No Less than the Trees and the Stars
“My period is late, but it could be nothing. I haven’t been regular since Danny died,” I confided to Maryann in her car on our way to work. She knew my husband had been dead for a year and a half and that pregnancy would be a catastrophic mistake. Henry was temporary; we all knew that Henry and I were involved for all the predictable reasons. When I moved to Sacramento, Henry was a friendly stranger. Plus, he was forbidden, I was reckless, and it was “time to fall in love again.” Henry liked my towheaded two-year-old son, and he fit right in with my new friends Maryann and her husband, Ray Carver.
“Grotesque! That would just be grotesque,” Maryann gasped, turning away from traffic to face me as she steered her red Pontiac onto Arden Way. “Can you imagine? What would you do? My God!”
“I better see a doctor,” I agreed.
Maryann and I worked together in door-to-door book sales. My son Adam was at his sitter’s, and Maryann was driving us to the office that day, since it solved a parking problem and I’d just been arrested for unpaid parking tickets downtown.
I planned to pay the fines, I'd told myself. I'd just lost track.
When the policeman had knocked at the front door of our book sales office, I’d recognized him from his beat on the street in front of the office building.
I had welcomed him with a smile. “Hi. How are you?”
He looked grim. “I have to arrest you for parking tickets if you’re Cathy Shull,” he’d said.
“Will you please wait here while I excuse the job applicants in the next room?” I gestured toward the closed inner door. The office layout was identical from branch to branch; a reception area, a storage room and a large morning meeting area that doubled as a classroom for trainees. I was polite. Arrest! Parking tickets! My trainees were actually out for field-training. This was a hiring day. I rushed through the empty classroom, grabbed my purse, and exited from there to the outside corridor where a second policeman had seized me.
“Now you are resisting arrest,” he said, and he’d cuffed my hands behind my back.
At the police station, I’d been fingerprinted and informed I had over seventy-two outstanding parking tickets from all the times I’d made it back too late to feed the parking meters on the street near work. To be fair, the craggy-faced middle-aged cop who arrested me had tried to warn me more than once that the tickets would accumulate and the fines would multiply. Money was short and I had procrastinated.
Solemn, unsmiling men in suits had led me into a small cubicle and told me I had the right to not answer their questions, to not incriminate myself. At least that’s what I heard. I carried traumatized voices in my head that all heard different things. I felt ambushed, and I did not trust the policemen, so I told them I had nothing to say. When they allowed me to make a telephone call, I called my regional sales manager collect in our San Francisco office.
“Sweetheart, what are you up to?” He had picked up the line immediately and my terror receded a little. I wanted to escape the men in suits.
I’d explained it, that Maryann would return from the sales field to an empty office, that Adam needed to be picked up at the sitter’s, that I had to pay bail and get a court date for parking tickets and resisting arrest. It sounded preposterous when I said my predicament out loud.
“I’ll take care of it. You’ll be able to pick up Adam today. I’ll pay the bail. You make the court date. Pay your fines!” He had clicked off.
At my doctor’s office, Dr. Theodore Brifman shook his head at the tall black man and the widowed white woman half Henry’s age that sat opposite him.
“All I can do is confirm a six week pregnancy,” he said. His gaze was direct and questioning. In 1967, abortion was illegal.
Maryann and Ray and I had met Henry clubbing one night. Henry socialized between music sets with us and we joined him after closing time at an after-hours club. That year we were the two couples who partied together, who frequently drove to Reno and back on a whim in Henry’s white Caddy and partied some more.
If Maryann had a good sales day, we had a drink and celebrated. When Ray sold a poem or a story to a small magazine, we celebrated. When Martha Foley chose him for Best American Short Stories 1967, there was a week of celebrating. Ray was just tall, shy Ray of Maryann and Ray: soft-spoken, funny, struggling Ray, not yet the literary treasure he would become.
Henry was an accessible and eager lover. He had that irresistible blend of attraction: twenty years older and married. He was perfect for me because he was so different from me, even foreign—from Panama via Jamaica via England with a spicy accent. Very black and very unavailable, he had a wife and two children at home in the suburbs. Along with his exotic skin and his safe ineligibility, he was convenient and he liked me. He took classes at Sacramento State in the daytime and played jazz organ in clubs at night. Henry worked late so I gave him the key to my place, and I often awakened from sleep to the sound of his key in my apartment door.
I was blind to my daddy issues, to my experience that sexual exploitation was love.
Henry and I considered each other. His bearded face was serious, his brown eyes thoughtful. “I will pay for everything. You can have my baby and give it to me,” he said, breaking the silence.
Words stuck in my throat. I choked a little. How could he suggest such a thing? There was no way he had thought it through. It was outrageous. He already had a family—his wife would throw him out! He had an out-of-wedlock daughter in England he never saw or contacted. Who knew how many others. This was not supposed to happen.
“I can’t…” I started to say.
Dr. Brifman seemed to know my heart. “If you don’t come back for prenatal care, do not tell me what you do,” he said. His compassion beamed through his piercing eyes and his firm voice when he said, “I cannot know your plans.” He would not risk breaking any laws by even knowing if I thought about an abortion.
“We have to talk to each other,” I said, indicating Henry.
A sensory image of my father arose, and he was not my present-day dad. It was my Daddy when I was little, and immediately it was hard to catch my breath. I doubled up, clutched my ribs, opened my mouth to drink in a gasp of air. Remembrance of Daddy brought on flashbacks and voices that made no sense to me. A wave of nausea followed, along with perspiration that dripped off my face and neck. I stiffened against those sensations. Henry and Dr. Brifman watched me freely dissociate, a phenomenon to which Henry had grown accustomed. I was unaware of any denial or anger throughout any of the days that followed. My feelings felt far away, and I occasionally paused to wonder, who am I?
We all shook hands, and Henry and I left the doctor’s office. Every head in the lily-white clinic turned to stare at the imposing six-foot-two black man when we exited.
At my place on Connie Drive, I made coffee and Henry paced.
“I thought you wanted my baby,” Henry protested.
I had no idea where he got that belief. I was stunned, but I refused to argue. Who was I to make an issue of delusions when I was the one who spaced-out and felt panicked childhood cries throughout my body?
“In an ideal world, Henry. Not like this. We cannot survive this choice if it becomes a baby. I would love it. I could never give it up if I carried it for even a few more weeks. This will destroy me. Being a single parent to the son I love now has nearly broken me. This could very well destroy your family, too—you know it’s true… I can only do this now, in the next week or so, not later. Please help make arrangements, however you can. Have you been able to ask around?”
There was not much room to pace in my small apartment. My shepherd-mix, Chip, sidled into the corner behind the kitchen table, out from underfoot. A counter separated the kitchen from the living area, which was only a couch and chair and walls of books stacked on boards and bricks. My second-story window overlooked a neighborhood of unfenced back yards, gardens, and an alley. Distant sounds of construction buzzed. Coffee percolated on the stove in my glass Corning coffee pot. I removed two cups from the cupboard, found some sugar for Henry.
“I heard about a licensed practical nurse for $250,” he said. “She will come to you. She’ll call first.” He sat down at the Formica table. “Shall I give her your phone number?”
“Yes, make the arrangement and have her call me.”
I appeared sure of myself, fearless. My terror felt far away. I was learning that I always appeared fearless when I dissociated my terror.
The presiding judge sentenced me to three days in jail plus probation until the fines were paid. I wondered what they would monitor while my probation lasted. My parking habits? They noted in their report my disregard for authority.
Everything converged around spring break. On Tuesday, a brown paper bag of herbs for tea was dropped off at my door. I brewed and drank all the tea, just as Henry’s contact told me to on the phone. She would come Friday, and I was to report for jail the following Monday.
I took Adam down to the Bay Area to stay at my mother’s for spring break, the best I could manage without telling anyone what was going on. My family had moved to an unused priest’s rectory in downtown San Mateo where my mother was licensed for infant day-care and took in babies to supplement their income. Even though I had never lived in that house, I couldn’t walk into it without instantly cowering. The untended babies’ cries triggered my terror followed by numbness and “going away.” Dissociation was activated before I could even say hello.
It seemed like an existential absurdity that my mother was licensed for child-care, that she could protect other peoples’ children better than her own. My predicament was complex, and I depended on my five younger sisters to help look after my son in my absence. I knew they would be available, watching out and playing with Adam.
Friday. I answered the knock at my door to greet a heavy, middle-aged black woman in a stained white uniform, a baggy sweater-jacket, and sensible shoes. Her hair was slicked close to her head. She came directly from her regular job; she carried a beat-up leather satchel, larger than a briefcase. She looked tired. She scanned my modest apartment. She looked me over.
“Did you make the tea from the dried leaves I sent? Did you drink it the way I said? Did you bleed?” she asked as she removed her jacket.
“Yes, yes, and no bleeding yet,” I told her. I didn’t know her name and she didn’t know mine. I might have still been able to change my mind, even as we spoke, as she draped her jacket over the back of a chair, even as she washed up. It didn’t occur to me. I knew my choices, that I was choosing my own life.
“You have a baby, Child?” she asked, noting Adam’s things, his toys, his bed.
I relaxed immediately when I spoke of Adam. “Yes. He’s two. He’s at his grandma’s. It’s too quiet without him.” I didn’t tell her he was the only reason I was still alive.
She washed her hands in the kitchen, directed me to the bedroom, told me to take off my pants, to lie down on the towel at the edge of the bed, to spread my knees. Maybe closing my eyes would have been easier, but I had to watch, even though almost no light filtered through the cheap woven curtains. Sounds of kids playing in the neighbor’s backyard emphasized the silence.
“Just relax, Child,” she said evenly. "Loosen your muscles.” There were gloves on her hands. “Good, the tea did something at least. Your cervix is opening real good.”
I smelled an antiseptic odor, like Betadine and rubbing alcohol, and I felt the contrast of the cold catheter against my warm body as she pushed the ropey pink tube inside me, deeper and deeper.
I detached. I put my desperation aside. I put my anger aside. I noticed my fists, my white knuckles, and I put my fear aside. All I felt was curiosity; how did this work? I'd never heard of catheters for terminating pregnancies. I realized I’d never heard of anything else either; I'd heard of nothing.
“All done,” she announced. “Lie flat for awhile. Twenty minutes. I’m leaving some more tea. Be sure to drink it up. It’ll help with the contractions. You’ll probably lose it in twenty-four hours, and the catheter will come out on its own. You’ll bleed like a heavy period for three or four days. It’s all over, Child.” She bunched up her gloves, washed her hands, put on her jacket. “I’ll see myself out.”
I had questions, but it was over so quickly and she was gone.
Maryann insisted I spend Saturday night at her house. Her kids were at her mother’s in Marysville for spring break and her daughter Christi’s bed was mine if I wanted it. The weekend was a blur. In a delirium I stumbled back and forth from bedroom to bathroom, bleeding, using up boxes of pads. I wondered where Maryann and Ray were as I lay on their bathroom tile floor, hugging its coolness to my face for relief. My skin was clammy, my consciousness cloudy. Blood poured from me. I thought I heard voices, Maryann and Ray in another room talking, remotely, then everything faded. Oh, lovely, I thought, I’m bleeding to death in my friend’s house and someone will find me when I don’t wake up, probably on the bathroom floor. Hallucinatory images floated in and out: Adam hiding my car keys, Ray reading a poem about death to me, Maryann joking, Henry smiling. Hours later, I somehow made it off the bathroom floor. The catheter passed, and I discarded it. On Sunday, I awakened in Christi’s bed feeling weak, bleeding less. I wondered if it was over. Christi’s mattress was ruined. I drank some orange juice and drove home.
Monday morning, I insisted, “I’m fine, I’m really fine,” when Maryann dropped me off for my three-day jail sentence. My color was bleached. I held onto the counter to steady myself as I reported in. Someone searched me. Two uniformed policemen took me down a long corridor, through double locked thick steel doors, up an elevator to a holding area where I was left with a uniformed woman. The steel bars, the locking steel doors that clanged shut behind us when my armed escorts left, were intense. My fear was still dissociated. The matron had a clipboard; she was all business checking me in. She confirmed my identity. I was still standing, feeling faint, and I perceived a gush of blood just as she handed me a change of clothing.
“I think I’m having a miscarriage,” I whispered.
“What did you say?” Suddenly her demeanor snapped alert. She picked up her walkie-talkie and said something indistinguishable.
“Miscarriage,” I said faintly.
She pulled a chair over for me to sit. “How long you been bleeding? How far along are you?”
I told her and tried to stand, to take the gray dress to change into. She looked wavy to me. The floor was moving. My palms were damp. I sat again.
Paramedics arrived with a gurney. “Honey, you’ll be serving your time in County Hospital, if I’m not mistaken.”
They handcuffed my wrists together when I was strapped on the gurney for the ambulance ride to the hospital. In a fog, I noticed how ludicrous it was. A child part of me thought, “Whee! This is what it’s like to ride in an ambulance with the siren on.” At the hospital, people touched me, examined me, moved me around. I felt my self splitting apart. When I was finally in my hospital bed, the handcuffs were removed. A policeman was stationed outside my hospital room, on guard. Someone explained to me that since the hospital was a County facility, my time there would count the same as jail days served. I felt I had only a thin grip on reality; things were unreal, bizarre. I fell asleep.
I awakened to harsh voices, men in white questioning me.
“What did you do? Tell us what you did!”
“Have you tried to abort this baby? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Just tell us what you did, then we can help you."
“What are you talking about? Did I miscarry?”
“We don’t think so. We think it’s still implanted. Did you see any tissue pass?”
“I don't know…There was so much blood. What would it look like?”
“It would look white, like a clump of white tissue. The size of your baby fingernail. Have you seen anything like that?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“By law, we are not allowed to stop your bleeding, to give you a D&C, as long as there is any chance you’re still pregnant. Do you understand? We have to let you bleed and watch. If you pass tissue, we can give you a D&C.”
Everyone’s hands were tied. We were all handcuffed, I thought, as I dropped back off to sleep. The uniformed police guard remained outside my door. Later, I would replay those days as if I were the victim of outside forces before I began to understand that in a roundabout way, I was following my mother’s example. I was my own victim. Unlike her, I worked, I made all my own decisions, and I didn’t depend on a husband as she did. My mother had sex with only one man in her life, through her fifteen pregnancies, two miscarriages, thirteen children, my father’s violence, and her total dependence on him. Heading out alone in the opposite direction from her, I came right back around to this: victim of myself, bleeding-out, dangerously close to orphaning my son, arrested for parking tickets that littered the floor of my car with my irresponsibility, and I still had not taken charge of my life. My “independence” was disabling, and my choices were reckless. Like my mother, I was a victim, the one thing I had vowed to prevent.
They always started with, “What did you do?” when they woke me. I always denied everything. By Tuesday night, it was clear I would not make it without blood transfusions. As the donor blood dripped into my veins, my cramping intensified and tissue was passed. The MD resident who was called immediately inquired, “Tell me what you did!”
I couldn’t see the name on his name tag. In my mind, I called him Dr. Sauerkraut. He looked like a teenager, slightly younger than I was at twenty, although I knew he must be older, this doctor-in-training with his hand up my vagina. “What did you do? Tell me what you did!” he demanded with an urgency at once accusatory and demeaning. He exuded disapproval of me, of my life.
Dr. Sauerkraut poked around. It shouldn’t be so difficult, I thought, I was emaciated, my ribs and my pelvic bones protruded; he should be able to easily find what he was looking for. Maybe he was punishing me. Sauerkraut said, “Okay. We’ll scrape it right now.” He gave me a condescending look. “No anesthesia. You don’t need meds.” What I heard was, someone like you doesn’t deserve meds.
In the O.R., I watched from somewhere above as the boy-doctor scraped my womb and a second unit of donor blood dripped slowly into my veins. I felt nothing as a primal voice decided to be heard and an anguished keening burst from my throat. It went on and on.
Sauerkraut peered over his surgical mask. “Do you have pain?”
“No,” I answered. I felt nothing. My pain was somewhere else, although I wouldn’t have admitted to pain even if I felt it.
Sauerkraut was right, I thought, I should be dead. If my mother had loved me, I would not have been born either. My keening redoubled. I saw and heard myself from off to the side, a little above.
From the walls, faces of girls and women beyond time and memory pushed out and took form right in front of me. Moving closer, my delusions cradled and held me. A howling cry from I-don’t-know-where broke free, wailing, and the walls and the faces whispered to me, something in the language of lamentation.
Later, in an unlikely serendipity when I was discharged from the hospital, I came upon a copy of the Desiderata on a poster behind a bathroom door. It was the first time in my life I read the words you have a right to be here. I was alone when I read those words. I took them in and understood. I had a right to be here: a revelation that astonished and bewildered me. I sat in that bathroom and repeated that sentence over and over to myself with wonder. I have a right to be here. Imagine that. I am a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; I have a right to be here.
That right didn’t depend on anyone else, on anyone’s acceptance of me, on how many books I sold, how many babies I made, on pleasing anyone, on paid or unpaid parking fines. Before I knew that in my deepest self, I really didn’t know it. I'd had no idea I had an actual right to be here, to be alive, to make my own way, to stand on my own, support my son – all of it, any of it. I was sliding by, hoping no one would notice my life.
When I read the Desiderata that first time, I noticed I didn’t believe I had that right.
My father had the right to my life.
Danny had the right to my life, and he died. So I was… what.
Who had the right to my life? Friendly strangers? Who?
One sentence, I have a right to be here, began something, planted a seed. Maybe saved my life.
Maryann and Ray believed I was celebrating my twenty-third birthday. No one knew I was finally twenty-one in June when we broke out the Scotch at their house and Maryann whooped, “We just love you!” We drank to that. Henry’s friendship had unexpectedly deepened as we drew physically apart after our ordeal. This was good-bye to all of us for Henry, who hugged us and left.
The book sales office was closing, and Maryann and Ray and I would all flee Sacramento at the same time, in different directions, dropping in and out of each other’s lives for a few more years. We would never have predicted the international literary stature later achieved by Ray Carver, although it wasn’t surprising.
It turned out we were each at our own personal crossroads. I had read my worn copy of Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work from cover to cover and decided to move to Oregon because of the Providence Montessori School in Portland. Adam was already enrolled to begin in the fall. I might not have the final say about whether I lived or died, but I could choose to deepen my engagement in Adam’s life, to not allow him to be emotionally orphaned. My son and I could make a new start together in a new city.
Maryann likes to remind me that I used to say, “It’s time to fall in love again,” at such times. I don’t remember saying that, but she swears it’s true. At the time, below all the inner commotion of voices I silenced with alcohol and men, I wanted a new beginning, to claim the right to my life.
Catherine Klatzker's nonfiction stories and essays have appeared in The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Emrys Journal, Tiferet Journal, and are forthcoming in mental health anthologies from In Fact Books and Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective. She was a Ragdale Foundation writing resident and won Tiferet Journal's 2014 first prize in nonfiction. Catherine is a recently retired pediatric ICU RN, and she has coordinated mindfulness retreats for ten years for professional health caregivers coping with death. "No Less Than the Trees and the Stars" is excerpted from her memoir-in-progress, Reunion: Gathering My Selves Together. More can be found at catherine.klatzker.com