From My Side of the Picket Sign

May 26, 2017 | Anencephaly, Neural Tube Defects, Opinion, Stories

I will never succumb to feeling guilty or selfish for the most selfless decision I’ve ever made.

By Carissa Waldner

I see you day after day holding up the sign that continually haunts me, “Babies killed here.” I watch as your supporters show up on the weekends and stand with you, holding pictures of fetuses, showcasing the number of days and hours it takes for a human heart to start beating. Your eyes are cold and judgmental. They pierce through me as I drive by. I avert mine day after day, knowing how you’d feel if you knew my story. Every morning I drive past you with two children in the backseat of my minivan. I spend my days making lunches, driving children to activities and instructing elementary-level homework assignments, but I always go home to an empty house. I know my job as a nanny would be conflicting to you. You’d probably call me selfish. But, you walk in entirely different shoes. Every day, I fight the urge to pull over and give you mine.

There I was, squatting over the toilet in my shared duplex bathroom, praying for one single pink line. I unwrapped the plastic device and slipped it underneath me, hands already shaking. While I waited, I glanced at the bottle of Angry Orchard that I had brought in with me. I’ll purchase it for the single line celebration, I had told myself that morning. I cringed as I flipped the test over and then swiftly slid against the wall and straight down to the floor. The bottle fell down with me, smashing against the tile. That was the moment I knew my life was over. Two pink lines, clear as day glared back at me. It was the end of my independence. It marked the death of my young adulthood. It killed my dream of moving to a new place.

On the year anniversary of what was my daughter’s due date, I drive past you once again. You hold the same sign that you always have. I wonder how someone with such persistence could lack even minimal creativity skills. Your deafening glare is as eerie and disapproving as ever. I imagine your thoughts as I stare back at you, biting my tongue and holding back my persistent rage. I want to settle our differences. But, you’d never understand. You weren’t there when my daughter’s father told me that he didn’t have feelings for me. You weren’t around when he told me that we would never be a traditional family. I hold myself back from explaining to you the way it feels to have your own family pressure you to abort your only child. Instead, I remind myself that you’ve surely heard it all before. I render myself helpless once again and I drive by, burying my thoughts.

I was three months pregnant before I let myself get excited about the pregnancy. With the first trimester over, I started planning a life for just the two of us. I hoped my baby would inherit her father’s nose and my heart. I hoped that she would be happy and carefree and willing to accept her family for what it was. As the days went on, I grew more and more excited. After all, I’d always wanted to be a mother. It was no longer an issue to be a single, pregnant 21-year-old and I had no shame. I wrote my baby letters and I counted down the days until my anatomy appointment. I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer. I wanted a girl. Avery Olivia V_____ would be her name.

I remember exactly the way he walked into the room. Green scrubs, downward glance, slow pace. With his lips slightly parted, he said hello and hugged me right away. I always admired him for his bedside manner. He was an older man with deep wrinkles and dimples. He was short and he limped. He wasn’t the most attractive doctor you could imagine, but he was sweet. Most people would find it odd that he was so personal with his patients. I, however, found it extremely comforting. While still looking towards the floor, he asked me how I was doing. The words flowed out of my mouth effortlessly. After all, I had been in that room for well over an hour practicing and reciting my request. “I’m doing well. But the ultrasounds…” I started. He shook his head and held up a hand. My much-anticipated performance was cut short before I could say anything substantial.

He sat down, folded his arms and said the words that will echo in my mind for eternity: “There’s a problem with the baby.”

As my heart sank, my mind protested. I developed a lump in my throat and my eyes welled up. In my new surreal reality, my body fell forward. My head found its way to my hands. My lips unconsciously mouthed, “No…” I closed my eyes and took a breath deeper than I ever thought I was capable of.

Anencephaly was the word the doctor handed to me, scribbled on the back of Avery’s freshly printed ultrasound photo. 200% accurate diagnosis is what he stated when I pleaded with him to double check. Blind, deaf, unconscious and unable to live without my incubation. That was his prognosis for her. I cried for a second opinion. I searched her ultrasound pictures for the missing portion of her skull. I prayed for large parts of her brain to appear out of thin air. I researched procedures that didn’t exist through tired, tear-filled eyes. Despite my efforts, it was too late for the type of development that Avery lacked.

The doctor said she was unable to feel any pain. I wondered how he could’ve known something of that nature. I stared at her through the ultrasound screen. I watched her heart beat rapidly and her arm rest on the open part of her skull. She sure looked like she was in pain. At that moment, I let go of all of my dreams for her. I lost a part of myself, but I protected my baby the only way I knew how; I let her go. Avery Olivia Waldner is what my daughter’s death certificate says. Waldner, because I was the only one there to say goodbye.

To this day, I have a trunk full of baby toys. I wake up with the intention of donating them and fall asleep longing for one more night with the only items in this world that were ever hers. I am reminded on a daily basis of my procedure. I avoid walking in the room that I had intended for her. I tear up when I see pregnant women. I have to force a smile when I see women with newborns. I wonder if my body will ever figure out how to properly form a child of my own. I yell my daughter’s name every time I drive by the area where I spread her ashes, fully aware that I am her only intentional visitor.

I pass by you again, in my car this time, with Avery’s toys neatly organized in my trunk. I swallow the anger that threatens to escape me as you tilt your sign in my direction, forcing me to read. Deep down, I know that no matter how many times I have to avert my eyes, I will never succumb to feeling guilty or selfish for the most selfless decision I’ve ever made; the decision to end my daughter’s life. From my side of your picket sign, I did what any good mother would do: I sacrificed my own happiness for my daughter’s peace.

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