BY ANGEL ARMSTEAD
"You're pregnant again?"
I quickly glanced around us. "Quiet. I don't want everyone in Wal-Mart knowing my business."
"Okay," she said, quietly this time. "How could you do this, Donna? Your last pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and now you want to keep this one? You have no money and no job. How could you be so irresponsible?"
I had heard this argument a dozen times from a dozen other people. I'd heard it so much that I had a mentally prepared response.
"Well, sister," I began, "I haven't been in my twenties in years. In three years I will be forty. It's not like I'm guaranteed to have a second chance."
My sister shook her head and walked over to the coat department. The next few minutes were spent in silence while I nodded at the coats she showed me. After picking one out, she turned to me and said, "It's not too late, you know. At least consider it. You could be ruining your life if you don't."
"I know, I know," I halfheartedly agreed. "I will consider it just for you, Debbie."
"How about I set up an appointment at my clinic with someone next week? We'll see where it goes from there. We can't wait too long or abortion won't be a viable option anymore. You don't want to wait that long, do you?"
I could tell by the look on her face she wanted me to agree. I nodded so that we could move on.
Afterward, we went out for lunch and spent the rest of our day gossiping over a plate of fries and some chili dogs. We didn't see each other very often. I still considered us very close, but we didn't get many days like this where we could just talk the way we used to when we were younger. We each had our separate lives to live. She had two children, a good job and a semi-stable boyfriend. I had no job, a child on the way and I lived at home with my mother.
Photo by Ernesto Andrade; some rights reserved.
"Don't forget our appointment next week," she whispered as she walked to the bathroom. I looked down at the table; I really didn't want to be reminded. When she returned, we paid the tab and left in our separate cars. I thought about her proposition the whole way home. I understood she wanted the best for me. I was nearing forty. As the oldest sister, I should have been the one advising her.
"She is so irresponsible," I heard as I opened the front door. "So irresponsible," the voice repeated. I took a quick peek in and saw my other sister Helen and our mother sitting at the dining room table. I backed away. I didn't approve of eavesdropping, but I would have felt even more awkward walking in at that moment.
"Helen, I know your older sister is a bit irresponsible, but she's allowed to make her own mistakes," my mother said calmly.
She's always the voice of reason, I thought to myself. I saw Helen throw whatever was in her hand on the floor and shout, "This isn't the first time! It's not just a little reckless, it's grossly irresponsible! She's supposed to be the oldest. At her age she should have her life together. Does she? No. Because you keep babying your first child. Almost forty, and not a thing to show for it!" She got up and began to pace the room.
"Helen, you think I don't understand, but I do. You're the youngest child and the baby in this family. You want me to throw her out because of this. I didn't throw you out when you had your first child at eighteen. Why would I do that to her?"
"Look what I did with myself," she came back harshly. "I have my own place. My own apartment. I pay the rent. I take care of my kids. No one else does. If Donna has this child, you will be the one raising it." With that, she sat back down. This may be the best time to walk in, I thought.
"Welcome home!" my mother shouted as I walked into the room. Helen glared a little, then looked away.
"How is my older sister and her baby?" she asked nonchalantly.
"I'm fine. The baby is fine, too. I saw Debbie today," I responded, hoping I could sound as composed as she did. I didn't want her to know I had heard everything.
"Oh, good," my mother said. "How was she? She hasn't called in a while."
I walked over to the kitchen to get a drink of water. "Well, she knows you don't approve of the work she does. She doesn't feel comfortable in the house."
"And she shouldn't," Helen added.
"I'm tired. I'm going to bed a little early. Good night, Momma!" I walked off quickly before Helen could pretend to be happy around me. I knew she wasn't. The look on her face and the tone of her voice said it all. To her I would always be the older sister who didn't live up to the role of helping her younger siblings.
Lying in bed didn't help. As much as I hated what my sister had said about me, I couldn't help but admit she was right. It's not normal to still be at home at thirty-seven. The men who seemed decent ran for the hills when I mentioned it, and that was before I had a baby on the way.
The next day I woke up feeling terrible. My mother decided to take the day off to take care of me. As much as I tried to resist, I didn't have the energy to do it. I just lay there while she fixed tea and soup. She claimed I was stressing the baby out. I was tempted to say that Helen and Debbie were stressing me out, and that I was taking the stress out on the baby. But I just lay there, too tired to pursue the obvious argument waiting to happen.
Throughout the day I drifted in and out of sleep. I heard Helen try to calm my mother, saying it was probably nothing and that I'd be fine in 24 hours. She was partially right. I fully believed my illness was one due to stress; I wasn't feeling so bad before I got home and overheard Helen.
Next week I checked the calendar and remembered my appointment, the one I had been dreading. I walked to the car, fully intending to seek my sister's advice on an abortion, but drove in the opposite direction. I could not bring myself to do it. Debbie had two kids; why had she recommended this?
I stopped at a small shop and got a bite to eat. Lost in thought, I realized that I had missed the appointment and repressed a smile. Debbie wouldn't dare call my mother and ask why I had missed this appointment. I got back in my car and drove home.
I found my mother sitting in the kitchen just staring at the wall. I rushed over to touch her, and I could tell that she had been crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she didn't respond right away. "Laid off," she mumbled as she looked at the floor.
I took my hand from her shoulder as I realized how our problems had gone from bad to worse. I told her that I would help out as much as possible. I'd do what I should have been doing as the oldest. She said no, and muttered about stressing the baby. I told her to go to bed. I took her credit card, saying that I would bring us back something for dinner.
My first stop, however, was the clinic I had avoided earlier that day. A few people greeted me as I walked in, and I felt welcomed.
My sister noticed me and said hello. "Don't you worry about the missed appointment," she told me cheerily. "We have someone available right now."
As I stood to walk towards the room, she stopped me and said, "You know you're making the right decision, the responsible decision. You cannot afford to burden Momma with more than she can handle." She smiled and walked away.
In the exam room, I blurted out "I want an abortion," before the woman meeting me could speak. I took a seat in front of her and glanced at her nameplate. Nancy Richards. Not so bad. Considering the way some religious people talk about abortion, I had expected a more sinister name.
"How soon would you want this procedure?" she asked, picking up a small calendar.
"What days are available?" I asked nervously.
"Well," she began, "because you are Deborah Manner's sister we can get you in almost any day you want. What are the reasons for this abortion?"
My mind wandered back to all the things that Helen had said. "I have no job and no money. My mother was just laid off. We live in a two-bedroom house that we're no longer able to afford. I need to find a job. I feel like my life is crashing down in front of me. My younger sister Helen hates me because I'm a failure of an older sister and she's right. I'm thirty-seven. I have never done anything responsible in my life. Let this be the first responsible decision I make. Please."
From the look on her face I could tell she was moved by my speech as she scribbled a few words in her little book. "Typically my appointments are a little longer because people aren't sure what they want. I'll overlook that in your case. Tomorrow, 3 PM. Good enough for you?"
She stood up and we shook hands. In less than twenty-four hours I could start planning out how to help Momma.
I stopped by the nearest Chinese restaurant to pick up Momma's favorite things and headed home. My mind kept wandering to my appointment the next day, but I shrugged off my growing feeling of discontent.
When I got home my mother looked calmer. "Thanks for the dinner," she said. "I just don't want you to stress out too much. It might affect the baby."
I didn't say anything in response. As she pulled out napkins and plastic forks, she said, "Sweetheart, I need to tell you something."
She poured a drink. "When I got pregnant with you, I thought my life was over. But I realized something: a baby doesn't have to mean the end of your life. It can be the beginning of something else instead. I thought about abortion so many times during that pregnancy, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't do that to you."
"Mom -- " I tried to interrupt.
"Let me finish," she said, and looked at the counter in silence for a minute. "I know why you've been talking to Debbie. It's because she thinks it would be better to abort. Do you think that will make you feel better? I know you think you're a failure. I know the feeling firsthand. I felt like a disappointment, and it took me a long time to realize I wasn't. It wasn't easy raising you or your sisters, but it's been more than worth it. You had potential when you were inside me and you have potential now. Please take some time to think about this. What were you going to say?"
"Nothing." I ate the rest of the shrimp fried rice and excused myself. I lay alone and tried to stay calm. Do I go and get it over with, or do I stay and struggle like my mother did and become another burden? Why can't I ask simple questions before I go to sleep? That question in itself was enough to make me miss being a child as I drifted off.
When I woke up, Helen was standing at the door.
"What do you want?" I asked harshly. I hadn't slept well, and I didn't feel like putting on a superficial tone to match hers.
"I guess I deserve that," she said, and walked to the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry I don't talk to you as much as I should. I just want to be able to look up to someone, and you're my older sister."
"Well, I'm sorry I don't fit into your neat little world," I grumbled, still half asleep.
"I know. That's not why I'm here. I'm here because I don't want you to make the mistake I did."
"What!" I shouted.
She moved a chair close to the bed and sat down. "Erin was not the first time I have been pregnant. I had been pregnant before and I told no one. It was legal to get an abortion without a parent's permission. I did. Erin is missing a sibling she will never know."
"All this time, you pretended to be perfect! If this is the truth, do you realize how hypocritical that makes you?"
"Donna, you're almost forty years old. My problem with you has always been simple. You have no initiative. If you actually had the drive to be responsible and take care of your kid, well . . . I would help."
"What did you say? Do you want to take me on as some kind of charity project?" I asked accusingly.
"It's help I should have offered a long time ago."
I lay back and looked at Helen, unable to speak.
"Think about it," she said, and walked out the door.
I lay still for a minute before taking a quick shower. I kept going over and over her last words. Those were three words I would never have expected to hear from Helen. I did think about it. More deeply than I ever had before. I thought of the pros and cons of my appointment, and I looked over old photos of us as children. I thought about how our life was; the good and bad times came to me as if they had happened yesterday.
I thought of the response I wished I'd given to her. If someone like her could look past her obvious disappointment in me, and try to change to help my child, then maybe things weren't as bad as they seemed. I stood up. No use dwelling on the past. I had a child to raise and a life to live.
Photo by Anurag Agnihotri; some rights reserved.
Angel Armstead is a Muslim American student pursuing a degree in Game Design. When she is not writing she is studying foreign languages (Japanese and Korean). Angel was born in DC but now lives in the southern part of Maryland.