Living Water

Name Withheld

Choosing an abortion is probably the most grievous act within the reach of an average young woman. I made that choice, nearly twenty years ago. I was seventeen years old.

The windshield of the truck was crusted with frost that winter morning; I shivered through the short drive to the clinic. I can remember many things about that day: the elevator ride up to the second floor, my boyfriend's sober face as he handed over a stack of twenty-dollar bills, the many pairs of downcast eyes in the waiting room. I vividly recall the details of the procedure, which I will not relate. I remember walking into my house afterward and wondering what my mother would say if she knew what I had just done. But I don't remember feeling anything. My mind and heart were as frozen as the January landscape.

Feelings came later.

***

It was a November night, nearly a year after the abortion, when my feelings began to surface. My living environment had changed dramatically that year. After a long season of inactivity in the Church, I had begun attending Sunday meetings again. I was interacting regularly with people who were in tune with the Spirit, and the power of goodness that comes from such people and places was beginning to permeate the numb places deep within me.

Sitting alone in my college dorm room, I began to feel very heavy inside. My mind began to replay my many sins, and the ugliness of what I had done began to swell within me like a wave of dark water. The sensation grew stronger and stronger, filling up all of my consciousness, as if I were drowning. And simultaneously, I felt an unseen hand pushing me toward the shore.

A short time later I found myself standing in my bishop's office. I had felt so compelled to find him that I expected my confession to immediately spill out. Yet once I saw his kindly face I was not sure if I could speak. The words that had rushed to my mouth sat on my tongue like lead, so great was my shame. But my desperation was even greater. As the same invisible force that pushed me to that office pushed again, the words began to flow, and so did the feelings.

It all came out in a churning tumble. I told him about my choice to abort a six-week pregnancy, and the long catalogue of sins which preceded that choice. I also told him about the sins against me which preceded my own.

When the tears and truth were all poured out, the great emptiness within me was a great relief. I didn't care what happened next. I was willing to undergo any punishment that I deserved.

I sat and waited for the bishop's response. His face was solemn. His shoulders sagged with the weight of knowledge. But his eyes were soft and his voice was gentle. He did not speak of punishment. He told me I could heal from what I had brought upon myself, and from what others had brought upon me. I had taken the first step, and I would receive the help I needed to keep going.

A bright surge of hope flowed into me, filling the place where the darkness had been.

***

The July afternoon was searing and humid. I sat in a windowless room with Marie, my therapist. She was thirtyish, dark-haired and slender, with a quiet manner and an admirable capacity to listen. Seemingly oblivious to the suffocating heat, she was leaning forward, focusing intently on my words as I expressed anxiety that bordered on panic.

It had been five years since I had confessed to the bishop, three years since I had entered into a temple marriage, two years since I had become a mother. Much had changed, much had healed. But I continued to struggle with emotional problems. As a mother, I had an overwhelming desire to save my children from pain and sorrow, and provide for their every need. Yet I felt deeply, painfully inadequate in the face of this desire.

In the stifling heat of her office, Marie gently encouraged me to describe this gap between what I felt I should be, and what I was. As I tried to articulate my feeling of failure, I was struck by a sense of my children's beauty. My mind and heart were opened to the reality of their innocence, their trust, and their staggering worth. Then, without warning, my thoughts turned to the new life I had destroyed years before.

Grief swelled up within me—thick grief for the loss I had brought upon myself, upon life, and upon the world. I had experienced many emotional reactions to that choice, from the shame of my confession to the joy and gratitude at being given a second chance at motherhood. But somehow, until that moment, I had not understood what I had been given, and what I had given up.

I choked out the story to Marie, barely able to breathe. What have I done? I gasped, over and over. What have I done?

Marie sat motionless and silent. She had made a good life for herself. She had a happy marriage and a successful career. But she had not been able to bear children. What would she have given to receive the very gift I had thrown away? She personified everything I had sinned against. She had every reason to hate me.

But her silence was not hardened by shock or scorn. It was soft, much softer than professional distance, softer than human respect. When her tears stole quietly into the corners of her eyes, they were tears of shared pain, tears of mercy.

***

One afternoon I received a telephone call from Kate, an old friend. She had been my confidante during my high school years, and while we no longer spoke as often, we still shared an intimate friendship.

“My niece is pregnant,” Kate announced, “and she's decided to get an abortion. I agreed to take her to the clinic. Can you help me understand what to expect?”

I was speechless. Kate was not a religious person, and she believed that there were occasions which warranted abortion. But she sounded so brisk and practical, as if she were asking about a tonsillectomy, rather than the termination of a pregnancy. I was horrified by her attitude, and even more horrified to realize that long ago, I had approached my own situation in a similar way.

As the conversation continued and my distress grew, panic began to rise up in my chest, threatening to pull me under. I began to plead with my friend. “Please. You have to tell her that no matter how sure she is that this is the right thing, she is wrong, and she will regret it. It may be years down the road, maybe not until she becomes a mother, but she will regret it. She will wish that she could go back and make a different choice. Please, please tell her.” It had been over a decade since my confession to the bishop, but I felt just as desperate and despairing as I had that night.

Kate listened, then gently said, “I don't think that hearing any of this will make any difference to her.”
After I hung up the phone, I sobbed and sobbed behind my locked bathroom door. I was overcome with feelings of helplessness and sorrow. I would have done anything to save this young woman and the new life within her from the fate I had brought upon myself and my own growing child, but I could not.

Over the next few days my distress would not abate. I called Karen, a close friend who knew my history. I related the story of Kate's niece and how desperately I wanted to prevent another tragedy. Karen despised the practice of abortion. I expected her to comment on the niece's foolishness, even her wickedness. I was so consumed with a renewal of my own guilt that such words would have been a strangely welcome soul-lashing. “If she only knew what I knew,” I said, “she would change her mind.”

After a pause, Karen spoke. “But she doesn't know. She cannot know. And when you were in her shoes, you could not have known either.”

I realized that my argument with Kate was really an argument with myself as a scared and scarred adolescent holding a positive pregnancy test. I realized that my emotional numbness had begun long before that awful January day, and was rooted in circumstances that I did not create. This certainly did not mean that I hadn't had a choice. There had been a choice, and I had made a terrible decision. But I finally understood why I made that choice, as wrong as it was.

I felt a warm rush of compassion for Kate's niece, who was so young, vulnerable, and limited in her knowledge. And I felt something new and wondrous: compassion for myself.

***

Last year, I was six-weeks pregnant when I began spotting. I had bled during early pregnancy before, but this felt different. I knew I was going to miscarry, for the first time.

The increasing flow of blood filled me with dread. As I felt the fragile almost-body slip away from me, how could I not remember the other tiny form, the exact same size and age, that I had once cast out? Was this some kind of divine retribution? As the inevitable loss unfolded, I shrank, fearing the deluge of fresh pain that would surely come.

But I was wrong. Pain came, yes. But it was pain for the present loss, not pain for the past. Instead of despair, my memories brought solemnity, stillness—even peace.

I was relieved. But I was also troubled. I felt so undeserving of that relief and that peace. Is it really over? I thought. SHOULD it be over? That January morning a life had been at stake. It didn't seem fair that I was being spared, that my suffering had been so small compared to my sin, and that my pain had come to an end.

In that moment, I remembered that when I chose abortion, there was another life hanging in the balance—my own. Christ had offered me living water through my bishop, my therapist, and my friend. This compassion had flowed into me, cleansing me, refreshing me, and lifting me up toward a fullness of life. It had nothing to do with fairness. Nothing to do with deserving. It was gift. And I made the choice to gratefully receive it.