In 2003, George W. Bush was running for re-election. (I don’t want to talk about whether or not this was a re-election campaign or an election campaign, after the Florida funny business. I’m just glad he’s not the president now.) The campaign was ugly. The issues were suddenly intensely divisive and personal — particularly where Roe v. Wade was concerned. You couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing ferocious, fervent diatribes surrounding the issue of legal abortion. I was accustomed to avoiding the conversation, and, hopefully, allowing each person to reconcile their own reproductive decisions between themselves and God or whomever they like to reconcile themselves to.
But it was all over the radio and television, in conversation overheard in bank teller lines and grocery stores, and, it turns out, on the playground. My son was only 9 years old. I’m not sure how the political pogwank wove itself into playground diatribe — perhaps between games of four-square and soggy rectangle pizza slices, the little ones polarized and debated the benefits and disadvantages of prison reform and estate tax in hissed, lispy whispers. Anyway. I think it was sometime around October? The campaign rhetoric was bitter, loud, and everywhere. I fielded ten kabillion questions from my son about everything from homosexuality to terrorism, providing spanky PBS answers, neatly avoiding genitals, hate, and murder. Then, one day, as I drove us to the grocery store, my son piped up, “Mom, what’s an abortion?”
There are moments, as a mother, when you feel a cold heaviness descend around you, when time briefly stops and birds are frozen mid-air, and you feel the heavy hand of God on your shoulder. “Hey,” says God. “Don’t fuck this up.”
“Well,” I said to my son, “an abortion is when a woman decides to end a pregnancy.” Not bad, right? Even-handed.
My son had obviously been told another definition (see “playground diatribe,” above). “Is it when a mom kills her baby?”
I knew I was on very fragile soil. I didn’t want to sound off on my own political views, but I also didn’t want to leave him with the impression he had. I wanted to leave his mind open, so he could make it himself when he had the maturity and information with which to do so. When he turns 36.
“Some people think it’s murder,” I told him. “Some people think it’s more important for the woman to be able to choose when she becomes a mom. When a woman ends a pregnancy, it’s because she isn’t ready or able to be a mom.”
“Why wouldn’t someone want to be a mom?” (This is a hard question to answer from your own child, because all the answers boil down to, “because you and your kind are megalomaniacal assholes an astonishing percentage of the time, and the rest of the time, the love we feel is so catastrophic, it’s hard to even survive. It’s like living with a giant bacterium, or seeing the face of God, by turns.”) I measured my response carefully. “Well, sometimes a woman doesn’t get to choose if she gets pregnant or not. And, sometimes a woman knows her body can’t make a healthy baby. And sometimes a young woman gets pregnant and knows she’s too young to be a mom.”
My son scrunched his face. “But you were young, Mom.”
Now, I was 21 when he was born, and that was young, for me. What I had meant was young young. But I didn’t want to say, “I mean like, 14, honey” because my son would’ve freaked out. I also didn’t know yet what he’d be like at 14, and didn’t want to inadvertently give him any ideas. So, I said, “Yes, I was young.” He said, “So, why didn’t you have an abortion of me?”
I knew I needed to be particularly careful how I responded. So, I said, “Well, when I found out I was pregnant, I thought hard about all the possibilities, and I just knew I wanted to be your mom.” My son smiled. “Oh.” Then we talked about what he was like when he was a baby, and the time he almost killed the daycare lady. (I’ll tell you that one later.)
So, good conversation, right? Way to field a series of very sticky subjects with finesse and love, right? Those Mother of the Year people are waiting for me on line three, right?
Wrong. So, so wrong.
Flash forward, to around May. I was driving my son to school. We were chatting about random items of preparedness (the location and status of his lunch, mittens, and homework) and dinner plans (chicken spaghetti, no cheese). At the light that precedes his school by some five blocks, my son smiled at me and said, “Mom! I forgot to tell you! I wrote a story about you.”
“Really?” I said, smiling into the rear-view mirror.
I was touched. My heart was warmed. I smiled my way through the recently greened light.”That’s so nice, honey! What’s it about?”
“It’s called ‘The Light of Love.’ Everybody had to write one. It’s supposed to be about the person who did the nicest thing for you ever. I wrote mine about you.”
“What did I do that was so great? Is it about how you never have any clean underpants?” He laughed.
If you have an ominous soundtrack on hand, this is when to cue it up.
“I wrote my essay about you because you did the nicest thing for me. I wrote about how you almost had an abortion of me, but you didn’t.”
I slammed on the brakes, whipping over the car to the side of the road. “You what????!!!!” I hissed. “You WHAT???!!! YOU WHAT????” My son had gone invisible, his skin had changed to the color of the backseat, and he had stopped breathing to avoid detection. “You wrote an essay telling everyone that I almost aborted you? Why would you do that? WHERE IN THE HELL DID YOU EVER GET THAT IDEA?”
“From you! You said you found out you were pregnant with me, you thought about all the options, but then you had me.”
And this is why, children of the world, your mother won’t answer the question, “Why would anyone not want to be a mom?” I buried my face in my hands, too simultaneously furious and mortified (mortifurious — a sort of Mom form of Zen) to do anything. “Did you turn the essay in?” I asked.
“Yes.” My son replied, his face stricken. After verifying that my son did not actually believe I almost aborted him, I found myself faced with a very unpleasant task. I would have to sit down with his teacher, a lovely woman I knew very little about save her excellence in the classroom, and discuss several very intimate and delicate matters. I walked my son into the classroom and waved her over to me. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said, stepping into the hall. “What’s up?”
There was no gentle way to do it. I ramble-ranted. I babble ramble-ranted. “I don’t know you, and I promise I would never put you in this position if there was any other alternative and before I go any further, please understand that I am not asking for your position on this issue, or asking you to agree with mine but my son wrote some essay for you called, ‘The Light of Love?’” She looked thoroughly perplexed.
“Yes?” She said.
“About the nicest thing anybody ever did for the kids?” I asked.
“Yes?” she said.
“Well, my son wrote his essay about how I did the nicest thing for him because I didn’t abort him.”
Her hands flew up to cover her mouth.
“I have to explain. I didn’t almost have an abortion. Although, if I had considered an abortion, that would have been fine with me because I think that’s my right to do. But in any event, I sure as hell wouldn’t have told him about it! He talked about it like I sat him down and was like, ‘You’re one lucky, kid. That was a close one.’” I dragged my finger across my throat. “I didn’t almost have an abortion, although I am pro-choice and think it was my choice to make but I wouldn’t tell him that, either. I wouldn’t talk to him about any of this!” I was rattling away like a crazy person.
She stood, stock-still, hands over her mouth.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you all this, and like I said, I don’t expect you to tell me how you feel about it. But I needed you to know I’m not some monster who tells her kid he almost didn’t make the cut,” I said. “And I’m sorry I said it that way,” I said.
She held up her hand. “It’s not that.” She said. “It’s fine, of course you didn’t tell him that. It’s just that those essays aren’t here.”
Do you still have that ominous track cued up? Just put it on continuous play.
“What do you mean, they’re not here?” I hissed.
“They’re not here. We sent them away. They’re for a writing contest.”
“A writing contest?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, moving her palm to her forehead. “Ugh. This is bad. They’re being judged by local residents of long-term care facilities.”
Perfection! But of course they are. I could see it now; frail, shaking, blue-veined hands manipulating old-timey letter openers, cooing and clucking as they read the adorable missives contained therein: “Agnes! Listen to this! ‘The nicest thing that anyone ever did for me was bring me to church, where I learned about Jesus.’ What a precious angel.”
“Marjory, did you read the one about the little boy who says his puppy did the nicest thing for him ever when he licked his face after his dad had been killed in the line of duty, saving an entire orphanage? Just beautiful.”
Meanwhile, in the corner of the room, poor Margaret held my son’s hideous homage in tiny, arthritic, clenched fists. “What kind of monster would tell their sweet boy he was almost an abortion? What has happened to the world I knew? You know what? I’m changing my living will to ‘Do Not Resuscitate.’” Not only did we not win, we might have killed people. I briefly contemplated going to the long-term care facility and explaining this whole thing to them, but just couldn’t imagine how I could do it and not seem bonkers or offensive, or both.
This is the real reason I won’t allow my mom to ever end up in one of those places. I don’t know if any of those residents are still there, and I can’t be certain they won’t recognize my name.