The Pre-Op floor is quiet, anesthetized even, for a Monday morning. My gown cloaks me three times over, yet fails to keep out the chill. The stiff sheet encasing my torso is dotted with the stains of dried tears.
Almost fourteen weeks pregnant, I await a Dilation and Curettage, a D & C.
Three days earlier, I celebrate the retreat of morning sickness with cheery greetings to my husband and children. The buttons on my pants refuse to come together, like two stubborn toddlers. I glance underneath my bed to the maternity clothes I’d been storing for two years, and remind myself to toss them in the washing machine.
Later today, I think, I will tell the world about my pregnancy.
In my loosest clothing (the last outfit I will wear with a smile for a long time), I pose in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. My posture exaggerates an early second trimester pregnancy. I massage my third child, eager for the day when it kicks back, eager to introduce him or her to my two older daughters. In March 2007, we will be a family of five.
That afternoon, at a routine checkup with my doctor, the all-knowing Doppler skates back and forth across my slick belly. Loud echoes pulse off the walls in the exam room. But the doctor who delivered my first two children is not yet wiping me off with a towel or instructing me to take care until my next visit. She continues drawing figure eights, in smaller circumferences, outlining every organ.
Finally, she breaks the pattern.
I don't hear anything that sounds like a heartbeat, she says.
An ultrasound later confirms that something went terribly wrong. The fetus floats around in my fluid, lifeless, like a buoy in the ocean. From a supine position, my stares command the heart on the screen to flicker. But my plea fails—my meek attempt at prenatal discipline goes unanswered.
This horror is compounded by time. Because it is too late on Friday afternoon to schedule the surgery, my baby and I must remain joined until Monday.
At home I feel lost, defeated, enraged. Crying jags punctuate ordinary conversation. I now detest my swollen body, and in an attempt to punish it for its physical deception, stuff it into skinny jeans. The seams crack into my skin.
Despite my depleted state, I drive my daughters to an orchard for pony rides and face-paintings. As we run though the corn mazes, stopping and starting at false openings, trapped among the stalks that rise above our faces, I hide my tears in a sweatshirt sleeve while clutching my belly.
Three days later, in Pre-Op, scrub-wearing workers stream in and out, poking and prodding without consolation. The nurse monitoring my blood pressure never looks up from my trembling arm.
As I’m being wheeled into surgery, my grandmother, Oma, is 700 miles away in Tennessee, cramped and kneeling in the pews of her church, praying for a surgery without complications.
When I return home after the procedure, as soon as my husband opens the door to the house, the phone rings. It is Oma. Underneath her thick Austrian accent and muffled sobs, she offers a sentiment I will hear over and over again from many others.
But she is the one who says it first.
Anjali, she whispers, I am so, so sorry.
On March 13, 1938, Oma, age twelve, glances out her living room window. Adolf Hitler’s booming voice marches itself through the streets of Linz, Austria. He embraces cheering salutes of Heil Hilter from every angle.
Oma feels sick to her stomach.
Within hours, the familiar doorways of her childhood, the store where her mother buys each day’s groceries, the bank, and her neighbors’ homes, are draped with images of swastikas. Her father shakes his head in disgust and increases the volume on Radio Free Europe.
Four years later, Oma is a sixteen-year-old living at home alone with her twelve-year-old brother. Her mom has fled to her own mother in Steyrling, a small town in the Austrian Alps, to give birth to her third child far away from the German occupation of Linz.
Oma’s father, captured by the Allies, is a prisoner of war in England. In her parents’ absence, Oma is the head of the household, attending college, working, and taking care of her little brother.
One gray afternoon, while making dinner, sirens cut through the air, followed immediately by the crescendo humming of planes leading an air raid. Oma and her brother tear down the stairs to the basement. Within seconds, a hard thud jolts the ground below them, knocking them against the rear wall.
After, when Oma and her brother force open the door to the daylight, they discover the remnants of a bomb splattered in the backyard garden. Shards of glass and wood from their home’s blown-out windows and collapsed roof coat the dismembered furniture.
Across the street, rotting corpses are stacked like piles of firewood.
In the days that follow, Oma and her brother pick through the wreckage, rescuing familial artifacts. They sleep on the kitchen floor, the only safe space, until their mother returns from the mountains.
The following year, just after Oma completes college, the Reich sends her to a Nazi work camp, arbeitsdienst, in Czechoslovakia. She rises at 3 a.m. and dresses in a red and blue Nazi-regulated uniform to march and sing German nationalist songs. The führers then transport Oma and the other female workers to a farm to chop down trees that tower over them, shave off the leaves, and then break them down into quarters.
Outside during the winter, Oma sees her breath from morning until night. Her uniform fails to shield her from frigid temperatures. She has no gloves to protect her cracked and calloused hands, and most days she can’t feel her feet. An angry red rash erupts on her legs from the required wool tights.
She sleeps on a straw mattress in a Nazi barrack with eleven other girls. They take turns staying up all night, stoking the fire and adding coals to keep the führers warm. In the morning, icicles surround them while they bathe in the washroom. The shower water freezes upon exiting the faucet, hitting the tile like hail.
Oma’s stomach aches from raw hunger—her daily nutrition a small bowl of pudding-flavored water and a slice of black bread. At night, she listens to the whispers throughout the barracks of sore, exhausted, and frozen bodies. Another girl speaks of a camp just up the Danube River from Linz.
They herd all the people through the doors. They never come out again.
Late in the night, after everyone else is asleep, Oma wonders about this camp that no one leaves, not far from her family home.
On a hot, humid day in the spring of 1994, I drive up from college to attend the March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC with three other Women’s Studies students who are proud to call themselves feminists.
After a four-hour drive, we emerge to signs that read “KEEP ABORTION LEGAL,” “CHOICE NOW” and salute one another on the Metro and in line for the port-a-potties. On a small patch of grass on The Mall, we position ourselves among our sisters, shouting chants, singing songs of solidarity, and listening, mesmerized, to the activists advancing our cause.
To protesting pro-lifers lining the Mall, I shout, “An acorn is not a tree,” confident that a metaphor about botany confers a medical understanding of the difference between an embryo or fetus, and a living, breathing newborn.
Though I have never had an abortion myself, my feminist consciousness and curriculum have transformed me from a silent bystander to an activist, leading me to believe I know what it might be like to terminate a pregnancy.
In early 2001, seven years after I marched on Washington, I am pregnant for the very first time. At the six-week ultrasound, I discover evidence of life, pre-birth life. It moves and wiggles, as if signaling to me. The technician points to a beating heart.
In the few moments it takes to view a pulsing embryo in a darkened room, my whole pro-choice world is blurred. I find it impossible to deny the existence of what I can see with my own eyes. The question of viability, a term I had once considered crucial in a conversation about abortion rights, seems irrelevant in light of my impending motherhood. Because when I show my friends and family members pictures from the ultrasound, I do not call it “my embryo” or “my pregnancy,” I call it what I believe it truly is—my baby.
Five years later, in the summer of 2006, I am a mother to two children, and expecting my third. During the pregnancy, two ultrasounds at six and nine weeks reveal a growing, thriving baby. At nine weeks, when we identify its limb buds, I imagine myself kissing hands with tiny dimples, rocking a baby to sleep in my arms, and the sensation of a newborn face pressed up against my cheek. I consider the holiday card we will send out to our family, featuring an infant sandwiched between two adoring big sisters.
Because my pregnancy is progressing well, I cavalierly dismiss my doctor’s suggestion to schedule an eleven-week diagnostic ultrasound.
Because, I naively explain, we will have this baby no matter what.
After the War, at an American GI social, Oma is drawn to a man with dark, slicked back hair, captivating eyes, and deeply bronzed skin. The soldier notices her, too, puts out his cigarette, and saunters over.
Oma learns he is a Puerto Rican-American serving in the US Army. They dance and laugh late into the night. He doesn’t care that she can barely speak English, and she doesn’t mind that falling in love with an American might mean a permanent departure from her homeland.
They marry in 1947, and in 1948, Oma and my grandfather, Opa, cross the ocean by naval ship to New York City, to settle in the Puerto Rican section of the Bronx. Oma picks up English while ushering movies in Times Square.
In late 1949, Oma becomes pregnant. Nausea wakes her at dawn and persists until late afternoon. She pats cold compresses on her forehead with one hand and, with the other, clings to the four-page letters her mother sends her every week from Austria. She boils pots of hot water for gemeente tea—her mother’s antidote for stomach ailments.
In 1950, days after the beginning of the Korean War, Oma gives birth to a son. The US Army stations Opa, a brand new father, to Trieste, Italy.
Oma is alone in New York with a newborn baby, her only relative a mother-n-law who detests her for her Anglo blood, her German tongue. During her sleepless nights, the nausea, which has only recently abated, returns with a vengeance. She is pregnant again. Over the next few months, alone in her drafty apartment, Oma stumbles in the dark to fix her son a bottle before running to the bathroom to throw up.
A few months later, she is reunited with Opa in Trieste, where she gives birth to her daughter in July 1951.
One year later, in 1952, the US army stations Opa in Massachusetts. Oma must stay behind with her infants at a hotel near a ship port in the Italian Riviera. She does not have her own bathroom or kitchen and, in the middle of the night, creeps down to the building’s kitchen to warm milk for her two babies. A few months later, she boards the ship back to Massachusetts with her swaddled newborn and toddler son.
Two years later, while living in Massachusetts, she gives birth to their third child.
Oma is worn out from being woken up two to three times a night by children’s nightmares, cries for a bottle. She worries about her husband’s safety in far off lands. She is frustrated by a language where her “thats” always sound like “dats”—eliciting cruel snickers from shop store clerks and upper class neighbors. She misses her family, her girlfriends from school, the taste of schnitzel and knaedles, and the texture of European black bread.
She is determined that this third child will be her last.
From 1954 to 1958, the family moves from Massachusetts to Alaska, to Washington State, to Texas, and then to Germany, where an old girlfriend tells Oma about a pill that prevents babies.
Oma wants this pill. Every month, she stares into the toilet bowl in a state of panic any time her period is late. Her youngest daughter has serious vision problems; she is nearly blind in both eyes. Oma cannot imagine changing diapers and cleaning bottles again, while taking care of a child with severely impaired vision.
A few weeks after she begins taking the pill, Oma experiences extreme dizziness and nausea. While lying on the floor, the ceiling mercilessly spins above her. She can barely walk from one side of the room to another without stopping for a break.
Oma flushes the remaining pills down the toilet.
Oma begs Opa to help her prevent another pregnancy. He refuses. He is a proud Catholic Hispanic and sees no need to deny his seed its rightful territory.
In 1962, Oma’s period is late. She frantically checks her underwear before each bath. Her stomach bloats, her breasts return to their familiar ache. She curses at Opa and throws shoes at the wall in their tiny flat. She muffles her cries in the wool coat that hangs in their closet.
Oma gives birth to her fourth child, and then the following year Opa, Oma, and their four children sail back over the ocean, to El Paso, Texas.
With a family of six, the refrigerator sits nearly empty. Opa’s military salary barely meets their household expenses. Oma must get a job. She turns over the baby’s caretaking needs to her eldest daughter, who is now twelve.
While her four children are still sleeping, Oma rises at 4:00 am and drives in the dark to the local bakery to knead bread, mix batter, and squirt icing on cookies for eight hours. She returns home just as her children arrive from school, where she begins an evening of cooking, cleaning, and mending. She collapses into bed late at night, with only a few hours of sleep before her alarm goes off again.
Shortly before her fortieth birthday, the nausea returns. Her breasts burn. Her underwear remains unstained. She is pregnant.
This time Oma is resolute. She tells Opa, point blank, that she is getting rid of it. Opa knows his wife; he knows she means what she says. He does not want her to do it alone.
One evening, just before sunset, Oma and Opa leave their four children at home and drive to downtown El Paso. They park their car near the foot of the Sante Fe Bridge and walk over the slow trickle of dingy water known as the Rio Grande into Juarez, Mexico. She smoothes the skirt of her black dress and keeps her eyes forward. He pretends to enjoy the landscape—slum houses of corrugated metal, mud and cardboard.
When they reach the city, they hail a cab to a hospital.
The taxi driver will know exactly where to take you, an Army buddy told Opa.
Soon after entering the hospital, Oma is surrounded by Spanish voices used to caring for American women. They gown her quickly and lay her down. Oma concentrates on her children at home to calm her nerves while the staff begins administering the anesthesia.
After the surgery, my grandparents retrace their steps over the bridge. This time, Oma shuffles slowly over the border while holding onto Opa’s arm. He resignedly pats her hand and helps her into the car. They arrive home by midnight.
When Opa is stationed in Germany again, Oma becomes pregnant two more times. Her second abortion occurs while on “vacation” to Austria, where a midwife, a friend of the family, will take care of it in Oma’s mother’s home.
Oma lies on her back, without anesthesia, while the midwife inserts a catheter to open her uterus. After the midwife leaves, the cramping and bleeding begin. She miscarries the following day. The entire family returns to Germany a few days later.
The following year, she boards the train from Germany to Austria, again under the guise of a vacation. This time, hours after the procedure, buckets of blood drench her dress. Her mother paces back and forth, examining the rags and the debris in the toilet, searching for an expelled lump.
There is nothing but blood.
The next morning, Oma is rushed to the hospital in Linz. Oma’s mother mutters prayers of the rosary under her breath. Her mother fears they are too late when she sees the blood-soaked towels that she has placed under Oma in the car.
The doctor who will perform the D & C flips impatiently through the patient chart, and shakes her head at Oma’s stained and gowned body—this botched, illegal abortion. He asks her, since she is married, why would she end her pregnancy?
On the verge of losing consciousness, while the blood continues to flow onto the hospital floor, Oma recalls the arbeitsdienst, the American GI social where she met her husband, suitcases in strange lands splayed open with clothes for four children, her two youngest children with severe vision impairment, the yeast-scented bakery before sunrise, morning sickness, the sleeplessness and stresses of new motherhood.
Because, she replies in her native tongue, I am tired. I do not want any more.
On a Tuesday, one month after my D & C, the phone rings. I don’t hesitate to pick it up—phone calls to my house have finally returned to the routine of annoying telemarketers and friends scheduling play dates—not offerings of apology that cause me to sob into my tea.
My doctor’s voice surprises me. The baby was a boy, she says. The genetic testing revealed a chromosomal abnormality. He would never have survived the pregnancy.
I concentrate on not dropping the phone, and after hanging up, dry heave into the kitchen sink, while dinner burns on the stove.
Later that night, I pull out my ultrasound photos, scanning closely for evidence of a life gone awry. I see nothing but a sweet, perfect baby.
The following spring, the raw pain and grief of miscarriage subsides. When a friend becomes pregnant, I insist that she show me her ultrasound picture.
She hesitates before pulling the thin paper out of her wallet. My hand is shaking when I grasp it. Numbers crowd out its top right corner, indicating she is eleven weeks along. I identify the baby’s limbs, its curved torso, and a tiny, upturned nose.
I wonder who this child might be: A boy or girl? A teacher or scientist? An introvert, an extrovert? I remember what it’s like to have hope, to conceive dreams for a baby who is months away from taking its first breath, to guess at personality traits, to create a vision for a family.
In that moment, while smoothing the creases of the waxy paper, I uncover an uncomfortable truth about my third pregnancy, my capabilities as a mother, and the limits of what I mistook for unconditional love:
If I had shown up for my eleven-week diagnostic ultrasound and instead of a nonviable fetus discovered a struggling, misshapen life, slowly dying from defect—
I would have had an abortion.
Opa died of a heart attack in 1980, leaving Oma a widow at the age of 53. Her three older children were grown, her youngest child a senior in high school.
She had been working for years in the shoe section of a large department store, fetching several sizes of the latest heels, wedging sneakers on cranky toddlers, ringing up back-to-school loafers. At the end of each shift, her knees and ankles were sore from bending and prying. The arthritis flared up in her wrists from threading and lacing.
Her low wage, along with her husband’s military pension, barely covered the living expenses for her and her youngest child. Had she not had the abortions, after Opa died, she would have been a single mother to three more young children.
Oma has many regrets. She regrets the war that separated her from her family, the loss of her beloved homeland to the Nazi regime, the loneliness and isolation she experienced as a foreigner in foreign lands, the limited options for birth control in the early 1960s, Opa’s premature death, and the pregnancies she never wanted.
But she does not regret getting the abortions.
And while I—her first grandchild—will never fully understand what it might be like to have led such a life, or to terminate a pregnancy—I have evolved from the college student who feigned empathy for another woman’s dilemma on The Mall in Washington, DC—the textbook feminist with the good fortune to view life in black and white increments.
Rather, I am a mother armed with hindsight and history (both mine and Oma’s), who now knows what it might be like to regret conception; to confront despair; to grieve the lack of second chances; to become pregnant with a baby I would have loved, but never would have birthed.
Because if I shed my politics and my preferences, and separate my love from my logic, I find myself telling a different kind of story about my pregnancy and loss: Only luck and a few weeks’ time, made the difference between what ended as my miscarriage, but could have been my abortion.
In the summer of 2007, after two more miscarriages, I am pregnant again.Although the pregnancy is free from complications, anxiety plagues and controls my day. I frantically call family members when a few minutes pass without the baby’s movement. My nights threaten nightmares, restlessness, and insomnia.
I frequently visit the ultrasound room, and refuse to look at the screen until the technician confirms a heartbeat.
Oma, now in her eighties, lives two hours north in a retirement home, enduring the same stresses about my baby’s health. Although she is decades beyond her own pregnancies, she senses the urgency of my own. She has assumed an understanding of technology and terminology—crown-to-rump measurement and beta HCG level—which didn’t exist when she was building her own family. She knows the day and time of each pregnancy appointment and distracts herself with soap operas and game shows, until the phone rings with good news.
During our monthly visits, when we sit together on the couch, I lift her hand and place it on my belly. When we feel the baby’s kicks, we breathe a sigh of relief.
Had she not gone blind after retiring from the shoe department, Oma would have packed up her belongings, sold her small ranch home, and made one final journey back across the ocean to the Austrian Alps, the Danube, and the geography of her childhood—minus the violence of war.
But instead, she remains here, in her adopted country, awaiting the arrival of her newest great-grandchild.
A few days after I give birth to my third daughter, my mother brings Oma to the doorway of my home, where I greet her with a hug and guide her slowly by the elbow through the foyer, into the living room.
Oma leans over, feels for the edge of our leather sofa, and follows it around to the far armrest. I adjust the pillows behind her back and position my restless newborn along her forearm, into the crook of her elbow.
Oma’s measured rocking quiets the baby immediately. It’s as if my sweet daughter had been waiting all morning for the comfort of her great-grandmother.
I cross to the other side of my Oma. To minimize the sting of my incision, I lower myself slowly into a nearby cushion. My head rests easily on Oma’s shoulder, the hypnotic rise and fall of her chest forces my eyes closed. As my shoulders release the stress and tension of the last nine months, from the last couple of years of grief, I find, at my grandmother’s side, a deep, restful sleep.
Anjali Enjeti is a novelist, essayist and literary critic. Her essays have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Alternet, Dame, and elsewhere. Her criticism, interviews and humor have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus, The Millions, The Rumpus, Paste, The Guardian and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. A MFA graduate of Queens University in Charlotte, she has recently completed her first novel. She lives in suburban Atlanta and can be found at anjalienjeti.com or @anjalienjeti.
Q: What inspired this essay?
A: My grandmother has never talked much about her life, and I knew, from my mother and aunts, that it was a difficult one. I knew, too, that she’d had abortions, but it wasn’t until she was in her eighties, and after I’d suffered from my own pregnancy losses, that I finally got the guts to ask her about them. I interviewed her several times, taking diligent notes. A few years after I completed the essay, she began showing signs of dementia. I’m so thankful I had the chance to ask her about her experiences when she was still able to share them.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: I love Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Joan Didion, ZZ Packer, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Salman Rushdie. I can only hope some aspect of their craft or gift for storytelling influences my writing! Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things changed me from being someone who wanted only to read stories to someone who also wanted to write stories. I reread The Great Gatsby and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart nearly every year and learn something new from them each time.
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this essay?
A: I was told once that the writers who get published are the ones who are the most persistent when it comes to the submission process. This essay was completed six years ago and submitted to dozens of publications. I had given up hope that it would ever see the light of day. And then I heard about this contest and I thought. “Okay, just one more time.”
Q: Where do you write?
A: I write at home, usually in my sunroom, with the soft glow of sunlight warming my keyboard, my bichon frise puppy wedged in my side. I write in my bedroom, too, late at night, with my three daughters snuggled next to me or sprawled across my legs.