This is a true story about my mother’s illegal abortion within our African American community. The story is told by me asking my mother (now 98) about an incident I remember from my childhood, and then my mother telling me more of the details of her abortion. What horrified her most is that the powers that be cared more about who was the doctor performing the illegal abortion than they cared about her life.
But Ma, tell me this, when I was little I remember waking up one night and you were screaming a muffled scream in the living room. You didn’t want me to hear. I was supposed to be asleep in the bedroom.
Do you remember that little hallway between the bedroom and the living room, it was square and small with no windows. I got out of bed and stood in that hallway and I saw you rolling back and forth on the floor. It was like you were screaming but holding back the screams so I wouldn’t hear.
And Daddy was there crying, he was kneeling on the floor near your head. He was really crying. He had tears in his eyes and he was trying to hold you. He was trying to comfort you but you kept rolling back and forth out of his arms. I remember. He was talking to you. I never heard him talk like that.
“Jo, my darling, my little Jo, sweetheart, what can I do? What can I do?” He was whispering and crying and trying to hold you. I couldn’t understand. You were rolling first toward the window and then back toward the wall, back and forth, back and forth. You must remember. Do you remember?”
Your hands were gripping your stomach. I was looking out near the hinge of the hallway door. Sometimes you cried out loud. You moaned and then screamed.
And Daddy was crying, “What can I do, my little Jo, what can I do?”
When he said that you tried to rest in his arms, but you couldn’t lie still, you kept rolling back and forth on the rug. I kept watching through the crack of the door. I never saw you trying not to scream before. I never saw Daddy crying before.
And Daddy said, “I’ve got to find someone to help us, my little Jo, but I’m afraid to use the phone. It’s a party line, what if someone is listening? There’s got to be a doctor somewhere who’ll help us. I’ve got to go out and find somebody but I can’t leave you here like this. I’ve got to go over to 14th Street, they’ll know somebody over there. You’ve got to come with me. I can’t leave you. We’ll find somebody. Your sister works for Dr. Daniels. Doesn’t she know someone?”
Of course I remember. I was scared to ask my sister. She knew where we could go, it had nothing to do with Dr. Daniels, but since she worked for him I knew she would get Dr. Daniels in trouble. Your father did find someone, a doctor, and he stopped that painful pregnancy, we still don’t know what was wrong.
Your father took me to someplace off 14th Street. But my body still wouldn’t come around right. One kind of pain stopped but another started. I was infected, so your father took me to Freedmen’s Hospital. They said I was dying.
My sister came to see me. My sister, the one who told me where to go to get fixed. She was scared. “I only came to see you because they told me you weren’t going to make it.”
That made me feel determined to get well, determined to prove them wrong. And I wanted to come back home, so I could be with your father and the two of us would be there with you growing up.
Still, they thought I was gone. I was in a coma they said, right there in Freedmen’s Hospital where you were born, my dear. And I actually gave up one night, My brother came to the hospital and yelled at me. “Jo, Jo, turn back over this way. Don’t be turning toward the wall.” He was superstitious, you know, he thought that you had to die if you really turned toward the wall. “Turn back over this way,” he yelled at me.
But that wasn’t enough. A bunch of doctors came to my bed at the hospital in the middle of the night. They wouldn’t let your father come in the room. That’s what he told me. There were five or six of them, and they made me wake up. I don’t know how but they were tugging at me and calling me. Dr. Daniels was pleading with me. I couldn’t understand at first.
“Tell them who did it!” I turned my head away from them, I wouldn’t tell.
But Dr. Daniels kept pulling at me, “Tell them, tell them it wasn’t me.”
I came out of the pain and fog and told them, “He is not guilty.”
Then they left me alone.
Carolivia Herron books include Peacesong DC: A Jewish Africana Academia Epic Tale of Washington City; Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family History; and Asenath and the Origin of Nappy Hair: Being a Collection of Tales Gathered and Extracted from the Epic Stanzas of Asenath and Our Song of Songs.