They say everything happens for a reason- and I found that easier to believe for a while.
But I call bullshit. Sometimes the worst happens for no reason whatsoever.
My daughter is a deep empath. She absorbs all of the family stories, feels sad for Godzilla when the M.U.T.O.S. are getting the upper hand. When she was about five when she wanted to take every homeless person home with us, as we had plenty of good food. They could sleep on her floor, she offered, or in sleeping bags in the living room. When I tell her stories about my childhood and how my brothers were mean to me (I usually tell them because the stories are hilarious,) she feels terrible for me and wants to somehow make it better.
So I can’t publicly write about one thing that happened to me because I’m worried it will somehow hurt her. There’s this part of me, this protective mama instinct that wants me to keep the truly ugly shit from her. I want my daughter to grow up thinking that pregnancy should be healthy. That the stories she hears that happen to strangers couldn’t possibly happen to her. When I thought of writing about this before, I imagined her years down the road thinking of this story, having been told, and worrying through her own first pregnancy, “What if it happens to me?” Or worse, that she would spend her pregnancy feeling sad for me and my experience – because that’s how she’s wired. Maybe this is the wrong approach, but as I’ve found in parenting, this is seat of the pants instinct stuff, so I’m going with my gut on this one. Hence, the anonymous story.
So why write it at all? To work it through?
No. I made my peace with this-or as much peace as you can make with the truly bad things that happen in your life- years ago. But there’s another part of me that remembers how very alone I was when all of this happened. I had heard no other story like mine, had nothing to compare to or sympathize with. Aside from the nurses who worked at the place where I got the procedure done, and my mother, and my husband, there was no one to talk to about this. It took a few years before I even saw an article where this had happened to someone else. And I did write about it once, anonymously for Salon in an op-ed piece because they were going to make “late-term” abortions illegal in my state. And for a time, they did. And I would have had no help at all had this happened to us a few years later.
My husband and I had shacked up for a few years when he figured it would be a good idea to get married. I was working, he was working, we enjoyed our early marriage as we had our first years together and four years into our marriage we bought a house. All of our ducks were in a row, he had a profession that could support us both, it was time to have a baby. I had contracted Lyme disease- nowhere near its east coast origins and had just finished my course of antibiotics and at my doctor’s advice, had allowed a month to pass after that. It was time to give it a whirl. I got pregnant in the first month. My husband had wanted kids since he was small, I was a bit more apprehensive about the whole thing, but was thrilled nonetheless. We were twelve weeks in and everything looked fine, so we came out of the closet, sat on our sunny bed on a Sunday morning with the phone (back when they were attached to walls) and called everyone we wanted to share the news with. Everyone was thrilled. This was really happening. I got the standard blood tests and we celebrated Christmas with family and I was 14 weeks along. My belly was getting round and hard. My brother said, “Oh, I just thought you were getting fat.” The day after Christmas I got a phone call. My doctor said that something in my blood test said we should probably get an in-depth ultrasound and an amnio. The chances were small, but something was up.
The doctor who did the ultrasound was so young, pretty, and comforting. She was a heart specialist and told us it looked like the baby had a hole in its heart, but it was too soon to know. My heart sank and I was terrified, but I knew this was common, this was reparable. I was 15 weeks and she wanted to check back with me in seven weeks. In the meantime they’d do an amnio.
I hadn’t felt particularly maternal yet in the pregnancy, mostly nauseous, semi-excited and uncomfortable. But when they put a needle in through my belly and it punctured through my skin, my uterus and into the amniotic sac, every part of my being wanted to sock the doctor in the jaw and run away from there. I stayed still because I knew the consequences, but marveled at this newly awakened inner mama bear. It was the first time during my pregnancy I felt I was actually carrying a child.
Amnios take ten days for results, as they grow cells in a petri dish before they can do what it is they do to figure things out. There was worry of Downs Syndrome, “the flap of skin” at the back of the baby’s head was an issue. I went home and reeled with worry, possible outcomes. I sat on our sofa with a book until my husband went to work. Then I cried, and worried and slept and looked out the window and cried and worried and slept. I didn’t tell anyone because what if it was nothing? And worse – what if it was something? I had worked with Downs kids in high school and I loved this kid so fiercely. I started reading up on Downs and other health complications that went along with it. We would manage. Each day I tried to pull myself together by the time my husband came home. I didn’t call my mom as often, it would be too much. When I did, I kept it short and cheerful and off the topic of the pregnancy. I was whistling down the wind.
The inevitable phone call from the doctor came, with good news/bad news. Good news, the baby did not have Downs. Bad news, they had “forgotten” to check for Trisomy 18, another genetic defect. They would need to start the ten day process all over again. Desperate and exhausted from waiting, I started calling friends who I thought might understand. To see if they’d heard of anything like this. I called one friend who insisted I “talk to your baby, love your baby,” which came from a good place, but didn’t much help. I called a friend in England who chipperly said, “Well, you’re not going to kill anything at this point, now, are you?” After these two calls I knew I had zero support in any part of these growing, confusing questions, aside from my husband. But he and I didn’t talk much, only about other things – it was too big and too scary. His mother called us, still elated from the pregnancy and insisted we take a weekly photo of my belly. We stopped answering the phone.
For Christmas we had been given gifts for the baby, which, even before I got that phone call from the doctor, felt like incredibly bad luck. I recalled stories of my mother not buying a crib until the last two weeks of pregnancy-just in case. Fifteen weeks along and we had gotten photo albums, stuffed animals and ornaments. One china pacifier, it opened up with a hinge, ostensibly for a keepsake such as a first lock of hair. Each one of these when they arrived, before any phone calls from doctors, felt like a harbinger of doom.
I had two obstetricians. One had farm sensibilities, was against medication during labor, had hands big enough to deliver cows and a bedside manner to match. When you’re pregnant, the size of your doctor’s hands tends to matter. She checked out my baby’s heartbeat, it was 18 weeks. She said “Wow, they’re letting you go a long time with this one.” That totally killed me.
Defensive of this child about which there was so much uncertainty, I said, “They think it’s just a heart issue.”
She guffawed and said, “Yeah, that’s fine and everything, but you don’t want to have a kid with an IQ of 2 or something.”
I wanted to punch her in the face and run. I was trying to draw up some hope and it seemed like I was the only one pulling for this kid.
I went in for my 22-week ultrasound to a different doctor this time. He was an older gentleman, a picture of his seven children on his wall. I quailed thinking I’d chosen a pro-life doctor –how would I handle any fallout if there were serious issues? His bedside manner was kind as he sprayed the warm jelly on my growing belly he said, “My wife insisted on the gel warmer.” He went quiet at the exam. Through fifteen minutes of utter silence and a grave expression on his face, I looked at the video of my fetus trying to make things out, but I couldn’t get a purchase on the image, aside from the head with its big black brain.
He cleaned off his hands and sent me and my husband home. He said, “I’d like you to come back at five so I can talk to you.”
And I knew. There was such inescapable awfulness shooting through me, my stomach flopping, my head crushed inward. The past seven weeks of waiting and worrying had paid off for the worst. As we took the highway home through the mountains I looked outside at the cool January day, it was the most beautiful time of year here. The sky was a clear, intense blue, the clouds big and puffy and the hills an array of greens and grays and browns, colors enriched by a recent rain. Beams of light shot down through the clouds like oil paintings from Bierstadt or Cole. God was mocking us. The most catastrophic things can happen and beauty goes on, relentless, unflinchingly, unfairly.
We went home and my husband held me for the next six hours and we cried and waited in a different way. For something inevitable and horrible.
We went back at five and the doctor told us that the fetus was not “viable.” That there was a cyst more than half the size of the brain in its head (the brain, it turns out, is not supposed to be black,) the spine was malformed and there were only two chambers in her heart –it was a girl. Her digestive system was just a mass of whiteness that was likely not functional, some of the organs not fully formed. He told us that if I carried the baby longer it would likely result in a dangerous miscarriage or I would carry it to term, go through labor, and once my heart stopped beating through her heart’s two chambers, she would die. He said he never liked to recommend it, but in this case, to spare further pain, we should terminate the pregnancy.
And he apologized and said he understood if we took legal action – against his own practice. The pretty doctor who had noticed there was something wrong with the baby’s heart? Our new doctor had gone back and reviewed her videotape of her ultrasound. All of this was apparent on the video of that fifteen-week ultrasound. From the head to the digestive system. We had waited seven weeks as I had gotten that much more pregnant for nothing.
He gave me the name of a place that did late term abortions and I was to call the next day. Which I did. The questions they asked, each one was more invasive than that first amnio. This was a three day (Three days! I thought I would be put under and that would be it. Three conscious days of losing my baby) procedure during which they widen the cervix slowly by inserting paper cylinders which would expand with the moisture from my body. I was likely to feel labor pains and cramping during this time. On the third day I would be ready for the procedure and yes, mercifully, they would knock me out.
The woman on the phone asked: Would I like to spend time with my baby after the procedure? Baby.
As the baby was at 22 weeks, it would need a death certificate. How would we like to dispose of the remains? Would we like a funeral? Or they could cremate the ashes and sprinkle them in a rose garden?
Would you like to give your baby a name or we can simply call it baby X?
All of these questions were impossible and horrible and unanswerable but somehow I stumbled through them. No, thank you, I don’t want to see her. Yes, ashes, please. Baby X is fine.
We went into the waiting room the next day where I had to fill out sheaves of forms, some of them letting me know that the procedure was less risky than taking a baby to term. After getting the first two paper expanders inserted I went home and watched LAW & ORDER, the only show I could take at this point. Fortunately there was a marathon on every day on a cable channel. And I cried. And I called my mom. Because even though she was Catholic and was so excited about this grandkid, I needed my Mommy. And, despite my shame and horror, I knew she was pro-choice. And I sobbed out my story to her. I don’t remember what she said, but I know it was supportive.
In front of LAW & ORDER, after having signed three different papers warning me, “this procedure cannot be reversed once it has begun,” I felt my baby kick for the first time. I don’t know what noise I made when it happened, but it was enough to bring my husband from the other room.
And we went in for the second day’s procedure. And I went home and watched more television. It would be over the next day. They gave me Vicodin to deal with the pain as things advanced. I still felt the baby kicking – in protest? The thing about Vicodin is it doesn’t make you feel less pain, nor does it allow you to sleep, it just makes you not care about the pain you’re in. I had nightmares so terrible that images weren’t even realistic or definable, it was just black, wide terror.
Then finally the day. And it would be over. And at least this time I would get knockout drugs. As I lay on the table drifting off the anaesthesiologist, a creepy-looking heavier-set guy with noisy adenoids said, “Why are you getting rid of this baby?”
I murmured some sort of answer as I passed out and realized that one should never be alone with a man in a room, especially when unconscious. Later I would imagine scenarios where this guy had studied as an anesthesiologist and was undercover causing women getting abortions misery just as they went under. What else had he done while I was alone with him? This is the kind of terror that lies underneath the rocks this event had unearthed in my subconscious.
I had the best sleep I’d gotten in eight weeks. I woke up and supposedly it was done and we went home.
My doctor called the next day. I had two women doctors, the big-handed one with no bed-side manner and a smaller-handed witty and chatty doctor. It was mercifully the latter who called me. All of my pro-lifer alarms went off when she said, “Why didn’t you call me? You should have called me and told me this was going on. I don’t know why the doctor didn’t call.” I had gone to the specialist who had recommended me to the clinic, my doctor had been out of the loop on the decision. She was gonna blow the whistle, give me a morality lecture. I didn’t think I could handle it. Why didn’t I ask my obstetrician if she was pro-choice when I took her on? When you go to an obstetrician, you’re thinking of getting pregnant, so it doesn’t necessarily cross your mind.
She said, “I am so sorry this happened. But listen, you know, this is a fluke. Just know that, a fluke.” How the worst thing that had ever happened to me could be a fluke, I don’t know. She also told me that the other doctor – with big hands – should have told me to wait a year to get pregnant after having Lyme disease. A full year. The heart specialist shouldn’t have missed the evidence of the ultrasound. The anesthesiologist shouldn’t have said that to me. The people who shouldn’t and should have were adding up in my life.
I spent two days on the sofa in waves of guilt, weeping and numbness. My husband went to the other room and played video games, checking on me about every hour, bringing me what I needed. He was being strong for me, I know, we didn’t talk about this. This was too big and horrible to talk about.
And then my milk came in. So I lay on the sofa, chest burning and aching with ice packs in waves of guilt, lactating for a baby who was now dead and sprinkled in some rose garden. I didn’t have a baby. I was not supposed to be making milk. More LAW & ORDER. The show had a pattern, you knew what to expect in each ten-minute chunk. Then by 45 minutes you knew if there would be a twist or if it would resolve in the final ten minutes. It was wonderfully predictable and deadening.
When I went for my follow-up appointment a very pretty young twenty-something nurse cheerfully led me into the exam room. Now knowing that my doctor was pro-choice, my initial fear of judgment was past.
The nurse said, “So why did you have an abortion?”
What? “I had to.”
“Didn’t you want this baby?” her brown eyes sparkled with judgment as she looked over my chart.
I hadn’t cried in about a week and I burst into sobs, “We wanted this baby. We wanted this baby very much.”
“Then why did you get rid of it?”
What? “I’d like to see the doctor please.”
I was a wreck when the big-handed doctor arrived. The farm doctor. I sobbed out my story and she said simply, “She shouldn’t have done that.” And went about her exam. Another shouldn’t.
“Everything happens for a reason.” Up until the year before, I had believed my life was fated somehow. The right things happened to bring my husband and me together a few times in our lives for the progression of our life to lead to our being together which was clearly meant to be. After nine months of looking for a house we had landed on one that we could afford without eating mac & cheese for 5 years to pay for it. In my life the right sequence of jobs had lined up to make each subsequent job make sense. Even when things didn’t happen that I wanted to, there ended up being a good reason for it in the end. If my husband – my best friend – and I were meant to be together, we were meant to have kids, right?
But fuck. Where was the reason here? Was there a lesson I was supposed to glean from this? Something I could take back to my life? Is this a child who wasn’t meant to be? For what possible reason did life throw us this fucking curveball of a devastation? Did fate or God or whatever drop this horrible experience in my lap for a reason? Were those people who “shouldn’t” – who underlined the severity of what I was going through – thrown into the mix because I somehow deserved them? Was I not meant to have children?
I wasn’t allowed to get pregnant for three months after, which was a relief as, while I wanted a child more than ever, now and supposedly it was just a “fluke” I couldn’t imagine going through any of it again.
As soon as I was able, I took to yoga. I had gone to one class at the YMCA –my first encounter ever – before that phone call in December. There was something so caring about the gentle stretching, the going through a specific order of motions, the quiet meditation after. It was now late February and the flowers were blooming, the earth was putting out a damp, green, promising smell and I was supposed to be allowed to heal. I had gained about fifteen pounds with this pregnancy that simply wasn’t going away. Another reminder. At the time I thought you should just “move on” after something bad had happened. It’s the way people did things. A bit of mourning and move on, like in a movie.
In the weekly yoga class, gently guided by an extremely tiny woman with sparkling brown eyes, freckles and a deep kindness that emanated from her, I could quiet the crazy noise in my head (the anesthesiologist, the nurse, that doctor- we weren’t suing people, and if I sued it would mean sitting in court and going through this over and over again. Had I eaten something bad during pregnancy? Was there a toxic dampness coming through my bedroom floor where plants won’t grow outside it? Am I not meant to have children? What if it happened again? Well then we would adopt. I probably couldn’t get pregnant again, that anesthesiologist probably did something. Stop being crazy. Is Bush going to go through registries of people who’d had abortions? Would I be sent to some sort of a pro-life camp?) I could tune this out and follow my yogi’s gentle instructions. I started going two, three times a week and when I came back from one session, breathing deeply, fully, color in my face again, my husband said, smiling, “You can go to yoga always.”
After a month and a half, I asked my yogi for meditation for bravery. She asked why and I simply said, “I need to be brave enough to get pregnant again.” She understood and gave me a course to follow. I don’t know if it helped, but it made me feel I was doing something.
Three months passed and it was safe and with absolute and total fear despite encouragement to the contrary, we let the birth control go. And got pregnant right away. And whistled down the wind through that first exam. And the blood tests. And after the first ultrasound showed no problems, we opted out of an amnio (which is a risk factor for premature labor.) And after being told at 22 weeks that our boy had water on his kidneys, which would either clear up on its own in seven weeks (why always seven? Was this a biblical thing?) or he would need a kidney transplant. By the way he has a one in two hundred and fifty percent chance of having Downs Syndrome. We forged onward. We had been through the worst.
I had a beautiful, healthy-kidneyed Apgar-passing baby boy one month after the one-year anniversary of losing the baby. And he was fine, and healthy and screamed like holy hell for his first four months. Every day reminding his howls reminded me I was lucky to have him (or so I reminded myself, sleep-deprived, when the howling wouldn’t stop.) And he wouldn’t be here if the timing hadn’t gone the way it had. As he grew into a fine young man who cares about the planet and world and people, and I can’t help but think this planet needs him and I am very grateful he’s here.
Time passed and our state moved to ban “late-term abortion” and I got to listen as white congressmen described the details of my trauma in the most grisly terms possible, talking about the pain for the fetus and how barbaric the procedure was; the procedure which is developed to cause minimal damage to the mother. The child was under the same anesthetic as I – this I know. These men were beating moralistic terms for their own gains and acted as if women were disposing of healthy babies late in their pregnancy on a whim. They were reducing what I went through. I wrote heartfelt letters to my Senators to state my case. I wrote to Salon, then just an upstart online magazine, anonymously and they published it. And it was only then that I found other women who had been through the same thing. So many other women. Women whose fetuses developed with no skull, or with a heart on the outside of their bodies. Women who had been suffering alone and watching Law & Order? Eating too much chocolate and crying alone with no one to talk to? Lactating for a child they couldn’t have? I found power in these numbers and wished I’d seen some of the letters when I went through what I did.
And if it weren’t for the abortion, the timing would not have worked out to bring us my boy. And I can’t imagine the planet without him and I think that he is with his big thinking and ecological bent—good for this earth on which we live.
Everything happens for a reason.
And when he is driving me up one wall across another or causes momentary lapses in faith, I remind myself how much I wanted him and how lucky I am to have him here.
Years later, my sister in law went through something similar, but earlier, more diagnosable. And I was able to be there for her. A friend who knew what happened to me sent me another friend who was going through something similar. And I was able to be there for her. I had a friend who had Lyme’s disease and was thinking about getting pregnant. I was able to talk her into waiting for a year.
Everything happens for a reason. Right?
Bullshit. I call total bullshit. Because no matter how far I get from that dark, horrible winter, I cannot think that any of it should have happened. It shouldn’t. My doctor should have told me to wait a year, the second doctor should have told me the fetus wasn’t viable, the anesthesiologist and the nurse shouldn’t have chided me, none of it had a reason. It happened. And it sucked.
My kids are each on their own spiritual journey and when they raise questions like, “How could God do that to people?” I spout my lifetime philosophy to them. “Shit happens. But God (or humanity, or our reason for being for my atheist friends) is in everything that is good in the world.”
Because there are so many people who have been through far worse than the story above. So many friends of mine with ugly, unbearable, terrible things life has thrown them. God didn’t do that to them. And those ugly things were not teaching moments, they were horrible, awful undeniably bad things that happened.
But what they we do with what happened to us, any of us, can, I hope, somehow make life more bearable for someone else out there.
Emily Rapp lost her son, Ronan, to Tay-Sachs disease. She wrote her way through it railing against it, asking questions of it, shaking her fist at it. The result is her beautiful memoir Still Point of the Turning World. I read it because, knowing Emily, I had been following Ronan’s heartbreaking story. I wanted to be a witness for her. For the worst unbearable. Because no one should have to go through the awful shit alone.
She says that writing the book was her way through it, but the book had an unexpected personal affect on me. Through reading about her worst possible, I found a space to help me deal with my father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. Through the grace Emily found in spending time with her son as he was, not thinking about what he might have been, I found a space in which to embrace what my dad is, not what he once was. And in that space is the love that gets me through these alarming changes and the slow erasure of his once brilliant mind.
So, fifteen years after the fact, I have shared my worst. There it is. I hope it helps someone who has been through the same, or strikes a nerve in some unexpected way. Share your worst, you never know how it may help.