The first thing I did after saying hello to my mother-in-law as she walked through the front door with her Burberry plaid luggage was to run to the bathroom and throw up. It must be the raw meat, I thought. The smell of it cooking, combined with my nervousness of having a house guest who would do nothing but criticize me the entire weekend, must be the reason for my weak stomach.
Three days later, as she wheeled her bag back through the front door with one final weight loss suggestion, I ran back into the bathroom and watched as a bright pink line appeared in the window of the plastic stick sitting on the back of the toilet.
I was 26 at the time, newly married, and being pregnant was the last thing I was expecting. We were so careful. “Except this time…” my mother said. She didn’t mean it to sound as unkind as it did, and she may have been right. Truthfully, I don’t really remember, as I don’t really remember a lot of that time.
“So you’re taking blood thinners…” the doctor said as he looked into my drawn face. I nodded. “Do you know anything about this blood disorder you have?” I didn’t. I only knew that in the late ’80s I had been in the hospital twice for clots in my leg and lungs, and had almost died. Since then, I had been on a medication to prevent blood clots. The doctors didn’t know what had caused it then. But in 1996, this doctor knew, because the blood disorder had just been named. Hughes Syndrome. An autoimmune disorder that causes the blood to coagulate inside the body. A lifetime of blood thinner medication and frequent needle pokes to check the levels. No skiing. No motorcycle riding. No white water rafting. “You’re about two weeks along,” the doctor explained. “If you go on complete bed rest starting today, the chances of you having a miscarriage are about 98%. The chances of the baby being born with a serious birth defect are about 96%. The chances of you dying while trying to carry this baby to term are about 97%. Most doctors would tell you that you have a choice to make.”
My husband hadn’t gone to the doctor with me, and when I told him what I had found out, he didn’t believe me. He called the doctor himself. When he got off the phone, his face looked gray in the dim light of our small apartment. He drew his lips together tightly and barely managed to look at me as he spoke. “So I guess you won’t be having it then.” Before I could answer, he marched to the bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
I slept on the couch that night and for the next three weeks.
No one ever called it an abortion. It was a D & C. A procedure. The fetus wasn’t big enough to be safely removed, so for two weeks I had to let it grow inside me. I also had to give myself shots twice a day from a syringe filled with so powerful a blood thinner that I wasn’t allowed to work, and I wasn’t supposed to drive, walk or do much of anything other than lie in bed because the risk of hemorrhaging was so great. Even though I was very early in the pregnancy, it took its toll on me. I was nauseous all the time. Exhausted. Disoriented.
I spent the days drinking coffee to try to keep awake. At night, I swilled cheap wine, partly to help me fall asleep and partly to remind myself that I was not carrying a baby. It was a fetus. Something I didn’t want and didn’t ask for, and if given a chance, would probably kill me in the end. My brain and heart were in constant battle, and I had never felt so alone.
My parents drove down to the Bay Area for the procedure. The day before, the doctor had placed sticks inside my cervix to dilate it. With my feet in the stirrups and tears streaming down my cheeks, he bent over so that he could look directly in my eyes. “If I put these in, there’s no going back. You will be making the choice to end the life of your baby.” I closed my eyes so that I didn’t have to see him any longer. “I know,” I said. “I’m ready.”
Afterward, he stood up and shook his head. “This is as far as my conscience will allow me to go. Another doctor will be taking over and performing your procedure tomorrow.” He left the room abruptly as the nurse helped me get dressed.
At the hospital I was surrounded by women. My mom stayed with me until the very last minute. Two sweet nurses hovered – one to put in the i.v. and take my blood pressure, the other to hold my hand and dry my face. “Oh honey, don’t worry,” she whispered softly, “you can always have another one.” She couldn’t have known that, in fact, I couldn’t have another. And being trained in politeness, as most women are, I tried to smile. “Thank you.”
I have always woken up under anesthesia. In the middle of the procedure, I sat up on the table long enough to see a pool of blood, and what my drug-addled mind thought was a fully developed baby. A nurse came running; someone pushed me down. The next face I saw was my mother’s telling me that everything was alright. That I had come through just fine.
Life resumed. I went back to work. My husband, his white picket dreams destroyed, could hardly contain his disgust, and I ran home to Humboldt as soon as I could.
Sixteen years later, I have almost recovered. I never cry when I see new babies anymore. I’m no longer angry at the asshole of a doctor or my asshole of an ex-husband. The biological longing of my empty womb has thankfully ceased. I’m happy to have nieces and nephews and chickens and friends with adorable children.
Mostly, when I think about that time, though, I’m happy that it happened in 1996. In California. If it happened today, in Texas, things would be a lot different. Even though I only had a 3% chance to live through the pregnancy, I would have been forced to lie on a table, spread my legs and be raped by a technician with an electronic wand. A doctor would have described everything about the fetus growing inside me, and then I would have had to wait for at least 24 hours before having the abortion. Every effort would have been made to shame me, humiliate me, torture me because I was making the best decision possible for my life and my body.
While this was an easy decision for me to make, it was not a decision made lightly.
Thinking about women being forced to go through this in Texas, as well as the other states that are following suit, doesn’t leave me feeling sad. It leaves me feeling outraged. Outraged and helpless. We can work, over time, to elect pro-choice candidates and those who support women’s health, but what can we do right now?
Nothing. Except this. This is all that any of us can do right now. Write our truth. Speak our truth. Sing our truth. Scream our truth.
Until somebody fucking listens.