The other day I read yet another letter to the editor written by an outraged person who objects to the idea of having to pay for a woman’s birth control pills in the new soon to be government (tax payer) funded health insurance. I don’t know why it’s birth control pills that cause so much anger as opposed to IUDs or the Depo shot etc but I suppose it’s because they are more widely known than the other methods. The letters always seem to paint a picture of a morally loose woman-who just needs to learn to keep her promiscuous legs closed.
But what these letters make me think about is Celina.
Back in ’92 Geoff and I were living in San Angelo, TX. It was only for a few months while he went to a school there and I found myself watching a lot of daytime TV which I was brought up to believe was the pinnacle of time wasting behavior. I answered the call of a public service anouncement to volunteer for the Adult Literacy Council. I can remember thinking (like Plankton from SpongeBob) I could do that. I went to College!
I met my “student” at an elementary school in the neighborhood in which she lived. I had volunteered for the adult literacy program but I had been told that my student was actually 14, and when she came walking up to me with her boyfriend, holding a toddler in her arms, her belly obviously swollen with another pregnancy, she seemed incredibly, even younger to me. She was a tiny thing, despite her pregnant state, with long black hair she wore in a bun, a child like face and a shy smile. She wore no make-up or jewelry that I remember. She seemed more like someone you might see walking on the streets of a third world country, rather than someone born and raised in an American city. It took my naive brain more than a few mintues to get a handle on this. I asked her boyfriend his name and he silently extended his fist where the letters J.U.A.N. were conveniently tattooed on his knuckles.
We began our sessions which I have to say, were not really a success as would be defined by the ALC. After a few times doing the lesson plan they devolved into me taking her to WIC appts, or shopping and buying things for the baby etc etc. I couldn’t help myself. There always seemd to be a more pressing short term problem to address and Celina brought out a protective maternal instinct in me I hadn’t even realized I possesed. She was reserved and soft spoken, her problems seemingly endless, but she really didn’t complain. She would just state the depressing details of her life in a matter of fact way if asked. She lived in a filthy, falling down disaster of a house with her boyfriend and his family and numerous other unidentified people who always seemed to be hanging around. I couldn’t imagine how DSS had approved it as an appropriate place for a toddler to live. Boyfriend’s mom always regarded me with unfriendly bloodshot eyes whenever I picked up or dropped Celina off, as if she knew very well what I was thinking- which was that I wished I could drive Celina very far away to a place where she could raise her children in a clean and safe environment. I knew that learning to read and write was so crucial for Celina, but also knew an hour a week was in no way going to accomplish this. She was not a stupid person. In some ways she seemd so young and naive but in others she seemed older than me. One day at the grocery store I tossed a package of tortillas into the cart. I remember her frowning, reaching in and pulling it out and closely examining it. She held it up to me”You don’t make your own tortillas?” I was just as surprised “You MAKE your own tortillas?” Her face broke apart into a smile that turned into a laugh as if truly amazed that any self respecting woman wouldn’t make her own tortillas.
When it came time for Celina to have the baby, she was scheduled for a c-section and she asked me if I would go with her. ” But what about J.U.A.N.? What about your family?” She just shook her head. So of course I went. She was under general anesthesia for the procedure. She was afraid and didn’t want to be awake, she said. I waited in her room and after the baby girl was born a nurse came in. “Are you the social worker?” (This happened to me all the time when I was with Celina.) “No.” “Well, would you like to come see the baby?” They sat me in a rocking chair and let me hold her, this new tiny person. (So much tinier than my own 9lb chunk of a son would be) I had never held a newborn. Her eyes were open and she seemed to be staring up at me with a look of patient expectation, eventhough I know I was only a blur. She seemed so fragile to me as I sat there rocking her, and when I thought of the home that awaited her, I couldn’t help but feel extremely pessimistic about her future.
Some time later her OB pulled me out into the hall. He was a tall Texan of a man squinting down at me from behind his steel rimmed glasses. “You’re the social worker?” There was a hardness to his manner that seemed more fitting for a rancher or a oilman than an obstetrician, but given the circumstances I could hardly have expected him to be warm and fuzzy. ” No, I’m a volunteer with the Adult Literacy Council.” “The what?” I started to explain and then realized he hadn’t the time or patience “I’m just here as her friend” He seemed taken aback but recovered quickly. “We need to make sure she’s not back here next year having another baby. Birth control pills would be a waste of time. What I want to do is get her a Norplant so she atleast can’t have any more babies for five years.” He sighed. This will put Celina at the ripe old age of 19. I nodded vigorously, to show him I was defintiely on his side in this. “Well…..as her friend,” and he said it as though he was highly skeptical of my role as her friend, “I need you to go in there and convince her to get it.” He pointed at the door.
So back in I went. And I remember thinking: Am I her friend? What am I doing here anyway, like a curious bystander at a car wreck…..Am I helping her at all? What I did know as I walked back in the room without a balloon, flower or beaming grandparent to be seen, was that Celina seemed like the most friendless person on the planet.
At some point we had “the talk”, Celina lying there in the hospital bed holding little Alma. Instead of stating the obvious, that she had no business having any more children for the forseeable future, that she should not be a parent twice over in the first place, I told her she needed to give her body a break, that if she does this she can focus on getting her life together, really going back to school and somehow making a better life for the family she does have now. She nodded. “I need to change the baby” I took Alma to her basinette and started to undiaper her. Geoff had stopped in from the base and shooed me away. He began changing her like he’d done it a thousand times. Both Celina and I stopped and stared at him, momentarily distracted by this big Marine in his deltas, looking like a recruiting poster, expertly handling this tiny infant.
“Umm, so anyway” I began again. “It will be in your arm for five years and then, you know, you can always have more children someday…but for now”… She looked up at me, trusting me. That look still haunts me. “OK.” She will do what is asked of her…which is how I think she probably wound up pregnant in the first place.
A few weeks later, Norplant implanted, she asked me to take her across town to see her father and show him the baby. He spoke only Spanish and seemed wary of me. My own Spanish isn’t that good and I couldn’t really follow the conversation but I remember him touching her face and calling her mamasita. He seemed a little sad and so did Celina. I couldn’t help but notice the apartment he lived in was spotless, neater than my own place. On the way back I asked her “Do you miss your family? Would you rather live with them?” She shrugged off the question. “I couldn’t live there” “Why not?” There’s no room and they wouldn’t let me take the babies.” By they, she means J.U.A.N. and Co “Well, maybe we can…” but I could see she was not even considering the idea. Her face looked impassive, shut down, like millions of women on this planet who have come before her and will continue to come after, stoically accepting their unhappy fates.
I went to see the social worker everyone kept mistaking me for. It was in a government building downtown. The office was cluttered, like mine would be if I was a social worker. She had a wide friendly face and a smile to match, and like a lot of west Texans I met, seemed genuinely pleased and interested to meet and talk to me. I started telling her the whole sad story, my concerns for Celina. ” We’ll be leaving soon. What will happen to her?” She let me talk, sitting back watching me closely. When I was done, she sighed. “Yeah, I’ve heard all about the Norplant and here’s what I think:” she twanged,” You have gotten way, way too involved in this. You’re obviously a caring person and I appreciate you trying to help but.”….her face clouded over “these are not nice people you’re dealing with. I certainly hope you haven’t let them come to your house, that they don’t know where you live.” I thought of J.U.A.N. He seemed immature and not very bright, but not someone to be afraid of. When I said as much she responded “That just shows how much you don’t understand. You’ve done what you could, we do what we can but… I think it’s a good thing you’re leaving town.” She smiled sadly at me. Twenty years later a lot of questions occur to me. Questions I wish I had asked at the time. I would like to think now I would push back more and question why the phrase “we do what we can” meant so very little when it came to Celina, but in my willingness to accept the pronouncements of authority, I think I had more in common with Celina than I cared to admit.
We do leave town a few weeks later. I stop by to say good-bye to Celina. I give her all the pictures I’ve taken of her children. I hug her. She smiles shyly, says thank you for the pictures. She knows I’m leaving but maybe doesn’t quite get that it will be forever. It seems like the end of just another visit. It’s no big deal to her. Atleast this is what I tell myself so I will feel better and not like I’m abandoning her. I watch San Angelo recede in the truck’s mirrors with a mixture of sadness and relief.
And it is forever. I don’t expect to ever see Celina again. She would be 34 now. Even more mind boggling to me, her baby would be 20. I wonder what happened to her and her children, how many other children she may have gone on to have and think Alma herself is likely a mother now. I just hope that I didn’t make things worse for her, and that the Norpalnt stayed in for atleast a while. I know in a perfect world there would be no Celinas. But there are and probably always will be. If anyone was ever in desperate need of birth control it was Celina, but I really don’t care who you are. If you want birth control in whatever form, then I want you to have it too, and have it for free. I consider it to be my tax dollars well spent. If that makes me a liberal or a socialist or an immoral person, so be it. I’ve recently heard there is a male birth control pill on the horizon and I can’t wait. Then maybe we can hear some outrage over morally loose men and their need to just keep it zipped up and to those men I would like to be able to say: Have a condom, have a vasectomy, have a new birth control pill made just for you. It’s on the house.
When I started to write about this I was convinced I was writing about birth control but after reading it I think it was about something else entirely. Weird how writing is like that.
I changed the names, also.