I was 19 when I had my first abortion, and I was terrified. I arrived early at the hospital that April morning. Early enough, I had thought, to avoid the protesters who lined the sidewalks, their signs puncturing the morning skyline in a show of moral superiority.
Who the hell did they think they were, I raged as we drove past, slinking down in the passenger seat like a crazed fugitive.
My boyfriend and I had been together less than a year, and neither of us were prepared to become parents. Careless? Irresponsible? Absolutely. But it was an easy decision, one made by two terrified teenagers who lacked life experience.
I didn't think much about the abortion. Before, during or even after. There was guilt for a while, but eventually it went away and I carried on with my life. School. Work. Boyfriend. Two years later, not much had changed. I was still skimming along in the same relationship, trying to justify to myself that it was worthwhile.
And then I got pregnant again. But we'd taken precautions! Broken condom followed by a trip to the emergency room in the middle of the night for the morning-after pill. No fooling around this time. I wasn't ever going to get pregnant again, my 21-year-old self had insisted.
So why was I pregnant?
He was all for a second abortion. What would we do with a baby? What about our personal goals, achieving success? Becoming parents at this stage would put a damper on things, he insisted. "He's right," his older brother chimed in.
When I arrived at the hospital it was as if no time had elapsed since the last time. Protesters still lined the block, the brisk January air rising from their mouths in milky white clouds. Gloved hands clutched the same condemning signs, their messages meant for people like me.
I didn't make eye contact, but the same fury raged inside as I felt their eyes on me as we passed. In hindsight, I think I was angrier with myself for having let it happen again.
While in the waiting room I took notice of the others and wondered about their stories. Were they struggling as much as I was with the decision?
No one made a point of making eye contact, but if they happened to by accident, their gaze would drop immediately. Or they'd offer a quick, sympathetic smile that seemed to say, "I know, and it's okay."
When the ultrasound technician asked if I wanted to look at the screen, I surprised myself by saying yes. I was three months along, and the blurry image had already taken on a child-like form. Oversized head, webbed but easily definable hands and feet. A little baby, curled up inside, reliant on me for life. For nourishment. It took my breath away, but still it wasn't enough.
Later in the morning, I laid on the bed as nurses buzzed around me and a soft-spoken doctor sat on a stool between my legs and prepared me for "a bit of cramping." I wanted to cry out, "Stop!" But something kept my voice from calling out.
My boyfriend and I broke up about a year later. For a long time after, I felt justified in blaming his insistence for the second abortion. In hindsight I see that wasn't fair, as I'm certain I would have made the same decision on my own. I feel shame, but not regret, surprisingly. Only sadness and a bit of sorrow for my choices.
And after so many years I've finally figured out what it was that quelled the voice inside me that wanted to stop the procedure. It was another voice, a persistent one, that told me I'd be forever tied to a man I'd finally realized had no place in my life. I'd seen a brief snapshot of my future, and I didn't like the way it appeared, blurry and unfocused and entirely wrong.
When writer Anne Lamott once considered having a second abortion, she had a discussion with her priest, who urged her to "get quiet for a moment and then think about having an abortion; if you feel a deep and secret sense of relief, pay attention to that. But if you feel deeply grieved at the thought of it, (listen) to that."
Ms. Lamott did what the priest suggested, and was startled by the feeling of being "stabbed with grief."
"And the grief did not pass," she wrote. She cancelled the procedure.
For 10 years I had tried to forget it happened. I had buried it all deep down - the guilt, the memories, everything - and convinced myself that the abortions didn't affect me. It wasn't until I came across Ms. Lamott's story and reflected on my own that I realized I'd been clinging to a whole pile of unresolved guilt for my decisions.
Perhaps it is the upcoming birth of my child that has propelled me into confronting my past. What better time to purge the wounds that have festered so long within? Silent, unspoken pain that begged to be noticed and dealt with, but which I chose to ignore.
Ms. Lamott listened to an internal voice and made her choice, just as I did in my own way. And I have forgiven myself. Finally.
L. Allen lives in Ottawa.