It is May 1977, and I’m a few weeks shy of my twenty-third birthday when Danny drives me to Planned Parenthood in Hempstead, New York. Only four short years earlier, Roe v. Wade made abortions legal throughout the land. We are lucky.
As I open the car door, Danny rushes to help me onto the pavement and places his arm around my waist as we make our way to the entrance. We dodge protestors who hold signs and shout about the life we are killing, “It’s not too late. You don’t have to kill your baby.”
I stare at the pebbled pavement, wishing I felt no shame. Danny tries to shelter me with an arm wrapped around my shoulder. We enter tinted glass doors and step into a sallow entrance lit with failing fluorescent lights.
Two women greet us with warm smiles, “Welcome to Planned Parenthood.”
I’m thinking maybe they should welcome us to unplanned parenthood. They tell Dan to return in a few hours. His lips brush my cheek before I am led down a narrow hallway into a bleak office where details are provided about the procedure I have invited into my womb. I sign a consent form as if giving permission to have my toenails clipped. I feel like a hijacked passenger on my way to an unknown destination. A nurse prods me from my stupor to ask me to pee into a cup. It’s a precaution because I suppose some women show up for an abortion, only to discover they’re actually not pregnant. In my case, there’s no doubt. I’m more than eight weeks along and want to puke.
After arranging the hospital gown to maintain some modesty, I place my feet into paper slippers and a nurse tells me to follow her down a long hallway. I focus on the sound of my scuffling until she points to a gurney where I am told to lay down. She places a blanket over my shivering body and quietly asks if I’m okay. I am not. I am cold, and I am frightened. She squeezes my hand before I am wheeled into a room where other women rest on gurneys, waiting their turns. There are at least twelve of us examining the pores in the ceiling tiles, as IVs drip sedatives into our veins to keep us from freaking out. It’s not working. A few women are crying. Softly. I try to ignore the noise by closing my eyes and retreating into my thoughts.
I think about this past week beginning with the call from the doctor’s office. “Congratulations, Miss Shields, you’re pregnant.” A nurse cheerfully announced over the phone.
“Are you sure?” I remember the wave of nausea that washed over me.
“Oh, there’s no doubt. Would you like us to make an appointment with the doctor?”
“No, thank you.” No, no thank you. I do not want to see the doctor. I do not want further confirmation of the unthinkable.
A few weeks earlier, Danny and I spent a weekend in the Adirondacks, at my parent’s cottage on Osgood Pond. When I woke to the aroma of trout my father pan fried for breakfast, I vomited. I love trout and blueberry muffins―a classic Adirondack breakfast treat. The only thing that made sense was a stomach virus, but fortunately I felt better later in the afternoon when we headed out to hike St. Regis mountain. When we returned home (to my parent’s house) to Long Island on Sunday night, I vomited again. Apparently, I thought, the virus has returned. Later that week, I joined Danny on his run but near the end of the first mile, I was breathing heavily. The more I panted, the more nauseous I felt. When I vomited into bushes along the way, I associated that lovely act with the exertion I wasn’t accustomed to making. We ended the run and did some stretching on my parent’s back lawn when it occurred to me that I had missed a period the month before and was late once again.
At twenty-two, I am casual about birth control, believing without evidence, that I am immune to an unplanned pregnancy. Pregnancy is something that happens to other people, but magical thinking can only take a person so far, and now I am about to have a major confrontation with the limitations of my faulty belief system. Yes, I had sex some weeks before, spontaneously and without birth control, but it was a beautiful day and we were outdoors in a field of fresh spring grass in the Catskills, with absolutely no one around. One thing led to another in that idyllic setting. And, yes, I missed one period and now another. Yes, I am often nauseous. Yes, it is possible I am pregnant even though I am not married and haven’t yet worked a full-time job. Therefore, in case the impossible is possible, I call a doctor to request a blood test.
During one of our many conversations about our future, Danny and I discussed the possibility that we might marry―someday, but marriage and children are abstractions. We have only recently finished college. I am completing a master’s program and Danny is scheduled to begin law school in the fall. I am twenty-two and Danny twenty-three―too young for marriage. But after the call from the doctor, our conversations shift and we move into high gear, obsessively discussing the possibility of having a baby.
“I can’t believe you’re pregnant.” Dan stares at my body searching for a sign, but I think I look exactly the same as I did the week before.
“I can’t either. I mean it was like one time. I know that’s possible, but still.”
“I love the idea of having kids. I want to have lots of kids. At least three, maybe four.”
“Me too, but do you think we can do this? Do you think we can have a baby now?”
“I don’t know,” he says while lighting a joint he will finish by himself. “But you’d be a great mother.”
Maybe it’s the hormones impacting my judgment and pot impacting his, but suddenly a baby seems romantic. We can do this. We can have an adorable, miniature version of ourselves, toddling about and loving us unconditionally.
We call his parents to share the news and ask their advice. I don’t tell my parents because I know they will go nuts. My father is a Catholic, and this will create a moral dilemma for him. My mother is a pragmatist who would not want me to have a child before my life has begun. They are both worriers and this news will escalate their anxieties to levels I don’t want to witness. When we call Dan’s parents, they each pick up an extension. They are clear. Do. Not. Have. A. Baby. That is a bad idea. They understand the excitement, “Listen guys, we can’t wait to be grandparents, but this is not the time.” They have experience with this. His father tells us, “Danny, your Aunt Michelle and Uncle Paul married because Michelle was pregnant. Having Marc set them behind from day one.”
“But they have a happy marriage and two wonderful sons.”
“You weren’t there. You don’t know. We saw them suffer. They lived hand to mouth. My brother, Paul wanted to go to college and never completed his degree. Years later, after the kids were grown, Michelle finally went back to school. We’re telling you. It was rough for many years.”
His mother adds her voice, “I know you’re feeling sad right now, but I don’t see any other way. You don’t have to go through with this pregnancy. You’re fortunate because you can have an abortion. It’s not like it was when we were young and girls went away or gave their babies up for adoption.”
“I know, but still,” I say. “We love the idea of having a baby.” I smile as I imagine holding a tiny infant wrapped in a soft flannel blanket.
“Of course you do, I understand.” his mother assures us. “You’ll be great parents when the time is right. Danny, you’re starting law school. You need to finish that. And Wendy, you haven’t started your teaching career yet. You have a job lined up in the fall. You don’t want to give that up. Trust us, abortion is a better choice than having a baby at this stage. Later, if you decide to have children, you can become a family without pressure.”
“You really think we won’t regret an abortion?” Dan asks.
“No, we promise, you won’t regret it,” his father affirms. “We understand how hard this is. But it’s the right decision.”
We hang up and I begin to feel the loss of the child I will never know. That night we stay awake talking until the sky reddens and between tears conclude the best way to compensate for our grief is to commit to marriage. We will have children, lots of children, starting as soon as Danny finishes law school and gets hired as a lawyer. We will marry at the end of the summer. This promise makes our circumstances less depressing, and I feel some relief as we make plans for the abortion.
Finally, it is my turn. I am wheeled into a sterile, white-tiled room, and a mask is placed over my nose and mouth. I am told to count backward starting with ten. I wake in a room surrounded by other recovering women. A nurse brings us crackers and ginger ale, and when we are able to stand and dress, we assemble to hear a lecture on birth control. We are told:
1.) You can get pregnant any time of the month.
2.) The pill is the safest and most effective form of birth control.
3.) We don’t want to see you back here again.
Though I understood the mechanics of reproduction, I didn’t grasp the ease with which some women conceive. I have learned my lesson. My mother never discussed pregnancy prevention, not when I was ten and given pamphlets to read about my changing body, nor when I was older and beginning to date. Only adults who have sex need to know about birth control and since my mother never considered me an adult, there was no need to provide this information. In college, I borrowed a friend’s pills and took them for a month before seeing a boy I liked. After a weekend with this boy, I stopped taking the pills. It was that simple. My preferred form of birth control was luck.
Danny is waiting in the reception area. As he drives home, I drift in and out of drug- induced sleep, but I hear Dan whisper, “I love you so much. You did great.”
He settles me upstairs in my twin bed, pushing aside stuffed Teddy bears. While I sleep, he gets on the phone with his dealer, Russell. I wake in the early evening and Dan asks if I’m okay. He also asks if I would go with him to Queens to pick up some pot. I say sure because I am still under the effects of the sedation, making me agreeable to pretty much anything. We drive thirty minutes on the Long Island Expressway to Fresh Meadows where Danny buys an ounce. I feel woozy but sit quietly on the couch as Danny tastes his purchase.
Over breakfast the next morning, I blurt the truth to my mother. I want her to know. I want her to see me as a woman, not a child who is as simple as a grain of sand. “I had an abortion yesterday,” I say and before she can respond, I add, “Danny and I decided to get married. It’s time to start planning a wedding for August.”
Wendy Swift is a graduate of Syracuse University with an MS in Education from Hofstra University. She teaches creative writing at Cheshire Academy, a boarding and day school located in Cheshire, Connecticut. Several of her essays and short fiction are published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Grub Street Literary Magazine, The Adirondack Explorer, Long Island Woman, the Litchfield Times and The Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable. Swift lives with her husband in Farmington, Connecticut.