Her sisters knew what had happened. Her mother knew, bore the pain for the rest of her life of watching her daughter die senselessly. The nurses at the hospital who cared for her mutilated, infection-ridden body for nearly two weeks knew. The attending physician who listed not one, not two, not three, but four carefully curated pre-existing conditions for the death of a healthy 34-year-old mother, knew.
Lorena hadn’t argued with Stanley that spring when he said the 5th baby in her belly was too much for their poor Missouri family to afford. He didn’t have to say more than that. She’d gone off and taken care of it like he said she should. But they didn’t have money, couldn’t buy their way to the safe care she needed. The baby was gone, but so was Lorena. Stanley was left with motherless children and unending shame. He moved them far from her family, and for decades the children heard only lies about their mother’s death. The younger two couldn’t even remember her, just felt the gaping hole in their lives.
Now Stanley waited until the kids were in bed, but still they heard his keening sobs. He struggled to put food on the table, keep up with a job, four kids, school, clean clothes. The older kids helped some, but he was alone in this bed he’d made. At night he’d hear his oldest, just nine, trying to soothe the cries of the baby, her child’s voice singing a lullaby she’d learned from her sweet mother. Hush little baby, don’t say a word …
Lorena’s younger sister, Anna, was a 38-year-old mother of two with a brand-new college degree and a recently crippled, alcoholic husband who no longer works when she became pregnant with her third child. Despite the death of their sister Lorena, Edna urged her to terminate this unplanned, untimely, potentially dangerous pregnancy: 38 was old to have a baby in 1962. The baby of an older mother could be born with a host of medical conditions, and Anna already had far too much on her plate. She needed to work, to support her family, to care for her two children and ill husband.
But Anna pressed onward, careful not to unwrap the baby gifts or choose a name until after the baby was born. She had a healthy baby, whom her eldest daughter named Anna Marie. Years later that baby would hear this story and understand how her sisters’ and parents’ lives would have been eased without her there. She knows in her bones what kept her mother from aborting her was the fear of dying.
Anna Marie grows up, isn’t as careful with birth control as she should be. Despite everything she believed in her wild imagination about love and forever and fairy tales, she knew she wasn’t ready to be anyone’s mother. She turned down the reflexive marriage proposal; her sister took her to the clinic. It was hard, scary, painful. She was resolute, grateful, determined to never be in this position again. Later, she thinks about this potential life when she falls in love with her two babies, knowing in her heart that her relationship with their father would never have survived a hasty marriage and a baby: her children never would have been born. She will think about this third potential life for the rest of hers when she is asked to write down the number of her pregnancies on medical forms, when access to safe abortion is threatened, when she looks into her granddaughter’s eyes. But not with regret.
The Carly Simon song “Jesse” was one of her favorites that winter of 1983. In the way of a woman-child, Anna Marie fantasized for a day or two about giving that name to the speck of life in her belly. She gave the name to a kitten instead. She just wasn’t ready.
Both Annas march for choice in Washington, DC. Anna carries a sign with Lorena’s name, date of birth, and date of death. Under the date of death are the words she had no choice. Anna Marie is pregnant with her son and wears a sweatshirt on which she has written in bold letters this is my choice. The sweatshirt also bears the names of women and girls she is representing that day, who can’t be there. Her two-year-old daughter’s name is there: Megan. She doesn’t take Megan to the protest because she worries about exposing her to the visceral anger of the anti-choice protesters. But she knows even then she is marching for her.
A draft Supreme Court opinion arguing for the overturn of Roe v. Wade is leaked. Outraged women – and men – march on their cities and picket the homes of the conservative Supreme Court Justices and politicians. Anti-abortion advocates are outraged by the picketing, the violence, conveniently forgetting the abortion providers they’ve murdered, the merciless harassment of women entering clinics on one of the most difficult days of their lives, and the countless women who have died desperately risking unsafe procedures.
Anna Marie is now a 59-year-old grandmother. A pacifist, she numbly considers the violence that will certainly unfold, and recognizes she will have a place in it. She feels she is sitting atop a powder keg: Covid-19, quarantine, inflation, an unlivable minimum wage, a conservative stranglehold on the federal government that contradicts the will of the majority, over half the states on the verge of outlawing abortions when Roe falls. And Roe will fall.
Her daughter Megan, 32, texts her in short, angry, staccato bursts. Megan knows her mother and grandmother have fought to keep access to abortion safe for all. She knows the family stories. But she is angry at her mother’s generation for allowing this to happen.
Mom, according to the CDC, there were over 600,000 abortions in the US in 2019. Can you imagine if even half of those women were forced to give birth?!?
Anna Marie can imagine. 300,000 babies added to the 400,000 children currently in the foster care system, although some number of pregnancies will be terminated as women turn in desperation to illegal and unsafe procedures. As women always have. And some number of those women will die. As women always have. Her phone continues to buzz with statistics, links to videos, and articles, Megan is unable to stifle her anger, frustration – and fear. Recovering from Covid-19, Anna Marie tiredly turns to face the window, staring into the brilliant Virginia spring that surrounds her. She envisions the future, her inability to protect her daughter, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. She cries as she recognizes the gaping wound in her family left by Lorena … was in vain.
A room filled with babies in an old house filled with rooms of children has quieted, briefly, in the night. Exhausted caretakers doze on cots. This is what has become of the pro-choice movement. When Roe fell, trigger laws abolished abortion rights in over a dozen states overnight, and many more followed. Access to safe abortion is now outlawed or severely restricted nearly everywhere, and individual citizens are empowered to enforce the laws, zealously lining their pockets with gold and staking out paths for their heaven-bound souls. They don’t seem inclined to worry about the babies that result from these forced pregnancies. And the rich, of course, still have access to what they want and need – safety.
Those who fought to keep abortion safe for all now tend to the unwanted babies of the poor women who were either forced to birth them or who left these children behind when their desperate attempts to exert control over their own lives and bodies failed. The foster care system, already overrun, crumbled as the load doubled and then tripled in the months and years after Roe fell, and only a small number of legal abortions in the United States were performed.
Anna Marie, now nearly 70, is one of the caretakers. Her daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter … they are all safe, for today. But other daughters are not. Anna Marie and her friends work many shifts, giving what comfort, care, and love they can to these abandoned children. Anna Marie dozes, dreams of her mother. Outside, a tree limb brushes against the old house, and a creak is heard as she settles. And then a faint whisper of a lullaby as if on the wind outside …
Hush little baby, don’t say a word
About the Author
Anna Caldwell is a daughter, sister, mother, wife, grandmother and writer from Falls Church, Virginia. She believes that only through sharing our honest stories — and listening to one another — will we find common ground. Her work is forthcoming in Five Minutes.
Supporting Reproductive Rights
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3 thoughts on “Lullaby”
Poignant, vulnerable story that needs to be heard and shared. Thank you!
Poignant, vulnerable, story that needs to be heard and shared. Thank you!
This is a family truth that I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know. So proud of you Anna Marie for giving voice to those who can no longer speak.