Saturday, August 17, 2019

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

As often happens at this time of year, I am thinking about grief.  Thinking back to the first time I met this powerful adversary-slash-friend.

I was 19.

I had got married at 18, to an 18-year-old.  It had seemed like a good idea at the time.  We got married on the 23rd of November, and by Christmas Eve, I knew I was pregnant.  It was a miserable pregnancy, beset by nausea, poverty, and fear.  Things were so dire, we were obliged to ask my parents for help.  That relieved the poverty, but brought a new set of problems.  We had to try and get on our feet and away from them before they found out I was pregnant.  We were not exactly embracing impending parenthood.  About 5 months into the pregnancy, my mother walked in on me in the bathroom, and that was the end of that.  Without the concealment of my baggy clothes, my condition was obvious.

My husband was dispatched to the big city, where his father lived, to find work and a home for us, and to prepare for the coming joy.  I was put to work in the old fashioned way, stitching baby clothes to prepare for the coming joy.

The problem was, we were both 19, and Husband had an ultimatum for me:  if I insisted on keeping the baby, he was gone.  History.  Pasado.  I would be on my own, with a baby and no safety net, except my parents who never would have been able to shut up about the irresponsible lout who couldn't shoulder the responsibility for another life.  I knew he was right, and that neither of us was ready for this.  But I vacillated, because I really wanted to be ready for this, and I wanted him to be ready, as well.

Eventually, he found us an apartment in an old Victorian house in Vancouver's West End, and the pregnancy progressed.  The decision to put the baby up for adoption was made.  Tentatively, on my part, and positively, on Husband's.

I found out later that, somewhere during this part of the adventure, Husband had approached my parents to see if they would "take the baby."  They refused, hoping that their answer would spur him to a sense of responsibility.  This was something I never would have consented to--they were old enough to be my grandparents, and the idea of dumping a helpless infant on them when they were in their 60s would have been unfair both to them and the child.

So we visited the adoption agency.  They browbeat me unmercifully, in an attempt to make sure I really wanted to give the baby up.  "Do you want your child to grow up in foster care?"  "How can you do this?  What kind of human are you?"  I was adamant.  Having made the decision, I wasn't about to be talked out of it, no matter how guilty they made me feel, or how hard I cried.

Suddenly, one night, I started to get an unpleasant backache.  It sort of came and went, but, according to the doctor at the clinic where I had been getting prenatal care, it was a signal to call the hospital.  We called the hospital from a phone booth, and they told us to come in.

The labour was bad.  It was in the dark ages of hospital delivery, when women were left alone to labour, drugged to the max, in a ward with only curtains separating us.  I remember snatches of conversation from the next bed...something about the wages of sin and such, between the moans of a woman who was a bit farther into the process than I.  I remember thinking that at least she had a woman with her, even though there didn't seem to be much encouragement there.  Husband had been run off already, and, of course, my parents hadn't been notified (and couldn't have got there on such short notice, anyway, as their trip would have involved a ferry ride).

One way or another, both baby and I survived.  The maternity ward was an odd place, in those days, with at least 12 beds, separated by the ubiquitous curtains.  I sat there with my baby (brought to me at visiting hours), so we could sit alone while the other new mothers had family and friends come to gush over their accomplishments.  Some of my friends did come, and so did Husband, but he made sure to come to see me when the baby was safely tucked away in the nursery.  It wasn't until the last day of my hospital stay that I finally managed to bring him and his son together for a look-see.  I guess I was hoping he would be overwhelmed with fatherhood, and change his mind.  He had more sense, even though he was probably afraid of the very thing I was hoping for.

The day came when I left the hospital without my/not my baby.  I don't remember the trip home, except for hearing Janis singing "Piece of My Heart" on the radio.  I understood Janis, and felt that she understood me.  I don't remember Husband and I ever discussing the situation.  I don't even remember how long it was until we had to go in to the office of the adoption agency and sign the papers, relinquishing our baby to the fate chosen for him by the social workers there.

And that was when it hit me.  The grief.  The overwhelming, horrific pain that I had never before experienced or even known of.  The shaking, sweating, ugly-crying agony, so much worse than the labour that brought him out of me.  Husband seemed embarrassed by it, but I was beyond caring, in the throes of something so vast that there was nothing else but to let it take me.  I don't remember it stopping, but eventually, we got on a bus and went home.  It came back over and over when I was in the bath.

I also don't remember ever talking about it with Husband.  There was no counselling, no reading material on how to cope, no friend who had "been there," and could sympathize.  I was completely alone.

I did hear from my mother.  It took a week or so after Husband had notified my parents of the birth and adoption; I guess she had to take some time to process her feelings.  What I got was a letter, castigating me for giving up my child.  Abrogating my responsibility.  Of course, they would have helped, had I only asked.  Of course.  I was selfish, shallow, inconsiderate, and a total failure at human-ness.

From the depths of my depression, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and wrote back, saying that if she wanted to have any sort of relationship with me going forward, she was to never ever, bring up the subject again.  And she didn't.

The courage to say that to her came from the absolute knowledge that nothing she said or did to me could touch me after what I went through signing those papers.  I had felt the most terrible and terrifying thing possible, and I had survived.

So, yes.  Grief can be a gift.  And a friend.


  1. What a terrible thing for you to have lived through. I hardly know what to say to you. A powerful piece of writing, Ronni. I almost wish it were fiction.

    1. Thanks, do I. It really was horrific, and I was so young and ignorant!