by Victoria Fann
I owe my life to an illegal abortionist in Newport, Kentucky. Inside my mother's womb I was with her on that January day in 1959, her shivering, me warm and safe, while she waited for Roger to pick her up on Vine Street in Cincinnati. Roger was not my father. He was a Sigma Chi frat brother who needed the $50 my father put out to some guys over beers the night before. Roger didn't have a car so my father loaned him his—a blue '57 Chevy. Little comfort it offered my mother when it pulled to the curb that morning.
The night I was conceived was enmeshed in my father's magnetic charm. His fire melted my mother's resistance. His electricity ignited my soul into existence. His charm disarmed her from the start. She fell in love with his charisma and his ability to take control of any situation. But in the end, those qualities worked against her. According to her, he drove to her parent's house one night and let her know how much he wanted her. She said no. He drove around the block and came back and pleaded with her to change her mind. Again, she refused. He did this a few more times until finally, finally, she let him in, and they tiptoed quietly into her parent’s guest bedroom. They never made it to the bed. It began and ended quickly. Then he left her on the floor shivering and ashamed, partially dressed, her dancer’s legs spread open.
When Roger pulled to the curb and saw my mother, he acted like a scared puppy. Head down, avoiding her eyes, he jumped out of the car to open the door. His crew cut and the smell of his fresh after-shave made her wince with sadness that instead of a date, he was performing a duty. "Please," she said, and held up her trembling hand to stop him. "Sorry," he mumbled, slumping back to the driver's seat.
Those were the only words spoken between them. My mother was too busy thinking she was going to die. A philosophy major in love with the Greeks, the symbolism of crossing the Ohio River from Cincinnati was not lost on her. It may as well have been a trip over the River Styx accompanied by Charon. She’d sinned and now she was descending into Hades. She’d given in to my father’s advances and the gods were punishing her. For the hour drive, she protected herself by going numb and wrapping herself in a cocoon of despair so tight, nothing could penetrate it.
Roger pulled into the parking lot of a nightclub. The neighborhood was rough, with boarded up windows, abandoned cars, and front porches covered with junk. The nightclub was overgrown with vines and badly in need of a paint job. Broken glass littered the parking lot. My mother stepped out, heart pounding, and walked around to the back door as instructed. It was Sunday, so the nightclub wasn't open for business.
My mother knocked on the door. There was no response, so she knocked again. She was about to leave when she heard a voice say, “All right, already, I’m coming.”
A middle-aged woman threw open the door. “Come on in.”
“I’m ... I’m here to ...”
“I know why you’re here, hon,” she said, a cigarette sticking to her bright pink bottom lip. She had on a tight yellow sweater with a safety pin instead of a top button. "Follow me." My mother followed her down a hallway painted gunmetal gray. Both women's shoes clicked on the worn wooden floor. Bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling. It smelled of stale booze and cigarette smoke. A man dressed in black carrying an instrument passed them. He didn't look at up, but his shoulder brushed her jacket. They passed an open door that led into the club. She could see a small stage and dance floor and a wooden bar that covered the length of one wall. The club was empty and lifeless and dark, hung over with the previous night's activities.
"In here." The pink-lipped women led her into a stark room with two metal chairs and a plaid sofa. “Take a seat over there.”
She sat down quickly on the well-worn sofa. It sank under her weight. “Your name?”
“Ruth.” Her mother’s name slipped from her lips.
Any medical conditions, you know of, other than ...?” The woman’s voice drifted off. She was standing in the doorway, staring at her nails.
“Uh ... no. Nothing. I mean I’m fine,” my mother answered and the woman disappeared, the sound of her shoes clicking down the hallway.
Minutes ticked by like a slow leak from a faucet. Drip, drip, drip. There was no sound except for the drone of a television somewhere. The room filled with the sharp, acrid scent of my mother’s fear. Her body shook uncontrollably as she tried to catch her breath while her thoughts turned to women she'd heard about who'd died from abortions. A spectrum of emotion washed over her. Shame, guilt, horror, and finally shock that my father would have expected her to go through with this alone. What kind of man …? When had she felt fear like this …? Her father would do this. Her father had made her this afraid.
"Ruth?" a loud voice interrupted her revere.
"What? Hm? Oh … is it time?" she asked, as though waking from a dream.
"Through that door, hon," said the woman appearing again and pointing to a door next to where she was sitting. Smoke eddies whirled around her head as she puffed on a newly lit cigarette. "Strip down and put on that blue gown opened in the front. The doctor will be right in."
The door squeaked loudly as my mother jostled the handle. The room smelled of mildew and pine cleaner and a sour mixture of bodily fluids. Images of babies swimming in blood filled her mind. Her stomach churned. Thinking she might be sick, she ran over to the wastebasket, and gagged, but nothing came up. She realized that she had eaten nothing since yesterday. Sweat beaded along her upper lip and forehead. Feeling thirsty, she looked for a sink, but there was none. Instead she sat down on the badly scuffed linoleum floor. She was too dizzy to stand up or undress. A florescent light hummed above her. She closed her eyes to shut out the light.
"Excuse me … miss?"
My mother opened her eyes and saw a man wearing a grayish white coat with gentle brown eyes and very dark skin bending over her.
"Are you all right?"
“Yes, um no … I mean, I just felt a little dizzy," she replied, smoothing her skirt.
"Why don't you come up here on the table so that we can talk for a minute?" His hand was under her arm gently guiding her to the table.
Once seated he pulled up a small stool next to her. "That's better. Now do you want to talk about 'your little problem'?"
"Can I have some water, please?" she asked.
The doctor wheeled the stool over, pulled open the door, and shouted, "Sally, bring me a cup of water."
Sally appeared holding a small paper cup. When she saw that my mother wasn't undressed, she glared at her, and said, "Doctor, that woman from Louisville will be here soon."
"Not to worry, I'll be finished soon." The doctor smiled at my mother until the door was closed, then his look turned serious.
"How far along are you?"
"About ten weeks, I think."
“Are you from around here?" He began to unfold the gown as he spoke.
"No, I live in the city." She finished the water, wishing there were more.
"Why don't you get undressed so that I can examine you and we can begin?" He stood up and was preparing to leave. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
"Doctor, I'm frightened. What if …" her voice trailed off.
“Not to worry, I do this operation every day. I know you've heard the horror stories, but I can't tell you how many women think I'm a gift from God. Now there's no time to waste, I've got a busy day ahead. We must get moving."
"What if my parents find out?" she asked, feeling frantic, tears spilling from her eyes. She wasn't ready. It was all happening too fast.
"Your parents will have no way of knowing anything's amiss. You have arranged for a place to stay for a couple of days, so that you can recover?"
"No … I haven't. Henry, I mean, my boyfriend didn't tell me. My parents will worry. They'll know something's wrong."
"Young lady, why do want to waste my time here today? You must leave. I cannot help you; it's too risky. My advice to you is to go home and tell your parents about your predicament. Beg for their mercy. Get married. But don't come back here again and don't ever tell anyone you were here."
The door slammed shut and the doctor was gone. My mother’s one chance to change her future rested in his hands. Strangely, she felt relieved. Now there was no choice. She hadn’t even considered having to recover. In fact, she wasn’t thinking about much of anything other than the fact that her whole life was ruined. Her years of dancing, wasted. Money for three and a half years of college, wasted. Her reputation, stained. Plans for the future, crushed. She had to accept her fate, and that meant having this child, whether Henry liked it or not. Surely, her mother would help her.
Standing up, my mother checked her face in the mirror. She combed her hair and applied fresh lipstick. Moistening a handkerchief with saliva, she dabbed at the streaks of mascara.
When she entered the waiting area, she saw two other women sitting on the plaid couch. Neither looked directly at her. One woman, older than she, was quite pregnant looking. Her face had the deep wrinkles of someone who labored outside. A farm wife with too many children. My mother imagined her coming here at the last moment desperate for a way out. The other woman looked to be her own age, very blond and pretty. Her pregnancy didn't show at all. My mother wanted to grab her and tell her not to do it. She imagined her parents somewhere getting a phone call telling them their beautiful daughter was dead. Dead from trying to do the right thing. Dead from trying to protect them. Dead because she was alone.
The ride home was agonizing. Roger, probably clueless, simply looked up when she opened the car door, unaware that nothing had happened. My mother then had over an hour to imagine my father's fury and her mother’s anguish. It made her heart race with fear and dread. But then, she was relieved to be alive.
My father didn’t get his way. Once my grandmother found out my mother was pregnant, the abortion was out of the question. Not that my grandmother welcomed the news with open arms. Of course, she was excited about a new baby—she loved babies. But the circumstances made it a moral dilemma.
“How could you do this to me?” she cried when my mother told her. As if my mother had meant to hurt her. Eventually, my grandmother was my greatest ally; she became my second mother, for who can resist a baby?
Soon, all the rest of the grandparents rallied. My father agreed to marry my mother. They eloped quietly to Sevierville, Tennessee. Only months away from her graduation, however, my father punished my mother by insisting she quit school and work. His commitment to her was tenuous and thin as if he were doing her a grand favor, as if she’d made some awful mistake and he was helping her get through it. Not a great entrance into fatherhood.
Instead of the celebrated welcome an infant usually receives, my arrival brought dread and misgiving. It was not the beginning of something, but rather the end. The end of freedom, the end of my mother’s love of dance, the end of innocence. Perhaps that’s why my father was in the arms of another woman on the night of my birth. Perhaps that’s why I screamed with colic for the first four months of life. Perhaps that’s why for years afterward, my mother wished she were dead.
My mother said she had to nurse me on a hard wooden chair in the kitchen so that she wouldn’t wake my father’s sleep. Our ability to bond was doomed from the start. If my father thought everything about parenting was so awful, is it any wonder that my mother began to feel that way too? She had nothing. No friends, no school, no work, no life. Just days of being on her own, unequipped to care for an infant.
This pattern of rejection from my father lasted until I was in school, and then he only began to come around because there were three of us. Liz came two years after me and Susan four years after that. It became harder for my father to deny he had a family.
Years later, my mother told my sisters and me stories of how she used to dance in toe shoes until her feet bled, how a close dancing friend of hers had gone on to star in the New York City Ballet, and how once she’d turned down an invitation to move to New York and work with Martha Graham. Clearly, she was dedicated to her art. Pregnancy changed all that. Her dancer’s body was no longer being used for art but to sustain life. The flesh and muscles she had sculpted and tortured into submission, had, in the end, betrayed her.
I didn’t learn I was an unplanned arrival into my parents’ lives until I was seventeen. The story was painful because I saw myself as someone who had destroyed my mother’s career and interrupted her education. Not that there was anything I could do about it, but I felt guilty nonetheless.
My mother didn’t have an easy time raising my sisters and me. Young motherhood was an intense struggle. Often, she barely had the will to endure. But as we matured and started families of our own, my mother has discovered that the many threads of her life, the joys, the sorrows, the fears, the triumphs have blended together over the years into a beautiful, richly-colored tapestry.
My father never really aligned himself with his role as a parent. Immersed in his obsessive pursuit of fame and fortune as a jingle writer, he moved from the suburbs of New Jersey, where we’d lived for years, into his own apartment in Manhattan. We rarely saw him after that since his life revolved around work, women, and drugs. In 1980, he died alone in a car accident on a lonely Pennsylvania road in the wee hours of the morning. He’d been performing in a bar with the late-in-life rock band he’d formed in a last ditch attempt to live his dream of being a real musician. He was forty-three.
My parents were two different people moving along two divergent roads—the trajectory of their lives colliding due to the catalytic event of sudden parenthood resulting in a mostly discordant union. In spite of my rocky start and painful evolution, the wisdom gifted to me from my parents created the ideal compass for my own journey. I explored the realms of marriage and parenting on quite different terms, making my own messes, but embracing the challenges without the extremes of either narcissism or martyrdom.
On any given day, I can remind myself that I almost didn’t make it—a bittersweet medicine that I’ve ingested and digested until it’s coming out my pores. Shifting from not being wanted into wanting to be here ultimately became the modus operandi of my soul’s evolution, except that now, in mid-life, it has a mellower, gentler edge than it used to. For that I’m grateful, and for the newly present sense that all is strangely, mysteriously unfolding as it should.
Victoria Fann has been writing essays, short stories, plays and screenplays as well as non-fiction books for over four decades. Her writing has been published in magazines, newspapers and numerous online publications. Since Jan. 1, 2013, Victoria has lived and worked as a digital nomad with no permanent address, and she can usually be found with her laptop writing and sipping lattes at cafes throughout the U.S. and hopefully soon, the rest of the world.