The woman in this coroner’s photograph was called Gerri. She died in 1964 attempting to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger. Something went wrong and she bled to death alone on her bathroom floor. If the picture offends anyone, I am sorry, but the circumstances should offend you more. This is life as it was endured by a woman with an unwanted pregnancy before Roe V, Wade. (Click)
Though I was too young to realize it at the time, my mother almost suffered a similar fate in the mid 1940s. I knew she was ill when she was unable to make dinner one evening. As a 9-year-old, I took it upon myself to warm a can of soup and make some toast. Entering the bedroom we shared, I was shocked to see her so lifeless. She refused the soup. She wanted me to run the house of her friend who lived three blocks away. The woman had a telephone and my mother needed a doctor.
Seeing her lips the color of parchment, I was terrified. I ran all the way to the friend’s house. The woman was having dinner with a man as I burst through the front door. He barely turned to look at me then went on eating. The woman didn’t rise either but pointed to a stand at the far corner of the room when she heard what I’d come for.
Having little acquaintance with telephones, my fingers fumbled through the “Ps’’ of the telephone book to find a physician. The first person I called hung up when he heard a child’s voice. Perhaps he thought it was a prank. I dialed again and got the same response a second and third time. By the fourth try, I didn’t bother with introductions. ‘I think my mother is dying,” I shouted into the receiver. Silence hung at the end the line for a moment. “What’s the address?”
Knowing I lived in a bad part of town, I dreaded to answer; but I feared the consequences of not doing so more. By now I was sobbing.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” said the voice. Then the phone went dead.
I tore through the night, hoping the voice would keep its word, then stood under a street lamp to make sure I wouldn’t be missed. After a time, a dark car pulled up alongside me. I wasn’t sure who it was. I hoped it wasn’t someone wanting to make trouble. The man who stepped from the car seemed as tall as a Sequoia. His hair was white and so was his mustache. In one hand, he carried a black bag. I put my hand in his free one and pulled him up a narrow flight of stairs until we reached the bedroom where my mother was lying.
He stepped in. But when he saw the blood, he pushed me into the hall. “I’ll need some pans of boiling water and some clean towels. Can you get those for me?” I nodded, wasting no time to ask why.
When I’d given him what he wanted, he shut the bedroom door again. Alone in that somber hall, I lost all sense of reality. How long was I left to stand there? An hour? A year? An eternity? All I could think about was that I didn’t want my mother to die. I promised God I’d be a better daughter, if He would make her well.
When the door opened, at last, I was allowed to see my mother. She looked so white. He black hair was matted with sweat. My eyes shot to the doctor’s face to read his expression. “She’ll be all right,” he said. “Let her rest. Tomorrow, get her some clean sheets.
The doctor picked up his bag and I followed him down the stairs, back to his car, not knowing what to say or how to express my feelings. We had no money. He seemed to read my thoughts. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” His voice was kind as he patted my shoulder. After that, he folded into his automobile and drove away. I watched, standing in the street until I lost sight of him. Then I retraced my steps up the wooden stairs and crawled into that bloody bed beside my mother. I clung to her the whole night, afraid if I let go, she would stop breathing.
Dr. Shaw, the retired naval doctor who answered my call, kept his promise. He returned the next day and the one after to make sure my mother suffered no infection. He didn’t suggest she go to a hospital. If she had, she’d have been arrested and sent to jail. I would have been forced to live among strangers. Our doctor had returned from the horrors of World War II. He knew about injustice.
I share this story I have never told because we will soon have a new president in the White House. He believes abortion should be illegal and women who have them should be punished. Fair warning Mr. President-Elect. If you attempt to turn back the clock on a woman’s reproductive rights, if you drive desperate women into shadowy alleys, an army of us will rise against you. Don’t bother to talk to me about the rights of the fetus. I was a child. I needed my mother.
(Originally published 12/28/16)