Today is a small anniversary of mine, although not a joyful nor auspicious one. In early 1994 when I was seventeen my boyfriend D.* and I had fought – violently, no doubt – around New Year’s. We’d made up, if you could apply such a wholesome term to what was a deeply troubled relationship. In early April I discovered I was pregnant.
D. had been my boyfriend since age fourteen. At first he was my real true boyfriend, but after a while he wanted to have other girlfriends – and keep me too. One of the most painful things for me to recount is that for years I thought I was the one wronged – by everyone else – in all this. I never considered how much I was wronging myself by staying with a man (boy!) who could cheat on multiple girls and who displayed, as years went on, a shocking degree of sadism. I never considered how much I was wronging D.’s other girlfriends. I am ashamed to say I never felt badly for them. I never even realized how much slut-shaming I “deserved” by being his secret; I simply saw myself as the wronged party. I was the one who went to his family gatherings and his sporting events. I was graced by visits at my window at night, his obsessive back-and-forth as to my worth and desirability, his aggressive sexuality. He’d climb up through the window and sleep over and in my life he was the narrow focal point of all my passion and fixations. In the morning and at school we were just friends. He went to the dances with the other girlfriend, whomever she happened to be. And yes, I suffered, to be sure. Yet I had good friends in high school and did well in grades and had a loving family. My suffering was, for a long time, within my tolerance.
This went on almost four years during which there were three different girls (because we really were girls then, not yet women).
Thus when I became pregnant I felt there was an extra-special-sauce of secrecy involved (I have since learned our culture categorically applies this sub rosa suffering and shaming to women, their bodies, and their medical issues, whatever the circumstance). Yet I am not really a secrecy type person, you may have noticed. I told my parents about the pregnancy. I told my close friends about the pregnancy. I did not tell anyone else. Eventually I became angry with D. who looked to be the type to float unscathed through what felt like a destruction of the life I’d known; I instructed him (probably demanded of him) that he tell his mother. I remember she took me out for some kind of friendly lunch (just me! because I was the problem!). She embarked on a bunch of rambly mansplaining that basically boiled down to: you’re doing the right thing to have an abortion and not let anyone know about it. At the time I loathed her for her condescension although now I can imagine what fear she must have felt. Neither she nor D.’s father were raising their son; they both lived hours away (and in the case of the father, across an ocean). D. was being raised by his grandparents (both good eggs). Only now that I have children of my own can I begin to fathom how lonely his parental abandonment might have felt to him.
More or less on my own I came to the conclusion to have an abortion. D. did not object. It is truly hard to remember details this long-ago April, even given it was such a formative one for me. Events and indelible impressions are all that remain. I wish I’d kept the writings I created during this time.
The trip to Tacoma was a two-day visit as it was a two-day procedure. My parents helped me with money (I can’t remember if D. came up with some; his family had more than mine). They also loaned me the family car. They were fucking troopers. I required not their presence but I did require D.’s. Even as a scared, wounded, self-absorbed and deeply suffering young woman I was still Me.
That first day we sat in a gloomy office while the MD explained the procedures. Let me tell you, there was no upside to that meeting. D. just sat through it and suffered in his own way, although I saw no signs of feeling within him. The MD was professional but there could not be much joy in his work. I was to have a small object inserted in the os of the uterus that would biochemically begin the dilation of my cervix to ease tomorrow’s procedure. I remember the name of the medicinal instrument of dilation, laminaria. Incredibly, it was derived from seaweed. The insertion of it was no picnic, I shall say here dryly.
One of the most dismal memories was that first day and night. Driving away from the clinic I immediately asked D. to pull over as I vomited from pain. D. dropped me off at our room in an EconoLodge (an EconoLodge in Tacoma, WA is even more depressing than you’re probably imagining!). He then went back to Hoquiam (a two hour drive) to play in a sport event so no one would think anything was out of the ordinary. I was alone. The pain increased and the vomiting became excessive. I remember lying on the hotel bed, writhing about and waiting until I’d have to throw up. The throwing up became kind of a highlight. The television was on, playing 1963’s excessive and lavish film Cleopatra, one of the most expensive films ever made. Elizabeth Taylor was so beautiful and regal and ridiculously overplayed (“These hips can bear you sons. My breasts are melons from which they could suckle” or some such thing). I remember wishing I wasn’t in Hell but being glad for this surreal slice of an artificial Heaven.
I was alone.
The pain became so great I called the clinic for some suggestion or some reassurance I would not die. To my amazement, two nurses drove to see me in my hotel room. They had a shot of something, Demerol probably. They gave me the injection in my hip and they sat and talked with me while it took effect. They were not emotive or demonstrative but their presence washed over me like light. They were the focal point in my room. What they thought of me I don’t know; I remember being embarrassed to be such a wretch, abandoned, immoral, suffering. These women gave me more assistance by their kindness (and pharmaceuticals) than they could possibly know.
The next day I remember even less. I remember the procedure, the sound and the sights of the instrumentation. I did not like the doctor, a bearded white older man. While I recuperated in surgery, dosed with pain medicine if not sedated, the nurses brought in flowers and a teddy bear D. had purchased while I’d been operated on. It is so sad that in my state I did not see any kindness in D.’s actions but only his desire to keep up appearances for these nurses. The truth is, I do not know if he felt any kindness for me.
My impression of my friends and family during this time is one of selfishness and an undue penchant for drama. I cannot tell whether they responded poorly or my cynicism and hurt eclipsed the care they may have tried to afford me. I remember the strong impression I had: Oh dear Kelly is going through this, isn’t it (grisly and drama and secret and exciting!). There were whispers and there was gossip; a friend’s mother gave me some tearful line about how much she suffered when the mother of D.’s “real” girlfriend chatted to her about her daughter’s dance dress, in blissful unawareness of what was happening in Tacoma. The fact so many women and girls worked in such concert to shield D. from any responsibility truly floors me to this day.
My family got me through, although they were mostly clumsy and inept. My brother never said words to me on the subject, but my love for him was strong. My mother suffered with me, enough that her own suffering became her preoccupation. After my abortion I told her I needed privacy and confidentiality for some time; soon thereafter I found a letter she’d written to my sister, giving voice to her inner agonies. I confronted her angrily. She never apologized for her actions; she told me how much she had suffered. I am not sure if I have forgiven her although I do understand her, I think.
My father let me down a bit. The day he found out – when I told them – he said he was “disappointed” in me. I could have told him a few things about disappointment too. And yet the only personal bit of comfort I can remember took place at home a few days after I’d had the abortion, and involved this same man. It was dinner and things were back to ritual. And I am a person who can be normal and high-functioning no matter what is happening in my heart and mind. Our dinner was typical (that is warm, loving, and sharing) and my mom and brother were talking and I decided I needed to go to my room. I got up from the table and I saw my dad’s eyes upon me. I went upstairs and sat on my bed and just cried. It’s probably not possible for a man to know this kind of crying. A minute later my father was in the room and sat on the bed and put his arm around me. My father and I hardly ever, ever hugged; neither he nor I have a demonstrative nature. It is kind of amazing I even accepted anyone in this moment of vulnerability, but I did.
Recovery was horrid. One of life’s amazing mysteries, but one is not allowed to share it with anyone. My breasts swelled, my body confused at the baby here-now-gone. I remember feeling great sorrow for women who had lost a baby, a baby they’d wanted or a baby they were unsure about or a baby they didn’t want or a baby they didn’t even want to admit was a baby. I wrapped my breasts against my body so I would look “normal” for everyone else.
And that was it. A blip on most everyone else’s radar, a chasm of despair and wrongness and isolation for me, life crushed. Through my high school career I only heard one other rumor of a girl who’d had an abortion, although I know there must have been more. I never once saw a young man taken to task for his role in anything like this.
I didn’t leave D. after the abortion. I left him about a year later, after a fight in which he threw me down his stairs while I shouted and threatened to leave. When I came to rest he’d run down the stairs after me; he took my car keys from my hand and beat me about the head and chest with them. He had hit me before but something about the cruelty of the whole thing – that he would take something from my hand and beat me with it – and I stepped across some kind of line and decided to take care of myself. When I escaped the tussle I ran across the highway and flung myself into the car and sat crying, utterly destroyed. I knew I had left him, although I was terrified he would come out and attempt any kind of reconciliation as he had done before. Note I was not terrified of being beaten more, but of my own nature. Maybe some shred of decency within him decided to save himself as well, because this time he did not pursue me.
I did not forgive myself for my abortion for over four years.
This meant that every time someone off-handedly tossed off the word “slut”, or sneered at teenage mothers (as so many do still), or the supposed scourge of girls who live life without consequence, I felt they were talking about me. This meant when abortion was mentioned in a film or a song (the Ben Folds Five song “Brick” came out a few years ago and played on the radio incessantly, to my excruciating pain) it felt personal enough my chest would constrict; I couldn’t quite breathe right. Perhaps because I’d been so isolated during this time it took me years, years to work through my feelings (Note: I felt the feelings of Stupid, Guilty, Wrong, and Immoral from Day One). One night in the arms of a new boyfriend (who was to become my husband and give me children) I asked God for forgiveness and I cried and cried. While I cried I felt my boyfriend’s confusion but I also felt his acceptance of me and my suffering. This was me at my most vulnerable, but somehow I survived the display. Even today my suffering sometimes makes me feel small and weak and horrid. Even today I am embarrassed that I emoted so much, and that I lost so much dignity.
Four years of punishing myself is a long time. Yet the forgiveness I asked for in God that night, either because God is real or because something else entirely happened, this forgiveness stuck. I forgave myself although as you can see, I never forgot. I forgave D. although he in no way ever apologized nor acknowledged wrongdoing on his part. I feel even now simply sadness for him, although I never want to see him again – so maybe I have other feelings too. After all, forgiveness is powerful but pain has never truly receded.
One lesson hard-learned amongst many is how much my pain inconvenienced or discomforted others and how poorly they responded. I do not want to be this person in response to those in my life who suffer. I wonder if the love and presence and joy and humor I gave my father when it was his turn to be vulnerable, when he was on the bed and really dying and it was me sitting next to him and offering comfort, if it mattered much at all. Perhaps he didn’t need me but he needed better than so many others often have to give. I wonder if this ability of mine is a gift hard-earned by my own period of darkness and suffering. If so, it came at a price. I am sad that in my heart I have not forgiven so many for their inadequacy in responding to my pain. My pain was not their fault and I know this.
Perhaps forgiveness is a path one has to continue upon anew, over and over. It may look complete from afar, but upon closer examination there is more to be done.
I cannot account for why at the age of seventeen I behaved more like a victim than an author of my own life, or like a wounded and mistrustful child rather than a mature adult. I was not a healthy person inside – tethered to an abusive boyfriend, allowing myself the risks of a pregnancy I was not ready to carry to completion. When the decision came down to it I took responsibility and made the choice I did, one I have suffered over and reflected much on. Maybe many wouldn’t see it this way, but I see a heroism and a show of strength in my seventeen year old self. In any case, anyone else’s opinion of me personally matters little. Each choice and the resultant experience made me much of who I am today. The person I might have been otherwise, she set upon a different path and is separated from me forever.
* Not his real initial! I mean of course!