Monday, June 1, 2009

yesterday. mourning, stress, hope.

yesterday was a tough day.

i woke to worries about work. i hate that.

then to the farmer's market with s for mini donuts. coffee. and hamburger patties from happy cows.

back to the house, checking on garden, straightening living room, reorganizing dresser, knitting, reading a book when my phone beeps. it's my ex husband, James. and a text message.

"George Tiller shot dead"

I ran for my computer and CNN.

You know how there are people in the world that you have met, that you know thru their work, that you respect deeply? That you sleep just a little better at night knowing that they are in the world? Dr. Tiller was one of those people for me.

Shortly after I graduated from college I started working at Planned Parenthood of MN/SD. I started in administration, which was in a building on Highland Parkway in St. Paul. We walked past protestors every day. We each had ID cards with magnetic key cards. Once we were in the door, we checked in with the guard and put in the code for the door to the upstairs. I was the administrative assistant for Regional Services. I had both the ATF and the FBI on my rolodex. Taped to the desk by the receptionist was a form to fill out for a bomb threat. The doctors that provided abortions in the clinic downstairs wore bullet proof vests to and from work. Part of staff training was how to open mail, how to recognize a bomb, how to search the building for a bomb, to make our home phone numbers unlisted, to change our drivers licenses so that the DMV wouldn't give out our home address, to know where the closest police stations were on the way to and from work, to vary our routes to and from work.

Most Planned Parenthoods don't provide abortion services. Not by a long shot. But because some do, and PP actively supports a woman's right to choose, they have been one of the most visible targets for anti-choice activists and terrorists.

One morning, I was in the kitchen, making iced coffee when the phone rang. James grabbed it. It was my boss, Julie. Our Brainerd clinic had been torched. No one was hurt. But it was going to be closed for a while. And we had a lot of work to do to get it back open. There were no abortions provided in Brainerd. But there was someone who didn't care about that. There was a Planned Parenthood name on the building, so it, and the pizza joint next door were now gone.

Not too long after that I started working as a counselor at local private clinic that provided family health care four days a week and abortions five days a week. At Robbinsdale the protesters were a little bit louder. Over time I got used to them.

I spent the next seven years working with birth control, HIV testing and counseling and abortion care at Robbinsdale and at various Planned Parenthoods. I loved the work. It was challengin. Our patients graced us with their trust. I learned about living and decision making and ethics from the patients that I worked with.

Pregnancy is a constant thought for women who have sex with men. We take birth control pills every day, we put plastic over a penis before we let it enter us, we put devices in our uterus, patches on our skin, little cups full of spermicide around our cervix. Most often these measures work. Sometimes they don't. And sometimes, for all kinds of reasons, a mistake, forgetfulness, drugs or alcohol, abuse, mental illness - we don't use them. And pregnancy happens. Then we have to make decisions. Sometimes the pregnancy is unplanned, but welcome. Sometimes adoption is a good option. Sometimes abortion is the best choice.

The ethics around ending a pregnancy differ for each woman. For some, it feels like killing, but it's still the best thing for them and their families. For others, it's not killing, but it's a tragedy. And for others, it's just not a big deal. What mattered to me as a provider was meeting each of these women exactly where they were, honoring their decision, their ethics, spirituality and process. And providing them with the tools necessary to walk through this part of their life with dignity and health.

Dr. Tiller was one of the best providers of abortion services in the country. He took over his father's medical practice after his father's death. Soon, women were asking if he would help them like his father did. It turns out, his father had performed abortions. In the end, Dr. Tiller couldn't say no to women who needed help. Over time, his practice ended up being mainly abortion services. Because they were needed. And especially needed were late abortion services. Even so, during part of that time he oversaw the neo-natalogy unit at the local hospital. When asked about how he reconciled both performing late term abortions and providing premmies with care his answer was simple, "in an abortion, the woman is the patient, when a woman chooses to continue a pregnancy, the baby becomes the patient. It's the doctor's job to serve the patient."

And he did. Brilliantly. With care, respect and great technical skill. And for that, he paid with his life.

He wouldn't have known me. I only met him once. I knew him through the women he helped. And his advocacy. We have big shoes to fill.

It was right after that I learned that Phoenix, the burned pit bull had died. That tipped me over the edge. I lost it. I held Bella and sobbed. Then I held Piper and sobbed some more. She licked my tears. She's good at that.

After I stopped crying, and splashed some water on my face, S and I went over to visit family and celebrate a 10 year old's birthday. One of our family member's is living with Parkinson's and is having increasing difficulty getting in and out of bed. Regina (who works at the store and has a degree in physical therapy) showed me some lifts to try. So S and I tried them, and were able to get K up and out of bed and to the table for the birthday party. It made K happy. And it made me grateful. Because, even with all the bad in the world, each of us still has the capacity to do something small that can make another person's life a little bit better. Even for a moment.

The smile on K's face when he wheeled up to the table is a gift that I will never forget.

Last night, I fell asleep, holding Piper with S snoring softly in my ear, and i felt content.

RIP Dr. George Tiller
RIP Phoenix

for more information about Dr. Tiller or to make a donation in his name, click here

for more information about Phoenix or to make a donation in her name click here

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