Published on July 14th, 2022 | by Juniper Fitzgerald


For Ethel

The truth is, it was hard to have an abortion.  

When I was younger, my grandmother told me to use a flyswatter to kill a bug. I’d never killed a bug on purpose before. But I did it, then.  

It was so tiny. 

I was broken-hearted because I thought I’d committed some kind of murder. I dug a grave for the deceased bug and had a funeral. No one attended but me.   

There is so much life that can happen to a person; there is so much complexity. You’re a child having a funeral for a dead bug and then, in the blink of an eye, you’re a drug addict, living in a warehouse where old refrigerators make closets for the clothes you never wear, anyway. Because you don’t wear many clothes. You are either showing your tits on stage or you’re too fucked up to leave the makeshift computer room where Polaroids tell all the secrets of your older lover who lives with you there. Women in high-waisted pants and big hair, and all that.     

So much life—isn’t that what we’re talking about? Life?   

My grandmother, Ethel, gave birth to a stillborn. Paul was his name; she named him. November 25th, 1952. And despite being Native American, my grandmother marked herself as “white” on the death certificate, and likely because she wanted to escape the same fate as her mother— forced institutionalization.  

My grandmother demanded a funeral for her baby, which was unprecedented at the time, especially for someone who was trying to hide. The Catholic Church does not recognize stillborns as human, and so theses babies’ souls are meant to travel aimlessly across the universe until God takes pity on them.  

But my grandmother was persistent. So while my tiny mother stuck her hands into the ashtrays belonging to the priests at Boys Town, cleaning out the filth of patriarchs and all their other addictions, and while my baby uncle, in the parlance of his day, screamed “Shoot that Jap,” my grandfather carried a tiny, white casket through a Nebraska blizzard because my grandmother had insisted.  

The chickens on their farm huddled together and the horses went inside; my ancestors hid in the hay, then, not knowing what it meant to have such a small box buried in the earth.  

There is an old sunflower on the wall of the clinic, but its colors have faded. I think it used to be a marker of something happy, pasted on the side of the building like that. But now the building is in disrepair. The concrete cracks and the yellows of the flower have turned gray and speak to profound abandonment.

Yesterday, I fell into such a moral conflict that I threw myself at a dead fish washed up on the muddy shore of the Mississippi river. Bloated bodies and plucked out eyes; I feel like this decay is happening to me.  

He tells me to stop being so emotional.  

I save up ten thousand dollars from stripping because I want to travel the world. I have a one-way ticket to Ireland, and I know that I will hop around, seeing everything there is to see in this world because I’m not afraid of anything on this planet. I will start with an English speaking country and then move on.     

I go to Chicago instead and buy meth off the street. It makes my nose bleed in the bathroom, and I am still awake when it’s Easter morning. Like a Prayer plays at the gay bar and I know that this is all I will ever need. At least, I think so.

Photo by Di Maitland on Unsplash

I go back to Nebraska and find my lover, all tangled up in weeds. He lights a fire and I tell him that I can’t get pregnant because I do too many drugs.  

He obliges.  

I am 22 years old and he is 43 years old when I fling myself at that dead fish. He doesn’t seem to see. 

The sunflower fades into the concrete and the protesters throw things at me, call me “Mom.”  

Mom. You’re a mother now. Mom. Mom? 

What I remember most is my skin turning grey and my stomach protruding because of infection. What I remember most is asking the doctor to see what came out of me and marveling at it— just the tip of a pencil.  

What I remember most is saying “It’s just the tip of pencil! Just the tip of a pencil!”  

It was so tiny.  

That’s why people throw things at me? That’s why people throw things at me.  

The truth is, it was hard to have an abortion.  

Not because I wouldn’t make the same choice again. But because it’s so fucking hard to live as a deeply empathic person who is nonetheless told that she has no morals and no appreciation for life. That is, I can mourn the loss of something impossibly small while recognizing the necessity of losing it.  

I also know that my grandmother and I did not define the life inside of us in the same way; that does not make either of us more moral than the other. 

I knew I was pregnant the second time when I awoke to a voice saying, “I am here.” 

I was alone in a Las Vegas apartment on Lorilynn Avenue just off Maryland Parkway. I jumped out of bed and watched the desert light peak over the horizon. Deep blues turned to purples and pinks and I knew. 

In birth, my daughter’s heart stopped. My amniotic fluid dried up. I asked for a mirror so I could see her enter this world and yet, I was afraid. I was afraid that my baby was dead inside of me.  

Like I deserved it.   

My dead grandmother was the only person in the room — all dark-skinned and full of sorrow, with black ringlets and memories of Appalachia.   

My daughter emerged anyway. Determined to be in this world.  

And while I can’t explain it as well as I’d like, I do know that there is synchrony in both mourning death and celebrating life, however we choose to define it.

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About the Author

Juniper Fitzgerald is a mother, former sex worker, and academic based in the Midwest. Her children’s book, How Mamas Love Their Babies, was published by Feminist Press in 2018 and was the first to feature a sex-working parent. She contributed to We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival and her memoir, Enjoy Me Among My Ruins, is out now. She holds a PhD in sociology.

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