We're haunted by an abortion from 10 years ago

It was the right thing to do, but we never really dealt with it.


Cary Tennis
October 14, 2005 4:00PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Ten years ago my then-girlfriend had an abortion. We were in our mid-20s, poor and directionless, and it seemed at the time the only thing to do.

The abortion signaled the end of our relationship. It had been a rocky one anyway, full of tempestuous sex, horrible emotional upheavals, long periods of absence, then reunion. She eventually made the bold decision to grow up, to become an adult. Within a few years she met a wonderful man, had two beautiful children, and crafted a life for herself that she truly loves. It took me longer but I eventually did the same, getting married this summer to a stable, longtime girlfriend.

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After my marriage, I started thinking about my ex-girlfriend. Despite the abortion and hardships of our previous life together, there was always something that drew us together. A positive outlook on life, perhaps, or simply a recognition that we were kindred spirits. I wanted her to know that I was married, to show her that I was not the feckless jerk of my youth, so I sent her a brief e-mail. To my surprise, she wrote me back immediately. We arranged to have coffee and to simply look at each other from back over all those years.

When we met, it was not long before we both realized that we still thought about the abortion more or less constantly, that it had had a profound impact on our lives, so much so that it still hangs between us, drawing us together into this unspoken pact.

This isn't about infidelity. My ex loves her husband more than the world. I love my wife. The ex and I are simply attempting to understand how to deal with the fact that we, two people who loved each other, created a life and then destroyed it. This past August our child would have been 10 years old. She feels so terrible about this that it is almost destroying her. I feel the same way, but of course for a woman it is much worse. Instead of getting better, the pain worsens year by year.

We ended our coffee date by crying in each other's arms. The irony is that I am pro-choice. I think that we both want this emptiness and sadness to go away, though that's probably not feasible. We have also both kept this a secret from everyone for 10 years. Now that we have brought it up to the surface, there is a strong desire for us both to commiserate about our pain. It seems inappropriate given our respective spouses, but I just don't know any other way. Advice?

Emotionally Drained in Chicago

Dear Drained,

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Something that happens in relationships is: The person you were before you had the good sense to meet your mate comes to visit, bearing flowers, or carrying a gun, wanting to talk, to process, to work things out. Things come up. There are things that happened that never made sense and now for some reason it's time to try again to make sense of them. Who knows why. Sometimes there's a trigger. You're about to have kids of your own and you remember your brother who died in a car wreck. You're about to buy a house and you remember the house you grew up in, and how when you were little it was sold and new people came and made it smell different and you left with a trailer and your parents bickering, everybody trying to be brave. You remember stuff. Stuff comes up. It's normal.

Sometimes what comes up is what you've been hiding all these years -- you have a kid you never mentioned, or a warrant for your arrest is still outstanding in Arizona, where you never planned to visit except your wife has relatives in law enforcement there...

You never mentioned your relatives in law enforcement who live in Arizona!

You never mentioned your warrant for failure to appear!

Well, if you had practiced active listening...

She shoots you a withering look and you turn as ashen as pine, an unfamiliar skin tone -- she knows you as more sanguine.

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Or something like that. You dig? An uncle who's a smuggler, a bankruptcy proceeding that made the papers in Kalamazoo, a shoe fetish that once found you huddled in Thom McAn's after closing time: There's something lurking. That's what a human being is: a shell in which mysteries lurk.

So what do you do? It's an experience you never digested. I know what it's like to be living too chaotically to digest anything. There's too much coming at you too fast in too many forms from too many directions. If you're in war, say, you can't digest the loss of beloved comrades; you have to march and keep on marching. In poverty and chaos, in the craziness of life: You can't digest, you've got to move.

Nor is that to say that you should have digested this at the time and therefore bear some blame or should indulge in self-recrimination. It wasn't possible then to digest it. That doesn't mean it was the wrong thing to do.

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It's just what happens. But now is the time to digest it. You slow down and begin to digest, as if you'd stored the past in a hump like a camel.

So how do you do it? You divide it with questions and categories. There's the bitter moral part close to the stem, there's the very sweet remembrance of the love that was there, there's the salty parts and the strange parts and the parts you don't even want to look at yet. You cut it up with questions: Was it wrong? Was it right? What were your choices? Is there a right or wrong? What is this feeling of loss?

Each of us lives one life and lets the alternative lives die. It's a constant grieving of what could have been -- other lovers, other teachers, other cliffs, other desk jobs, other cars, other coasts, other sorrows.

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Those things that might have been branch out infinitely. You could mourn the infinite branchings if you were so inclined. You could mourn every road not driven, every sip not swallowed, every puff not puffed, every pill not popped, every body not unfolded, every face not kissed, every field not plowed, every shirt not unbuttoned, every suit not tried on, every rain not tasted in the annual tasting of rain, every poem not read by every fireplace not lit, every dream not remembered in every sleep not slept.

You could be at it awhile is what I'm saying, if you chose to mourn it all. You just can't. So you choose the big ones. This was a big one. This was a literal life literally unlived.

The debate is not about abortion. That's another conversation for another bar, later in the evening, with extra crying and recrimination. This debate is about possibilities accepted or declined, and the mourning of the possible. We decline the possible every second, we prevent it in a million ways, we stop it before it begins, we stop it after it begins.

You weren't ready. Where would you be now? Who knows. What you knew is that you weren't ready.

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So what to do now? Tell your wife. Say, Sit down, there's something in my past I need to talk about with you.

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