The following guest post comes to us from Dr. Monica J. Casper, a sociologist, women’s health advocate, and creative writer who lives in Tucson, Arizona. Monica served as a member of the Planned Parenthood Arizona, Inc., board from 2012 to 2013. You can learn more about her work at www.monicajcasper.com.
A cautionary note: This is not the kind of tale you’re used to (or maybe it is?). There is no sweeping soundtrack, no Hollywood superstars falling blissfully in love onscreen, their whiter-than-white teeth dazzling a rapt audience. In this love story, there are no flowers, no sappy cards, no fairy tale endings with double rainbows and confetti.
This is not a romance.
But it is a story about people who love each other and the unexpected life choices we make. It is a memoir fragment about how some of us learn to map our uncertain futures in the warm clutch of parental benevolence. And maybe it is a ghost story, as well. The kind that haunts you, but also challenges you to imagine anew what you believe to be true and to reconsider who you believe you are, or will become.
The scene is Chicago, 1986, late July. It is hot, sticky, and intolerable, not even a whisper of cooling lake breeze. This is a typical sweltering summer day in my hometown.
Our whole lives unfurl before us, lives whose shape and direction we have not yet begun to fully imagine.
I fidget impatiently on the stoop of my parents’ basement apartment on the city’s North Side. They have recently sold our house in Wisconsin and moved back to the city to be closer to their work and my grandmother. Our house in the country now belongs to another family, farm people who have migrated off the land to live in town, and we are again urban dwellers. I have urgent news for my mom, who should be home any minute. I crack my knuckles and stretch my arms above my head.
What is taking her so long?
I stand up, needing to move. Concrete blisters my bare feet and sweat pools in my armpits as I pace nervously. Cars zip by on Fullerton Avenue and I am reminded of childhood, playing Kick the Can and Stranger Danger in the city’s gritty, familiar streets and alleyways. I am 19 now, not so many years older than when I patrolled the neighborhood with my sassy friends wearing bell-bottoms and halter-tops, owning the world.
I’m walking grooves in the pavement and reflecting on youthful adventures when Mom pulls up in the Buick.
She parks, exits the car, and walks to the trunk. Opening it, she yells, “Come help me, honey.”
Now that she’s here, I don’t want to see her. I drag one foot in front of the other until I reach the trunk. She squints suspiciously and hands over a cluster of bulging Jewel grocery bags.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
“Um, the rabbit died,” I announce nervously, clutching hot plastic between trembling fingers.
“What do you mean, the rabbit died?” Mom frowns and sweeps past me into the garden unit. She is laden with several bags of groceries in one hand and a gallon of milk in the other. An amateur bodybuilder, she can handle the load.
We don’t have a rabbit, a fact of which we are both keenly aware.
I trail after her, and we deposit our goods on the small Formica table in the cramped kitchen.
She turns to me, hands on curved hips, eyes flashing behind big, round glasses. “Honey? What are you talking about?”
“I went to a clinic today, to get the test. I’m … well, I guess I’m … pregnant.”
My stomach lurches as I verbalize these words. I might vomit. I gaze down at linoleum, fearing my mother’s reaction. My breasts suddenly tingle, armies of ants parading through them.
Mom says nothing for a full minute, just breathes heavily through her nose. I inhale her disquiet with each nervous breath, convinced I have done something wrong. I know she is staring at me because the top of my head is burning.
Then she utters one word, “Well.” This is followed by a long, drawn out sigh. I glance up to see her shoulders droop.
I shrink inside my skin, growing younger and smaller with every one of her exhalations. I am 10 years old again, called to the mother ship for breaking a favorite vase or chasing my sister around the house with a butcher knife.
But I am not a child.
I am a young adult, teetering on the edge of 20.
And I am pregnant.
Until the “positive” pregnancy test, I had been enjoying my summer break. A few weeks earlier, my boyfriend of two years had returned to Chicago from Minneapolis. After graduating from college in the spring, Max had gone home to look for work but disliked being trapped in the gloomy habitat of his parents’ stale marriage, without his siblings around for moral support.
So Max had come back to me and the life we were building together, much to his mother’s chagrin. We’ve been having fun since his return, bicycling along Lake Michigan, strolling through Lincoln Park, and catching new films at the Biograph.
Maybe we’ve had a bit too much fun.
In the throes of our reunion gaiety, and despite faithful use of my pliable, bisque-colored diaphragm on the rare occasions when we’ve had the apartment to ourselves, we have become “in the family way.”
So here I am on this scorching day, breaking the news to Mom.
She sinks into a chair at the kitchen table, surrounded by still-unpacked groceries. Her hazel eyes have now taken on a glimmer of disappointment and other emotions I cannot identify. I do not read even a scintilla of happiness in her expression.
I stand across from her, fold my arms across my churning stomach, and lean against the sink. The gallon of milk squats on the table between us dripping with condensation.
She asks, “So what will you do?”
I am surprised she does not interrogate me. She probably assumes Max and I have been sloppy. I wish she would ask me. I want to share my indignation that the diaphragm failed, that my pregnancy is a result of ineffective contraception and not irresponsibility.
“I’m not sure. Max and I still need to discuss things. But I’m not that enthusiastic about becoming a parent right now. I don’t think he is, either.”
Mom nods. “It would definitely change your lives if you had a baby.”
She says it like she knows. And of course, she does.
Mom married my biological father when she was just 16 years old, “for love.” My sister was born a year later and I came along two years after that, when my mother was 19, the same age I am right now.
This “genetic” coincidence is not lost on me. Nor do I wish to investigate it too thoroughly. Especially right now.
I sigh. “It’s important to me to graduate. If I stayed pregnant and had a baby, it would be much harder to finish school.”
Mom closes her eyes. She knows as well as I do that I’m on track to be our family’s first college graduate, ever, and from one of the best universities in the country. I’m on a scholarship but I also work during the school year. My parents are intensely proud of me.
She twists the little square tab on the red, plastic lid of the sweaty milk jug. “How far along are you?”
“I’m not sure. Four or five weeks? I still have time to make a decision.”
She reaches across the table, palm up, and wiggles her fingers. I step forward and grasp her hand. Squeezing mine, she says, “It’s OK, honey. Everything will be just fine.”
Max returns an hour later and I tell him I’ve informed my mother. He and I sit outside in the back yard making plans until my stepdad arrives home. Then we tell Denny, too, but without reference to dead rabbits.
During dinner — my folks have ordered a pizza, probably too stunned to cook — the four of us hold a family conference at the kitchen table. Denny is fairly quiet as Max, Mom, and I weigh the pros and cons of terminating versus continuing the pregnancy. I toy with my pizza, too queasy to eat.
This is not an easy conversation. But I am relieved to hear concern, and not judgment, in my parents’ voices.
Dinner ends and Denny takes my hand, just as Mom had earlier, and declares, “Whatever happens, you know we’ll support your decision. We love you a lot.” Tears sparkle in his blue eyes and his freckles glow.
He is truly the king of all stepdads.
I cry and hug him, unable to speak. I feel, not for the first time, very lucky to have the parents I do. I am keenly aware that not all girls are so blessed.
A few days later, I decide to terminate my pregnancy. Max supports this plan. Neither of us feels especially anguished about it. Sad, a bit confused, but it seems like the right thing to do given our life circumstances.
At 19, unlike my own mom in the mid-1960s, I am not at all ready to be a mother. Max is not prepared to be a father, no matter how caring and responsible he is. We are young and broke, and I still need to finish college. Max is about to embark on full-time employment and possibly graduate school.
Our whole lives unfurl before us, lives whose shape and direction we have not yet begun to fully imagine. But we have inklings and plans, enough to realize that a baby is not the best idea right now.
I book a visit to Planned Parenthood.
Days pass like molasses as I wait for the appointment. I throw up regularly. I am cranky, snapping at everyone in my path. Fortunately, Max and I find a furnished one-month sublet in Hyde Park, near campus, about a block from the lake. Unfortunately, we spend the better part of a steamy weekend moving our things from my parents’ apartment on the north side back to Hyde Park.
The move wilts me like a hothouse orchid.
Finally, the scheduled day arrives. Max and our friend Ella accompany me to the clinic. Anti-abortion activism has been in high gear, with bombings and other violence. I fully expect to be shouted at or accosted by wild-eyed protesters. This is one of the reasons I have invited Ella, a rugby player, to escort us. I also need her warm friendship to help carry me through this day.
When we arrive, the street in front of Planned Parenthood is eerily quiet. No fanatics or self-righteous men in sight. I am so grateful my knees weaken and I stumble into Max.
We file inside and I sign in at the reception desk. Several women and a few men are already seated; most of the women are young, although a few are in their 30s. I wonder which ones are here for abortions and which are here for birth control and other health care needs.
The three of us occupy a row of stained maroon chairs. I rifle anxiously through a magazine. Max and Ella chat nervously about a pro-choice rally Ella attended once, where a “Jesus freak” (her words) bashed her in the head with an anti-abortion sign. She still sports a scar from the gash in her skull.
A young woman in scrubs calls my name. I stand, lean over, and cling to Max. Ella presses my hand and flashes me a brave smile. Alone, I plod solemnly through a door and into the bowels of the clinic, leaving my friends in the waiting room.
I am scared and not sure what to expect.
I am ushered into a small office, beige with light-colored wood and maroon furniture. I sit on the couch next to a table covered with literature. I pick up a pamphlet on STDs and another on birth control.
Too late, I think.
Minutes pass. A large, pretty African-American woman with copper ringlets of hair comes into the room. She is carrying a clipboard and introduces herself as Roberta, a mental health counselor.
She announces, “Part of my job is to see how you’re feeling about this and how you’re holding up. So I’ll ask you a series of questions.”
I nod. “OK.”
“How are you feeling about your visit here today?”
“I guess I’m scared and anxious. But also relieved.”
She asks, “You feel like this is the right thing to do?”
I reply, “Yes, I do. My boyfriend and I have talked about it a lot, and we think this is the only thing that makes sense right now. I’m still in college, he just graduated, and we’re not ready to be parents.”
She asks, “Who else have you spoken with about this?”
“I discussed it with my parents as soon as I got the test results. And I’ve talked with some friends about it, one who’s here with me now, in the waiting room.”
Roberta looks surprised. “So your mom and dad know about your pregnancy?”
I nod again. “They’re supportive of my decision.” I feel a little smug when I say this, but I need to remind myself that I have not reached this moment alone. Obviously.
Roberta says, “That’s good, that your folks are so helpful. A lot of young women come here for abortions without ever telling their parents. It sounds like you have a good support network.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty fortunate.”
“What would you say your overall mental health is right now?” she inquires.
I think about this for a few moments. Crazy, I want to say, because I do feel unbalanced. Instead I reply, “I think it’s pretty good. I’m uneasy with all of this, but I feel like I’m doing something necessary. I really don’t think of the fetus as a baby, so it doesn’t feel that sad to me to be terminating the pregnancy.”
Roberta seems satisfied with my answer. She spends the next several minutes describing the procedure I will undergo, a machine vacuum aspiration using a cannula. A long tube will be attached to a pump on one end and inserted into my uterus on the other. Fetal tissue will then be pulled from my uterus by what Roberta terms the “gentle vacuum action” of the pump.
It sounds technical but fairly basic, like a dental procedure.
Roberta stands up and asks kindly, “Are you ready?”
I nod. And am instantly terrified.
We walk down the hallway and enter a room equipped with an exam table and various tools. A nurse is there, an older white woman with a halo of frizzy gray hair. She smiles — they smile a lot here — and says, “Hi, I’m Nancy.”
Roberta pats my arm, “You’ll be fine.” Then she leaves.
I undress and Nancy helps me into a pale green hospital gown, one of those faded, flimsy, cotton numbers held together by two strings. Properly attired, I lie down on the exam table and place my feet in stirrups.
Nancy asks, “Are you comfortable?”
What a dumb question, I think. I’m completely exposed here, you fruitcake.
I fib. “I’m fine.”
Nancy says, “Good. The doctor should be here any minute.”
She bustles around the office, transferring lubricant and instruments onto on a stainless steel tray.
The room is arctic. My legs begin to shudder violently. I try to keep still, but I am cold, so cold, and I cannot stop my body from shivering. I am filled with anxiety, like it’s been syringed into me.
Nancy notices the trembling and covers me with a flannel blanket. But my lower extremities, feet in stirrups and genitalia exposed, are like an iceberg cracking open and breaching in a polar sea.
The door flies open. A tall, middle-aged white man in scrubs marches in. He introduces himself as Dr. So-and-So. I never do catch his name, which seems bizarre to me. Shouldn’t I at least know who is doing this intimate thing to my body?
He positions himself on a stool adjacent to the exam table and fiddles with machinery. He looks up and asks, “All set?” Without waiting for an answer, he reaches between my legs and inserts his fingers.
While his digits explore my insides, presumably confirming pregnancy, he gazes at the ceiling with a slight frown on his smooth, pink face. I find myself wondering what’s on his mind. Does he think my reproductive organs feel normal? Does he like his job? Or is he trying to remember if he closed his garage door this morning?
He removes the probing fingers. “I’m going to numb your cervix. Then I’ll insert the cannula and start the vacuum. Roberta explained all of this to you?”
My face is an ice sculpture. I am unable to form words so I just wiggle my head a bit. Dr. So-and-So does not seem to notice my body is about to vibrate itself right off the exam table. Or if he does, he is ignoring the movement.
When the cannula is inserted, I thankfully feel nothing. Nancy fires up the vacuum. As soon as I hear the sound, I panic. I am no longer entirely sure I want to go through with this.
What if I die?
What if I develop an infection and can no longer have children?
I cringe as Dr. So-and-So begins evacuating my uterus.
It is deeply unpleasant. It does not hurt, exactly, but it also feels like nothing I have ever experienced, not even my period at its worst. My guts undulate in wave after cramping wave, and I am acutely aware that part of my body — albeit a transient part — is being liquefied and sucked through a narrow tube.
I burst into tears. Nancy takes my hand and massages my fingers into warmth. But Dr. So-and-So does not glance at me or offer a comforting word. His frown is replaced by a look of distaste, as if I have morphed from a malleable patient into an icky laboratory specimen.
I cry louder, my chest heaves. I try to hold my legs still so that I do not dislodge the equipment, but I can’t. My tears drip onto the exam table like winter rain and soak my gown.
When it is over, Dr. So-and-So quickly removes the cannula and turns off the pump. He performs another manual exam. He pulls his fingers from my vagina, slides off his gloves, folds them inside out, then drops them in the trash bin.
He does not acknowledge my tears. Perhaps he sees such histrionics all the time and is immune to them. Or maybe he’s simply doing his job and needs to maintain some emotional distance from female drama.
He picks up a clipboard with my file attached to it, jots a few notes, and hands it to Nancy. He offers a quick nod and departs without a backward glance.
I stare at the door, drying tears with the hem of my gown and wishing that Dr. So-and-So had smiled at me, touched my hand, reassured me like my parents had, telling me that everything would be OK.
I sniffle as Nancy helps me sit up. I take a deep breath and step gingerly off the exam table onto the floor. My insides throb. With Nancy holding my arm, I shuffle like an arthritic old woman toward the door. I fear that if I take normal steps, blood and tissue will rush out of me and hit the tile with a loud, squishy plop.
In the recovery room alongside other women, all of us reclining in large chairs, I gulp a cup of apple juice and nibble on cookies. My uterus cramps painfully and I feel sad and tired. Hormones, I tell myself. I rest for about 20 minutes. A nurse measures my vital statistics. She pronounces me in “good shape” and informs me I can leave.
I retrieve my clothes and dress quickly. Then slowly, I amble out of the recovery room through a different door than I had entered. I emerge into a small area, a truncated hallway of sorts, furnished with a few chairs and a narrow table covered with magazines and a telephone. Max and Ella are there.
When I see my friends, I cry. Max strokes my hair and Ella wraps her powerful arms around both of us. A full minute passes. When I have sufficiently pulled myself together, we step out of Planned Parenthood and into bright sunshine.
And I am no longer pregnant.
It took me two weeks to recuperate physically. My uterus clenched for days, and the pills I took were useless. I was exhausted and slept for hours on the lumpy futon scattered on the floor of our temporary dollhouse of a studio apartment. I bled volumes, soaking a carton of Kotex pads and staining my underwear and bedding. I developed an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. My breasts ached and I craved Doritos and whole chocolate milk.
I was a mess.
Emotionally, I was split wide open: caught between relief that the pregnancy was over, ensuring that I would not (yet) be a mother, and guilt that I had became pregnant in the first place. It was true that my diaphragm had not performed as expected. But, at just 19 years old, I was not quite ready to let myself off the hook. I was acutely aware of the horrible words slung like arrows at women who abort their babies.
Pro-choice, I learned, did not necessarily mean a smooth path. Yet at the same time, philosophically I did not believe I had destroyed a fully realized life, much less murdered a member of my own family. Nor did I linger over fantasies about the potential person who might have grown from the tiny cluster of cells extricated from my body.
September arrived that year on a chilly current off the lake, and I no longer felt like an invalid. My breasts had stopped hurting and my usual appetite had returned. I had celebrated my 20th birthday and started my junior year of college. I immersed myself in my studies, worked part-time at the university library, and spent most weekends with Max at his apartment on the North Side. I started taking the Pill, unable to trust the diaphragm.
In October, I broke from my daily routine to visit my parents. One Saturday, I sat with Denny at the kitchen table in the Surrey Court apartment. The windows were open and autumn crisped the air. Outside, orange and red leaves pirouetted gracefully in the wind. Inside, we sipped Tab and filled out paperwork for the insurance provider. Because I was still a student and considered a minor in actuarial terms, my visit to Planned Parenthood would be reimbursed.
Denny had completed the first part of the form and arrived at a section requesting information about “the nature of the condition or injury.” We described my condition — unintended pregnancy — as succinctly as we could. We figured they didn’t need all the visceral details.
But for the next question, my stalwart stepdad had no easy answer. He read it aloud: “Was the injury obtained on the job?”
He looked at me. I looked at him. And we began to giggle. We laughed until tears streamed from our eyes. We laughed so hard that we had to hold our stomachs as we rocked back and forth in our chairs, almost tipping over.
We were still chuckling when Mom walked into the kitchen five minutes later to see what the ruckus was all about. We told her in fits and spurts, and she laughed, too.
I was certain then, like I believed the earth was round and stars blazed across the night sky, that everything would be all right, just as my parents had promised when the rabbit died. I was indeed a lucky girl. I also understood that in the contest between an accidental pregnancy and an intentional future, I did choose a life — my own.
Some names in this story have been changed to preserve anonymity.