A routine ultrasound appointment turned my life upside down.
One month prior, I had received the news that the baby I was carrying was a boy. During my second ultrasound, when I was 19 weeks pregnant, the technician was as talkative and excited as I was and re-confirmed the baby’s sex.
I suppose it was purely a mother’s intuition that gave me a large knot in the back of my throat as she finished with her on-screen measurements. As I wiped the sticky gel from my swollen stomach, I was quickly ushered into a small room. Within minutes, I was meeting with specialists and discussing a condition that I had never heard of. Phrases such as “fatal birth defect,” “no chance of survival” and “medical abortion” echoed in the stark white room while, in my stomach, I could feel my second son kicking and fighting for his life. The only tool I had to guide me with the unthinkable decision that suddenly loomed was the unconditional love I had for my child, as well as my ability to sacrifice my own desires for the well-being of my children.
With little experience in making a literally life-altering choice like this for one of my sons, I remembered a concept I had once learned in college. I had studied ancient Greek culture, which had many words for different types of love. One of these types of love is known as agape. The basis of agape, outside of the common Christian theological context, is unconditional, self-sacrificing love. Agape is reserved for relationships where deep love and care for another’s well-being exists, often exceeding the needs and desires of oneself. This extraordinary type of love may best be displayed through a mother’s love.
The agape that I felt for my first son required small, mundane sacrifices that are common with raising a young child. But it was not until that moment in the doctor’s office at five months pregnant with my second child that I was faced with a decision that would require a life-changing sacrifice for the sake of unconditional love.
My unborn son was diagnosed with a birth defect known as a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH). I learned that there is only an initial 50 percent chance of survival in infants diagnosed with this defect. There was a large hole in my son’s diaphragm that enabled all the organs that are typically located in his abdomen to grow inside his tiny chest instead. Because of this, his heart was unable to develop properly and his lungs were deformed.
I often spoke the words, ‘My heart is broken.’ Looking back, the phrase seems much too cliché to depict the actual pain that I was feeling. Each day that I woke up and felt my son kick inside of my body was torturous ― a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
The extent of the damage inside his body took his chance of survival down to nearly zero and made surgery after birth impossible. I was left with only two options: continue with the pregnancy for four more months knowing that he would not survive or end the pregnancy. Due to legal restrictions on medical abortions in the state of Pennsylvania, I was given just seven short days to make the biggest and most difficult decision of my life.
For the next week, I considered what my life would be like for the remaining four months of my pregnancy ― feeling my son kick and grow, and knowing that each day he was one day closer to dying. In these days, I often spoke the words, “My heart is broken.” Looking back, the phrase seems much too cliché to depict the actual pain that I was feeling. Each day that I woke up and felt my son kick inside my body was torturous ― a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
I often prayed that God would take me instead, and just as often I fell to my knees, shouting words of rage. I incessantly wondered why this had happened to me ― I was a good person. I saw mothers with healthy babies carrying on with their lives and who became frustrated over matters that now seemed so minuscule to me. I wanted to grab each one of them and scream, Stop cleaning! Cherish your healthy baby! I wondered if other women had ever thought the same about me while watching me interact with my first child. I cried for all the moments that I had been too busy to cherish and then I cried for those women too. I realized there would be no happy ending regardless of which option I chose.
As a mother, I desperately wanted to cling to my unborn son for as long as possible. I wanted to try every procedure, technique, theory or machine that professionals could dream up. In these days, I thought a lot about miracles and the possibility of a miracle happening for me. I had never been particularly spiritual or religious ― or lucky ― as my circumstances continued to prove. Being someone who had always relied on evidence and realism, I faced the facts that I had been given. I imagined how indescribably awful it would be for my son to come into a whole new and scary world, perhaps in pain. After several second opinions, I discovered that his small body was incapable of life outside of my womb and there was nothing that doctors or surgeons could do or invent to save him.
After the worst seven days of my life, I made the decision to end my pregnancy. In my mind, I had made the decision to end my son’s life. There had been so many factors to consider: my own mental capabilities, the happiness and stability of my first son, and, most importantly, the comfort of my fatally ill son. Sadly, I knew I was not mentally capable of enduring four more months of torture. I also knew I had a healthy 3-year-old who needed his mother to be of sound mind to care for him.
The day I was scheduled to terminate my pregnancy, I was hesitant. The doctor and his assistants struggled to inject a needle, which was filled with a chemical that would stop my son’s heart from beating, directly into my uterus. Every instinct I had as a mother was screaming, Protect your child!, and I was lying there, allowing these strangers in white coats to end my son’s life. To say it felt unnatural as the needle entered my stomach would be a gross understatement. For the first time in seven days, the tears came without noise. It was something much deeper than the physical capabilities of human vocal cords that silenced me. In that moment, my unconscious mind must have sensed that this was more than I could handle, and for a moment, I simply slipped away.
Christmas carols played on the radio and snow fell lightly on the ground on the way home. After the procedure, I expected that my son would fade away immediately. Instead, I felt him kick and move within me for two hours after the chemical injection. During these two hours, I spoke to him, sang lullabies and told him all about the big brother he would never know. Desperately, I begged for his forgiveness for the decision that I had made. The last time I felt him squirm in my uterus, I somehow knew that it would be the final time that I ever felt him move, and it was. After 12 hours of labor, he was born on Dec. 6, 2011, weighing only one tiny pound. I named him Azlend, after the brave and powerful lion from one of my favorite childhood books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The next day, burial arrangements were made.
Looking back now, I am not sure how I got through the next days or months. I constantly found myself wondering if I had made the right decision, and more often than not, I was convinced that I had made the wrong one. I was plagued with nightmares and a sense of overwhelming guilt. I often discussed my feelings with my mother, and she would sob along with me while telling me, “I wish I could take away all of your pain.” Hearing her words, I was once again reminded of agape ― that self-sacrificing, unconditional love. It was her words that made me realize that I was like so many mothers.
For some, a medical abortion may seem unjust or cruel, but for me, it will always be the epitome of agape. I was given the opportunity to alleviate my son’s pain and take it onto myself, and I did. I am certain that I will be forever haunted by the choices I made during those seven days of my life. Now I am reminded of my final decision each day in countless ways, and still, as the years go by, women with babies make me cry and Christmas carols still evoke tragic memories instead of magical ones.
John Greenleaf Whittier, a wise American poet, once wrote the words, “Of all sad words, of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” In my younger years, I liked the way these words sounded. It was only after the loss of my son that I learned to like the meaning behind the words just as much. I keep these words in mind as I am interrupted throughout my days by thoughts of what might have been.
For some, a medical abortion may seem unjust or cruel, but for me, it will always be the epitome of agape. I was given the opportunity to alleviate my son’s pain and take it onto myself, and I did.
I will always wonder if Azlend could have found a way to beat the odds if I had not terminated my pregnancy, and I will never know if I made the right decision. This has been, perhaps, the most difficult concept I am faced with in the absence of my son. I do know, however, that the decision to end my pregnancy has taught me more about a mother’s love than I would have ever known to be possible.
Being a mother is much more than kissing boo-boos, ensuring that vegetables are eaten, and seeing that teeth are brushed. Being a mother, to me, means loving another person in a way that forsakes all your selfish wishes and desires in order to do what you believe is best for them. The struggle with doubt and uncertainty that a mother endures while making decisions that affect her children is simply part of being a mother. All that a mother can do is trust that her unconditional and selfless love will lead her to make the right choices for her children. Sometimes this is the greatest feeling in the world and other times it breaks your heart in a way that is forever irreparable. In both circumstances, I have learned that a mother’s love reigns supreme above all else in this world; agape at its finest.