by Lillian Flynn
“And did you name the child?”
I sit back in my seat almost automatically– stunned or shocked.
I voice the thought as it comes, “Nobody’s ever bothered to ask me that before.”
There is a moment of hallowed silence, and then my voice comes again, only– and this is perennial– it does not seem like my own, “Audrey.”
My new gynecologist reverently scribbles it on my health chart. My ears start ringing but between the pulsing feeling between my eyes he extends his arms as if to embrace and I make out the words “mercy as wide as the ocean.” I have tried many times to let it sink in that I’m forgiven. That’s not the burden I carry.
The real problem is that I am seething and want to scream but if I let myself free, there will be too much collateral damage.
I am a Catholic, imperfect and fatally flawed but trying ardently for sainthood. I don’t know. Have there been saints who had abortions when they were teenagers? Maybe I haven’t finished that forgiveness stage– maybe I wonder if I could ever merit heaven.
This Friday, hundreds of thousands will march on Washington, D.C. I have marched with them, years before and years after the abortion. I know the truths and lies and evils; I am a well-researched apologist. But my convictions fall on my friends and acquaintances like dandelion seeds in Times Square. It means nothing to them because I’m just another Catholic peddling control over women.
“My convictions fall on my friends and acquaintances like dandelion seeds in Times Square. It means nothing to them because I’m just another Catholic peddling control over women.”
Except that I’m not. And that’s why my story needs to be told. I fight so hard because I know, because I still try to hold myself together at the seams.
If you had told me on New Year’s that by the end of the year I would get pregnant and have an abortion, I would have laughed. At the time, I was confused about chastity– always trying to find loopholes– but that final threshold of actual sex was untouchable, and certainly God forbid I was compromised, I would have marched home hapless and awkward like Juno and told my family, and they would have embraced me and supported me and called me brave.
I was that Austen-reading type who was obsessed with love and always trying to find meaning in nothing, building stories and talking of destiny and fate. My reality was quite different. I met a gregarious young man to whom I was only somewhat attracted. I decided to be okay with letting the pieces fall where they would. Better than loneliness. Easily flattered.
I did not fall in love or get swept off my feet. We stumbled half-blind into our sins. It happened because it was hot and he felt like taking off his clothes. It happened because… well, really I don’t know. There were no dim lights or music or substance. I prayed for it to end, but I knew so little about sex that I wasn’t sure what that even meant.
This was…what? Two weeks after we’d met? I knew right away, in my heart, because in a panic I did the math the next day. I confirmed my suspicions as soon as I was late. I told a few friends. I was not me. Suddenly my life was a movie.
Suddenly I was not breathing. Someone else was walking around. I was two people, and the real me was not anchored by gravity. Sometimes I’d talk to that small stirring in my soul when I felt like I was slipping away. Sometimes I’d lie awake and feel a flickering light within the darkness. There were nights that the light shone so brightly I truly believed I could be brave. There were nights a hissing void creeped up my spine and told me I could make it go away: the panic, the anxiety, the fear, the sense that I was not living anymore. I could reverse time and be the master of my own fate.
My boyfriend answered as he always did “whatever you think is best.” His hollow smile never met his eyes. I needed more. I always did. I always would.
I prayed, harder than I’d ever prayed. I went on retreats. A Jesuit priest reminded me my parents would probably love to help raise another child. My siblings would adjust and soon admire my decision to embrace the blessing that had come from my sin. He called it–her–a gift. I decided adoption wasn’t the right choice for me; I was too much attached to the sentimental. I would not have been able to free myself from wondering where my child was.
That, at least, is something I am still spared. I know exactly where she is.
They say the Devil comes to those who are in times of spiritual turmoil. He came in the form of my fears: grandparents, career, college success, teachers, friends. I wasn’t afraid for myself. I just didn’t want to disappoint anyone else. It was a cliche, and I wanted to be different.
“I wasn’t afraid for myself. I just didn’t want to disappoint anyone else. It was a cliche, and I wanted to be different.”
I didn’t want to be a statistic. And yet I am.
The Devil won me in the form of an acquaintance who brought my fears into naked exposure and groomed me with her own abortion experience. She was that put-together, confident, athletic type. She flattered me and comforted me and told me I’d be fine. And she won. I would make a sacrifice to keep everyone happy. My soul as a holocaust for their suffering.
“I’m sorry,” the real me whispered for the last time as I lay awake the night before my appointment. “I’m sorry, Audrey.”
And then a small sigh escaped my lips, taking with it the souls of two innocents. A great wave of white noise silenced the oppositions. A hollow echo filled me.
The next day, they sucked out the remains and there was I buried. The actual procedure was the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I thought I was going to die from intense cramping, and as I begged the nurses to help, they just looked at me like I was crazy. They said “it passes.” I wasn’t allowed to leave until I calmed down. I had the sense I was gone. My reality had not returned: it was erased forever. A gnawing and restless noise replaced the music in my mind.
In the next few months–yes, months– I slept and starved myself, waiting to feel better. A malaise had gripped me. Almost all my fears sprang open. My family– the very ones I was trying to protect– found out. Their own despair manifested itself in many ways. My own heartbreak looked more like rebellion. I was death-bent, lost in the shadows and every night dreaming of both my boyfriend (who, yes, left me promptly after the abortion) and of my faceless child, now corporeal in my sleep.
I remember how I’d wake with both their brown eyes bouncing off the walls like the flash of an old camera. I remember how I’d wake reeling.
“I was death-bent, lost in the shadows and every night dreaming of both my boyfriend (who, yes, left me promptly after the abortion) and of my faceless child, now corporeal in my sleep.”
For a while, the dreams were my only reminder of what had happened. The shell I was– still soulless– carried on in life, firm denial settling in. It wasn’t me. I casually marched for life with everyone, and I still stood up against abortion because it wasn’t ME. That had happened in a story to a fictional character who was now dead and gone.
Maybe it took a year later. Maybe a little less. I started sobbing when I was alone. I listened to the songs that I’d pound through my brain while Audrey was still in my womb. I began to crave the feeling. To break was to be alive again. To hurt was to know that I wasn’t gone. To mourn was to know there was something missing when my rational brain couldn’t grasp it. My soul knew I and she were lost, but my mind kept telling me it couldn’t be real.
I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was a bitter kind of disbelieving. Guilt. I wasn’t a veteran or some survivor of a storm. I was a foolish girl who had aborted a 6-week-old fetus. I didn’t survive. I was the one who pulled the trigger.
I wish I could say I had a huge spiritual conversion, but it happened slowly over time, and it happens still, like the seasons. I have my springs and my summers and sometimes I forget her birthday. It has been more than 6 years since I lost her. I want to mourn her openly. I want to make it real again. I don’t see her face anymore in my dreams. The winter has settled into my mind, and the passing of the worst of grief has brought on a new sadness: the sense that I have “gotten over it.”
My diocese has a Mass for deceased children. I can never go. I want to hold a “Silent No More” sign, and I can’t. I want to tell my sister why I am so passionate, want to give witness talks to the students in catechesis programs, want to explain to my boss who says “maybe you don’t know what women have gone through,” I do. I do.
I don’t want anyone else to live with this, not even the people who have hurt me. Not even the girl who took me to Planned Parenthood on a cold autumn morning.
I can only do what I do to feel close to Audrey: I can pray.
I am not sharing this story to gain sympathy but to perhaps shed light from a perspective that isn’t often discussed. I am sharing this unresolved, unfinished journey because I am hoping some girl or woman or someone’s best friend stumbles on this and realizes that even before I could see proof that I was carrying a child, I felt her Knit to me in my soul. I don’t think at 18 I could have invented that feeling. I certainly don’t think I’m alone.
“I am sharing this unresolved, unfinished journey because I am hoping some girl or woman or someone’s best friend stumbles on this.”
I will never see Audrey in this lifetime. This is why I must–among so many other reasons–hold fast to my belief that there is a heaven. A hole in my heart exists waiting for the day she can tuck her little hand into it. I don’t know what she would have become had she lived, but perhaps my memories of her will give her a legacy that is worth something.
There have been beautiful silver linings that have come with extensive healing and counseling. I am sure that God is calling me to the vocation of motherhood. I am sure that God is real, because He came to me clearly and viscerally in the depths of my sorrow. I don’t think he meant for me to suffer in order to grow a lasting faith, but I think he held me through it knowing I would learn to depend on him from now on.
The suffering is not over, and I don’t even want to say that it gets better. It changes. I still break down and cry. I still feel a strange and unreal sense that part of me is lost forever, that who I am is in some way not sitting in my skin correctly, that I’m waiting for normalcy to settle, knowing it never will.
So I will march, and I will keep marching, and despite my anonymity, know that I am among you, know that I am your sister, and know that you are never alone. Audrey has many, many brothers and sisters in heaven, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were with us on Earth?
Lillian Flynn is the pseudonym of the author, whose real life story this is.