Life AffirmedRead Now
“If you had been a boy, we planned to name you Lazarus.”
My mother told me that story over and over. I was never sure whether I believed her. Would she really have dared to give me such an unconventional name, a name with such a specific Biblical story associated with it? I was a serious Sunday School student and understood the weight that name would have carried. Thank goodness I was a girl.
“The doctors told me you were dead,” my mother would continue, usually after my unrelenting energy and general rambunctiousness had worn her down. While pregnant with me, my mother had been advised that she was carrying a dead fetus in her womb. That presented enormous risk for her, and her physicians felt they had to take extraordinary steps to save her life.
But it was 1959. And a doctor could not legally “take” a baby before birth. So a courageous and determined Dr. George Heels admitted my mother to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.—for an appendectomy.
My mother was never convinced that any of this was necessary. Although the doctor had not been able to detect a fetal heartbeat during her recent appointments, she knew I was kicking and moving around. She knew she wasn’t carrying dead weight. She protested vehemently when he tried to tell her otherwise.
My mother had already successfully carried one baby to term. She had experienced the stillbirth of another, and the agonizing death of yet another shortly after his birth. Her life had hung in the balance both times. She was no novice.
“When they wheeled me into the surgery prep room before my appendectomy,” my mother would explain to me yet again, “Dr. Heels gently laid his stethoscope on my abdomen one last time. This time you kicked the stethoscope out of his hand. You finally proved to him that I was right. I knew you were fine all along.”
I expect that nearly every adult woman has a story of a doctor who didn’t believe her, who minimized her complaints, who explained impatiently, in a condescending manner, why he (in that era they were usually men) was right and she was mistaken about her own body and the symptoms she was experiencing. It still happens today, of course. It is at the root of our ongoing discussions about whether women should retain control over their own health and their own bodies.
In January 1973, when Roe v. Wade changed the law of this land, I was 13 years old. I had heard my mother’s personal story many times by this point. I had heard her share details of the suffering and the horror and the deaths of women who had sought “back-alley” abortions, or who had tried some granny’s remedy to terminate a pregnancy. She was a fierce supporter of legal abortion. She was a fierce supporter of women knowing their own bodies and making their own decisions.
Sadly, it’s time for all of us once again to drag these stories back out in the open. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan recognized that. This week, he shared the painful story of his first wife’s abortion, a procedure that probably saved her life. As Peters said, “It's a story of how gut-wrenching and complicated decisions can be related to reproductive health." Many women, many families know the importance of having this procedure available when needed.
My mother’s story ended with an unexpected twist. She and my dad became close friends of Dr. Heels and his wife, Vera. They socialized and traveled together. It was as if helping my parents through a series of traumas connected the two families emotionally.
And that’s what we need to do again now. We need to recognize the shared humanity in all of our stories. The shared pain. The shared hope. We need to ensure that hope is available for women who find themselves in life-threatening or life-altering situations that they cannot endure. We need to trust the women when they know it is so.
10/14/2020 10:59:22 pm
10/15/2020 06:37:24 am
What your mother’s story tells us is that things in life cut both ways. As usual, our society wants to line up on either side shouting and shaking fists at one another. Nuance is uncomfortable. Your mother’s wisdom showed she was committed to trusting individuals to make the correct decisions for their lives despite her decision to do everything to convince those providing her care that you were viable and how fervently she wanted you to be born. We are so fortunate that we received the gift of you.
10/15/2020 09:18:50 am
Oh my yes to all of the above...and especially to Vince Fallis' comment about our being so fortunate to have "received the gift of you"! Thank you for sharing so much of your family's stories. Growing up, both of your parents were very special folks for myself and my sisters.
Tessa Bishop Hoggard
10/15/2020 12:23:26 pm
Each time I read this, laughter bellows from my soul! What a beginning in life, Sallie, and you've never stopped kicking your way through life and making it known that you have arrived! Love it!
10/15/2020 06:57:54 pm
I do love the picture and the story is amazing! Thank goodness you were not a boy. Surely she would not have named a boy Lazarus. I think she was teasing. Bless you!
11/1/2020 05:45:37 pm
No need to wait for the reversal of Roe v. Wade here in KY there is only one provider in Louisville. Sallie, your Mom had quite a sense of humor. But as you suggest, it's time for each of us to Rise Up.
Becky B. Nelson
4/29/2023 08:51:46 am
Thanks for sharing, Sallie as I missed this the first time. Would love to have known your mother, but lucky to know you.
4/29/2023 08:15:39 pm
Becky, I would have loved to have had your mother and my mother in the same room!
Tessa Bishop Hoggard
4/29/2023 06:02:38 pm
Sallie, thanks for reminding us of the importance of the mother's voice and more importantly, the listeners heeding her voice.
4/30/2023 07:16:02 pm
I'm glad to read this again, and our comments. It is an important story that bears repeating. Thank you!
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