Once upon a time, there was a fairy tale couple named Sarafina and Ryder, because five-year-old Madison assures me those are good fairy tale names. Sarafina and Ryder were living the American middle class dream. They may even have been Republicans, it really isn’t germane to our story, but they certainly fit the profile. The couple had a four-bedroom house in the suburbs, and a fixer-upper cottage on a lake “up north” where they spent their summer weekends. They were members of both a nearby Methodist Church, though not regular church goers, and of the local fitness club, where they had a better attendance record. The couple had a nine-year-old daughter Zoe, who liked ICarly, collected stuffed penguins, and had been chosen as the all-star representative for her Little League team. They also had a five-year-old son Zac, who took Taekwondo lessons and spent most of his waking hours wearing a black karate ghi with the bright yellow belt he had just earned. Zac would be starting kindergarten in the fall, and that was a problem for Sarafina, because more than anything, she loved being a full-time mother, and she was feeling the first vibrations of empty nest syndrome.
Ryder was not really surprised when, laying side by side in the quiet moments they shared before sleep closed out the day, Sarafina first broached the subject of a new baby. He knew his wife, every frown, every sigh, every flash of emotion that passed behind her eyes, and he had seen the signs. He had already given the idea some serious thought of his own on his drive into work a few days before. He wasn’t over the moon with the idea, but he wasn’t set against it either. He considered himself a good dad. He coached Zoe’s Little League team and he spent Sunday mornings with Zac out in their little two-man boat, sharing the sunrise while teaching him to fish. Ryder worried the timing wasn’t great. His focus had to be on work right now. He’d just been chosen to head up a joint project with Nissan, which was bound to mean travel to Japan, and corporate eyes were watching him. But he also knew Sarafina would be the one to do most of the work, just like she had with their other two babies. No matter how he added up the pros and cons, the bottom line was always the same. Ryder loved Sarafina more than anything. He wanted to make her happy. So they made a baby.
Sarafina was three months pregnant when the first sign something was wrong appeared. Initially, it didn’t seem like it could be anything serious, but her right foot felt like it was asleep. It had caused her to stumble a few times. Once, bringing a basket of laundry up the stairs, she had even fallen. The idea of hurting the baby in a fall concerned her enough that she mentioned it to her obstetrician at her next appointment. Could the baby be lying in a way that was pinching a nerve? The doctor assured Sarafina the baby was fine, but gave her the name of a neurologist, whom she highly recommended Sarafina see, just to be on the safe side. Alarmed by the very word “neurologist”, Sarafina called for an appointment as soon as she got home. The soonest she could be seen was four weeks away. By that time it was obvious something was terribly wrong. Sarafina could walk only short distances with a pronounced limp, and Ryder had to help her up any stairs. Three times she had peed the bed, though she did not mention this to the doctor. It was just too embarrassing.
It took another month to complete all the tests the neurologist ordered. Ryder held Sarafina’s hand when the strange doctor with the Pakistani accent gave them the bad news, as dispassionately as if he were telling them it was going to rain tomorrow. He pointed at an MRI image like it made all things clear. There was a tumor inside her spinal cord. See it there, that thin silver thread he pointed out with his gold Cross pen. That was the tumor, and it was growing quickly, and it was paralyzing Sarafina’s legs. He was very sorry, but she would probably never regain the function she had already lost.
Sarafina felt like she had stepped into a nightmare. Though she tried hard to pay attention, it seemed like she was only registering every third word. Wheelchair. Permanent. Forever. Amen. It was Ryder’s uncharacteristic anger that broke through. He was on his feet. Loud voice. They were leaving. They’d get a second opinion. They’d find a fucking American doctor who didn’t print his medical license on a form he bought at Staples. Sarafina looked into his eyes and silently begged him to stop. The doctor wasn’t finished and she needed to hear the rest.
Sarafina was right. The worst was yet to come. “Right now the tumor is only growing down” The doctor told her. “But there is no guarantee that it won’t begin to grow upwards at any time.” Sarafina now felt like she had crossed into the Twilight Zone, as she tried to absorb the horrific future the doctor described. If the tumor begins to grow upwards, it will paralyze first her arms, and then her breathing, until she becomes dependent on a ventilator for every breath. Once the damage is done, like with her legs now, it can’t be undone. But they can act preemptively. They can kill the tumor with radiation – just not while she is pregnant. Sarafina will either have to risk four more months hoping the tumor will only grow downward, or she will have to terminate her pregnancy so they can start radiation treatments.
It was a no-brainer of a decision for Ryder. He wanted the abortion and the radiation treatments immediately. Sarafina was not so certain. She was terrified at the thought of being unable to move, unable to breathe, who wouldn’t be? But she had felt the baby move inside her. That is a powerful countervailing force.
The doctor sent them home with an envelope full of forms for physical therapy, and brochures for vans with wheelchair lifts and companies who installed roll-in showers. Ryder seemed even more stunned than Sarafina. Over the next three weeks, the couple, who rarely argued before, fought bitterly over whether Sarafina was risking too much by continuing this pregnancy. Then one morning, Sarafina awoke with a tingling in her hand. Ryder packed his suitcase. He told his wife he loved her, and if she were struck by a car or suffered from a disease, he would stay with her, and take care of her til the bitter end. But she wasn’t ill. She had a choice, and if she wouldn’t fight for him he wouldn’t fight for her. He was taking a job with Nissan in Japan, so he wouldn’t have to watch what she was about to do to herself. He told her coldly when she was “sufficiently vegetablized” that she could no longer be a mother to Zoe and Zac, he would take them to live with him, but not this new baby. She should make arrangements to adopt out the new baby, because he could never love it, NEVER EVER LOVE IT, if it took Sarafina from them. He paused one last moment in the doorway, suitcase in hand. “Don’t do this.” He pleaded with tears in his eyes. “Choose us. Choose our family.” Then, Ryder, the love of her life, walked away with a slam of the door so violent. it cracked the stained glass inset.
That night, Sarafina curled up next to her sleeping son Zac. Smarting from Ryder’s words, terrified of the future, she wrapped her arms around him, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a quadriplegic, unable to hug this little boy who smelled like bubble bath and sucked his thumb in his sleep. Was it right to take his mama from him? She wheeled herself down to Zoe’s room and watched her as she slept amid a zoofull of plush penguins. She was growing up so fast. Who would teach her how to put on make up? Who would go with her to pick out her wedding gown? Zoe momentarily stirred in her sleep as Sarafina clicked off the projector that made a star pattern on the bedroom ceiling. “Sshhh” Sarafina reassured her. “It’s just Mama. Go back to sleep.” Sarafina rearranged the menagerie to give Zoe some sleeping room, and tucked the covers around her, brushing her shoulder with the glittery unicorn rub-on tattoo with a kiss. Sarafina fumbled at the door, not yet adept enough at her wheelchair skills to be able to easily close a door behind her. Zoe roused from sleep at the noise, and, proving children hear and understand much more than we give them credit for, Zoe picked her head up off the pillow and whispered, ‘Don’t leave me Mama. I love you.”
Zoe’s words split Sarafina’s heart like a fiery arrow. She flashed unexpectedly on the memory of the moments after her birth, when the delivery nurse had laid her newborn infant in her arms. Zoe’s blue eyes were wide open and moving, as if she were trying to make sense of what was happening to her. Sarafina had kissed the baby’s forehead, still sprinkled with afterbirth, and whispered “Welcome to the world Zoe Leigh. Don’t be afraid. I will never let anyone hurt you.” Sarafina went down the hall to the master bedroom, picked up the phone, and hit speed dial #1. When Ryder answered, she told him. “I choose us. I choose our family.”
I would like to tell you the end of this story, but unfortunately, it takes place in the future, and what happens to Sarafina is totally dependent on who is in control of the levers of government. Sarafina’s pregnancy has already progressed beyond the window of time when a woman can legally exercise her right to end it. She will need to avail herself of an exception; one which has long been written into abortion laws for situations like the one Sarafina finds herself in. It’s known as “health of the mother” and Republicans are trying to end it.
The zygotes-are-people-too crowd have decided that women who claim they need to terminate a pregnancy for health reasons are faking it. John McCain mocked the idea of a health exception during his final debate with Barack Obama. Rick Santorum called it a “phony excuse” when Maine Senator Susan Collins pressed for a health exception in the partial birth abortion bill. Paul Ryan referred to it as a “loophole big enough to drive a Mack truck through”. And last week, Mitt Romney, after raising the false hope that he agreed with a “health of the mother” exception in a CBS interview in the afternoon, had his position turned 180 degrees by his campaign staff by the time evening fell. Governor Romney’s current official position is that there should be no health exception, a decision that seems to have been made for him rather than by him, with no thought of anything but the Romney/Ryan vote total. Is it too much to ask that men like Mitt Romney, making reproductive pronouncements for women like Sarafina, actually consider the impact their policy will have?
The idea that “health of the mother” is but a convenient excuse for a taxpayer-funded, or a late-term abortion, is every bit as insulting to women as the idea some rapes are “legitimate rape” and some rapes are not. It is yet another act of aggression in the war on women, the very real campaign against reproductive rights that Republicans insist is all in our pretty little heads. The Right-to-Lifers have decided whatever doesn’t kill us, doesn’t count. It seems like we should at least be playing defense, with real women telling their real life stories. But all such stories are of such a painful nature, it is hard to fault anyone for not wanting to share her personal experience, not when the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are waiting to gleefully savage her.
In the morning, Sarafina is going to pick up the phone and ask to be cured of her cancer. Whether the voice on the other end of the line gives her an appointment, or tells her it’s too late, the government has taken over making her decisions, depends entirely on who we the voters elect to office, at all levels of government. So the next time you hear a politician tick off “rape, incest and life of the mother”, I hope you will think of the story of Sarafina, and speak up, because striking the “health of the mother” exception is not without human consequences. We cannot begin to know the horrors it will inflict on women.
Image via freedigitalphotos.net