A month ago, three things happened at the same time: a girl I danced with as a kid lost her baby at just over a year. Her baby had been born with a rare form of Down’s Syndrome. Most babies with this condition do not live to birth. If they survive birth, they usually pass away early on. I believe I read about 5% of babies make it to a year. Few, very fear will live into their 20s. They will have multiple struggles and health issues. None the less, my friend had and loved her baby despite what I am sure were multiple fears.
A girl from my home town who is a few years young than I am published a piece in The Huffington Post with the polarizing headline that she wish she’d aborted her first child. The piece was well-composed and heartfelt. The author, a former cheerleader, was raped by someone she thought was a friend in her own home. Like many young girls, she kept the assault a secret. Her grades dropped. She lost weight. Her health suffered. When she did finally see a doctor, she learned that the worst had happened—she was also pregnant. She was halfway through the pregnancy, too far along, she notes, to do anything about it other than see it through. She knew the baby would be born with issues, and she was. The baby was born to the young mother. The baby had multiple health issues and had to be on several heavy drugs. She died of natural causes at just over a year, breaking her mother’s young heart.
The third thing, of course, was the law that was passed in New York, which caused uproar throughout the US. I am, for many reasons, religion being a major one, not supportive of terminating unborn babies. That does not mean that I don’t understand. I hate that we live in a world where pregnancy isn’t always a willful decision or where when pregnancy does happen that it isn’t always the right time or affordable. I know there are unimaginable circumstances, people who are afraid to have babies because of their governments or their resources or what-have-you that are so far beyond my little cultural bubble that I can’t even process that they exist.
One thing I have observed, and that I did observe in considering an unforgettable story I read about a woman who had an abortion somewhere in the third trimester, that these stories all have one theme in common: fear. The woman who had a late-term knew her baby wouldn’t live far past birth if he lived at all; if he did, he wouldn’t be able to breathe or eat on his own. She and her husband had wanted the baby, but the cost, financially and emotionally, were too great of burdens to bear. This was not a decision they made lightly.
They went to Colorado for the procedure. Things went wrong. Very wrong. There was no presentable body to bury. The mother suffered substantially after the procedure with bleeding and illnes
Of course, that is not the point. The point is that she and her husband were afraid…afraid of the disabled child. Afraid that their child would die out of their control. Afraid that their child would suffer a pain worse than their own if they did live. Afraid to watch that baby suffer. For many people, it is a greater sacrifice to not have a baby who will suffer than to have one that will.
Certainly, one of the few things that I am thankful for is that Jude never suffered, that he left this world peacefully and naturally. I will always wonder what would’ve happened if we’d have been with a more experienced team (the doctor on call was very new and misread the ultrasound, conveying to us that Jude was dangerously underdeveloped, which was inaccurate), if he’d have lived if he’d have been delivered, or if he would’ve had developmental issues.
I don’t write about this aspect of Jude’s loss often, but in the hours before he died when I was in the hospital on the monitor, believing he was in the lower 5th percentile and having read that meant he would likely be born with severe mental or physical problems—at best he would have Down’s, I was scared. Remaining calm was almost impossible, and yet I couldn’t stop reading. I kept looking for some kind of indication that my baby would be normal. Was there a chance that he’d be okay even if he was that underdeveloped?
Even now, I still feel the anxiety of that fear. The fear was very, very real. I had no control over what was happening. I cannot remember everything I prayed for. I prayed he’d be okay, of course. I prayed he’d be “healthy”. I envision that parents who believe that their child will be unwell or will suffer are gripped by a similar fear. Fear compels us to take action.
Generally speaking, most people are compassionate, and I believe that some people choose to avoid what they have been told by doctors will happen by avoiding it. This does not mean that they avoid pain, though. There is no way to avoid pain. There is no way to avoid grief, nor is there a way to avoid hardship. Choice does not grant that.
I’ve been teaching writing for over a decade. Roughly half of my students are victims of sexual abuse by family members, rape, drug exposure, or a combination of those things. Of those, several have had pregnancies that were unwanted. Different students handled them differently. One story that stands out is of a girl who, after having a difficult life, became pregnant as a teen. Her family threatened to abandon her if she didn’t end the pregnancy. She did and was never right again.
The reality is that when we are confronted by fear, we believe that we have no choice. I find it interesting that advocates for a woman’s right to choose cite choice. I cannot think of anyone who has made that choice because they felt they had a world of options. They felt like they had no choice. And the reality is that we don’t always have choices or control. And it’s not fair, and the pain is real, and it hurts. But it can’t be avoided. Not at all.
The only area where we have any power is in our ability to love. Losing Jude hurt. Last December on his fourth birthday, I visited his gravesite alone, knelt down, and cried. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I wept over and over, even as I had no idea what I was sorry for. I still don’t know. I’m sorry he died. I’m sorry I didn’t got to a different hospital. I’m sorry I’ll never know if it could have been avoided. I’m sorry for…all of it. And more. I’m sorry for being so happy when he’s not here. There is no rational reasoning in any of it. The pain is still there, but amidst the pain and swirling around it is love, so much love.
Jude humbled me. He opened my heart more widely than I ever could’ve imagined. He helped my marriage. He made me brave. He is a source of pure love for me, even though there is pain and sorrow. Unavoidable pain and sorrow. Even if Jude had been born with disabilities, I would have loved him. I imagine the pain and sorrow when he did pass would’ve been greater. I cannot imagine what his little life would’ve done for our family in that capacity, just as I cannot imagine what my friend’s baby did to and for her family.
I do know that when their baby passed, they were sad but also full of love. Swirling around their pain was a year of moments and memories that no doubt bonded their family closer and helped them grow in their faith, in the understanding that we don’t have control and we don’t have to. The pressure to have control, to always do the “best” or “most right” thing is crippling and is exhausting. I for one am thankful to realize that. It enables me to have peace, even in the face of difficulties, such as Sean’s cancer diagnosis.
I couldn’t control losing Jude. I couldn’t control the pain of losing him. As much as it hurt and as traumatic as the experience was, I’m thankful to have seen him, all 4 lbs and 2 oz, to have seen his face, to have photos, to have been able to bury him, and to celebrate his short, magnificent life. I feel fortunate that fear didn’t rob me of those small-yet-precious gifts.
So, as I reflect on the three things that happened last month and on the stories of others, I feel a great sense of sympathy for people. Fear and pain are unavoidable. Life will carry on somehow regardless. Your heart will pump and bleed no matter what. The tears will flow, hot and fast. You won’t be able to breathe for grief and fear. But that’s what happens. You don’t get to choose how you feel. You cannot choose it, and you cannot hide from it. Choice that might somehow make an agonizing decision or situation better is an illusion. Don’t be disillusioned by it. Instead, look for the love and fall into it.