University of Washington, Seattle
May 15, 1957
Dear Mother and Daddy,
I’m sorry you received the ambulance bill before I had a chance to let you know I’m okay. The drivers must have sent it airmail on the way to the hospital. Anyway, please don’t worry - it was just a mild case of stomach flu, and an intravenous drip restored me to life.
Dr. Rosenau, the professor I used to work for, has recovered fully as well ...
Nothing about the start of that morning set it apart from the countless other mornings which preceded it; no premonition warned me that this particular day marked a watershed in my life, and that in less than a month I would be gone forever from the university. Indeed, the morning was so unremarkable that I didn’t even bother to note the date, but it must have been some time in early May.
I awakened with a catchy tune running through my head, the title song from a Spanish movie called Marcelino Pan y Vino. I was eating breakfast, and on the hundredth replay, a sudden surge of nausea knocked my mental needle off the record. It wasn’t a slowly developing feeling of unease as I’d felt the day of Maldonado’s memorial service, but a violent spasm of vomiting. I bolted from the dining room into the small bathroom just off the reception desk at the main entrance. I didn’t even have time to raise the toilet seat. As I sank to my knees in front of the ceramic bowl, a torrent of undigested egg, toast and orange juice poured into the water. I retched a few more times, rinsed out my mouth and staggered to my room. Trembling and bathed in a cold sweat, I covered myself with a blanket and went to sleep.
The next few days I felt fine and I attributed my sickness to stomach flu. Another bout of nausea later in the week was far more serious, however; the vomiting didn’t stop immediately as it had before, but continued through the rest of the day until I was so weak I couldn’t get out of bed to go to the bathroom. I vomited into an empty coffee can. Occasionally someone knocked at the door, but I didn’t answer; the phone rang, but I didn’t have enough strength to lift the receiver.
There was nothing in my stomach but bile, just bitter greenish bile. I’d grope for the can beside my nightstand, vomit, and sink back against the pillow. This cycle repeated itself two or three times an hour until I was exhausted and my abdomen ached from the violent contractions.
Late that night the vomiting finally stopped, and I sank into a heavy sleep from which I didn’t awaken until David telephoned the following morning at nine. David had become worried when I'd neither stopped by his office nor phoned him, and said he'd been calling my room for hours without getting an answer. I told him I didn't feel well. It was Saturday, and by nine they'd already finished serving breakfast in the dining room; I asked him to take me to Manning’s. When he picked me, up I was pale and shaky, and I could tell by his shocked expression that my appearance worried him.
At the restaurant David sat staring at me with a look of concern. “Kate, is there something you’re hiding from me?”
I tried to make a joke of the situation. “Like Bette Davis in Dark Victory, soldiering on despite a fatal brain tumor? It’s nothing, just a touch of stomach flu.”
“You know what I mean.”
“My period started yesterday, if that’s what you’re getting at; it’s another reason why I’m a bit under the weather.”
This wasn't true, but David accepted my answer without comment and seemed reassured by my appetite as I wolfed down fried eggs, bacon, toast, waffles, and a slice of banana cream pie. I didn't tell him I hadn't eaten in 36 hours.
Again there were a few more normal days and my doubts were starting to vanish when the nausea – I was beginning to think of it as morning sickness – struck again. Dreading another all-night session of vomiting, I phoned the Student Health Center in the afternoon and they called an ambulance to take me to the campus hospital. The nurses put me in a four-bed ward with a girl in traction and another with bronchitis, and hooked me up to an intravenous drip for the next 24 hours because I was so badly dehydrated. Broken Leg kept prattling on about a short story she’d written – obviously plagiarized from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” – that had caused a sensation in her English class, while Bronchitis told us how she’d inherited her heavy ankles from her father’s plebian ancestors and her narrow wrists from her aristocratic mother. I hugged my misery to myself and turned to face the wall.
Two days later, when the hospital discharged me, I phoned Frank and asked him to drive me back to the residence hall. I told him I’d had the flu and was phoning him for a ride because I didn’t want to worry David.
During the next ten days I was hospitalized two more times. The doctors were puzzled; naturally they asked about my menstrual history, but I lied to them as I had lied to David. Finally, during my third stay, I confessed I might be pregnant to a young intern who seemed more sympathetic than the others. Several days later I received a bill from a Seattle laboratory, charging me for a pregnancy test on behalf of the University of Washington Student Health Center, a test I had neither authorized nor requested. No results, just a bill.
The same day the bill arrived Frank called me in the evening.
“How are you feeling?”
“Weak, otherwise ok. I’m studying like mad trying to make up for all the classes I’ve missed.”
“Do you have time to go out for a cup of coffee? I’d like to talk to you.”
I remembered David’s comment about Frank’s perspicacity and wondered if he’d guessed. “I’m so tired. Why don’t you come over here; I can fix us a cup of something and we can talk in the lounge downstairs.”
Frank dropped by around eight. I prepared a pot of tea and took it to a table in the small alcove by the window, the same table overlooking the garden where Norma and I had drunk after-dinner coffee before she moved out. How long ago that seemed.
“You’ve lost weight.”
“Yes, I’ve lost about ten pounds. Hard way to go on a diet.”
Frank glanced around the room, leaned toward me, and lowered his voice until it was barely more than a whisper. “David told me they admitted you to the Health Center, and I called this morning to find out how you were. The nurse who answered told me you’d checked out. She looked at your record and she said … she said ‘don’t worry about her, she’s just pregnant.'”
I looked at him, stunned, unable to say a word.
Frank paused for a moment and searched my face. “Is it true?”
“I think so.”
“Have you told David?”
“No, not yet. He must suspect by now, but I’ve tried to hide how ill I’ve been.”
“You’ve got to tell him; you can’t shoulder this burden alone. He’s worried sick about you. Do you know what you’re going to do?”
I shook my head. “Unless there’s a miracle, I’ll have to drop out of school and go home; I’ve missed too many classes. After that?” I shrugged. “I know you’re wondering if I’m going to have an abortion. That’s the easy way out, but I can’t bear the thought of killing David’s and my … baby. I remember your warning, when was it? Back in September? I guess you were right.”
“Kate, I didn’t come here to say ‘I told you so.’ I came to tell you that …if I weren’t already engaged to Kathleen … I’d ask you to marry me.”
I took the hand Frank held out to me and the tears poured down my cheeks. Fortunately, the lounge was nearly deserted.
“Thank you, Frank. That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
I made an appointment to see Dr. Libby. The scene in the waiting room was unchanged from the previous December, the same Boston fern, the same magazines, and the same pregnant women, only this time I was one of them. I waited my turn with none of the apprehension I’d felt months before; I knew the verdict even before the examination.
And I was right. “There is very little doubt you’re pregnant,” Dr. Libby announced coolly as he stripped the rubber gloves from his fingers. We discussed my situation and he offered to give me the names of a few Seattle abortionists, stressing that the law prevented him from performing the procedure himself. My head was whirling. I was afraid of an abortion; I kept thinking of the Charlotte’s fate in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, and how the heroine died horribly of an infected uterus. What I wanted was an end to the morning sickness so I could somehow finish spring quarter and have time to think.
Dr. Libby didn’t take the nausea too seriously, even when I told him about my protracted bouts of vomiting. Graham crackers, that was the remedy. If I ate a handful of graham crackers first thing on awakening, the morning sickness would disappear.
I installed a two-pound box of graham crackers on my nightstand and followed the doctor’s advice. For the remainder of the week I felt fine, but on Friday morning the familiar nausea returned in full force. As I’d done before, I phoned the Student Health Service, but this time they informed me they didn't provide services to pregnant students, and I would have to consult a private physician.
I knew David was thoroughly alarmed by my mysterious illness, and I thought of calling him to ask for help, but I rejected the idea. I couldn’t face telling him. Not yet.
The vomiting continued fitfully through the day and on into the night. The telephone rang and I didn’t answer. The bile stopped; I was vomiting blood now and there was a burning sensation in my stomach. For the first time I began to wonder if I was going to die, to simply waste away there in my room. Saturday morning, my hand and voice trembling, I phoned Dr. Libby. Realizing it was impossible for me to come to his office, he agreed to give me an injection at the dormitory; he arrived an hour later and looked annoyed, as though I was interrupting his golf game. The shot was so powerful that I was unconscious even before he left the room and when I awakened, to the persistent ringing of the phone, it was already early evening.
“Kate, where in God’s name have you been?” David sounded frantic. “I’ve called everywhere, Norma, Frank, Rosemary, the Health Center…no one’s seen you. I’ve been phoning your room every half hour since ten this morning.”
The effects of the shot hadn’t worn off; I knew my speech was slurred and it was difficult to collect my thoughts. “I’ve … been …sick. What … time is it?”
“Eight thirty. I’m coming right over to drive you to the Health Center.”
“No…they…won’t take me.”
“What do you mean they won’t take you? They have to take you.”
“I’m … I’ve…worn out my welcome,” I said with a forced laugh. “I’m so hungry. Could you … bring me … a hamburger .. and a milkshake? I … hope I can make it … downstairs. My head’s … still … swimming from…the shot.”
“What shot? Who gave you a shot?”
I realized I’d said more than I intended, and the game was up. “It was … Dr. Libby.”
There was a short pause. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Loud knocking awakened me. David must have given the food to one of the girls to deliver, I thought. I was about to call for her to come in when I remembered the door was locked. I staggered to the door and opened it to find David standing on the threshold with what looked like a physician’s bag in his hand. David and the room started to recede, like objects seen through the wrong end of a telescope, and I slumped to the floor.
When I regained consciousness, I was lying on my bed and David was sitting in a chair beside me, rubbing my hands.
“You had me frightened. What did Libby give you?”
“I don’t know … it was something in a disposable syringe. He threw it away in the … waste basket.”
I gestured in the direction of my desk and David started rummaging through the trash; he pulled out an empty syringe and a small cardboard box.
“No wonder you can’t stand up. This is enough morphine to knock out an elephant.” He opened the leather case at his feet and took out a brown paper bag. “For you, one hamburger, one milkshake and a large box of French fries. Eat first and then we’re going to have a talk.”
I attacked the hamburger ravenously. “Where did you get the doctor’s bag – it is a doctor’s bag, isn’t it?”
I bought it at a garage sale years ago. I knew someday it would come in handy as a disguise to sneak into a woman’s dormitory.” He smiled slightly and stroked my cheek. “Sorry. Under the circumstances that’s not a very good joke.”
“Well”, he said when I’d finished eating, “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I’m going to be sick myself if we don’t get some ventilation in here.” He rose and opened the window.
“Oh please, David, not the window, I’m freezing to death as it is.”
“Only for a moment, to clear the air … and to get rid of this.” David picked up the coffee can, with its stinking accumulation of vomit, bile and blood; he stuck his head out the window and, after checking to see what was below, he heaved the contents into the bushes.
When I’d finished the last of the milkshake, David took my pulse. I studied his face as he timed my heartbeats; he looked tired and drawn, and I knew he was suffering too.
“One hundred and twenty. That’s very high; you're obviously dehydrated. I think you’d be better off in the hospital.”
I shook my head. "If the past is a guide, I’ll be all right for a few days. You have an engaging bedside manner, Dr. Rosenau.”
David smiled wanly. ”You’d be in much better shape today if I’d confined myself to the bedside. Dearest, why didn’t you tell me? Surely you weren't afraid I'd be angry?" He sat down on the bed and put his arms around me.
Then the tears came; I told him about the visit to Dr. Libby, the hospital, the never-ending nausea, all the things I’d minimized or tried to hide from him in the weeks before. I laid my head on his shoulder.
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. I just wish the nausea would go away; I feel so weak all the time.”
“What did Libby say?”
“About the morning sickness? He told me to eat graham crackers.”
David snorted. “Graham crackers! You need something a good deal stronger than a handful of graham crackers. Is that all?”
“He offered to refer me to an abortionist.”
David’s body stiffened and he turned to look at me. “Is that what you want?”
“No. What about you?”
“Kate, that’s your decision. I’ll support whatever choice you make.”
“But do you want me to have an abortion?”
I buried my head in his shoulder; David put his hand on my abdomen and started to sob; it was the first time I’d seen a man cry. “Kate, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
The chimes rang at ten o'clock and David kissed me on the forehead. "I have to be going soon; I can't stay here much longer, even in the guise of a doctor." He covered me with a blanket, turned out the light, and sat down in the chair beside my bed; when I awakened, he was gone and there was a note on the nightstand promising to call in the morning.
When I became ill again the following Tuesday, David cancelled a lecture and drove me to Doctors Hospital. I stayed for two days in a semi-private room, and since the other bed was unoccupied, the nurses let David remain with me outside regular visiting hours.
Finally we had a chance to talk. Secretly I’d been harboring a plan to have the baby, go to Mexico and raise the child there, where I might be able to get a job teaching English and whatever David could afford to send me would go farther than in the United States. Legally I knew I had a claim on David, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask him for money and when we talked in the hospital, I didn’t mention Mexico.
We had three options: abortion, keeping the baby, or adoption. Without question, abortion was the simplest solution; if I had an abortion immediately, I might be able to salvage something of spring quarter, take incompletes in a couple of courses and make up the work during the summer. But I was afraid of the procedure and David, who knew the medical risks better than I did, was adamantly opposed - "I'll be damned if I'll let some Caribbean medical school dropout do a D & C on you." We weren't opposed to abortion in principle, but neither of us could face the thought of destroying our baby. Although David never said so directly, I knew that ours was the child he'd always hoped for, and while he was willing to abide by my decision, if given the choice, David wanted our baby to be born, even if we had to give it up.
We discussed the economics of keeping the baby as well as the social consequences. Single mothers were uncommon in 1957 and single, unwed mothers rarer still. Of course I could lie and claim to be a widow, but what would I do when the child was older and started asking questions? How could David play a part in our lives? Without a college degree, my job prospects were limited; if I worked, then someone else would have to care for our child during the day. If I stayed home, the cost to David would be even greater. David was willing to make an economic sacrifice for himself, but we couldn't ask his family to suffer because of us.
That left adoption. Reluctantly we both agreed this was the best solution for everyone, and David promised to be with me when the child was born. I knew he felt guilty he couldn't afford to support two households, and once we made our decision we didn't discuss it again.
After my discharge from the ward, a nurse wheeled me to the driveway in front of the hospital where I waited while David went to the accounting office to write a check for the bill. He helped me make the unsteady transition from the wheelchair to the car and we headed north, toward the university. I was resigned to leaving school by this time and told David I wanted to phone my parents.
“Do you want to make your call from my office?”
“Can I make a long distance call on the campus system?”
“I’ll talk to the operator first and have it charged to my account.”
We didn’t exchange another word until we reached the university. I gave David my parents’ phone number in Oakland; he called the campus operator, spoke to her briefly and handed me the receiver.
“Please…if you don’t mind…I’d like to be alone.” David closed the door behind him just as the phone started ringing. My father answered and I explained the situation as briefly as possible. I kept running out of breath, as though something was choking me, and when I finished he said of course I could come home, and I was suffused with relief. David wouldn't hear of my making the trip by Greyhound; he insisted on buying me a plane ticket to California, so I told Daddy I’d phone again when I knew my arrival time
When the call was over, I put my head down on the desk and started to cry. David gave a soft knock and I asked him to come in. He tried to comfort me, but we both knew there was no balm, that somehow we’d have to live through the next seven months before we could pick up the threads of our lives and begin again. David made me an airplane reservation for a flight to Oakland at one the following afternoon.
There was a knock on the door. “It’s me, Frank.”
David shot me a glance.
“Ask him to come in.”
Frank opened the door, saw my tear-stained face, and remained on the threshold, with his hand on the knob, as though uncertain if he should enter.
“Please come in, Frank, this is the last opportunity I’ll have to say goodbye to you.” I turned to David, “it’s all right; he knows.”
Frank closed the door behind him, came over to the desk, and took my hand.
“I’m so sorry how things turned out … are you going home?
“Tomorrow afternoon. I wish you and Kathleen every happiness. Please keep in touch.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes, take care of David for me.”
Frank squeezed my hand, kissed me on the forehead, and left the office.
We ate dinner in silence at a small Chinese restaurant near the university and then went for a long walk; neither of us had the heart for Sam’s. When I returned to the residence hall, I took my suitcase from the closet, laid it open on the bed, and started to pack. Because my contract ran until the end of spring quarter, there was no rush to vacate my room, and since Norma had volunteered to ship whatever I left behind, I needed only a few essentials for the trip to California.
First in the suitcase went the framed photograph of David that I kept on my desk. In February he’d finally given into my pleading and agreed to sit for a studio photograph, and together we’d pored over the proofs. David favored a serious pose - what I called his "Leopold" look - while I preferred one that showed him with just the hint of a smile on his face – the way he often looked at me when I got carried away with an idea. I prevailed, and the black and white portrait stood upright on my desk when I was in the room alone and face down, under a box of tissues, at all other times. Most of all, I didn’t want Rosemary to see it. Only once was I caught by surprise; I was studying after dinner when a Blaine Hall monitor – one of the girls who came around at the beginning of the quarter to ask every resident’s grade point average – knocked on my door. I forgot to hide the photograph, and when she had finished recording my data in her notebook, she stared with interest at David’s picture.
“Is that your dad? He sure is good looking!”
David was greatly amused when I told him the story.
I picked up the music box David had given me for my twentieth birthday a month before; knowing my aversion to accepting gifts, he said it wasn't a present, but a commemoration of his being 27 years older than I was, instead of 28, a situation that would last until his forty-eighth birthday in July. I turned the winder, the cylinder started to rotate past the comb, and a song began tinkling from the box. When I fall in love, it will be forever… I switched it off and put the music box in the suitcase beside David’s picture.
My closet was full of dresses, each one evoking a memory of that last year at the university – the black linen sheath and lace top I’d worn to the Andres Segovia concert; the blue chiffon dress with blue velvet ribbons across the waist that I was wearing when I’d cajoled David into taking me to the Colony Club to hear Martin Denny; the sunset pink and white two-piece sleeveless dress I’d worn with a long string of white beads and matching pink shoes the day Maldonado and I had sung an impromptu duet of the folk song Eres alta y delgada in front of the Spanish 304 class. Maldonado had asked if anyone knew the words, and I'd raised my hand. So many memories, so many clothes, and in a few months I wouldn’t be able to wear any of them. I shut the closet door.
The next 24 hours are a blur. David and I ate a subdued breakfast at Manning’s the following morning and then stopped by Norma’s office to say goodbye and give her the key to my room. Norma knew, of course; she was the first person to whom I’d confided my fears.
Somehow I managed to control my tears at the airport. I was wrung out; there was no more emotion left in me. When the loudspeaker announced my flight, we kissed goodbye and I walked toward the plane. Just before climbing the ramp, I turned to look at David. He was standing where I’d left him, with a grief-stricken expression on his face. For an instant I wanted to run back to him, to hug him and tell him we’d be all right; instead, I turned around and boarded the plane. I didn’t go back to Seattle.
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