Here, Read This
It’s funny how the details of our experiences are chosen by our subconscious and then preserved with perfect clarity, just waiting for something; an aroma, a snatch of song, a well loved painting, to resurrect them, while others simply disappear into the mists of time. I wonder how our minds select which memories we are allowed to retain, which memories will plague or comfort us the rest of our lives. I wonder why we can’t forget things best left unremembered. I wonder why we can’t remember things we struggle not to forget. I can remember my grandpa’s funeral. I can’t remember the sound of his voice. I remember the words he spoke, but not the tone or timbre. I want to.
The thing I remember most about that day is how tightly her impossibly cold hand clutched mine. She absently ground the bones in my hand together in her mounting anxiety. The fear and desperation were telegraphed through her icy grip. I tried once or twice to disengage my hand from hers, but she only clutched me more tightly. She had held my hand for the entire two hour bus ride, and every minute since then. I stopped trying to let go and accepted that I was her lifeline to sanity and safety until this whole horrible mess was over with. I was 17 years old.
When we reached the clinic, I was told I could not accompany her since I was not a relative or an adult. But when she quietly but emphatically refused to let go of my hand, the stern faced nurse/receptionist relented with the admonishment that no monkey business would be tolerated. We exchanged looks. Neither of us had the heart for monkey business. The suggestion was mildly insulting, but we were too scared and sad and sick to protest. We only nodded mutely and followed her broad back through scarred and yellowed swinging doors. The mingled odors of smoke and antiseptic made me a little queasy. My stomach lurched. I swallowed hard. She swallowed hard. Her grip tightened.
We were shown into a tiny examining room, where she was handed a paper gown and curtly told to remove all of her clothing, even her panties. The nurse gave us a hard, searching look before closing the door behind her. Suddenly my fear was replaced by anger. We were young…looking back it breaks my heart how young we were… and we shouldn’t have been in a place like that. But we didn’t deserve to be treated with such disdain. And I was angry at him too. He should be here. He should see this. See her. I cursed him for a coward and thought about the night he had tried to kiss me; laughing at how I trembled, knowing I needed to hate him for what he had done to her and not caring. But I had pushed him away, and the surprise on his face was a satisfaction like none I had ever known. I held onto that anger and used it to blunt the edges of sharp fear that knifed through me.
She cried as she undressed. I didn’t know what to do or say to make her feel better, so I busied myself with folding her clothing into neat little squares as she handed them to me. I rolled her socks into a ball, and carefully concealed her pink polka dotted underpants beneath a crease in her blue jeans. I folded her enormous GAP sweatshirt into a fleecy mound and then placed the entire pile on top of her shoes and turned to help her with the gown. I had not seen her naked recently. Once we had undressed in front of one another with no thought to embarrassment or modesty. But for many months now she had kept herself covered with baggy shirts and heavy jackets. Winter in Wisconsin was an accomplice to the concealment of her burgeoning form. I gasped audibly as the truth of her condition and our reason for being here hit me like a slap in the face. She blushed through her tears and pulled the gown closed.
We sat, quietly, timidly, waiting.
A man came in and introduced himself as Dr. X. He surprised me by being kind and gentle. Seeing her tears, he pulled out a handkerchief and swabbed her face. He told her it would be alright. He told her they would take care of her. He told her the most important thing anybody had ever told her. He said, she was not a bad person. She didn’t believe him, of course. How could she? But she needed someone to say it. She needed someone to believe that she was not a sinner or a coward or a murderess. Her sobs turned to small hiccoughs and the tears slowed. He examined her quickly and then said, “Let’s take care of this so you can go home, okay?” She clambered into the wheelchair obediently and he wheeled her out. I was unsure whether to follow. Surely they wouldn’t let me in THERE, would they? I didn’t want to go. But the susurration of the rubber wheels halted and she turned to beseech me with an outstretched hand. Our eyes locked and I shrank from the pleading. I looked at the kindly doctor, willing him to forbid me. He looked at me for an impossibly long moment and then inclined his head for me to follow.
"I AM NOT THAT STRONG!!!!" I longed to shout. But I followed meekly without uttering a sound.
To this day, I don’t know why he wanted me to go in there. For her? For me? For a larger purpose? To preach the gospel of abstinence? I wish I could find him and ask him. I wish I could tell him how that experience changed me forever. I wish I could tell him thank you for being kind to her. To us.
The nurses, who were not unkind, but who went about their business briskly, placed her on a table and erected a barrier over the lower half of her body. Seated at her head, I was relieved, but it made her uneasy. She couldn’t see what was being done to her, and I suppose it would have scared me too. She was given several injections and an IV. I didn’t know what they were going to do, but I knew it was too late for any of the “easy” procedures. I was gripped by panic, suddenly. I didn’t want to see this. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to know how a problem like this is solved. She grew groggy and I wished for some of what they had given her. As she drifted, her grip on my hand slackened. Freed, I did not know what to do with my hands. They stole to my chest and hovered over my heart, which felt as if it might burst from my chest. I must have looked stricken and afraid, because the kindly doctor came and lifted my hand from my breast to hold it in his own. It was huge and warm. He said "You're a strong young lady. She's lucky to have you for a friend." I felt a little better. His approval cheered me, and the anger I had felt at his refusal to grant me asylum from this ugliness abated.
He disappeared and returned gowned and masked. I knew it was time to begin. I tried not to hear. I recited poetry and song lyrics and movie quotes in my head, desperately avoiding the bloody reality unfolding beyond that flimsy white barrier. At one point, she began to cry out in pain and I felt sick again. He assured her it was almost over and indeed, as he spoke, I heard what I knew was the sound of her body yielding the contents of her womb. A slick sound followed by a small forlorn thud, and it was over. She panted with relief. I sagged against the table, still sick. There was a smell that permeated the room, a smell that was rich and human. Years later as I attended my first birth, memories that had long been buried were resurrected by that smell. Then, it had meant death to me. Now I know it as the primal aroma of new life.
She was taken to recovery where she slept for what seemed like hours and hours. I was left alone with my thoughts, unable to concentrate on the novel I had brought with me anticipating a lengthy wait in the waiting room. I could not banish the thought of what I had seen by accident as we exited the procedure room. I glanced back for reasons still unknown to me. I saw a nurse with a shallow pan. There was blood on the rim and some smeared on the sides. She laid the pan gently on a metal table, and then, touched the contents in what I can only describe as a caress. There was sadness in her eyes. I looked away quickly, not wanting to witness the disposal of that tiny little body. But her tenderness brought tears to my eyes for the first time that day. Someone understood that this was not just a "problem" or a "procedure", but a baby. A baby that was now, dead. Part of me was very angry with her for not acknowledging that. I was angry even though I know that it would have destroyed her to think of the baby as a living breathing creature. I tried to work through my anger and confusion as she slept. My own judgement bothered me. It could have been me.
When she awoke, gray and trembling, my anger was gone, replaced by a deep weariness. I wanted to go home. And so we did. On a dirty bus, back to our clean lives where nobody knew what we had done. I went back to school while she stayed home "sick". I endured the looks and the whispers while she hid. We stayed friends for many years, but we never spoke of that day again. Ever.
I think the experience touched us in different ways. I became a birth junkie and eventually a doula; eager to rejoice in each and every new life, entranced by the miracle of birth. She has no children. I wonder if her heart aches when a baby cries. I wonder if she is haunted by the abesence of that child. I wonder if she will ever get over what happened. Mere spectator that I was, I don't think that I have.
You might be surprised to learn that I am vehemently pro-choice. I would never, ever consider an abortion for myself. I just couldn’t do it. But I have never been a scared teenaged girl with elderly parents who were devout Catholics and preached the wages of sin as death and eternal torment in the fiery pits of hell. I never had to face the prospect of being ostracized by my family. I have never been a victim of a sex crime, forced to carry the offspring of my attacker. I have never been desperately poor with too many mouths to feed already. I have never been told my baby had a defect that was incompatible with life, or that if the pregnancy was brought to term, his or her life would be filled with pain and suffering.
I have only been a girl who was raised in a lower middle class family with loving supportive parents who would have helped first and lectured later. I have only been an adult in a safe and healthy relationship, with the means to provide my children with everything they need and most of what they want. I have only been me, and I can only decide for me.
I do believe that abortion is taking a life. I do believe it’s wrong. For me. But I also believe that I, and only I, have the right to decide. It’s a sad and terrible thing with no easy answer. So ask the right questions and follow your heart. Don’t let political rhetoric and religious dogma influence a decision that YOU will have to live with the rest of your life.
And please, for the sake of every child that ever has or will draw breath, do not mistake abortion for birth control. Life is too precious to hinge upon the adolescent shame of purchasing condoms.
My friend and I have lost touch. I don't know where she is now, or if she has exorcised her demons. I hope she has forgiven herself. I forgave her a long time ago. I hope she can forgive me for not telling her that.