We had been married just less than
a year in that spring of 1989. My husband had a medical conference
in Washington. He left our home in California early in the week and
I planned to meet him there later, for a long weekend. When the
airport van arrived at our house, I loaded my suitcase into the back,
strapped myself in, and fell asleep before we reached the
bottom of our street. The driver shook me awake at
the airport; I had been drooling on my jacket collar.
I had never experienced such overwhelming somnolence before. I
stumbled through the corridors of the airport, feeling drugged, my head
buzzing with a strange, sparkling heaviness. All I wanted to do
was curl into a corner and sleep, the passengers rushing past me with
their wheeled luggage, their tickets flapping in their hands.
It was all I could do to stagger onto the plane, and doze, waking only
to devour the plastic tray of rubbery food, and sleep again.
think I’m sick,” I told John as I got off the plane. “I
it had been the first month of sex without birth control, the little
cervical cap far, far away in the bathroom cabinet, the spermicide buried
in the underwear drawer. We had thought it would take months,
maybe even a year. Not so soon as this.
sat on the edge of the bed and flipped through the yellow pages, searching
for a clinic that would be open on a Saturday. While John was
in a darkened auditorium, studying the dark red planet of a diseased
liver shining huge and luminous on the wall, I climbed into a taxi,
trembling, and gave the driver the address of the Georgetown Women’s
took a tube full of blood from my arm and then told me to call back
in three hours. I wandered the streets of a city I didn’t know,
the jeweled boutiques, bookstores, a café with colorful bowls of salad
crowded together under a glass counter. I sat there, eating stuffed
grape leaves, staring at my watch, the tiny needle of the second hand
jerking through space.
thought about my blood, the tablespoons of blood that lay in the glass
tube in the clinic. Blood that was waiting to speak, its language
translated by chemicals and microscopes. Blood of the birthmother
I’d tracked down and met when I was twenty, who had been glad to know
me, but wanted me to stay a lifelong secret. Blood of my invisible
birthfather, whose name she wouldn’t reveal to me. Blood of so
many unknown relatives. This blood was going to inform me
of the presence of another, of one whose face I would finally see, a
child to name and hold.
woman on the phone said yes. “Congratulations,” she
said. News that she delivered dozens of times a day, altering
lives with one syllable. Yes. No. I stared at the
plastic receiver, the telephone. The phone was bolted to a wall
outside of a B. Dalton bookstore. I bought a book on pregnancy, and
ran my finger along the due-date chart, counting months. Early
January. New year, new life.
I remember almost nothing about that
pregnancy except the way that it ended.
August, we took a trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina with his
brother’s family. I swelled in the humidity like a sponge, my breasts
enormous, my face squishy with fluid. “Look at me,” I said, frowning
in the mirror. “You look wonderful,” he said. It wasn’t what I
was talking about. I hadn’t been complaining about feeling fat
or unattractive, although I was fat, in a strange, swollen way.
John, a doctor, went from that
family vacation to El Salvador, heading a medical delegation to the war
zone of Guazapa, under the volcano. My father-in-law disapproved, told
me outright that he felt John was abandoning me. But I was proud of the
work we were involved in. While he was in Central America, I drove to
Davis to help load a container of wheelchairs, crutches, and medicine
bound for Nicaragua. It was then that I noticed I couldn’t lace my
sneakers. My feet were the size of small footballs.
picked him up at the airport, saying, “Don’t you think I look fat?”
pregnant, sweetheart,” he said. “That’s how you’re supposed
morning. September 17, 1989. I had gained thirteen pounds in a week.
I pulled out the pregnancy book. In red print, it said, Call the
doctor if you gain more than three pounds in one week. If your face
or hands or feet are swollen. If. If. If. I checked them all off.
While John was in the shower, I called my obstetrician and friend, Lisa.
I whispered under the sound of running water, “I think something is
voice was so smooth, so calm. “Swelling is very common,” she said,
“but it would be a good idea to get a blood pressure check. Can John
stopped by his office, two blocks from the restaurant we had decided
on for dinner. We were going to see a movie, then browse a bookstore;
our usual date. I hopped onto the exam table, held out my arm. I couldn’t
wait to get to la Méditerranée. My mouth had been dreaming of spanakopita
heard the Velcro tearing open on the cuff, felt its smooth blue band
wrapping around me. I swung my feet and smiled up at John, the stethoscope
around his neck, loved this small gesture of taking care of me. I felt
the cuff tightening, the pounding of my heart echoing up and down my
fingers, through my elbow.
expression on his face I will never forget, the change in color from
pink to ash, as if he had died standing at my side. “Lie down,”
he said quietly. “Lie down on your left side. Now.”
numbers were all wrong, two hundred plus, over and over again, his eyes
darkening as he watched the mercury climb on the wall. He shook his
head. “What’s Lisa’s phone number?”
voice was grim as he spoke to her on the phone-numbers, questions,
a terrible urgency. He told me to go into the tiny bathroom and pee
into a cup. “We’ve got to dipstick your urine, see if there’s
sat on the toilet and listened to him crash through the cupboards. I gave him the paper cup, the gold
liquid cloudy and dense. The dipstick changed color quickly, from white
to powdery blue to sky to deep indigo. My protein level was off
the chart. “No,” he whispered. “No, no, goddammit, no.”
asked what, over and over, not believing that things could be as bad
as what his face was telling me. “Your kidneys aren’t working,”
he said. He pulled me out the door, across the street to the hospital.
He pounded the buttons of the elevator, pulled me flying to the nurses’
station, spat numbers at them. I thought, don’t be a bully, nurses
hate doctors who are bullies; but they scattered like quail, one
of them on the phone, another pushing me, stumbling, into a room. There
were three of them, pulling at my clothes, my shoes; the blood pressure
cuff again; the shades were drawn; they moved so swiftly, with such
had a new doctor now. Lisa, obstetrician of the normal, was instantly
off my case, and I was assigned a special neonatologist named Weiss.
He was perfectly bald, with thick glasses, and wooden clogs, a soft
squirt of blue gel on my belly for the fetal monitor, the galloping
sound of hoof beats, the baby riding a wild pony inside me. What a relief
to hear that sound, although I didn’t need the monitor;
I could feel the baby punching at my liver.
was a name for what I had. Preeclampsia. Ahh. Well, preeclampsia was
certainly better than eclampsia, and as long as it was pre-, then they
could stop it, couldn’t they? And what was eclampsia? An explosion
of blood pressure, a flood of protein poisoning the blood, kidney failure,
the vessels in spasm, a stroke, seizures, blindness, death. But I didn’t
have any of those things. I had pre-eclampsia. It felt safe.
slipped a needle into my wrist, hung a bag of magnesium sulfate. This
is to prevent seizures, they said. You may feel a little hot. As the
first drops of the drug slipped into my bloodstream, I felt a flash
of electricity inside my mouth. My tongue was baking. My scalp prickled,
burning, and I threw up onto the sheets. I felt as if I was being microwaved.
was wheeled down to radiology. Pictures of the baby onscreen, waving,
treading water. A real child, not a pony or a fish. The x-ray tech,
a woman with curly brown hair and a red Coca-Cola t-shirt, asked, “Do
you want to know the sex?” I sat up. “There you go.” She pointed.
A flash between the legs, like a finger. A boy. I nearly leapt off the
gurney. “John! Did you see? A boy! It’s Samuel!” Sahm-well,
the Spanish pronunciation, named after our surrogate father in Nicaragua,
the most dignified man we knew.
didn’t want to look, couldn’t celebrate having a son. He knew so
much more than I did.
Weiss came to stand next to my bed.
Recited numbers slowly.
needs at least two more weeks for viability. He’s already too small,
way too small. But you . . .” He looked at me sadly, shook his
head. “You probably can’t survive two weeks without having a stroke,
seizures, worse.” He meant I could die.
are the chances … that we could both make it?” Doctors are always
than ten percent, maybe less than five percent.” The space
between his fingers shrunk into nothing.
is how they said it. I was toxemic, poisoned by pregnancy. My only cure
was to not be pregnant anymore. The baby needed two more weeks, just
looked at John hopefully. “I can wait. It will be all right.”
Your blood pressure is through the roof. Your kidneys are shutting down.
You are on the verge of having a stroke.”
actually smiled at him. I actually said that having a stroke at twenty-nine
would not be a big deal. I was a physical therapist; I knew about rehab.
I could rehabilitate myself. I could walk with a cane. Lots of people
do it. I had a bizarre image of leaning on the baby’s carriage, supporting
myself the way elderly people use a walker.
struggled through the night. “I’m not going to lose this baby,”
not going to lose you,” he said. “And think of the
baby. Chances are almost certain that a baby born this small will have
problems. Severe problems.”
knew about children with problems; I had worked in a children’s cerebral
palsy clinic for years. Many of them had been born at the same
gestational age as Samuel was now. I knew children who could not
walk or speak or look into their mother’s eyes.
the longest night of my life, I relented.
lay with my hands on my belly all night, feeling Samuelito’s limbs
turning this way and that. There was nothing inside me that could even
think of saying goodbye.
At four in the morning, I called my
parents. “We’re in trouble,” I said. My mother
wept, frantic, alone. “I’ve got to find Daddy.”
He was on the road, traveling somewhere — where? North Carolina,
Kentucky, Tennessee? On the road meant invisible, unreachable,
gone. “I’ll come out there tomorrow,” she said.
“There’s no reason,” I told her. She hung up sobbing.
six, I called my birthmother. She was calm, optimistic, her
voice smooth as water. “I’ve known women who’ve had the same thing,
and everything always turns out fine.”
won’t be fine, it’s too early, way too early…” I wanted
to tell her I wasn’t like the others she’d known, that ninety-five
percent of pre-eclampsia cases happen when the baby is nearly full term.
wasn’t listening. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”
Her voice was flat, gentle. She didn’t offer to fly out to California.
I wondered about the stroke, if it really happened, if that would bring
her to my bedside. I began to get a small glimmering inside me,
of understanding what it means to be a parent. And seeing for
the first time that this was what she was not.
had met her when I was twenty; after a heart-racing, detective-story
search. She was beautiful, glamorous, sophisticated: I felt I had hit
the birthmother jackpot. Over the years it became clear that she
was willing to be my friend and confidante, that she liked me.
But there were two key conditions I had to adhere to if I wanted a relationship
with her: One, I had to keep my own identity a secret in front of anyone
she knew; and two, I had to not ask her who my birthfather was.
At the time, it seemed worth it; I was young and infatuated by her charisma;
I was willing to agree to anything. She also charmed my parents,
who had fully supported my searching for her.
September 18, 1989. Another day of
magnesium sulfate, the cuff that inflated every five minutes, the fetal
monitor booming through the room. No change in status for either of
signed papers of consent, my hand moving numbly across the paper, my
mind screaming, I do not consent, I do not, I do not.
the evening, Weiss’s associate entered with a tray, a syringe, and
a nurse with mournful eyes.
just going to be a bee sting,” he said.
it was, a small tingle, quick pricking bubbles, under my navel; and
then a thing like a tiny drinking straw that went in and out with a
barely audible pop. It was so fast. I thought, I love you, I love
you, you must be hearing this, please hear me. And then a Band-Aid
was unwrapped, with its plastic smell of childhood, and spread onto
done,” he said. All done.
child was inside swallowing the fizzy drink, and it bubbled against
his tiny tongue like a bud, the deadly soda pop.
is what it was. A drug, injected into my womb, a drug to stop his heart.
To lay him down to sleep, so he wouldn’t feel what would happen the
next day, the terrible terrible thing that would happen. Evacuation
is what it is called in medical journals.
are what the Japanese Americans were called when they were ripped from
their homes, tagged like animals, flung into the desert. Evacuated,
exiled, thrown away.
lay on my side pinching the pillowcase. I wondered if he would be startled
by the drug’s taste, if it was bitter, or strange, or just different
from the salt water he was used to. I prayed that it wouldn’t be noxious,
not like the magnesium sulfate that it wouldn’t hurt. That it would
sat next to the bed and held one hand as I pressed the other against
my belly. I looked over his shoulder into the dark slice of night between
the heavy curtains. Samuel, Samuelito, jumped against my hand once.
He leaped through the space into the darkness and then was gone.
This was my first experience of being
a mother. I went home at the end of the week, gushing fluid, peeing
and sweating quarts of the liquids my body hadn’t been able to release.
I wept oceans.
parents called me several times a day. “Is there anything
you need? What can we do for you?” I could imagine them wringing
their hands, pacing, feeling helpless.
I said dully. I need my baby.
was a week before I called my birthmother again. Her voice was
she said, surprised. “When I didn’t hear back from you again, I
assumed everything must have turned out all right.” Seven
days, I thought, seven days and she never called.
didn’t turn out all right,” I said, my voice as dull and heavy
as a stone. First grandchild swept away and she never picked up
she said, (how could her voice be so calm?) “I’m very sorry.
You’re so young, though…”
that what she told herself, at twenty-nine, when she had me and then
let me go? Did she just set her vision to the future, the other
children she would have? Was it really that easy?
weren’t many choices for my birthmother when she was pregnant with
me back then. It’s possible that she could have taken a
knitting needle or rat poison and tried to terminate the pregnancy herself;
I’m thankful, for both her sake and mine that she didn’t do that.
She might have run away to an anonymous town where nobody knew her,
and passed herself off as a widow with a child. But that would
have meant tearing herself away from her family, her community, and
everything she knew. So she did what felt like the only viable
option at the time: she bought a girdle. She ate like a
bird. She did what she could do to assure that I would be as small
as possible; then she traveled to a faraway city and gave birth to me
two months prematurely.
then she gave me up for adoption.
choices had begun narrowing long before that day, however. They
started shrinking when, in 1941, our country went to war with Japan,
whose people looked like her family. Her family had no choice
when their Los Angeles business was shut down and they were told to
pack their lives into a single trunk, and they were forced to show their
allegiance by moving into a barbed-wire compound in the high dusty desert
of Colorado. She was ten years old then.
had little option when the war ended and they were offered sponsorship,
a job and a home and a place in a tiny town in the Midwest. Everyone
in this town originated, one generation or two or three, from the same
small country in Europe. Her family would become a charitable,
benevolent experiment: loved but untouchable. When she
reached adulthood, it was expected that she would choose a solitary
life, the life of a schoolteacher or a nurse. The life of a wife
did not seem an option because who in that community could openly marry
such an outsider?
chose love, a secret love. She chose a married man with a family.
And that was how I came to be.
I was twenty-five, and in a fragile, new relationship, I
felt myself experiencing strange sensations: swollen, hypersensitive
breasts, and the impulse to weep every five minutes. It took a while
for me to understand what might be happening.
picked up the telephone book, scanned the millions of numbers, flipping
the thin yellow pages, and dialed. Crisis Pregnancy Center.
I certainly felt like I was experiencing a crisis. I spoke with a woman
who told me to come that day. I pressed the white buttons on the
phone and called my boyfriend. My mouth was dry as I told him
where I was going. He had only the year before gone through a
pregnancy with another girlfriend; had seen her through the entire thing,
held her hand through labor and birth, and together they had signed
relinquishment papers for their daughter’s adoption. He didn’t
say much when I told him what I feared; he was in shock.
drove me to a place in the outer Richmond district, by the beach, a
small white door in the basement of a church. A woman in a plain
brown dress opened it, scouring us both with her eyes. “Did
you call this morning?” I nodded and handed over a brown paper
bag that held a mayonnaise jar, sloshing with warm urine. She
told us to wait in what looked like a daycare room, with blue and yellow
padded mats on the floor, and a plastic playhouse littered with stuffed
animals. We sat on short chairs, our knees tilted up to the ceiling.
Thirty minutes later, the woman called us into a windowless room, sat
us down on a worn loveseat and said that I was pregnant.
world became very quiet. I believed that I could hear the
little ball of cells, popping and dividing underneath my skin.
I imagined a tiny seahorse, rocking in a crimson pear. The woman
began talking about baby clothes and financial assistance for unwed
mothers, and then paused and squinted at me. “You aren’t considering
abortion, are you?”
couldn’t lift my eyes. “I don’t know.”
Let me tell you about what really goes on in that procedure.”
Her lips curled away from her teeth. “What happens is this.
Your baby is sucked out of your body by a machine that is 15 times
more powerful than your household vacuum cleaner! Can you
told her that I couldn’t imagine. Then I stood up to leave,
telling her I would think about it. My boyfriend’s face was gray
as stone. He reached out to take my hand.
woman moved to the door, blocking us a bit. Taking slow long looks
at each of us, she warned, “You might want to consider the fact
that the majority of relationships deteriorate after an abortion.”
We thanked her and walked to the ocean.
It couldn’t be possible. I clutched at the front of my
jeans, stumbling in the sand. “I’m scared,” I said.
Tears ran down into the collar of my shirt. And then, “No wonder
I’m crying all the time.”
squinted out at the ocean, his eyes bright. I knew what he was
thinking. Not again. Not again.
seemed that there were three possible options: abortion, adoption or
keeping the baby ourselves. Adoption was out of the question:
there was no way I was going to relinquish my first blood relative,
and there was no way he was going to endure that particular hell again.
Keeping the baby, at that point in our lives, seemed as abstract and
unrealistic as becoming astronauts or movie stars. Our relationship
was too new, and we were way too unequipped. My parents were extraordinarily
conservative and old-fashioned, and I couldn’t imagine even admitting
to them that I had had sex. Some people might, at the age of twenty-five,
decide to up and raise a baby with a person they barely knew. But it
seemed absolutely incomprehensible to me.
felt like the only avenue.
was fascinated though — horrified and fascinated — to realize that
my body was capable of doing such a thing. Growing a human being.
I patted the skin over my belly, trying to feel something, although
it was ludicrous; surely it was no larger than a paper clip. I
knew that its days were numbered, and I resolved not to miss any part
of it, to feel everything I could until it was gone.
called her. There was no question of calling my parents. I called
my birthmother because I knew she would understand. And of course
she did. She had been an alarmed, unmarried pregnant girl, twenty-five
voice was bright when she recognized my voice. “Su-san!
How are you?”
felt something crumple inside me. The words came out brokenly.
“Not so good.”
could hear her breath catch over the phone. She inhaled, then
let it out. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
The vowel sound she made was filled with empathy, pain, and recognition.
It was exactly the sound I needed to hear. Thank you, I
will you do?” Her voice was solemn and soft.
got an appointment. On Monday.” I didn’t say the word out
Well, I think that’s probably the best, isn’t it?” She knew
that my relationship hadn’t turned out to be The One, that I wasn’t
anticipating a long future together. I’d confided in her just
as thoroughly as I had with my best girlfriends.
sighed. “I’m sure it is. But it’s still… hard.”
course it is. It must be very hard.” I could feel the
tenderness coming through the receiver and I closed my eyes.
It was as if her palm was on my forehead, stroking it.
lucky that you have this option.”
what I would have done, if it had been available to me…” And then
she stopped short, realizing what she had just said.
blinked. I tried to keep my voice steady. “Of course.
I know.” I was balancing on a tightrope. I wanted this
support, this ability to confide in her. I needed her to be my
understanding, forgiving mother. And yet she had just told me that she
would have killed me if she had had the chance. The rigid voice
of the woman in the church basement came back to me. I saw
the deadly vacuum cleaner. I thought of coat hangers and bottles
of X-labeled poisons. I blinked through tears, harder, and pushed
it all away.
tried to smooth over her own words. “Susan, is there anything
you need? Can I do anything for you?”
to me, I wanted to say. Come be with me and hold my hand.
But I couldn’t choke the words out. To hear her say no would
have been unbearable.
I said. “I’m sure it will all be fine.”
she was just echoing my words four years later, telling me what she
thought I wanted to hear.
have two other children now, daughters. After losing Samuel, I was frightened
and alarmed at my body’s betrayal. My husband and I began pursuing
adoption instead; it seemed safer than running the gauntlet of another
pregnancy. But our two daughters insisted on showing up in our
family, despite our feeble efforts at contraception; I am infinitely
grateful that they did.
And yet I do not forget that son, small cowboy, the way he galloped
through me. Nor do I forget the microscopic, unnamed seahorse
of a child who came before that. There is still a part of me that
believes that I failed the test of motherhood, the law that says your
child comes before you, even if it means death. I put myself first when
it came to Samuel, just as she had with me. And sometimes I cannot
bear what that feels like. I look at my girls, the life that
fills this family, and I think, none of this would be here if I had
I had stayed with that old boyfriend, and never had that first abortion.
If I had refused to give up on Samuel’s chances. Maybe I wouldn’t
be here today. Maybe I would have a severely disabled son. If my birthmother
had taken a coat hanger to me instead of hiding me under a girdle and
then delivering me in a far-away state. If she had stolen away
with me and pretended to be a widow in a new town. If that married
man, my birthfather, had left his wife and children. If, if, if.
are lifetimes of ifs to consider. But in the end, my birthmother
and I made the choices we did. One time I chose one way, and another
time it felt less like a choice than a gun at my head.
am inching towards fifty now. I no longer condemn her or myself
for what we decided for ourselves, years ago. Did we choose wrongly?
Were we selfish? There is no way to truly answer those questions.
My life has been steeped in the tea of reproductive choice since the
moment of my own conception. I wish us peace for all that we have
This essay was originally published in CHOICE, edited by Karen Bender and Nina de Gramont.