This is an extremely personal story of a journey I never thought I would take, a challenge I never thought I would face, and a decision I never imagined I would make. It’s an uncomfortable topic and possibly something that will enrage you, so please read with caution: it’s a controversial topic and may be a trigger for some!
There are very few things in this world that can stop me in my tracks and bring me to my knees. It has only happened once in my life. Until today. The pain came rushing back so suddenly and unexpectedly that I stood in my basement, unable to move as I gasped for air through the sobbing and tears. It lasted half an hour, during which time I could think of nothing else. Once the tears subsided, the pain lingered, and lingers still. It will never go away, not fully.
The little round memory box sits atop a shelf in the basement with all our other memory boxes. It hasn’t been opened in forever, probably 8 years or so. I glance at it now and then, but I don’t dare open it. Maybe someday I will have the strength and that’s why I keep it. Or maybe it’s to remind myself of what could have been.
Today I was cleaning and organizing in the basement so I took all of the memory boxes down to dust the shelf. The boxes were thick with dust, not having seen a rag in many moons. I lovingly wiped away the cobwebs, and for some reason I decided to open that little round memory box. I knew what it was, but I couldn’t remember what was in it.
Her name is scrawled on a yellow post-it note – Roxy. Underneath, the box has the word LOVE on a pretty background. After I dusted the cover, I lifted the lid. On the top of the pile, photos lay face down. I daren’t look at the photos, I’m not that strong yet. Beneath the photos is a clear plastic bag with something white – a small knit item. Between the photos and the bag, something hard and round peeked out. I lifted the photos enough to see what it was and immediately tears stung my eyes.
On that little round plaster cast was the impression of her tiny little feet. Every perfect toe, every wrinkle. How could I not remember this was in there?! And WHY was it in there?! Had I requested it? Or had the hospital put it in there without telling us and I just never opened it? Those days are a blur for me so my memory is fuzzy.
If you have a moral problem with abortion, I suggest you stop reading now.
The pregnancy with my second child was a nightmare from the start. From the moment of conception I was ill, throwing up and permanently nauseous no matter what I did. I had a 1-year-old to tend to so I wasn’t able to take it easy, and probably running around after the toddler kept my mind off the nausea somewhat. It was the polar opposite of my first pregnancy, which was uneventful and beautiful despite the gestational diabetes.
We’d opted for a CVS (chorionic villus sampling) with the first pregnancy, which is a diagnostic test used to identify chromosome abnormalities and other inherited disorders by taking a sample of the placenta. We opted for this method of testing as it can be done earlier in the pregnancy (10 – 13 weeks) so if there was a problem we would have more options. The test was horrible but the results were perfect – a healthy baby girl.
With this second pregnancy, we were cocky from our previous good fortune and decided to wait for the anatomy ultrasound scan at 20 weeks and go on to an amnio if necessary. We had made a grave mistake. The anatomy scan showed a cyst on the brain of the baby, which could be a marker for any number of genetic issues. Or it could mean nothing, and disappear by the time the baby is born. We asked for an immediate amnio to test for any genetic markers.
While we waited for the test results, I spent hours each night after the baby was asleep googling possible outcomes. The happy endings kept my hope alive, but the other outcomes kept me grounded. It could go either way at this point, so for the next week I had trouble bonding with the baby. We knew it was a girl from the anatomy scan so we had already named her, but the uncertainty nagged at me. I tried to brush it off as just nerves, but it’s possible that I already knew.
When the call from the hospital came, I was driving down 16th Avenue. I remember it like it was yesterday. Everything moved so quickly, yet everything is in slow motion.
“I’m sorry to tell you…” are the only words I remember clearly. My brain has blocked out the actual wording, but the message was clear: my baby had Downs Syndrome. I asked them to book me immediately for an abortion, but that’s apparently not how it works. They only did those procedures on certain days and since the Easter long weekend was coming up I would have to wait a week, during which time I would need to see the genetic counsellor.
The phone call resounded in my brain as I drove up Blenheim. When I turned onto our street, my husband was walking down the sidewalk with our toddler – they were heading back from the store and were only one house away. I pulled the car to the curb in front of our house, facing in the wrong direction, flung open the door and tumbled out of the driver’s seat. I fell onto all fours and screamed, sobbing uncontrollably.
My husband, alarmed, ran over and helped me to my feet as he asked what was wrong. I could barely get the words out as he half-carried me into the house. Unspeakable sadness descended upon our home.
Our worst fears had been realized, and now it was time to make the hard decisions. Do we keep the baby, knowing this was our last (I was already 41), or do we abort the baby and try again as soon as possible? And if we kept the baby, what would life be like? We were older parents, so our daughter would be left to care for her sister once we were dead. Were we capable of the attention a special needs child requires? Were we strong enough? Was our marriage strong enough? Was it fair to us, to our daughter? One of my closest friends has a daughter with Downs Syndrome and I’ve seen first hand the difficulties they face daily. My friend has been self-medicating for years.
The abortion was booked for the following week, a full 8 days later. For the next week I would have to carry the baby, feel it kicking, knowing that I was going to abort it. It was horrifying and gut-wrenching, and a pain I couldn’t share with anyone else. Even my husband, who was certainly going through his own distress over the situation, couldn’t possibly understand the agony I was in. He tried his best, of course, but nothing he could say would ease my anguish a single ounce.
That week was the worst of my life, culminating in the worst day of my life. I hugged my toddler a hundred times each day, held her tighter than I should have, probably. At night I would go into the spare room and sit on the floor by the window and talk to the baby. One particular night, the moon was shining brightly in the window and I sat directly on a moonbeam. I sat cross-legged, rocking side to side, moonlight glistening off the tears streaming down my face. I begged her forgiveness, tried to come to some sort of peace with our decision. MY decision. While my husband had input, this was my body, and ultimately, my decision.
I told only a few friends the truth, others I told that the baby had simply died and I had to wait to have it removed. One friend I shared the truth with tried to commiserate by comparing my situation with the time she had to put down her cat. Yes, she loved her cat very, very much, and I’m sure the pain was immense. But she couldn’t possibly imagine the horror of my situation. I let it go. (She would find herself in my situation within the next year, and apologized profusely for comparing it to putting down her cat!)
Once the procedure was over, I spent the next 10 months in despair. I would cry myself to sleep, cry every morning when I woke up, cry in my car as I drove to work, and cry every time I was alone. I was numb, and couldn’t reconcile my decision in my heart. My brain had no troubles – I made a difficult decision but it was the right one for my family. I alone would carry the burden of this decision for the rest of my life. But it came at a price. A darkness in my soul, a void that could never be filled.
The people at work were kind, speaking gently to me, caressing my shoulder as they smiled sadly at me. I wanted to scream at them “I KILLED MY BABY!!!” but I didn’t. No one needed to know. Not that I cared about repercussions – about them thinking less of me – but I didn’t want THEM to have to carry around that knowledge. Most people don’t even know this type of thing happens to people, and sometimes ignorance is bliss. One of the work friends I confided in said to me “there are enough unwanted babies in this world. You made the right decision for you.” and I hung onto those words. Still do.
For anyone disgusted by my choice, please keep your flames to yourself. You couldn’t possibly make me feel worse than I already do, and it’s a cross I will bear until the day I die. I also encourage you to contact the BC Adoption Agency at bcadoption.com if you think raising a child with special needs is what’s right for you. I wasn’t up for the challenge, and didn’t want to make that choice for my family.
At the time this was going on I was a member of an online pregnancy group. One woman outed me and suddenly I was inundated by nasty, judgey messages. I didn’t bother to defend myself as I felt I deserved the shaming, but many strangers jumped to my defence. Many sent me messages of commiseration and encouragement, having gone through the procedure themselves. One woman put it quite eloquently when she wrote “I think God is okay with my choice. After all, he gave me the knowledge so I COULD have a choice.” Even though I’m not religious, I really appreciated (and still appreciate) the thought!
As the years go by the pain is less debilitating, but clearly it is still there, just lying below the surface. It can be revisited unexpectedly, but necessarily. Before today, it had been almost two years since I last cried about it. The dark hole in my heart is still there – perhaps I haven’t fully forgiven myself yet – but when I hold my youngest’s hand, I am grateful for second chances. If we’d kept Roxy, my little one wouldn’t be here today, and life would be so, so different.
I’ve never talked about this to anyone – I wouldn’t know how to bring it up or what to say. Writing is my only outlet. I’m sharing my story in case there are others who are suffering in silence, beating themselves up from shame. Reach out if you need to talk.