My father, as always, was lying in bed. He'd suffered on and off with debilitating depressions after a blow to his head while playing hurling. Sometimes he went to bed for years, pleading only for his nightly ritual of tea and toast (a hangover from his Irish childhood) that barely sustained his 6-foot, 120-pound frame.
True to my role as the Family Hero, I rushed to reassure. "Mom, I'll feed the baby, get up at night," I begged. "You won't have to lift one finger! Please, Mom, don't kill this baby," I howled breathlessly, horror snaking through my throat.
"Susan, your self-righteousness isn't going to pay the bills," Mom answered. "I have to make this choice! I love babies, Susie. You are evidence of that!" she rushed on, telling me a familiar story.
"When I was pregnant with you," she'd begin spinning her tale, "I was spraying Raid for roaches that left tiny eggs looking like burnt Rice Krispies. I started to spot, so my doctor, fearing I might miscarry from the bug spray, sent me to bed. But your grandmother told me, 'Get up!' Told me I had no sense having another baby when I couldn't afford the ones I already had. I said, 'No! I'm not losing this baby, and that baby was you.'"
Still, just imagining my mother destroying a tiny new life, I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I had to save this baby. Instead, my mother tried to save me from this obsession by telling me, weeks later, she was not pregnant after all. I wanted to believe, her but I had my doubts.
What I didn't forget was Mom telling me that since the dawn of time families had been making the hard decision of whether to raise a baby. "If a woman couldn't care for a baby so sick it drained resources, jeopardizing the survival of the whole family, the baby wouldn't be named," she said, "and would be left out on a hillside to die of exposure.
"Now that's what you call cruel!" she said.
Nevertheless, refusing to get tricked up in the furious Catholic debate about when life begins, my mother added matter-of-factly: "Today, we don't expose babies, Susan, but women still make the same painful decision: To take a life for a greater good."
As an adult, I realize the concept of "taking a life for a greater good" is part of our survival instinct and has existed throughout human history. When American Indians battled to protect their homeland, we slaughtered them, citing the greater good of civilizing a new world. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than 100,000 civilians perished from an American atomic bomb for the greater good of ending a horrific world war. In Iraq, tens of thousands of women and children (as innocent as fetuses) are casualties of fighting a War on Terror.
Looking back, my mother was not a perfect mother, but she knew that by adding one more person to her bloated boat, the whole of it would surely sink. Things did not end well for my father, and Mom ended up in an almost lethal struggle to raise four daughters on a secretary's salary. She was right not to have more children. Nevertheless, my mother passed down a strong work ethic, and a reverence for books, giving her daughters the will to go to college.
At 40, I found myself in the opposite situation from my mother: I had two teenage sons but wanted another child. Tests following my second miscarriage showed the baby had a marker for Down syndrome. After a childhood lost to a sick father, I didn't want to take on another epic burden. But I couldn't abort a baby, either. So my husband and I adopted a baby girl with sparkling black spit curls and sweet-smelling skin the color of brown sugar.
We named her Sophie, a derivative of the Greek word for wisdom. From the moment I held my daughter, I treasured her as much as the babies I'd carried in my body. Reading over your past legal briefs on abortion, however, Chief Justice Roberts, I worry that when my daughter is grown, the freedoms that have made America a beacon around the world will be history.
My hope is for Sophie to live in a world where she, not the government, makes her own hard, personal choices. True freedom, Chief Justice Roberts, is not a line from a patriotic song. True freedom is not a red-white-and-blue flag whipping in the wind. True freedom is having a choice on one of the most fundamental matters of life, such as whether or not to bear a child. Please honor Sophie's choice, Chief Justice Roberts, for after all, this is America, the land of the free. S
Susan Ahern is a local author, currently working on a memoir, "Breathing Under Water," about family heroes.
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