Denise Roessle, author of Second-Chance Mother, Shares a Beautiful and Heartbreaking Guest Post
Whenever I look through my high school photo album, I linger over the snapshot of Shelley and me taken in front of her house the summer after graduation. The colors have faded over the years, but the deep green of the palms against a brilliant blue sky is vivid in my memory, and I can still sense the warmth of gentle breezes fragrant with salt and plumeria blooms. The setting is unmistakably Hawaii, and Shelley and I, classic 1968: blond and tan in our stylish mini-dresses, the telltale bulges of early pregnancy thus far absent from our slender frames.
We were girls waiting to become women, my friends and I — eighteen years old, but girls nonetheless — on the verge of grown-up lives that we could not yet envision. Raised on “The Donna Reed Show” and “Father Knows Best” by mothers who blushed at the mere mention of sex, we were plunged unsuspecting into the era of free love, leaving us suspended somewhere between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.”
Birth control was irrelevant, since we weren’t supposed to be “doing it” — in the road or anywhere else. We knew about condoms since almost every boy in school bragged about carrying one in his wallet. As for “The Pill,” all we knew was that it was only prescribed to married women. Abortion was little more than a concept, a dangerous last resort performed overseas or illegally in the back rooms of sympathetic or unscrupulous doctors.
But none of that mattered. We wanted to be in love and when our boyfriends said, “It’s okay because we love each other,” we believed. As for any consequences, surely they would never happen to us.
Three in our tight-knit group of six got pregnant that summer.
Summer Heat Boy and Girl Meet
I was the first. I met John in Waikiki while walking along the strip with my friends after seeing a movie. He pulled up on his motorcycle, his eyes sparkling above a broad smile and his muscles rippling through his polo shirt.
He looked straight at me. “Want a ride?”
I had never been singled out in a crowd and the invitation was too intoxicating to resist. “Sure,” I said and hopped onto the back of the seat.
“Oh baby, yeah!” I heard Shelley call out, as I wrapped my arms around his sturdy middle and we sped away into the shimmering lights of Kalakaua Avenue.
John was a twenty-two-year-old Marine, stationed at the nearby air base. Compared to the skinny, shaggy-haired boys I had dated in high school, he was a “real man” — clean-cut, charming and self-assured, a shoo-in for parental approval. We were on our fifth date when he spoke the words I’d longed for during a passionate make-out session in the backseat of the cavernous Buick he’d borrowed from a friend.
“I know it’s wrong to be doing this before we’re married,” he murmured, his breath hot in my ear. “But I can’t help myself. I’m falling in love with you.”
“I love you, too,” I whispered back.
With lovemaking venues limited to cars and beaches, we had only had sex a few times when I realized — vomiting into the toilet after just a whiff of scrambled eggs — that I couldn’t remember when I’d had my last period. I didn’t even have to pee in a cup for the doctor to confirm that I was nearly three months pregnant.
Summer Dreams Ripped at the Seams
At first, John was delighted and promised we would get married. I tried not to worry when he kept postponing our clandestine plans to visit City Hall. By the time he announced that he had changed his mind, that he did not love me after all, I was almost four months along.
Only then did I confess my condition to my parents. As furious as they were at my disgraceful behavior, my delay in telling them came in a close second, since this eliminated the option of sending me to Japan — the closest place to Hawaii where abortions were performed legally. Their top priority became keeping my pregnancy secret, which meant getting me out of town before I started showing. My father found a lawyer in California who arranged private adoptions. I would fly to Los Angeles, and live with an uninvolved family, exchanging light housework and babysitting for my room and board. After the baby was born, he or she would be placed with a deserving couple on the opposite coast.
“It’s for the best,” Dad said, ignoring my pleas to stay and find a way to keep my child. “For both of you.”
My son would get the two-parent home he deserved. I would reemerge a virgin, get married, and have children I could keep.
Summer Dreams Slipping Away
My parents agreed to let my friends take me to the airport and I spent the evening before my red-eye flight with Shelley. By then she had learned that she, too, was pregnant.
“Will Mike marry you?” I asked.
“He wants to. But I’m not ready to settle down. You know?” She began to hum her favorite song: Just kicking down the cobble stones, lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy.
My eyes filled with tears and I wiped them away before Shelley could see.
The airplane cabin was quiet and dark, except for the emergency lights and a sprinkling of overheads where the readers sat, but I didn’t sleep. I hoped I wouldn’t wake the snoring businessman seated next to me each time I switched my light back on to take another look at the notes and gifts that the friends who had come to see me off had pressed into my hands. They were all I had to ground me, to keep from feeling more forsaken and punished than I already did: a turquoise teddy bear, a dried orchid pressed into lavender paper, a copy of Dr. Spock’s “Baby and Child Care.”
“I think I’m pregnant, too,” Marcy had said breathlessly when she’d slipped me the paperback.
A few weeks later, she sent me a photo from her white-lace Catholic wedding. I received a letter from Shelly telling me that she and her mother had just returned from Japan where she’d had an abortion.
Once I delivered and relinquished my baby, I was supposed to move on and forget. When I could not, I thought there must be something wrong with me. I wandered aimlessly through my twenties, falling in and out of love, desperate to find a man and recapture what I had lost. But beneath my longing for children loomed nagging feelings of worthlessness. I was, after all, the worst kind of mother: the kind who could hand her baby over to strangers. Certain that no one would understand, I did not disclose these feelings, not even to my closest friends. Instead, I stuffed my emotions and rallied the capable, well-adjusted woman who covered for the wounded young girl.
Shelley and I lost touch for a time, and only later did I learn that she had followed an equally impulsive course. While our peers were getting married and starting families, we’d drifted from place to place, in and out of college, jobs and relationships, neither of us marrying until we were in our thirties.
Wonder What She’s Doing Now
When we traveled together to Hawaii for our twenty-fifth high school reunion, I learned that over the years she’d had three more abortions — the last two, after it was legal in the U.S. If my face revealed the shock I felt, she didn’t appear to notice. As she continued, listing each of the boyfriends and why they hadn’t stayed together, I remembered how afraid I had been of an unplanned pregnancy and the possibility of losing another child — so much so that I never again had sex without some method of birth control.
She spoke about being unable to get pregnant when at last she was ready. I expressed my regret at having given up what had turned out to be my only child. Sitting in the same Shakey’s Pizza Parlor we had frequented as confused but hopeful teenagers, we assessed our lives and the paths we’d chosen that had left us both childless.
“Rick and I have been trying to get pregnant for almost ten years,” she said. Her blond hair, now mousy with age, hung around her face as she looked down at the table. “We’ve been through all the tests and the doctors say there’s no reason that we can’t conceive.”
“I never even tried to have another baby.” I turned away to stare out the plate glass window into the night and reflected on my unconscious decision that I didn’t deserve to be a mother. “By the time I met Henry, I felt like it was too late. Or that it just wasn’t meant to be.”
However unintentionally, each of us in her own way had extinguished her prospects for motherhood.
Like any woman who relinquishes her child for adoption, I wanted to believe what I had been assured: that my child would have a better life. When Joshua found me, almost twenty-six years after his birth, I discovered within just a few weeks that this hadn’t been the case. Unable to cope with his behavior problems, his adoptive parents gave up on him at age thirteen, sending him away with only an eighth-grade education. He spent the next few years in institutions and group homes, before escaping onto the streets of New York and into a life of drugs and crime. When an early marriage failed, he and his young wife had surrendered their two sons — a newborn and a toddler — to adoption.
Faced with undeniable signs that my son was a very troubled young man, my initial joy turn into grief and remorse. But I couldn’t disappoint the family and friends who reveled in our good fortune. Again, instead of confiding in them, I fought the demons alone.
Shelley was the only one of my high school friends who didn’t respond when I announced the news of my reunion with Josh. Our communications were reduced to little more than Christmas card one-liners. We were oblivious to one another’s anguish.
A few days before her fiftieth birthday, she took her life with over-the-counter sleep aids. There were no warning signs, her husband said. The handwritten note she left provided no explanation, only her belief that she was “going to a better place.”
Her words — a better place — echoed in my head. I’d been reflecting on “better” for decades.
Whenever I had pondered the outcome of that summer of love, I had counted Marcy the most fortunate, and myself the least. Marcy got what I had wanted: the man she loved and the chance to raise their son, and later, two daughters. Shelley got what I had been promised: a fresh start. She didn’t have memories of her baby growing in her belly, or crying herself to sleep while his body twisted beneath her heart because she couldn’t risk loving him. Her dreams weren’t haunted by the gurgle of her newborn’s first cry and the swish of the delivery room door as the nurse rushed him away. She didn’t wonder what her child looked like, what he was doing, if he was happy and well, if he was alive.
In the darkest days of my reunion with Josh, I too had grappled with thoughts of giving up: on our relationship, and indeed on myself. Was I stronger than Shelley? Had her pain been greater than mine? At least I’d had the chance to know my son, while she was left with nothing. There was no way to know if her despondency had been rooted in the loss of motherhood. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if she had reached out, or if I had voiced my feelings and encouraged her to share her own.
That night, after I learned of her suicide, I opened my album to the picture from that carefree day before our lives were forever changed. I looked into my friend’s young face, and swore to her that I would stop keeping secrets and muster the courage to speak the truth. I would no longer hide my pain from the people who loved me.
I only wish Shelley hadn’t hidden hers.
About the Author Denise Roessle
Originally from California, Denise went to high school in Kailua, Hawaii. She attended Stephens College in Missouri and University of Alaska, then graduated from UCLA in English/Journalism. A professional copywriter and graphic designer, she is the former owner of a marketing communications firm in Northern California.
After reuniting with her adult son in 1996, she began writing on this more personal topic. Her articles have appeared in Adoptive Families and Adoption Today magazines, as well as adoption-focused organization’s newsletters: the Post Adoption Center for Education and Research (PACER) and the American Adoption Congress (AAC). She facilitated a PACER support group for birthparents, adoptees and adoptive parents from 1999 until 2005, and continues to be active in the national post-adoption community.
Second-Chance Mother is Denise’s first book. She is a member of the Story Circle Network, the National Association of Memoir Writers, and the Society of Southwestern Authors. Her essays and short stories have earned awards in writing contests. Second-Chance Mother is available in print and for Kindle at AMAZON and BARNES & NOBLE.COM
She and her husband live in Southern Arizona.