly.  “Do you think they’re wrong?” he asked gently.

I wanted to say yes, to shout, to wake up, to make everything stop.  “I saw it, R.  I could see the whole thing.”  I could hear my throat closing up as it did when I talked and cried at the same time.  “The hands, the legs…there were fingers…I could see them on the screen.”

“I know,” he answered quietly.  “I saw them too.”

The tears were silently running down my face.  “How could this have happened?  I was supposed to be safe, nearly twelve weeks.  How could I have not known that the baby died?  And here I was all excited that I was feeling better.  I was feeling better because my baby was dead.  How sick is that?”

R just shook his head, and reached for my hand in silence.  He had no words of consolation, because there were none.  Nothing could console me.

I looked back down at the form.  The word “death” seemed somehow bolded.  I looked at the date on the form:  2/10/99.  A gasp escaped my lips.

“What is it?”  R asked.

I pointed to the date.  “It’s six years.  Six years since the day my mother took her turn for the worse.  The day we knew she was going to die.  It had been the tenth.”

R looked at me, eyes full of sympathy.  “I’m so, so sorry.”

I signed the form and waited for the rest of this awful day to begin.

On A Break

I was sitting across the table at a Big Boy restaurant from Mr. H.

I’d come home for my Spring Break, and called his home phone number to arrange the meeting.  He’d included it in the long letter he’d sent me a few weeks ago at school, in response to my cry for help sent a few weeks before that.  By now, everything was different than it had been when I’d first contacted him.  Worse.  Much worse.

Joe and I still lived in the same dorm, but we were finished with our winter term classes.  He wouldn’t look at me for the last few weeks after our disastrous breakup at the concert.  I pretended he wasn’t there, sitting far away from me in the lecture halls or across the room in the tiny room we shared for Honors English.  I’d played the ultimate game of running off to see if the guy would come after me, and so far, he hadn’t.  He wasn’t rethinking his anger, and I was far too proud to go crawling back to see if he’d renege on his promise to never see me (and our child growing quickly in my belly) again.

We still had spring term ahead of us.  I was hoping by June, when it would be obvious to the world what I’d hidden all winter, Joe and I would figure out some sort of way to work it all out and not throw away our nearly year long relationship.

These were the kinds of things I told Mr. H as I ordered a hamburger and fries, filling up my always ravenous appetite.   I wondered aloud, told him of the few plans I already had in place, and he looked warmly and sadly at me with the eyes of an older person who sees a younger person making a very big mistake.

“Don’t rule anything out yet, Amy.  I really think that you need to think about the long term here; I know someone who was where you are now.  I asked her about it after I got your letter.   She would like to meet with you if you want.  You know her.”

“I do?”   I racked my brains; he had to be talking about a teacher.  Which teacher had I had at school that had a kid that was impossibly old for how old the teacher was?  I couldn’t place it.

“Yes, you do.  And she told me that if she had to go back and do it all again, as awful as it sounds, she would not have the baby.  Or she would have it and adopt it out. ”

Ah, adults.  You could always count on them to see the negative, I thought.  I kept trying to look like I was at least open to his words.  “Why did she say that?”  I offered.

“Because it was hard.  And eventually, she didn’t want to be a single mother alone, so she got married.  The guy she married was not the right guy; she only married him because she was tired of being a single mother all by herself, and thought getting married would make everything easier.  And for a while it did.  But then, as it usually does, the fact that they weren’t right for each other started making everything much harder and they fought all of the time.  But by then she now has another child with this guy, and she now has lost ten more years of her life not having a real relationship with a partner who she truly loves.”

Ouch.  OK, I needed to listen to this.  But I couldn’t imagine making the same stupid choice.  I was independent, I was going to school, I wasn’t going to *need* a man to help me get through my chosen path.  I’d only choose the right man to do so, I was sure of it.

“Well, that might not be the case here.   Joe and I might work this all out and get back together.  You never know,” I sidestepped.

“You really think that is going to happen?”

I sighed.  He knew me too well.  No, I didn’t.  If I did, I wouldn’t be here now, sharing my fears with my former teacher.  I’d be sitting with Joe, figuring out what came next.

Telling the Parents

“Mom, there’s no other way to tell you this, so I’m going to just come out and say it:  I’m pregnant.”

My mother considered the words as I dropped the bombshell.   She looked nonplussed as she looked back at me.  “Well, I thought that was what it must be when you said you had to talk to me about something this weekend.”  I’d called her earlier in the week to ask to come home this weekend so I could break the news.  Joe was doing the same thing, a few hundred miles away, with his mother.

“Well,” she said matter of factly, “What do you want to do?”

I looked at her.  This was my mother, the one who all of my girlfriends went to but who I never admitted to once that I was sexually active.  “I was hoping I could move back home after this year is done at school and have the baby.”

“You want to live here and raise the baby here?  What does Joe have to say about that?”

I told her of our conversation, of how worried I was that he didn’t take the news well, that he seemed in a state of limbo while I fussed around thinking of this thing that I had to do or that thing I had to do.  “But obviously,” I stated in a tone that only an eighteen year old who thinks she knows it all can muster, “I need to be here where my support system is.”

My mother entered practical mode.  She was, after all, a paternity lawyer who spent her days watching poor, unmarried women beg the men who’d fathered their children to admit it and become financially responsible for their offspring.  She’d earned the right to be a bit cynical about situations like this.  She reassured me that she would support whatever decision I made.

I told my father the next day, with my sister by my side for moral support.  His reaction was very different.  He was absolutely horrified and informed me that I had just “ruined my life”, and that I was “supposed to be the one that made something of themselves.”  That I could have been anything, a doctor or a lawyer, but now I wouldn’t be any of those things.   And then he did something that I never expected:  he offered to pay for an abortion.  He begged me to think about it, that even if I said no today, I might change my mind.  The money wouldn’t be a problem.  Please, think about your future.

I left my father in tears, not understanding why the men in my life couldn’t see that this could all end up OK.  I wanted someone to tell me this was all going to be OK, to let me lean back and talk about my fears instead of forcing me to point out all of the good things that could come of this situation.  I wanted someone to see the future that was starting to take shape in my head:  a tiny apartment, Joe and I and our baby, studying at night.  I could see us graduating and getting married, with our little toddler by our side.  I could see my belly growing round while he felt the kicks from the outside.  I could see that if we just made all of the right plans, if we had the support and love of our families, we could do this.

It was that last part that starting to worry me.

Maybe

What I find most remarkable about my thinking back then as I waited the interminable hours between when I knew what was going to happen and when I could tell Joe what was going to happen was that I honestly didn’t think at all that he might want something different than I did.  Or anyone else, for that matter.  I was so resolute and sure in my thinking of how this would all play out, so matter of fact in my rose colored view that this would all be fine that it honestly didn’t occur to me that anyone else would see it any differently.  I would keep going to school, at home.  I would go to school at the commuter college (the one where I’d turned down the full scholarship not six months ago…I wondered if it was still good), I’d live at home, my mother and sister would help, Joe would come with me, it would all be fine.

Joe was quiet when I told him the news.  He had to have been expecting it by this point, but clearly it still was the end of the fantasy that things were still Just The Same.  He sat quietly on the corner of my yellow sofa in our common room and grew white.  He asked what I was planning on doing.  Of course, this question, the mere phrasing of it, bothered me.  What was *I* going to do?  Was this now *my* problem?

“I don’t want to get an abortion,” I told him firmly.  “I just can’t do it.”

“But you said, you said a few days ago that you were thinking about it,” he hoped out loud.

Ouch.  I honestly had thought he’d have the same reaction that I would here.  That while this was clearly not ideal, it was not the end of the world.  That we loved each other and we would get through this.  We’d both been through horrific problems with our families; this was something that we both could handle.

I tried to find him behind the wall that suddenly seemed to have formed behind his eyes.  “Now that I know it’s real…that it is a life…I just…can’t,” I tried to explain.  “I can’t kill our baby,” I said helplessly, hoping that he would start to come back to me.

He looked lost.  After a long silence, he said:  “Well, do you want to get married?”

Honestly, I blew this one.  I should have handled this one differently in hindsight.  Here was Joe, clearly distraught, clearly unhinged, offering the thing that he feared the most to me.  I should have considered it.  I should have realized that this was his way of demonstrating his commitment to me and trying to deal with it as best he knew how.

“Um…I don’t want you to marry me because you think you have to.  I want you to marry me because you want to.   We can do this.  I’ll go home, you’ll come home on the weekends or something, and after we’re both done with college and have our degrees, we’ll get married then.”  At the time I thought this was a very magnanimous thing to say, to let him off the hook.  I suppose perhaps he took it as a rejection, but I thought I was being very real, very pragmatic.

“But we could live with my mother, we could both go to school there.,” he offered.  It was true, she’d moved to another university town, not far away.  I considered this and quickly (probably too quickly) dismissed it.

“Joe.  Think about that.  Your mom has to work, and we don’t know anyone else there.  If I moved back home, I’d have my mother, my sister and my father there, plus friends.  I’d have more of a support network.  Doesn’t that make more sense?”

He frowned.  “I can’t go back there.  I can’t live with my grandparents full time.”

This was true.  I couldn’t ask him to do that.  I knew how much he hated living there for the few short weeks he’d had to before.  “Well, maybe you could stay here, and come home on the weekends.  Would that work?  Just until we’re out of school?  That’s only three years, it’s not forever.”

“Maybe.  Maybe that would work.”  He reached over and hugged me, trying to be reassuring.  But it wasn’t reassuring at all.  There was no amount anywhere of “Don’t worry, everything will be OK,” anywhere to be found in him.  Instead, I could tell that there was an awful lot he was thinking and not saying.  My disappointment was likely obvious, but I too was not putting that into words.  I thought that we’d be a team, that we’d get through this together.

“We’ll be OK, right?” I asked.

“We’ll be OK,” he reassured me and kissed my head.  But I couldn’t see his eyes as he said it.

Promises in the Dark

This post will post on my fortieth birthday.  How appropriate.  The biggest game changer in my life, and my thoughts about it will be laid bare on my fortieth birthday.  Oh, there’s so much to say about it, looking back nearly 22 years later.  Getting back there, getting back to that place in my head when I learned that I was 18 and pregnant.  I watched an episode of Boston Legal last night that said you need adrenalin to make a memory imprint in your brain; the more adrenalin, the more vivid your memory will be.

I guess there was a lot of adrenalin involved in those days and weeks, because so much of it is very, very clear.

The first emotion I felt was not fear, or anger, or worry, or any of those kinds of things.  Honestly, a warmth came over me and I think I smiled.  If I had to pick a word for how I felt in that moment, it would probably have to be “happy”.  Which is crazy.  And weird.  But I felt a contentment and an assuredness that I would figure this out, make it work, and go against the odds.  I remember thinking, “well, this is bad, but I’m a smart girl.  If it had to happen to anyone, it was a good thing it happened to me.”  I also thought a lot of cliches, like “everything happens for a reason.”

I crawled back into bed, and like a bad afterschool movie, put my hand to my nearly flat belly.   I was pregnant, and I was going to have the baby.

I knew it from the moment I looked at the stick, that there would be no hesitation, no discussion, no decision to be made.  The decision felt made for me.  I was going to have the baby.  Abortion didn’t even enter my head as an option.    I knew there was a life inside of me and I knew I was going to protect it and keep it safe.  In the quiet discussions with myself in the dark before anyone else knew my news, everything seemed clear and possible.   It would be OK, I told myself, and whoever else was sharing my body with me.  I will make it be OK.

Late

“I think I might be late.”

I uttered the words nervously to Joe one cold January morning in a practice room.  We were both furiously practicing for this term’s auditions.  I was disappointed with my placement last trimester, and so I wanted to prepare as much as possible for the one performance that would determine my position for the entire winter term.

Joe looked at me.  “Really?  How can that be?”  I knew what he meant.  We were religious about using protection.  We were very careful, always using condoms, always well before any contact was made.

“Well, I know that nothing is 100 % reliable.  It’s probably nothing, though.  I do feel like it is coming any minute.  But it’s just so odd, because I’m never late.”  I didn’t mention all of the other things that were nervously adding up in my head:  the insane amount of tiredness that had suddenly been hitting me, the nausea that overtook me on the way up to his mom’s place, the urgent need to use the bathroom that had also hit me then.

He was quiet for a minute.   “What would you think we should do…you know…if you were?”  It was the unthinkable.  I couldn’t even let my head go there.

“I don’t know.  I really, really don’t know.  I mean, maybe I could get an abortion?   I’m not sure if I could.  I just don’t know how I’d feel…hypothetical is totally different than reality.”

I’d always considered myself pro choice.  My high school position papers were always firmly on the right to choose.  That being said, when I converted to Catholicism the year before, I knew very well the Church’s position on abortion.  It gave me pause.  I’d seen friends of my sisters go both ways; one who gave her baby away, and one who aborted.  I knew my mother had given a child up for adoption.  That was the one avenue I was sure I couldn’t take.

Joe looked at me, uncharacteristically filled with tension.  “Well, we don’t know yet.”

“No.  I suppose if it doesn’t show up soon, I’ll have to take a test.”  God, I hated the thought of having to go to the slightly off campus but not nearly far enough for my taste drugstore to buy a home pregnancy test.

“When were you due?”

I thought back.  I never kept very good track, because I was always so regular.  But I certainly knew it should have been here before now.  “Um, I remember thinking that it should have been here around Christmas, maybe a few days afterwards.”

His eyes grew wide.  That meant I was a whole week late.

I gulped.  “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” I responded, nervously.  He took my hand and squeezed, and got up to go back to his practice room.  He smiled that smile that he knew would erase my fear and closed the door behind him.

Pregnant People Everywhere

My mother had a friend who was pregnant.

She was thirty something, and single. Being pregnant without the benefit of marriage was so unheard of but more especially, it was something that a teenager like me did not expect to find in adult people she looked up to.

Her friend was a colleague, someone she worked with down in the city, a lawyer. I loved Janice. She was easy to talk to, she seemed very interested in my teenage ramblings, and she was often in the office on Saturdays when I (still) accompanied my mom to work to finish all that she couldn’t finish in her twelve hour days during the week.

Janice was a feminist, outwardly so. My mother, she just quietly went on her way and did things because she had to as a single mother with custody of three kids in the 80s. But Janice, she took my mother to lesbian comics that raised funds for battered women. She seemed like a sixties rebel in 1985 clothing, and in fact, she was just that. My mother was married with kids during the latter part of the 1960s. She often joked that she missed the fun part of the era. But Janice, she was ten years younger than my mom. She still didn’t wear makeup or put mousse in her hair.

I marveled at the path she chose. The man was not interested in being a part of the child’s life, but Janice still chose to continue the pregnancy. As a “radical feminist”, she’d marched for the right to choose, but she knew it meant exactly that. A choice. And as a stable woman in her thirties with a good job, she was choosing to have her baby. I couldn’t stop asking her questions, the same questions I’d asked B a year prior: what will you do, how do you feel, what changes are you noticing, will you need help.

My mother was so incredibly supportive of her friend, when others turned away. While everyone knew that single women dated and had sex, no one seemed to acknowledge that an obvious consequence of sex, was pregnancy. No one seemed to care that birth control had a failure rate. It was all Janice’s fault for getting herself “in trouble”. I found her thrill in the path now laid before her courageous.

I knew that my mother was thinking back to her own pregnancy that she hid in silence twenty plus years ago and marveling at how little and how much the world had changed.

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