Paper-clothed strangers

Holding a stranger's hand during an abortion is an unforgetable experience.

Published October 8, 1997 4:26PM (EDT)

Jadine, is that her name? Why can't I remember her name? There is her bulk, her blues, her weariness. She reminded me of a large, scuffed suitcase that for years had been filled with other people's stuff. She was entrusted with the safe-keeping of their dreams, their wrongdoings, their children, their illnesses. Forty-four years old and patiently exasperated, she muttered, "I didn't think this could still happen." Her voice was tired. This was just one more damned awful thing she had not been intending to have to deal with, but here she was -- dealing.

She stared at the ceiling. Occasionally she closed her eyes, lightly. She tried to smile or nod at us. Hers was the lengthiest abortion I've seen. I really don't know how long we were all in tiny Room 4 at the end of the hall. It was a warm summer evening, and with five of us in there the temperature rose. Through it all, people were prodding at her body. One doctor inserted a saline drip in her arm to keep her blood pressure up and to hydrate her. At Jadine's feet, the clinic director and another doctor, pale with concern, were tensely discussing whether to proceed. Jadine was more than 12 weeks along, 12 weeks being the maximum stage for which this clinic was equipped.

Across from the doctor, holding the saline drip up by Jadine's head, was me. A novice advocate, I was telling her to breathe, to hang on, though Jadine had obviously been breathing and hanging on with considerable tenacity for a long while. I wiped her forehead with a cool cloth. Trying to equal the strength of her grip, I held her hand. Later, I arranged the heating pad under her broad back.

I had done this for many women and nearly all were grateful. But Jadine was one of the few who was almost embarrassed by the kindness of these simple acts. She had held so many hands herself, children and grandchildren. For someone to do these things for her -- whisper words of support, remove the cloths dampened by her sweat and blood -- this was such a surprise. She didn't say much to me, but the humbleness of her thanks expressed its depth. Later, waiting outside for a cab, both of us exhausted and the night quietly warm, she directed her gaze at me and then away to some thought, perhaps of a prior touch or of tomorrow's work that would not wait for her to take the rest she really needed.

The experience of holding a stranger's hand during an abortion is a powerful one. A piece of your self is taken on by them, just as you take in their pain, relief, tears and nervous laughter. Standing guard next to paper-clothed examination tables, I have been closer to more women than in every locker room and slumber party of my past. It is an odd bond that is made. One woman so exposed, the other there only to attend to her needs. You lie on your back, feet in stirrups, a doctor between your legs, instruments prodding inside, all extracting this small piece of you. No matter how patient and well-intentioned the others in the room, you are bare, vulnerable. Scars are exposed. Your underwear, soft and worn, rests in a small pile on a chair. Your socks and
toes stick up into someone's face. Laughing when you are afraid, you sob later with relief.

It all comes out so oddly here in this small cupboard of a room with these strange, concerned faces. This sliver is all they will know of you. They won't know that you balance your checkbook neatly each month or that you once read "War and Peace" in a week. These people, smelling clean and unfamiliar, might learn, because your body gives it away, that you've injected yourself with drugs or that you had a Caesarean. But those other things that make you whole, they won't know those. Now you are a body on a table covered with thin paper -- a conglomeration of pulse and temperature, your family's cancer history, the date of your last period. Right now you are a woman who has decided to lie on this table, to go on with her life in a changed way, and these are the people accompanying you through the physical trials of that decision.

I too have lain on the table, my legs in stirrups, a mild sedative pulsing through my system leaving a soft blur. The faces are fuzzy; I could never pick out the doctor or even the advocate who was there with me. I vaguely recall the chill of the speculum, and the quick fist of pain that was the cramping. But these are all physical memories. Afterward in the recovery room (how did I get there? did I fly?), I peered at the city. And though I have a mental snapshot of a gray, cold day dotted with European steeples and bare trees, this is all wrong because it was September and about 80 degrees outside.

When it was finished and I was dressed, the check written and the receipt pressed between the pages of "The Day of the Locust" (where I found it two years later during a move), I probably said thank you. Almost all women for whom I have advocated have thanked me when it was over. It's odd how this makes you feel when you are there to assist. Often I will want to say, "No, thank you." Thank you for your patience, your nerves, your warmth. Thank you for revealing yourself.

Now and then, a woman will drop an unpolished stone in your lap, a memory or a dream, something she has held against herself warm and private all these years. And now, after you have held her hand and wiped away vomit from her mouth, now as you move the heating pad under her back, she tells you: "You are the only one who knows this happened. I couldn't tell my boyfriend because we're breaking up. None of my friends would approve. Just you." And so you put this responsibility in your pocket and try to carry it safely through whatever voyage it may be on. I have had women tell me of physical abuse, of failed friendships, of dreams unfulfilled. Momentarily I wonder why they have chosen me. I hope that it is not because there is no one else, though, sadly, I think this is usually the case. I must take care. I must try to remember.

At parties I hesitate to talk to unknown women, checking for any sign of familiarity. I fear someone pausing and squinting her eyes at me: "Don't I know you?" I have been around so many abortions that it seems to me that almost every woman has had one. It is not shameful; it is something that happens. Have sex, get pregnant -- simple equation. For a woman to get through her entire life without a single unwanted pregnancy demonstrates an amazing degree of self-respect, foresight and emotional health to which few of us are privy. An abortion seems to signal for many women that something is askew, that we need to make changes. This chance for alterations, the prevention of more serious ills, has always been for me the most formidable element of abortion.

But other people don't immediately see it this way. I have spoken to some of my closest friends about their abortions. Even with me, whom they know to be caring about the subject, their tones are hushed, the pauses long. This is wrong. You are weak. These sentiments are common and firmly intact, no matter what a woman's politics are. It is hard to shake them away and to replace them with visions of prevention, future and hope. Yes, these friends always include some positive outcomes in their accounts. Needed changes were made. They learned that only they can care for themselves. They gained respect for the power of their bodies. But these are afterthoughts to a story that is scattered with self-blame and guilt.

Recently, I was sitting in traffic in a suburb far from the clinic. A woman crossed right in front of me. Where had I seen her? She was wearing a Denny's restaurant uniform, and I recalled a particular woman and her boyfriend for whom I had advocated. They had impressed me with the unity and tenderness with which they approached the abortion. It was indeed her, looking happy and confident, totally unaware that someone who had been intimately involved in an hour of her life sat just feet away, watching her cross safely.

I could have sat next to the woman who had advocated for me in a restaurant or on a plane. Without doubt I have been on the same bus or in the same movie theater as some of the women for whom I've cared. Our paths cross gently, without our knowing. We help and we receive help in return. Perhaps I will see Jadine again. I would remember her face, I think.

By Jennifer New

Jennifer New writes and swims in Iowa City, Iowa. Her last piece for Salon was "Iowa Heartland."

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Abortion Pregnancy