“It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”
Your first love has no beginning or end. Your first love is not your first love, and it is not your last. It is just love. It is one with everything.
–Thich Nhat Hanh
I fell in love at 15.
His name was M.
I never imagined then, that his name and mine would be so far apart.
For once, we were as one.
I remember the very first time I saw M. as he peeked out behind the curtain at play practice. I was in the cast and he was on the crew. M. made me laugh. His mother made the costumes. She said I was a spoiled doctor’s daughter when I was pressed her for a refitting. I didn’t want my breasts to show.
That was the fall. In the spring M. swaggered across the cafeteria from the junior side to the sophomore side and sat across from me. As if on cue, everyone else jumped up and left me there alone on that long table while M. said, “Do you want to?” with no other explanation.
“Hmm? What do you think?” M. kept on, amusing me his unanswerable questions and his warm, smiling eyes, before expouding, “You and me… Friday night?”
I don’t remember saying “Yes.” Maybe I said, “OK.” I had had two boyfriends before M, but it never felt like this.
Two years older than I, M. scooped me up in his humor and self-confidence and I felt light and safe. He taught me how to kiss, how to hug; he taught me what it was to be adored and deeply loved– at a time when I was searching for both.
We grew up together in the light of this gift. “Don’t worry about sex,” he’d whisper, “I can wait. I can wait forever.”
Six months passed and M. turned 18. He was an adult while I was still considered a child. I knew the laws. I was a bright young woman. We were both good students. He was a runner on the track and cross country teams. We each worked more than one job in the summers. We went out for fancy dinners. We were on the top of our game. Mrs. M. said that I would ruin his grades, but I never did.
In December, I turned 16 and in February on the floor of his mother’s sewing room- or did we move to the couch?–I whispered, “Now.”
I had to repeat it more than once and then explain what I meant and assure M. before he would proceed.
Flush and trembling, we “attempted” intercourse. “Love” was something we’d been making all along. It didn’t quite work. M. wondered if there was something “wrong” with me anatomically, and suggested I ask my mother. I laughed at his ludicrous suggestion, imagining what I’d say, “Hey, Mom, M. and I were trying to have sex in Mrs. M’s sewing room, and he wondered if the uteruses in our family were tilted or something because he had trouble getting in?”
The only “conversation” my mother and I had about sex was a drive-by in the kitchen months later when she spewed, “Do you know the teenage pregnancy rate!” I assumed it was a rhetorical question and kept moving.
My mother had gotten pregnant at 19. He was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed life guard. They’d already gone their separate ways by the time she found out. Her Irish Catholic parents sent her to a home for unwed girls in Camden, NJ until it was all over–and the baby was given up for adoption.
She told this story to me and M., years later, when I was 19. We were in the kitchen.
By the end of February, M. and I had sex figured out without consulting my mother; and by mid-spring, I missed my period.
We had learned a bit about birth control at our Catholic highschool, but that was for “sex,” not for being in love. I can’t remember if we were trying to “be careful.” I think we avoided the middle of the month when I would be fertile– but I’m Irish.
Within weeks of missing my period, I began to feel nauseous. I can’t remember much more than the abject terror over what might be happening inside. I was the oldest in my family of 6 girls. I was the oldest in a generation of Salasin females– reminded, again and again, to be an example for the others. My achievements, my everything, were lauded above them. “See how Kelly does this. See how Kelly does that.”
Raised by a sleuth of adults in both parents’ extended families, my mother claims I was thirty at age 2. And by age 7, I was permitted to accompany my grandmother and her girlfriends on women-only outings because “Kelly was so mature.”
Ironic that at 16, perfect “Kelly” was now sitting at Planned Parenthood waiting for the results of her urine test. You couldn’t buy those at the dollar store then–or even a pharmacy.
An older woman whose strength reminded me of my grandmother invited me into her office and told me what I already knew. She wanted to talk to me about options, about adoption, but I cut her off and asked her to make me the appointment. I wanted it to be over as quick as possible– like it never happened.
M. drove me to Atlantic City. The clinic was above a florist. I remember the waiting room, carpeted, and a large desk in front of a door into the lab. I remember sitting in the narrow hallway outside the lab in those plastic bucket seats waiting for the results of my pregnancy-confirming blood draw with a sleuth of other girls.
I remember the pre-op room and the tiny little cubicle off of it where I had to go just before the procedure. A kind woman sat across from me in the dark asking if I was sure I wanted to go through with this. I was, and I was repulsed that I was being treated kindly for what I was about to do. M. thought I was brave, but the truth was that I was despicable.
I remember being wheeled into the operating room. The doctor and his assistants were jovial and polite. I counted backwards and I woke later laughing– cruel affects from the anesthesia in a room filled with others on stretchers.
Before I could exit this place and never look back, there was another room with low circular table upon which sat juice and perfectly round store-bought cookies. This is what they serve in Sunday School, I thought. Another kind woman insisted I take some– for the sugar– after I refused her attempts at counseling.
Thus, self-contempt was thrust into the mix of love and sex in my relationship with M. We were at the drive-in, on a late spring evening before we had made it through the six-week waiting period– when we couldn’t wait any longer.
Our young bodies raged with hormones seeking familiar expression. I needed his love and connection and absolution. Afterward, we both felt a self-loathing we had never known. I had taken a risk with my healing body that I had sworn not to. I could no longer trust passion.
In less than three months, the familiar nauseous feeling returned and my breasts swelled like a mother’s instead of a teen’s.
I was working at the hospital in the lab that summer, riding back and forth with my physician father. The drive from the island to the mainland created a special place of connection between us– one that we would never quite reclaim. Typically, too busy to sit, my father would even join me now and again for lunch in the hospital’s “Cheery Corner.” I had grilled cheeses. On the rides home we’d share a candy bar and conversation. And yet, there was an entire world between us.
Except for our closest friends, M. and I never told another soul about the pregnancies.
One morning at work, that secrecy was threatened. A man with dark hair approached my desk at the hospital, and asked how I was doing. He had a strange sincerity about him and then explained that on weekends he worked in the Planned Pregnancy lab.
My face must have frozen causing him to abruptly turn away. He never said another word to me that whole summer. I could hardly breath whenever I saw him, but decades later, I wish I could thank him for such a tenderness. I wish I could have opened to his support.
It’s hard to distinguish one blackened memory from the other, but what I do remember about my second time in Atlantic City is that there were complications– something that required I return for periodic check ups to ensure my health. I also remember that M. had packed a picnic lunch and that we went to the park afterward, completely stripped of any remaining innocence our lives had held.
My father had made an appointment for me to visit his Alma mater that weekend so despite my medical need for rest, I traveled to Philadelphia and walked across an entire campus. M. hovered over me that day and I can see us there on the landing up four flights of stairs at the Villanova library, my parents ahead of us, looking down, asking what was the matter with me.
In that moment, I realized how far apart my childhood and I had become.
M. and I were separated in the fall when he went off to college. He had to live off campus and work to be able to afford school. On weekends, when his parents expected him to be studying, he would sneak home to see me. I had PE at the end of the day on Fridays, and in the locker room, I would belt out, “I have got love, ove… on my mind… I’ve got love… on my mind.”
After my second abortion, I had returned to the Planned Pregnancy Center and gained a solid and practical birth-control know how. Assessing the pregnancy statistics and other variables, I had decided on a diaphram with spermicide. M. and I never again had unprotected sex– and after two unwanted pregnancies, sex never quite felt the same between us– at least not for me.
The damage didn’t end there. On one bleak mid-winter night, M. reserved a hotel room for us in Cape May so that we could be together without his parents knowing he was in town. When I think of that room overlooking the ocean, I feel a chill inside me. We had come from a party where he had a lot to drink. As we got into bed in that dark, cold room, he raged at me with ugly words of condemnation.
It had been my choice to have the first abortion, not M’s. Raised a proper Catholic, he had wanted to get married. He had found an apartment and a job at the ACME, but I couldn’t bear that for either of us. I knew how important it was for him to rise out of this town and out of the blue-collar life his parents had known. I knew he would resent me and eventually leave or cheat. And there was no way I was ending up like my mother and grandmother, and there was no way I could face the “Salasin” family in that disgrace.
In these instances of hatred, I never defended myself against M. because he was right. I had been cold and calculating in my decision for abortion– as a matter of survival. I let him cry, and I resented him for it.
With that sharp edge thrust between us, we struggled to maintain our relationship through college. I became more and more independent, and he became more and more controlling and jealous. Ultimately what had once felt like a unique and sacred gift, became a source of anguish for us both. Despite my autonomy, he was the one who finally ended our 7 year first-love affair by falling in love with someone else–and not telling me until after he was engaged.
I’m not sure what it is about first loves that make them so demanding on the psyche. This letting go of M. and me took more than a decade. After sharing a depth of love that I have never felt again, he and I went years without seeing each other, even by chance.
It was 7 years later when he called. I was standing in my kitchen in Vermont, pregnant. He had heard that I had suffered two previous miscarriages and this news had excavated a depth of emotion inside of him that he hadn’t known since loving me.
On the phone, we shared the joy of our happy marriages and how closely we escaped the doom of remaining together. He told me about his daughters, and he offered his deep regret about our shared past and his concern that my miscarriages were a result of what happened between us. At 18, he felt the responsibility had been all his. He wished me the best with this pregnancy and checked in on me often that winter.
Those were dark days for me, days where I had to face the pain that I had never fully felt at 16. I remember confessing my abortions to my mother on the phone one afternoon, sobbing that I would never get to be a mother like her. Unlike me, both she and my younger sister had chosen adoption for their unwanted pregnancies and I admired them for that and wondered why I was so different.
I remember reliving both of my miscarriages during an energy session with a therapist. I realized that I had been punishing myself all these years for the abortions. The practitioner asked if I was “even” yet and through tears of self-forgiveness, I answered, “Yes.”
9 months later I gave birth to my first son.
Regrets? What would I do if I could back in time? Sadly, I would have chosen abortion again if faced with pregnancy at 16. What I would have differently is not have gotten pregnant. Armed with this wisdom, I spent my late teens and early twenties educating every woman I knew about birth control.
At 19, I found myself back at Planned Pregnancy peeing in a cup– the result of drunken stupidness with a man I would never want to marry. I knew if I was pregnant this time around, I couldn’t have another abortion. My best friend waited for me in the parking lot, and I came leaping out of the center with a prescription in my pocket. I wasn’t pregnant and this time I was going on the pill!
For years I kept my abortions secret– a hidden soiling on the cloak of my life. There were moments when I longed for absolution. In the months before I became pregnant with my first son, I sat across from a fellow teacher who very casually mentioned her own young abortion, and trembling inside, I was suddenly freed to do the same for mine.
Gradually, I told some of my sisters and cousins in at attempt to remove myself from the pedestal of family pride. This past week– thirty years from the first time I saw M.– I offered up my abortions in a conversation with a good friend, who to my surprise, was surprised.
I realized then that my abortions have become such a part of who I am– good and bad– that I no longer consider them “news” or even private.
The time had come, I realized, to write this story and send it off so that others might know that the good and bad in them is for all to see.
I write with deep love for that troubled 16 year old girl and with deep compassion for those who struggle with any aspect of their sexuality. It is a true but fragile gift that ought not be put in such young hands, but having been so, must be treasured and guided so that all might know the gift of love and making love for as many years as I have.
The fallout of my relationship with M. put me in the hands of my best friend and most patient lover, my husband Casey.
Twenty-three years into our relationship and I realize that we are one of those more than content middle-aged couples. (They still exist, don’t they?)
It is Casey’s trustworthiness and love that has enabled to reclaim all that was lost in my relationship with M.– my precious passion, my full sexuality, and my tender heart.
Is it a betrayal to our marriage that I write of the depth of my love for M.?
Is it a betrayal of motherhood, that I choose the right for abortion?
Is it a betrayal of the gift of life that I so easily took it?
My story and my learning is far from over. I know this because almost thirty years later, the word “abortion” chills and constricts me from the inside out; and I feel a familiar ache inside my pelvis. Approaching 45, I realize that although I have two sons, I have been pregnant six times.
I don’t have the answers to the questions of how love and abortion can live inside one woman, but I offer my unfolding path in the hope that it will warm and lighten your own.