I never pray.
Sometimes I’ll speak to someone I call God, someone who is and isn’t present, and I’ll ask for help. In my desperation, there is no praise. Instead, I beg. Nothing I say in these moments rises to the level of prayer, none of it evinces belief or belonging. I simply cry out to the unknowable and indifferent universe for relief or release from pain.
This happened two nights before the abortion. That afternoon, a medical student had clumsily inserted something called laminaria japonica into my cervix. His supervising surgeon told me I should be fine if I took enough Advil and sent me home.*
There is not enough Advil in the world for what I felt.
Laminaria japonica is a seaweed product slightly larger than a bobby pin. Once inserted into the cervix, it is expanded by the body’s moisture, forcing the cervix to dilate as though the body is beginning labor. Nobody told me that the first centimeter of dilation is as traumatic to the body as the remaining nine combined. Nobody told me it was absurd to think that Advil could blunt the wrenching sensation. Nobody told me about vasovagal responses, or that I would feel like I might be going into shock.
The surgeon had been concerned that it wouldn’t be possible to dilate my cervix sufficiently to remove a 15-week gestated fetus because I had never delivered a child. He wanted to be sure to use as much laminaria as possible, which turned out to be five sticks. I laid on the table, stoic, angry, as long as I could before I cried. The pain, already, before the seaweed began its work, radiated from the core of my being. It felt like nothing I had ever imagined.
On the way home, the body’s revolt began. My husband had to pull over so that I could throw up out the side of the car. I couldn’t sit straight in the seat—my hips and abdomen hurt too much.
That afternoon and evening, I lay on the couch and wailed. I did not bargain. I did not insist. I simply begged. I thought, is this some kind of punishment for the choice we had to make? But a moral universe would function much differently than the one we live in, would look different than life looks here on Earth. Though it would be two more days before the final procedure was over, it was now irreversible. It had begun. I couldn’t go back, change my mind. I told myself that it didn’t matter, that what came later would hurt even worse if we didn’t do it then. And that was true, it would have.
Over the course of the next several hours, there was nothing to do but cry out to anyone who might be listening to take the pain away. I scared the dog. I wept. Andrew went to every Walgreens and CVS in our general area to try to find a heating pad, and came up empty. Finally, I wrapped a heated blanket around my torso and fell into a shallow, useless sleep.
The next day, back at the hospital, the same med student, supervised by the same surgeon, removed the five spent laminaria and inserted seven more. As I bled on the table, they tried again and again for eight. Eventually, the surgeon said, “She’s been through enough,” and they stopped. I laid on the table and cried. Having passed through the worst of it, though, I didn’t suffer as much that night. Against the surgeon’s wishes, I took a hot bath and found a few minutes of total relief.
The rest of the week went about as you might imagine: by morning I was fully dilated; we waited for five hours at the understaffed hospital before the 20-minute procedure began; a nurse insisted, on my behalf, on conscious sedation at a minimum. I walked into the operating room, was provided a stepping stool to get myself onto the sterile table under the blinding, hot lights, like stage lights. It seemed so odd that the operating room had a panoramic view of the city out enormous windows. The actual termination was over in a blink, painless, mostly a relief. And then our daughter was gone.
After my head cleared, for about an hour I felt a strange bodily elation, as though I could turn cartwheels right then and there. When the surgeon finally arrived to talk before we checked out, he asked, “Can you already tell you’re not pregnant?” I could.
It had been an incredibly unpleasant pregnancy. Low blood sugar caused constant headaches and a vague brand of nausea that couldn’t quite be relieved with vomiting. I ate protein all day, every day, and for maybe one day out of nine straight weeks felt functional. To be able to tell that I wasn’t pregnant was a curious relief. I had wanted to be pregnant. I wanted that child. I wanted her to be fine, and growing, and whole, which she never had been, never could have been.
For five weeks, I waited, desperate for the healing of my body and return of my cycle. All day, every day, I thought, What if it doesn’t come back? I was convinced I wouldn’t become pregnant again. I didn’t know how to grieve a half-formed human I had never met, and I felt like a tremendous failure. The voices in my mind alternated between berating myself for that failure and wishing, hoping. Not praying. I don’t believe there is a god who would give some people who want them healthy children, others irreparably damaged ones, others none.
I should be clear: I did not stop believing in a benevolent deity when my daughter died. As a Catholic teenager who’d gone to mass all her life, I tried as hard as possible to believe. I said the prayers, I sang the songs, I stood up, sat down, kneeled, started over. Before confirmation, I had to complete a fat workbook that required me to read the actual Bible, something I’m told by other Catholics they’ve never done, or been asked to do. I went to catechism. I sat in the pews during mass, longing to be filled with some kind of knowledge or understanding or feeling—to feel anything. I prayed hard, but never once did anyone or anything come to me in the spirit. Eventually, I gave up.
Of course, I did get pregnant again, in short order, as it turned out, once the body was ready. There is nobody for me to pray to for his safe delivery into my arms. I will have to do my best with what I have. Here on Earth, we’re on our own.
*I’ve learned since that it’s this particular surgeon’s standard procedure to undermedicate, and to recommend that the actual abortion be performed without any anesthesia. Combined with the “she’s been through enough” comment, I do wonder whether the doctors were punishing me, though I don’t believe that the universe was.