The Child Who Wasn't

Sadness is not evidence of error, and being sad that something happened isn’t the same as admitting it shouldn’t have happened.

Early next month, had things been very different, my first-born would turn 31.

Thirty-one! Old enough, perhaps, for the first tiny wrinkle, or jokes about slowing down just a little. Old enough, perhaps, for a whole litany of stories about triumphs and heartbreaks. Old enough to be a mom or dad themselves.

Older than almost everyone I dated last year. Older than the last girl I fell in love with.

It’s a familiar story. When I was 17 and a high school senior, I got my 16-year old girlfriend pregnant. We were young (duh), and we had that particular kind of recklessness where the fantasy of what might happen ― we could make a new life this way! ― fueled rather than dampened our risk-taking.

What might happen, happened. When April was two weeks late, I went to her house and waited while she took the pregnancy test. When we saw the results, we cried together. Sitting on her mother’s porch in the cool Monterey fog, we let ourselves spin a story of what it might look like to keep the baby.

“No one will believe we can do it,” I told April, “but I know we can.” I rambled for a few minutes about going to community college instead of Cal, where I’d already been accepted. We wouldn’t have to get married, I told her; not yet. It would be hard but we’d make it work. People our age had been having babies for millennia.

One of the small and repeated unkindnesses of my life has been forcing the women I love to be practical in the face of my optimistic fantasies. April was a wise 16 (she is a wise 48 now, a tenured professor of psychology), and though she let herself daydream for a moment, she knew before I did that there was only one possible decision.

We cried more, and I braved my mother’s wrath to spend the whole night in April’s bed, even with school the next day.

I went with April to see the OB/GYN. By her request, I sat in the room while he examined her, asked about her last period, wrote notes on a chart.

I peeked. On the chart, next to “due date”, he’d written 2/7/1986.

April had a vacuum aspiration abortion a few days after the exam. I waited in the waiting room with her mother, who told me the story of her own (illegal) abortion in the early 1960s. “It knocked some sense into me,” April’s mother said grimly. “Maybe it will knock some sense into you two.”

I was just glad she wasn’t knocking me upside the head with a 2x4, so I nodded shyly.

The abortion knocked precisely no sense into either of us. April and I stayed together another year ― a year marked by chronic cheating, fights, and slow disillusionment. She had a second abortion, not mine.

I was not prepared for February 7, 1986. The week that our baby would have been due, I felt a hot, grinding heaviness in my chest. I saw children on the street and I cried.

I told a friend, and she looked at me strangely. “There never was a baby to cry for,” she said, “you’re romanticizing a clump of cells.” I called April to talk about it, and she got angry: “I’m not upset, and I was the one who was pregnant! It’s ridiculous for you to be sad.”

We didn’t have the Internet in 1986, but we had libraries, and I looked up articles on men and abortion grief. Predictably, everything I found that acknowledged that men might be sad after an abortion was written with an anti-abortion agenda. Heartbreak was politicized. Grief was evidence that a life had been lost, or so the articles said; the suppression of emotional pain was thus a necessary act of solidarity with the pro-choice cause.

Let me be fair. No article actually said that last bit. But that’s the conclusion I came to, and one that haunted me for years.

The right thing, the best thing, often leaves a mark that fades but never vanishes."

I was well into my forties before I accepted the obvious: grief isn’t political. Being sad that something happened isn’t the same as admitting that it shouldn’t have happened. Sadness is not evidence of error; tears are not proof of regret. I can be pro-choice, which I am to my very core, and still weep for what wasn’t. My sentimentality is not a reason to deny a woman agency over her body; her agency doesn’t need my sentimentality to disappear in order for it to be valid.

I can long for the child that was conceived but never born and still be so grateful that April made the decision that she did. The right thing, the best thing, often leaves a mark that fades but never vanishes.

For more than 30 years, I’ve dreamt about this child who might have come in early 1986. (This is selective sentiment ― I never dream about the children who might have been born from other, later abortions for which I was responsible).

Sometimes I dream it would have been a son, sometimes a daughter.

A few years ago, I had a dream that I was hiking in the hills near my family’s ranch in the Bay Area. I was alone; it was a warm spring day, golden poppies and lupine carpeted the hillsides. I came to a summit, and my late father and a young woman in her late 20s were sitting on two rocks, talking quietly. They looked up as I approached, and I knew at once that the young woman was she who was never born.

They smiled as I got closer, but their smiles suggested I was interrupting. I wanted to sit and listen, but my father shook his head.

“Huggle,” he said, calling me by my childhood nickname. “You need to go back. We’ll come along in a bit. “

I stared at the woman. I wanted to ask her name, but daddy told me firmly, again, that I needed to go back. I headed down the trail, and after a few feet, turned around. They were watching me. Waiting.

The last thing I remember from the dream is that after they were out of sight, I heard her voice, low and syrupy, and my father’s rich and warm laughter in response, rising off the mountain to the sky.