When I was 24 and went in for my yearly exam, I learned I was pregnant. Certainly it was something I wanted, some kind of made with love correction to my previous experience of pregnancy – which I had, in my teenage mind assumed was god punishing me for having sex before marriage, growing nightmare sized in my belly, but planted accidentally by love, god and I having long parted ways…
I wondered which of the two men I was dating might be the father, and if it mattered. I was smarter and dumber then – close enough to the tragedy of my first marriage’s end to know that love and an impending child are not enough, but not smart enough to use condoms with any regularity; I could stand on my own though, I knew at least that much.
On the table, my feet in stirrups, my doctor pushed her hands down to feel the shape of my uterus while I fantasized about what my life would be like, one child far away in New York with his father, and an infant I could love like no other, a love I had yet to experience for a child of mine (not yet anyway, I would discover that unconditional love for him in myself later – an act of grace) – But that day I daydreamed a new and whole life as I felt the scrape of the tiny brush the doctor used to take samples of my insides.
She said “you have some abnormal cell growth on your cervix, it may be an abrasion or a bit of growth that sometimes happens in pregnancy, but we’ll know in a couple days if you need a biopsy.” It was something like that. Normal. I didn’t worry about me, I worried about how to politely tell then men I was dating that I was having a baby and I didn’t know which of them should worry about it.
I didn’t tell Daniel I was pregnant at all, but I told Josh the next day. Josh wanted to get married, He was a writer and a Christian and a swimmer and a sinner and I was temptation there to trap him into behaving, at least to hear him tell it. He was firm in saying he didn’t believe in abortion, evil as it was. Evil as he thought I was he still implored me to move in with his mother. He would do the right thing, regardless of what I wanted.
A few days later I got the call. Abnormal. Come in for a biopsy, no need for an appointment, they’d fit me in. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to worry them until I knew. And then when I knew that parts of my cervix would need to be removed because of cancer, I told Daniel, but just about the cancer.
I wonder now about that fragmentation of trust, of who we choose to tell what… but I didn’t want to tell anyone the whole truth, dramatic as it was – part of it was shame, I’m sure, mitigating the emotional risk for myself. I’ve always been terrible at being the victim of circumstance; I don’t like people feeling sorry for me. It’s like I owe them something for their concern. And I didn’t want anyone to see my whole self, monstrous as I felt I was.
“The cancer will grow as rapidly as the baby does, you have to think of the child you already have, you have to mitigate the risk.” That’s what the nurse said to me when we discuss next steps. I thought the child I already had needed a mother and not me, but I arranged an abortion anyway and shelved all the plans I had about loving anyone.
I tried to read the New York Times up on the clinic’s operating table, and they wouldn’t let me do that, said I had to be present… but too, they wouldn’t let me see the tiny mass of blood and tissue that could have been someone, I wasn’t allowed to be that present, wasn’t allowed to say goodbye.
I didn’t tell Josh about the abortion or the cancer, I said it’d been a false alarm, maybe a miscarriage. I don’t know, I guess I thought it would be more than he could handle or maybe he didn’t deserve the whole truth. There were some tears and some things said that were felt at the time but not true. We broke up on the sidewalk in from of my apartment. Daniel and I stopped seeing one another soon after that as well.
I only had room for so much heartbreak. I didn’t tell anyone else anything, not even my family. Mitigating risk.
A week later I was in another operating room. My legs had been in stirrups so often by then they weren’t even uncomfortable. The surgeon sat there with her laser ready to cauterize the pieces of me that were growing wild and uncertain.
She looked at my chart and said “You’ve had a tough couple of weeks.” She said it so dispassionately I don’t think she really believed it. I was just another of her appointments, another of the irresponsible impoverished women who defined the way of her world, hour after hour. I didn’t cry, wouldn’t dare give her the satisfaction of knowing there was a human being attached to that chart.
The anger in my heart at that doctor, the anger that I’d let myself hope, the sound of a fetal heart monitor in the next room, and the smell of my own burning flesh as the laser did its work. That’s how I remember grief