As my night class was letting out last week, one of my students, a young woman we'll call D., came into the classroom accompanied by a young man and a three year old child. She wanted to drop off a paper due two days earlier. (Important, because the grade drops one level each day that it's late). The young man (boyfriend, husband? - I didn't ask) seemed pleasant enough. He smiled and waved, but D. didn't bother to introduce him. The child herself was an adorable thing topped off with a mop of dark curls and was, like her mother, of Hispanic derivation. That child is the star of this post, a fact remarkable for the reason that I spoke only three sentences to her - "Don't cough in my face," and "You're unbearably cute, you know that?" - and that we were face to face for no more than a few minutes and will likely never see each other again. The third sentence was a command, "Give me a hug," and the little one enfolded herself without question into the arms of a stranger. Her name is Sky. She is the star but not the heroine, and there is probably more than one of those.
The paper the young woman dropped off was an autobiographical narrative, supposedly (as the assignment required) of some event that had changed her life, her way of seeing the world, her view of human nature, or of herself. In short, a tale of something she now knew that she hadn't known before. I think she has met that burden, and I offer her story here, including occasional use of her own words, with her express permission.
In 2008, when D. was sixteen, she and her mother and little sister went to the pediatrician's office for the results of a test on some blood that had been drawn two weeks earlier during a routine checkup. D. knew the results would show that she was pregnant, but she hadn't found a way to reveal this fact to her mother. When they went in to see the doctor, he asked the little sister to step outside and then broke the bad news to the other two. After a moment spent processing the information, the mother began to cry, or (in D.'s words) "to bawl her eyes out." After she had calmed down enough to ask some questions, she took D. and the younger daughter and headed home. In the car she started crying again, relentlessly, and so did D., stricken as she was by the pain she was causing and by her fear of the future. When they got home the older sister asked what it was all about. As the mother sorrowfully explained that her sixteen year old daughter "had gotten knocked up by a guy" that she (the mother) hardly knew, her mother, says D., now "sounded like someone very dear to her had passed away," and bemoaned the fact that D. and her boyfriend could have lived up to her "strict rules and regulations," but chose not to.
Well, said the older sister, that was all in the past. What needed deciding was what to do now. It wasn't the end of the world. There were options, like abortion and adoption. "Right off the bat," says D., the mother refused the adoption option because she was not "okay with giving children away to other people." However, she did not rule out abortion. [I can't tell you how little I envy the family lives of some of my students, and the moral inversions they have inherited like the blood in their veins.) The mother took a seat, eager to hear what the older sister had to say about abortion. D. herself "sat there, ashamed to say anything. It really didn't feel like they were talking about me. So I stayed quiet."
When she got home from work the next day, D.'s mother told her she'd scheduled an appointment for a sonogram with a doctor to whom a friend had referred her. Her mother's voice was a monotone, says D., as though "we were making a business transaction, or as if I had signed a life contract with the devil and he would decide my fate." On the day of the appointment, they drove to a neighborhood in downtown Orlando, found the street they were looking for, and finally "the place." It was just a house in the middle of a row of houses, a "mimic" of the others, "as if it were trying to blend in." Out front was a very small sign bearing the name of the place. Inside, it didn't look like a house. There was a "narrow waiting room" painted all in white with metal seats lining the walls. There were no decorations and women of different ages with "blankets on their laps" occupied some of the seats. D.'s mother filled out the paperwork and paid a sixty dollar fee for the sonogram and consultation. After a while an employee called D.'s name. Her mother got up to follow, but was told to remain in the waiting room. D. and her mom exchanged puzzled looks, but the latter complied while D. followed "the employee" back to the examination room.
I'll let D. tell the next part:
The doctor soon came to see me and introduced himself. To my left was a very small monitor (smaller than your average laptop screen) which was used for the sonogram. The process took less than five minutes and I could see the full size fetus, in very little detail but the shape was so clear. He showed me where the head was and pointed at a circle which he stated was a cyst. When I asked him what a cyst was or what that would do to the baby, instead of answering he tried to disregard my question and left me guessing by telling me I should see a specialist for a fuller examination. I sat quietly for a minute and he asked me if I was planning on keeping the baby. I replied that I didn't know (which was the truth). He then asked me if I wanted to know how much it would cost. I said yes, and he said that since I was five months along it was going to come out to about two thousand five hundred, but that if I did it by the end of that week he would discount the sixty dollars from the total amount. He handed me a Polaroid picture of the fetus he had printed out with the cyst on the head very clearly seen, and the nurse walked me back to the lobby where my mom was waiting. We signed some papers and spoke to the lady at the front desk who explained the sixty dollar discount to my mom. To be honest it felt like I was watching an advertisement: you get a sixty dollar discount if you get an abortion quick. She also gave me a list of things that I must, should, and couldn't bring. One of the items under "should" was a blanket, which helped me put all the puzzle pieces together. All the women were here to get an abortion. This explains why the place would be camouflaged as a house. I showed the Polaroid to my mom on the way home and explained what happened while she was waiting in the lobby. We came to the assumption that the cyst could be due to mental retardation, and she did not want me to have a mentally challenged child when I could barely take care of a healthy one, so she was going to take the sixty dollar discount. I went to sleep that night holding my showing belly and crying.
The next night the father of D.'s baby called for no other reason than to chat. He knew nothing of the pregnancy and she did not bring him on board during the phone call. But the following day she called him back and told him she was carrying his child, that she was going to abort it, and that what she needed him to do was to pay half the cost of the procedure. Her mother even told the fellow that she was not going to press charges against him for having sex with her underaged daughter, but that he should do his part in helping out with the abortion. Then, says D., her boyfriend told her he wasn't pleased with her decision and wanted her to have the baby so that he could take care of it. But D. said that she and her mom had made their minds up and that the deed was going to get done. But his words, said D., "made me feel even worse because I wished I could side with him, but I had to side with my mom because in the long run she is the one who takes care of me. What my mom says goes and she already had the two thousand five hundred ready if he didn't pay his part."
On the day that the abortion was scheduled to take place, I took the father of the baby with me. We rode the bus and walked up the street towards the establishment. This time there was something different. There was a van parked out front with a couple of properly dressed people next to it...I noticed they held brochures in their hands and that inside the van were many decorated baskets, but what really caught my attention was the model of a human fetus, lined up in stages from youngest to oldest. At that point I knew what their purpose was in being here and I suppose they knew my purpose also because I was dressed comfortably and held a blanket and pillows in my arms. My stomach turned as soon as I noticed that they were all staring at me. I never felt so lonely in my whole life. I turned my head the other direction and completely ignored what they were trying to say and continued walking to my destination. I glanced at the father of my baby, to find him laughing. I didn't find anything about the situation funny so I shoved everything I was carrying onto him and went inside.
I asked the lady at the booth if could use their phone. I called my mom and anyone else whose number I could remember off the top of my head but no one picked up. My heart weighed a hundred pounds. I needed someone and I felt so alone so tears began to run from my eyes. After many phone calls and no avail I walked outside to the moment that changed my life. My mom was speaking to the people who owned the van. A load came off my shoulders when I walked toward her and she told me we weren't going to do it. They showed us how far along the baby was and all the feelings it already had. It must have gotten to her because she never mentioned abortion again. We gathered in a circle and prayed for the miracle. I exchanged email addresses with one of the ladies who talked to us and then we left. We stopped at the nearest McDonald's to eat and the first thing my mom asked was, "What are you going to name it?" I smiled, and she will never know how much that meant to me.
A week later D.'s mother took her to an appointment at what D calls "a decent hospital," Arnold Palmer's, presumably the one for women and children, to have the baby checked out. The sonogram examination lasted an hour, and thirty minutes after that the results were delivered: the baby was perfect and without abnormality. There was no cyst. The monitor, says D., was about "five times larger at Arnold Palmer," and she couldn't understand "how the doctor at the abortion place found a cyst in less than five minutes."
Her daughter, Skyvett, was born in January of 2008. The whole family came ("there was nothing but smiles and joy") and even the lady with whom D. exchanged email addresses at the abortion clinic showed up for the great occasion. D. says she'd never seen her mother so happy as on the day she held her granddaughter for the first time.
I saw D. again last night. I found out that the father of her baby was now living in another state, and that the young man who had accompanied her on the first night was "just a friend." We left the classroom and entered the breezeway, and as we parted ways I watched her walk, alone, beneath the flourescent lights, and I remembered that previous night when she had done the same with Sky on her hip, not so much alone then but still nineteen and single. She's a pretty girl, too. It shouldn't be like this. It simply should not.
But at least Sky lives, a little girl who is with us by the merest slip of fate, or by the invisible breath of God's grace, which forgets not a one of us. On a night like this there are many stars in the heavens, and maybe her name is on one of them. Of all her brothers and sisters who never made it out of the clinic, well, they have names too, and one day we'll be told what they are. They never got to see the stars, but I can hope that now they are lights in heaven, and that at the end of time we'll be allowed to gaze upon them, if we can bear the brilliance.
In the meantime, I'm still docking her mother's grade the two days' late fee. She'll survive it.