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Edition 17

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Memoir

Yahtzee and the art of happiness

"SINS HAVE LONG shadows." A Chinese student said this to my husband when he heard that John had missed out on two lecturing positions. John had been teaching at the university for several years, but only on short contracts. The whole selection process seemed rigged and the apparent unjustness of this was difficult for us both, especially since at least a dozen of his students wrote to thank him for being such a great lecturer and for making the course so interesting.

I wept when John rang and told me that he didn't get the second position because I knew then that I would have an abortion. We couldn't afford to have a baby: the lecturing contract was finished; my ten-week teaching contract at the language centre finished in the second week of December; there would be no pay for at least six weeks. We already had three healthy children, and money was tight. It just wasn't practical. Even talking about the pregnancy was difficult when all John could say was, "I don't want another baby, Helena. I really don't."

I'd been pregnant four months before but had miscarried at eight weeks with a mixture of sadness and relief. Two pregnancies in four months. My body wanted a baby and, deep inside, so did I. We had three boys – maybe this one was a girl. But I couldn't tell him how I felt, so I steeled myself, shut down my emotions and made the appointment for Tuesday, December 19.

Our Christmas tree seemed very special that year – something pure and hopeful in a world of war and unforgiveness. The lights and decorations looked magical and after seeing it set up on the first night, Goth, our five year-old, said as he was going to bed, "Sometimes when I see really beautiful things I feel like crying." For Christmas we were planning to have Advocaat and chocolates with my Dutch parents at the Gold Coast, and then head off to camp in the Washpool National Park. I thought it would be better to be away after the abortion, to keep busy.

I asked John to take our two younger boys camping for four nights so I could have some space to prepare for what I was going to do. On the Sunday, I drove them to the Booloomba Creek camping area near Kenilworth, a peaceful place with tall trees, a cool waterhole and plenty of wildlife. "See you in a couple of days," I said as I waved goodbye, stopping only at a service station to buy some peppermints. I felt like I was doing the right thing.

Other than John, only one person knew I was pregnant: my friend Melinda. I'd asked her to mind Jack, our oldest son, on the day of the abortion and she said she'd give me a lift home when it was all over. On Monday I went to work and helped with the end-of-term cleaning at the Language Centre and that night, I went to the staff Christmas party – a lavish affair with gourmet food and old-time party games – with my secret baby curled up deep inside me. When I came home from the party, I suddenly felt I needed to talk with someone.

But it was too late. I'd put so much time and energy into organising everything and keeping busy that I hadn't left any time for myself – no time to think about what having an abortion meant or to consider what I was giving away. The next morning I had a shower and put on my favourite dress – a soft, green, flowing dress with a medieval cut and hand-painted edging. I put sanitary pads, a book, a spare pair of underpants, and a hand-painted sloppy joe into a backpack. I heard my neighbours leaving for their Christmas holiday and was glad that I wouldn't have to see them at the end of the day. They were pro-life Christians.

Melinda came to pick up Jack and after they left I walked to Yeronga Station to catch the train to Bowen Hills. I took an umbrella for sun protection – the only one I could find belonged to one of the teachers from work, another committed Christian. Before my train arrived, I went to the post office and sent all the Christmas letters and parcels that I'd finished wrapping the day before. I was so organised.

While I sat on a bench and waited for the train, I flicked through the biography of Joy Hester that I'd brought with me, and in one section I read she once had an abortion. She found out it was twin boys and never really recovered from the experience. I let it wash over me. It would be different for me. The train arrived and I sat looking out the window. In the underground tunnels in the city we passed a pro-life billboard with a picture of a tiny curled-up foetus: "Choose life". I looked away.

 

AT BOWEN HILLS I asked an older woman for directions. I saw the building across the street as I waited for the traffic lights to change – a hard, grey, concrete house of death. It was cold inside, the air-conditioning a shock after the heat.

At the desk I gave my details and then filled in an agreement form. I remember reading that "most women feel relief after their termination". I surreptitiously looked around the room at the other women who were waiting: two were with their partners and I wondered if they too were also there for a termination or the vasectomy the clinic also offered. They all looked so normal. I read through dated issues of New Idea, the Women's Weekly and People magazines, breathing deep each time someone's name was called, I watched as they went down the hallway, where I even heard laughter. It couldn't be so bad if someone was laughing.

My name was called and I walked down the hallway. First stop was the counselling room where a kind woman talked with me about my decision, described how the doctor would suction my baby away, and told me I would be given a "twilight anaesthetic" for the operation. I didn't ask enough questions. I'd made up my mind. I didn't want to talk about the details of the operation, didn't want to be "counselled" after I'd come this far. I just wanted it to be over.

Then I went further along the hall and around the corner to a room full of cubicles and I changed my beautiful hand-painted green dress for a pale-blue hospital gown. I was instructed to leave my underpants on and then wait in yet another room until a doctor called my name. There was a woman with short bleached-blonde hair sitting on one of the couches, watching the television which was perched high in a corner of the room. I was nervous and needed to talk. Over the drone of the daytime chat show, the woman with the bleached-blonde hair smiled sadly and told me she had twin boys at home.

"I'm not ready to have another baby," she said. Then the doctor called her name and she was gone.

 

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From Griffith Review Edition 17: Staying Alive © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review