She had a decision to make.
For days my seventeen year-old sister sat at the grey formica kitchen table in our rural Pennsylvania home, filling the air with plumes of smoke from her Virginia Slims and tapping the ashes into the glass salver with the Schmidt’s beer logo enameled in red on the bottom.
With each exhalation the fog of shame thickened and snaked throughout the house. Bound with the shame was my mother’s seething anger and embarrassment. She never spoke the words but my sister knew the look on her face, the weight of each step, the meaning of each martyred sigh. How could you do this to me? As if Margaret had planned for this to happen. As if this single event was deliberate and made to make my mother suffer.
It was 1971. I was twelve. I can’t remember watching my mother and stepfather, with my sister in the back seat of our turquoise Mercury Comet, pull out of our driveway and toward the interstate that would take them to New York. What I remember is that when they returned home that evening something had changed. My sister was no longer pregnant.
It was 1986. I was twenty-seven. In the 1980’s California enforced a 72-hour wait period. During those three days I remember a brief counseling session conducted over the phone with a nurse from Kaiser.
My abortion took two days. On the first day a doctor helped my feet into the examination table’s stirrups, used his fingers to judge how far along I was, and then inserted into me a laminaria tent made of seaweed that would absorb water and expand in size. This would gently open my cervix to allow easier access to my uterus.
My dilation and curettage, under general anesthesia, began at 6AM the following morning. A nurse gave me something to relax – it may have been valium administered through an IV or it may have been a tablet. And then she left the room and I was alone.
I don’t know why I cried. Did I cry because I was alone? Because the man with whom I’d slept had no idea our contraception had failed? Did I think that if only I were more brave I might have continued the pregnancy? Or was my choice the brave choice?
The nurse returned, saw my tears and squeezed my hand. To this day that simple act of compassion breaks my heart open.
I was home by noon.
That weekend I called my mother and cried when I told her about what had happened and the choice I had made.
She said, “Oh, is that all?”
I never spoke to her about it again.
My sister has been dead for ten years. She and I never talked to one another about our experiences.