Changing the Subject

By

Ma’s become obsessed with the missing baby to the point that it’s the first thing she says when I call, and it’s the subject of the very first thing she says to me when I arrive back home in Massachusetts in November. I’ve told everyone that I’m going home because I want to see her while she still knows who I am. Not that I think she ever really knew who I was.

I walk into the house, the smell of cat and men and old woman assaulting me, the anguish and despair of these walls threatening to crush me as I put my bag down near the kitchen table. Ma sits in her chair at the head of the table. She doesn’t get up, so I sit down next to her on the bench with its crusty layers of salt and syrup and diet Coke. Her face is angry, disgusted, agitated. “I don’t know why they’re not giving the baby back,” she spits out. “I’m gonna have to get a lawyer.”

I take a deep breath. My heart is racing and I feel shaky all over as I tell her that I’m the baby and that I’m fine. I’m right here. I’m forty years old, I tell her. See? I’m fine. You don’t have to worry about the baby.

She shakes her head, points her finger at the ceiling, and says, “Don’t say anything about the girl. He doesn’t believe she’s missing.” She’s referring to my brother Guy, who lives upstairs with his portable fridge and his microwave and his one set of dishes and silverware. He comes downstairs only when he needs to. He’s fed up with her stories. He no longer wants to hear about the missing baby.

*

Michael comes from a good family—parents who care, a younger sister he cares about. I’m intimidated right off by the way they seem to like one another. They seem to like me, too, but I don’t trust it. I can’t trust it. I know Michael likes me because he’s physically affectionate with me, but his parents are another story. Of course they can see right through me, what a bad and ugly person I am deep down.

We have sex for the first time in his bathtub. I learn that it was his first time only later when he writes me a letter telling me so. We’re in love, and we have a lot of sex. At my house when nobody’s home, at his house when nobody’s home, in the park near his house. We lie in his childhood bed fooling around under the covers when his mom knocks on the door and asks us if we want cookies warm from the oven. You can’t make this shit up. Even in the books I read moms don’t deliver warm cookies to their kids’ bedrooms. We’d quickly adjust ourselves to make it look as though we’d just been snuggling and, sure, we’ll have a cookie.

My relationship with Michael is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. He genuinely seems to love me. My girlfriends probably love me, but there’s very little physical affection involved. Hugs are awkward. My girlfriends and I tell each other everything, but the physical closeness I experience with Michael transforms me into a person capable of being loved. I become singularly focused on Michael. All I want to do is be with him because he makes me feel good about myself in ways that nobody has ever done before. He wants to marry me. I want to marry him. We decide we’ll name our first daughter Caitlyn.

*

From my mother I learned to love animals with a desperation that often makes my heart hurt, to fear all of the trouble men could get me in, to be careful what I wished for because I just might get it. And now I’m learning what happens to the stories we’re not allowed to tell, what shame does to a person, and the ways we ultimately lose control.

*

I’m pretty sure I know the exact time it happened. It’s just a few weeks before we both go away to different schools. This time it just feels different, like something has changed and there’s no going back. It’s one of the few times we have sex without protection, and when Michael comes, I feel it. Something just happened. I know it. And the timing of the pregnancy later proves me right. I wish I had said something about it at the time to somebody else so that I wouldn’t now seem to be imposing on that event something that wasn’t there.

The next day Katie and I have appointments at the Holyoke Planned Parenthood to get on the pill. I’m seventeen, Katie just turned eighteen just a few weeks earlier. So nervous on the ride over. “We’re not gonna hafta get exams, are we?” I ask.

“No, of course not. They’re just gonna give us a prescription.”

“Right. We don’t need to have an exam for that.” Each of us convincing ourselves that we’ll be okay, that the rules we’re pretty sure apply to everyone else don’t apply to us.

We’re separated when Katie is called for her appointment first. I sit in the waiting room anxious, trying to imagine what’s going to happen next. Picking at my cuticles. Biting my fingernails. Shaking my right leg nearly uncontrollably.

“Amy?” A nurse comes to the waiting room with a file in hand. I stand up. She tells me her name, asks me how I’m doing today.

“Good.” I follow her into a very small exam room and note the stirrups right away. Fuck.

“What was the first day of your last period?”

“I’m not sure exactly. Probably around the 6th or 7th.”

“Are you on any medications?”

“Nope.”

“Have you had unprotected sex in the last two weeks?”

Deep breath. “No.” Too ashamed to tell her the truth.

“Okay. We’re gonna have you undress from the waist down, including panties. Hop up on the table when you’re ready, and cover yourself with this sheet. The doctor will be in in just a few minutes.”

Fuck.

Later, in the car, Katie and I don’t say much. I don’t tell her about last night’s sex. I don’t tell her about lying to the nurse about last night’s sex. The next morning I open the free one-month sample of the pill, knowing, just knowing it’s too late.

*

“I find out tomorrow.”

“About what?”

“About the baby. What they’ve done with her. They’re gonna tell me.”

“Who is?”

“I don’t know. The Brusseaus. They moved to the other town.”

Guy tells me that when they’re at the grocery store, Ma wants to buy baby food. He steers her toward the cat food instead. A year and a half ago, he called 911 when she became hysterical about the missing baby. “Where’s the baby?” she shrieked.

Guy pointed toward Ruby the cat. “You mean Ruby? She’s right here.”

“No. The baby. Where’s the baby?”

“Ma, there is no baby.”

“Whaddyou mean there’s no baby! Where’s the goddamn baby?”

“Do you mean Amy?”

“For chrissakes, no. Where’s the baby?” And she began to cry.

That, Guy tells me, was when he knew something was really wrong. He called our oldest brother, Timmy, who lived in the same house, in the basement, and was still sleeping from his second-shift job at the post office. When Timmy didn’t answer, Guy called 911.

Timmy later called me from the hospital and told me that Ma had been looking all over for me. “She thinks Guy stole you.”

She told us girls over and over again not to have kids until we got married, that she sure as shit wasn’t going to take care of any babies, that men were trouble. She told my oldest sister Sue not to go behind the bushes with boys. She told me to marry a rich man, a doctor preferably, but most of all she told me not to have babies until I was married to that rich man.

*

I’ve just begun my freshman year at Clark University in Worcester, and Michael’s an hour away at Wentworth in Boston. I’m desperate to see him all the time, and the weekends can’t get here fast enough. I seriously consider transferring to a school in Boston because I can’t bear the thought of being away from him for so long. I’m not living during the week. I’m existing just long enough to get to the weekend so I can see him. He has a car, but I don’t, so when it’s my turn to go see him, I take the bus. Lisa, a friend from high school who’s also at Clark, often gives me a ride to the bus station. I feel sick when he’s not around.

For one of his first assignments in his English 101 course, Michael brings in my senior portrait, framed, and delivers a presentation to the class about me. How we met, how long we’ve been together, that I want to be a writer, that I love playing Scrabble, that I’ve had the same best friend since fifth grade. Some of his new friends tease him about it, but he doesn’t care.

In early September I begin throwing up. The sight of a stray hair in the sink in the girls’ room makes me heave. A stray noodle in the sink, left behind from someone washing their dishes, makes me puke. After a week of this, a store-bought pregnancy test confirms that my hunch is correct. On a weekend when Michael and I are both home in Chicopee, we sit on my bed and I tell him. We hold each other and cry.

There’s really never any question about what to do. I’ll have an abortion. Neither of us is ready to be a parent, and we’ve just started college. Back at school in Boston, Michael gets in touch with a counselor on campus to help us sort through what we’ll have to do next. She hooks us up with a patient advocate, Laura, whose job it is to help me get an appointment at Planned Parenthood and to help me navigate the court system.

I’ll be eighteen on October 20. By that time I’ll be into my second trimester. Massachusetts’s law says that I need either a parent’s permission or a court order in order to get an abortion before I turn eighteen. There’s no way Ma will give permission, and I don’t really want her to know about this, so we opt for the court route. Laura manages everything and gets us time in front of the judge in Boston.

I’m wearing all blue. I’m not showing yet, but my fantasy is that once the abortion is over, some of my tummy pudge will be gone, too. I’m obsessed with how fat I am.

Michael sits in the jury box with Laura. I sit in the witness box while the judge asks me a series of questions designed to help him determine if I’m mature enough to make this decision without my parents.

“Is your boyfriend here with you today?”

“Yes.” I point to him. “Here he is.”

“Does your boyfriend agree with this decision?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a place in mind for the procedure?”

“Yes. The Planned Parenthood in Brookline.”

“When will you turn eighteen?”

“On October 20. But if we wait that long, it’ll be a more complicated procedure.”

“Why can’t you tell your mother?”

“She’s pro-life, your Honor, and I know she won’t give me permission.”

The judge rules that I’m fit to make this decision for myself, especially given how close I am to my eighteenth birthday. We make the appointment. Michael withdraws the four hundred dollars from his savings account.

*

“You know I have a baby, don’t you?”

“No.”

“Oh Christ. You don’t know? She’s about four or five now.”

I talk with my therapist about how best to respond to moments like these. Do I go along with her and pretend that there is a baby, that the baby’s okay, and that she shouldn’t worry? Or do I just keep changing the subject the way I have been, telling her about taking the dogs swimming or about the latest funny thing that one of them has done? Should I tell her about the squirrel Essay and the neighbor dog killed last week?

He tells me that the best thing to do is probably to ask her what she’s most worried about. If she’s worried about the baby’s safety, tell her that from what you know, the baby’s just fine. If she’s worried about her own role in losing the baby, tell her that you know she did her best.

*

Two weeks before my eighteenth birthday, Michael and I take the T to Planned Parenthood in Brookline. We sit together silently in the waiting room until my name is called. I go back alone, change into a hospital gown, and sit on an exam table and wait. The doctor and two nurses come in. Someone administers a sedative and the nurse holding my hand asks me to talk to her about where I work.

“At school, just filing and stuff.”

“Filing, huh? Secretarial, then?”

“Yeah.” Woozy now. Can no longer engage in conversation. I don’t feel a thing. Afterwards, the nurse helps me put on my panties but not before adhering an enormously thick maxi pad to them.

“You’re going to bleed a lot. You’ll need thick pads for a few days.”

I nod. She leads me out to the recovery area where I drink ginger ale and eat crackers and sleep for I don’t know how long. Michael’s there with me. He holds me tight.

*

Does the time come for everyone when holding it in just won’t do anymore? I kept the story of my abortion to myself until Michael broke up with me two years later. I told all my friends about it and I didn’t feel judged. I felt, instead, the kind of empathy I’d been seeking by telling them in the first place. And I’ve told the story to friends since that time, but mostly the way I’ve told this story is by steadfastly defending a woman’s right to choose. As a teacher of rhetoric, I make it a point to use public discourse about abortion as an example of a controversy that remains in stasis because of both parties’ unwillingness to concede the terms of the debate. One side talks about choice, the other side talks about a baby’s life, and until both sides decide they’re talking about the same thing, the controversy will rage on.

*

During my visit home, I ask Ma what she wanted to be when she was a kid. She can’t remember or she doesn’t know or maybe she never really wanted to be anything. Just whatever happened to her: that was her life. And now as she worries about her missing baby and wants others to hear her, we can’t. It’s not right, this story, so nobody believes her and because nobody believes her, she’s doomed to repeat it and repeat it until somebody does.

*

A few weeks later, Michael calls me at school. He’s crying. “They know,” he tells me.

“Whaddyou mean, they know?”

“My mom called me because she saw the withdrawal from my bank account. She pressured me into telling her.”

“Jeeeeezus.”

“They thought I was doing drugs, that I’d used the money to buy drugs. I had to tell them.”

“You didn’t have to tell them.”

If before this I’d been sure that Michael’s parents didn’t like me, I was certain now that they hated me. I knew how they felt about abortion. They gave money to pro-life organizations. I’d aborted their first grandchild. They were now looking back on that night they picked us up in Boston to drive us home to Chicopee. It was the night I’d had the abortion. I lay in the back seat on Michael’s lap, claiming that the moaning was just from cramps. Now they knew the pain I’d been moaning about.

I’m not sure I ever looked either of them in the eye again. I rarely went to Michael’s house when we were home from school, and when I did, I’d stay in the car or keep whatever conversation I was forced to have with his parents to small talk. This wasn’t their information to know. I felt so betrayed by them. My body. My decision. My choice to keep it to myself. But they didn’t let me do that.

Michael later told me that his dad had told him that when his mom first saw the bank statement, the first thing she said was that she knew I’d had an abortion.

*

Ma’s official dementia diagnosis came last summer after an appointment with a specialist. Timmy took her to the appointment and only later found out that the fourth person in the room was there because Timmy was being investigated on charges of elder abuse. As it happened, Ma’s friend Betty reported him for taking away Ma’s license, for taking all her money, and for threatening to kill her and the cat. Every time Ma saw Betty, she’d say the same things, so Betty figured there must be something going on and she’d better report Timmy to the authorities. The charges were of course dropped, and Timmy, to his credit, was able to see the situation from Betty’s perspective. “She was trying to be a good friend,” he tells me. I marvel at his patience and he tells me he’s just worn out. He worries that he’s on the verge of a nervous collapse.

Ma calls me one Saturday night and as soon as I see her name on my phone I worry that she’s dead. Ma doesn’t call me. I call her. Ma doesn’t ask how I’m doing. I ask her.

I pick up the phone. She’s agitated. “He’s gonna kill the cat.”

“Who?”

“That man.”

“Do you mean Timmy?”

“Yes, Timmy. He’s going to kill us all!”

“Oh, Mum, he’s not. He loves you.”

“He’s trying to take my kids away from me.”

“Nobody’s trying to do that. We’re all fine.”

“Then why is he trying to take the baby?”

“I promise you he’s not trying to take the baby.”

“Sometimes I think he doesn’t like me anymore.”

*

For a number of years when I was in my teens, Ma worked at a factory in Holyoke making kaleidoscopes. She’d bring home small kaleidoscopes for us to look through, to turn slowly as we held them up to our eyes, watching our world shift and refract and multiply.

*

Ma hasn’t been allowed to tell her own stories because the fear she has felt—the fear she felt earlier, when she was young, the fear of shame—has sedimented her ability to tell. In order for her to be able to tell her stories of loss, she’d have to pull them up from that deep dark place where they’ve gone to grow and to infect (and inflect) her whole self. Pulling them up takes a whole heck of a lot of work—the kind of work she’s never been taught to do, the kind of work she’s never felt safe enough to do. And so her stories of trauma and her stories of grief fester inside her and when she’s tired or agitated or just plain old and suffering from dementia, they find their way out, but they’re jumbled up. They became broken, rearranged in the excavation.

When she brings up the baby and we try to change the subject, her mouth sets into a wrinkled line and I watch her eyes shift from fear to anger to resignation. Our eyes don’t meet for long. She turns away and shakes her head in disgust.

*

Twenty years later, Michael and I get back in touch through Facebook. After the night he told me his father knew about the abortion, we never talked about it again. Now, I ask him how many people he’s told.

It’s not who, though, that matters, but how he told the story. “I’m not proud of this but I think it’s important for you to know this about me. Even though there really was no question of what the decision was going to be for us, I have always told the story as though it was a very difficult decision. I guess if nothing else to come across as not being heartless to those with different beliefs.”

I forget, sometimes, that my abortion story is not mine alone. I forget, sometimes, that so many who might hear my story would shame me. Michael anticipated that shame and created a story in which our decision was a difficult one.

*

The day after Ma called me that Saturday, I called my Aunt Judy, Ma’s younger sister. “Is there anything I don’t know about Ma that would help me understand the persistence of this missing baby story?” Judy hesitated. “There is one thing, but it happened a long time ago and I’m not sure she’d want you kids to know.”

Fearful that what Judy knew might make me even more depressed about my mother, I told her that I wanted to know only if she thought it would help.

“There was a baby that was taken away, but it was by choice. When your mother was a teenager, she had a boyfriend that she was totally in love with. Things happened. She got pregnant, and our parents sent her away to have the baby. I was just a kid, you know there’s nine years between us, and I didn’t know where she’d gone. The neighbor girl kept asking me where my sister went and I had to tell her I didn’t know! I don’t think she believed me. Eventually Mom and Dad had to tell me.”

There was a baby. My mother was sent away in shame to give birth to a child who was then taken from her. Judy says Ma knew that Judy knew, but they never once talked about it. “Do you think she talked to anyone about it?” I ask Judy.

“I really have no idea. I doubt it.”

When I tell Guy what I’ve learned, the first thing he says is, “There’s another one of us out there? Poor thing.”

My therapist advises me not to talk with Ma about the baby. This is information meant only to help us understand her obsession with the baby. She’s not crazy, after all. She got pregnant as a teenager and had no choice but to give birth and give the baby up. She’s never told the story. Instead she buried it. The loss of that baby shaped most everything she did and said to us kids, surely. She learned that with pregnancy comes loss, that with telling comes shame.

Timmy: “She never wanted to have kids.”

Guy: “She wanted babies. She loved babies. She just hates it when they grow up.”

Back then people didn’t go to therapists for things like this, Judy tells me. Back then you were just a whore.

In Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, Susan Brison suggests that, “perhaps there is a psychological imperative, analogous to the legal imperative, to keep telling one’s story until it is heard. After the story has been heard and acknowledged, one can let it go, or unfreeze it. One can unclench.”

Ma can never unclench. Her demented mind is like the kaleidoscopes she brought home for us when we were teenagers: it shifts and refracts and multiplies that baby born more than sixty years ago to the point that she’s unrecognizable to us all.

***

Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.


Amy E. Robillard is a writer and professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay. Her essays can also be found on Full Grown People. More from this author →