An Abortion Saved My Mother

June, 1973

A young couple was preparing to celebrate summer with their young family. Still in their twenties, the couple had been married for seven years. They had two daughters, one who was four, the other was two. And one baby on the way, due later that year.

To make ends meet during the summer months when paychecks were absent due to the school year break, the husband worked in a welding shop to bring in some income so they could get by. The days were long and hot as he welded steel parts together for shipment on trains to other parts of the country. He found the work tedious, but it didn’t require him to think, so he could let his mind wander as he welded.

While her husband was away, the wife took their young daughters to her parents farm. It gave the girls a chance to explore and play in the outdoors, so that the wife could rest and watch them. This pregnancy was more difficult than the first two. The morning sickness never seemed to end. Exhaustion was prevalent. She had little energy to play with her girls, and could only read to them before needing to lay down and take a nap. Her mother helped look after the girls while her father worked the fields, preparing for the harvest later that summer.

The summer of 1973 was unusually hot. As June turned to July, highs in the 90s became the norm. The young family spent their days and evenings near fans that would turn stagnant air into warm breezes. Sometimes the wife would just stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open to try to get some relief from the heat and humidity while her husband watched Walter Cronkite recount the latest details of the ongoing Watergate hearings. The little girls found their fun in basements, creating their own worlds of pretend, never really minding the heat as long as their was ice cold Kool-Aid and popsicles in the house.

The week after the Fourth of July, the wife had difficulty sleeping in spite of her exhaustion. The combination of the heat and the feeling of nausea was always present and unsettling. Her limbs were beginning to swell, and so were her feet. She told her husband that she felt like she couldn’t would never get well. He reassured her that it was the weather that was making her feel so bad.

July 12, 1973

On the morning of July 12, the wife noticed she had a small bit of vaginal bleeding. Thinking that it was probably nothing, she got the girls ready to to the farm. When they arrived, the wife’s mother was in the garden, picking a few early tomatoes. She greeted them, and said, “I think we’re going to have a tornado today. The sky and the wind have me thinking it’s gonna get rough later this afternoon.”

The eldest daughter got scared. She had just watched the Wizard of Oz on TV, and she was afraid of tornadoes. She worried one would pick up their house and carry them away. “Should we go to the basement?” she asked.

“No,” said the wife wearily. “Grandma is just always watching the weather. The sun will probably come out and we won’t have any rain. Just go play and don’t worry about it.”

The two women watched the little girls race each other to the cherry orchard to eat a mid-morning snack at the cherry trees. The wife turned to her mother and said, “I just don’t feel right, and I had some spotting this morning.”

Her mother assured her that it was probably nothing, and walked her over to the porch where she could sit on the chaise lounge and wait for the girls to come back.

The day went on. The sun came out, and beat down on the farm. The wife began to feel increasing worse. The oppression of the summer day was too much to bear. Her mother suggested that maybe a cool bath might help to relax her and bring some much needed relief.

As the wife headed toward the bathroom, she felt weaker. When she got to the bathroom, she noticed blood was now running down her leg. And then everything went black.

The mother heard a thump coming from the bathroom. She went to check and found the wife passed out on the floor, with a small puddle of blood near her. She ran out, knowing she had to get the father to come in from the fields to help her figure out what to do.

She ran past her granddaughters. The youngest was asleep on the couch, and the oldest was playing with a deck of cards. When she saw her grandmother running, she ran after her too. “Is the tornado coming?” she asked as she ran.

“No!” said her grandmother. “Your mother fainted and I have to find your grandpa to get some help.”

The young girl started to cry, but the grandmother didn’t stop running. She could be heard screaming, “Joe! Joe! Come to the house!” The grandfather eventually heard and the elderly couple ran back to the house. The young girl followed. She had stopped crying because at this point she was confused. She had never seen her grandparents run. Her grandma was ignoring her questions. She went to go find her sister to see if she was still sleeping. She could hear her grandparents trying to wake her mother up but she was in a deep sleep.

An ambulance came. The young girl was fascinated with the truck with the flashing lights. Two men came into the house with a bed on wheels. She watched them lift the still body of her mother onto that bed and wheel her to the truck, with her grandmother following and climbing into the truck and watching it drive away, with the lights on and the siren blaring.

The young girl wanted her daddy, but he was still at work. Instead, mean Uncle Ted came to the farm to take the two young girls back to his house. Mean Uncle Ted had three other daughters who were older and never interested in the two young girls. He never spoke much, just gave orders. The two little girls were quiet. They were too scared to speak or even cry.

The Decision

At the hospital, the husband finally arrived once he was done with his shift.He was still in his welding clothes that were filthy with smoke and sweat. He saw his in-laws who told him what they knew at that point: his wife was unconscious, and she had lost a lot of blood. They didn’t know if the baby was okay. His two daughters were at his brother-in-law’s house so that they could all stay with the wife until they knew she was no longer in danger. They weren’t sure when or if that would happen.

A nurse came, and led the husband away to a room so the doctor could speak with him. The doctor entered, with a nurse who was carrying a clipboard. As they sat down the husband asked,

“Are my wife and baby going to live?”

The doctor looked at him sympathetically and shook his head. “I am sorry, but the baby will not live. In fact, the issue is the baby is developing outside the uterus. I’m afraid your wife has experienced an ectopic pregnancy. Now we need to act quickly to save her.”

The husband was shocked. The doctor continued.

“We need you to give us permission to terminate this pregnancy immediately or your wife will die,” said the doctor. The nurse handed the doctor the clipboard and the doctor placed it in front of the husband. At the top of the document were the words, “Abortion Consent.”

Both the husband and wife were Catholics. The husband’s father was devout, having attended a seminary with the intent of becoming a priest. The church was an integral part of their lives. The husband had been an alter boy. Both of their daughters were baptized shortly after they were born. They believed in the sanctity of life.

Without hesitation, the husband took the pen and signed the consent form.

The wife was rushed into surgery. The husband waited with his in-laws in the surgical waiting room. They waited hours.

Outside the hospital, the storm clouds were gathering. The sunny, humid day created conditions right for the formation of a tornado. Black clouds illuminated by shocks of lightening filled the sky. The wind howled. The two little girls were rushed to the basement by Mean Uncle Ted along with the other members of his family. The eldest kept her eyes closed, worried that she would hear the house ripped from its foundation and hurled into the sky, just like Dorothy’s house. Tears were rolling down her face, but she didn’t want Mean Uncle Ted to know she was crying. She desperately wanted her mother.

An hour later, a furious thunderstorm turned to a hard summer rain. The house stood. The storm had passed.

The wife opened her eyes in the hospital room, and saw her husband and her parents sitting near her bed. She was so tired. She listened as they explained what happened to her. They told her she almost died. She drifted back to sleep, still sore from the surgery and foggy from the experience.

The next day, the temperature had cooled to the low 80s. A northerly breeze blew across the fields. Mean Uncle Ted dropped the little girls off at the farm. This time, their father was waiting for them. He told them their mother was sick, but she was going to be fine. She had to stay in the hospital for several days, but soon she would be home.

The young family never discussed that hot, stormy, traumatic summer day again for many years. They moved on.

The Present

That family is my family. I was the eldest little girl. I’m fascinated and scared of tornadoes to this day.

I always remembered the details of that strange, traumatic day, but I never felt comfortable bringing it up to my parents until a couple of years ago. Now both in their 70’s, it’s a bit easier for them to talk about the experience.

When I ask my mother about the abortion, she recalls the feeling of sickness she couldn’t escape. She remembers having trouble walking right before she passed out. To stop the bleeding and to ensure that another pregnancy would not put her at risk, the doctors performed a full hysterectomy. The memory of her hospital stay has faded, except for the mashed potatoes that she was finally able to eat after a few days.

I love my mom, and I can’t imagine life without her. Sometimes I feel badly that my unborn sibling never got a chance to be part of our family, and that the only way for my mother to survive was to make this hard decision. I think that’s why my mom focuses on small details. To think too deeply about what happened brings up all sorts of emotions.

While my mother focused on the medical experience, my dad’s perspective is political.

“I didn’t even think twice about signing that piece of paper,” he says, somewhat defiantly. “I just knew that you girls needed a mother, I needed my wife, and there was nothing I could do to save the other baby. It just wasn’t meant to be.”

He becomes angrier when he speaks about this pivotal moment in his life.

“I always wonder what would have happened if abortion wasn’t legal, what I would have done. We were just lucky it happened after Roe. Your mother would have died,” he said. “We don’t talk about this because people don’t understand in that moment that you are choosing life. I am choosing your mother’s life, because your life needs her to be complete. Every time I hear some politician on TV talk about Right to Life, I want to ask them right to what life? One where a mother can die because you’re so hellbent on completely outlawing abortion? Who gets to live?”

My parents still go to church every Sunday, and my dad makes an effort to go to confession when he can. In our last conversation on the topic, he told me why he goes to confession.

“I always ask God for forgiveness for the decision I made, and then I pray that people will stop judging others for the decisions they make.”

Helping people through career trauma. Sharing thoughts on kindness, health, parenting, and politics too. Author of the ebook Reject Revolution. Be well.

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