Week Sixteen


Week Sixteen had been when we’d discovered Ella wasn’t growing. Slowly, I learned these terms: diastolic flow, Intra Uterine Growth Restriction, hereditary thrombophilia. I learned to read the ultrasounds the chilly blonde technician would sometimes allow me to see. And there was Ella, our girl, leaping like a blurry gray fish in the murk of the monitor. Then there’d be a blip, a sequence of peaks with a pause between them. Between my heartbeats, something was keeping blood from flowing to Ella, and whatever it was made Ella wither. Her head grew at the expense of her arms and legs, and, week by week, she moved a little less.

They told me bed rest wouldn’t help, but I tried that for a while. In the end, I did rouse myself for a trip to a Staten Island hospital where I was faced with the prospect of delivering Ella at two hundred and fifty grams—a little over half a pound. We considered what was meant by the word “intact.” And finally there was the day during my sixth month of pregnancy, in late January, when Ella died inside of me.

Later, I found out Ella died during the week when we were reading the Torah portion about  the Exodus from Egypt and the slaying of the first born. Years ago, I’d written a novel about Moses that told the story of that tenth plague from the Pharaoh’s point of view. His wife gave birth to a child that fell into the hands of a midwife. The midwife was the Angel of Death.

A few days after Ella died, my doctor induced labor. At first, I didn’t want an epidural. I thought: this might be the only labor I will  ever have. But in the end, I got a needle in my spine, and I kept on pumping more pain-killer as the contractions increased. Then, something was sitting on the inside of my thigh. She was the size of my fist, plum-colored, recognizably human. They wrapped her in a blanket for me to hold, and if my husband hadn’t been with me, I know I would have unwrapped the blanket. I would have taken a good, long look.

We buried Ella’s ashes under a crab apple tree that would flower every year the week in April when she should have been born. Three close friends were with me. Not one of them had an uncomplicated pregnancy. Not one of them urged me to try again. Yet I knew I would try again. The truth was that the months I’d spent with Ella inside me were a gift, something I could not regret. It was of a piece with the desire to experience labor, maybe delusional, but a force to keep me going. For those six months, I had a child. I could not turn my back on possibility.


Now, one year later, we’d tried again. Here was the result: My husband and I returned after two weeks had passed to get another ultrasound and Doppler reading. The technician said, “Do you want to know the sex?” I didn’t answer. She said, “It’s a girl.” Then, “I’m never wrong.”

There was no blood-flow between my heartbeats. The pattern of growth matched Ella’s to the centimeter. There was no question, no question at all, of her surviving. It was the quiet woman whom I’d called the Death Nurse who was the one who made arrangements, and she did so with compassion and efficiency. The doctor asked me if I wanted to wait two more weeks. I asked, “Is there a reason?”

I had to wait 24 hours. I had to wait that time because of Pennsylvania Abortion Laws. The procedure I had is the one people call a partial-birth abortion. Can something be partially born? I know that I watched Ella die in pieces, week by week on those ultrasounds, and I know that this time was different, and the prospect of watching this baby die a partial, violent, piecemeal death would make me die a little week by week.

What drove me to carry Ella until she died inside of me was hope. What I found out in that doctor’s office was that there was no hope for this one. Yet my nature is to hope. And then I said that yes, I wanted the abortion, and wanted it right away, before my will gave way to hope again. I was afraid that before I would destroy that hope, I would destroy myself.

There has been talk of confiscating the records of late-term abortions at Hahnemann, and among them it would say: Simone Zelitch, January 8, 2003, D and E. And would my reason be considered adequate? The abortion was elective. You could say it was my choice. But at the time, it didn’t feel like choice. It felt like every choice had been taken away.

Afterwards, a man opened the curtain and identified himself as the mortician. He said, “We have to fill out a death certificate.” It took a minute for the red rose appliqué on his hospital I.D. to register as the symbol of the anti-abortion movement. He talked about burial, and asked “What was the name of your baby?” and it all makes me furious in retrospect, but while it was going on, I felt a kind of tolerance, maybe a knowledge that what he believed had nothing to do with me. I already knew that week’s Torah portion. It was the same one as it had been the week that Ella died: story of the slaying of the first born.

What does it mean to forgive God? For months after the second loss, I couldn’t pray. Midway through a synagogue service, I’d run into the women’s room to cry—and it wasn’t grief, it was anger. Yet seldom before had God felt so present in my life as when God was the object of my rage. Three years of tests, three years of doctors, and they still haven’t figured out why I couldn’t carry either of the pregnancies to term. There are some things that will never be clear, and until they are clear, how do I begin to forgive?

I can do this: I’d told the mortician that the baby had no name. Now, I say to you, bundle of arms and legs, big head, well-structured heart, unlucky daughter who will never be a daughter, envelope of tissue, envelope of ash: I couldn’t let myself know you. I couldn’t let myself love you. If we meet one day, and Ella comes running up, but you turn away from me, I’ll understand. Your name is Charlotte. 

Simone Zelitch is the author of five novels, most recently Judendstaat (Tor 2016).   You can find out more about her work atwww.simonezelitch.com.   


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.