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Generational Abortion

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In 2004, I heard the term “back-alley abortion” for the first time when I learned it was the cause of my grandmother Mary Lou’s death. I was in high school and knew what abortions were, vaguely. I remember feeling icky at the term which conjured images of a filthy corridor between old brick buildings and cutthroats snatching money from your palm, hunching over to count it all before bothering to lead you to what you asked for. And you don’t know if you’ll make it out alive. 

Despite the ickiness, I also remember crowing about it in an almost proud way. I considered this cause of death mysterious and therefore interesting. I thought it made me and my family mysterious and interesting. As I was still a child, being perceived as cool mattered more than a lot of other things. Mary Lou was a stranger to me, and I didn’t know any better. 

In the second half of 2012, I was twenty-five. I lived alone in a studio apartment, had marked a year with my job and was several months out of a fairly tumultuous relationship. 

The summer heat hadn’t abated and I was lonely. I called my ex. I don’t remember what I said to make him come over, but he agreed to bring ice cream. The carton sweated in the plastic grocery bag he’d dropped on the floor along with his clothes and then mine. 

There was no protection. There was no Plan B. 

I wasn’t in love. I was in need. 

Mary Lou’s birthday is August 26. The sign of Virgo. I’m a bit of an astrology nerd and when I pulled up my own birth chart for the first time, I looked for her sign in my placements. It wasn’t there.  

It was about a dozen years before Roe v Wade when Mary Lou conceived for the third time. I don’t know how old she was. I don’t know if summer heat baked the sidewalks or snow piled on tree branches. I don’t know if she was living alone with her two babies or still at the family home. I don’t know if she called her beau over or had to sneak out. I don’t know if he even was a beau. I don’t know if she liked sweets.

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I detected my pregnancy very early, a few days after I missed my period. The second line on the test was so faint, I had to call the number on the kit. My stomach did flips when the customer service rep confirmed that yes, I was. 

I didn’t hesitate. I called Planned Parenthood and then I called my ex. I told him I’d already made the decision to terminate and I’m still thankful for the absence of pushback. 

I don’t know how Mary Lou felt when she realized she was expecting again. I don’t know who she called, if anyone. I don’t know if she made her decision 100 percent on her own. 

In the hours after leaving the clinic and taking the pills that my ex paid for because I couldn’t afford them, I waited for pain, I waited for blood. None of the former, just a whisper of the latter. I convinced myself I had to know exactly when the mindless, tiny clump left my body so I could say goodbye. I felt compelled to apologize, to honor it somehow before it circled my toilet bowl or was wrapped in tissue and dropped into my trash can. Instead, I asked for forgiveness from my body for being too anxious to try to swallow the horse-sized prescription antibiotics I was given in case of infection. 

Mary Lou hemorrhaged as a result of her womb being scraped. I don’t know where she was, if it was clean, if she felt assured. I don’t know what she was told to expect. I don’t know what they put inside her. I don’t know how long it took. 

One night, not long after I received medical confirmation that I was no longer pregnant, I called my great-aunt. I told her of the choice I made. I told her I knew how her sister died. And I asked her to give me what she remembered. It wasn’t much.

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The cause of Mary Lou’s death was hushed up for decades. Her parents lied. At first I was curious to know what they said, but it doesn’t really matter. In the realm of respectability, many things are better to claim than an abortion. 

In the 10 years since mine, I haven’t thought much of what could have been my child because I didn’t want it and never will. I think often of Mary Lou, though. I want to say we made the same decision, but it feels like a bold-faced lie when the outcomes are diametrically opposed.

It’s easy to answer violence with a desire for revenge. I’ve wanted to curse those faceless, nameless shadows who were there with her, who may have watched her die, or run away without helping— even when I know they are human and therefore fallible, just like me.

On some days, the fact I don’t have much to say about who Mary Lou is that I can’t conjure a distinct memory of her that isn’t one of four photos I have saved on my iPad. That I know nothing of what she loved and hated fills me with a quiet sadness. I will always want to have seen her smiles, to have experienced her hugs, to know if she would still love me after I made the same choice she did all those years ago. 

After some major life shifts in 2019, I adopted the second half of my grandmother’s name for my own. I decided to be called Lou by those in my personal and creative life, because that’s where the love is. When a friend, a lover, a collaborator says my name, or laughs at a joke I’ve made, or embraces me, the intent is for her to feel it too. She is in my heart when I write, when I am behind my camera, when I step foot into my studio. I don’t believe I am doing the exact things she would have. Rather, I am inspired to put beauty out into the world for both of us. 

However short and blank, Mary Lou’s life and memory is to me, however, many years were taken from her through the wire. She will never be made small while I am here.

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