An Abortion That Saved My Life

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Written by Susan Ito.
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.
"I think I'm sick," I told John as I got off the plane. "I feel woozy." But 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.
I 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 Center.
They 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 jewelled boutiques, bookstores, a café with colourful 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.
I 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 birth mother I’d tracked down and met when I was 20, who had been glad to know me, but wanted me to stay a lifelong secret. Blood of my invisible birth father, 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.
The 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. I remember a walk along the grassy trails of Sea Ranch, the wild wind, my bursting energy. I was wearing John’s blue jeans to accommodate my five-months-pregnant belly.
In 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.
I picked him up at the airport, saying, “Don’t you think I look fat?”
“You’re pregnant, sweetheart,” he said. “That’s how you’re supposed to look.”
Sunday morning. 17th September 1989. I had gained 13 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 wrong.”
Lisa’s 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 do it?”
We 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 all day.
I 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.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
The expression on his face I will never forget, the change in colour 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. ”
The numbers were all wrong, 200-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?” His 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 any protein.”
I sat on the toilet and listened to him crash through the cupboards, knocking over samples of ulcer pills, brochures about stomach cancer, looking for a container of thin paper tabs. I gave him the paper cup, the gold liquid cloudy and dense. The dipstick changed colour 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.”
I 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 seriousness.
I 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 voice.
A squirt of blue gel on my belly for the foetal 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.
There 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.
They slipped a needle into my wrist, hung a bag of magnesium sulphate. 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.
I 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.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
He 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.
"Baby 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.
“What are the chances...that we could both make it?” Doctors are always talking percentages.
“Less than 10%, maybe less than five percent.” The space between his fingers shrunk into nothing.
This 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 fourteen days. I looked at John hopefully. “I can wait. It will be all right.”
“Honey. Your blood pressure is through the roof. Your kidneys are shutting down. You are on the verge of having a stroke.”
I actually smiled at him. I actually said that having a stroke at 29 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.
We struggled through the night. “I’m not going to lose this baby,” I said. “I’m 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."
I 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.
After the longest night of my life, I relented.
I 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.
18th September 18 1989. Another day of magnesium sulphate, the cuff that inflated every five minutes, the foetal monitor booming through the room. No change in status for either of us.
I signed papers of consent, my hand moving numbly across the paper, my mind screaming, I do not consent, I do not, I do not.
In the evening, Weiss’s associate entered with a tray, a syringe, and a nurse with mournful eyes. “It’s just going to be a bee sting," he said.
And 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 my belly.
“All done,” he said. All done.
My child was inside swallowing the fizzy drink, and it bubbled against his tiny tongue like a bud, the deadly soda pop.
This 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.
Evacuees 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.
I 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 sulphate, that it wouldn’t hurt. That it would be fast.
John 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.
Illustrated By Mary Galloway.
All 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. My 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.
"Nothing," I said dully. I need my baby.
I 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... 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... 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 chosen differently.
...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 birth mother 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 birth father, had left his wife and children. If, if, if.
There are lifetimes of ifs to consider. But in the end, my birth mother 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.
I am inching towards 50 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 chosen.

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