A year ago this morning, my fondest dreams were of cold soda and indoor plumbing.
It was my last day of a short absence from modern civilization. As a volunteer on a wildlife study on an uninhabited island off the New England coast, I was sunburned, aromatic, and had a headache from too much reading by too few candles the previous night. Despite all that, I wasn't ready to leave yet, but commitments in the "real world" left me no choice. The icy colas and hot showers I planned to enjoy at my first opportunity would be my best attempt at beating back my envy of those researchers and volunteers who would stay behind to launch the next phase of their ambitious research project without me.
Something else I'd missed while on the island: the Internet. In my daily life, I had long since come to think of it as ubiquitous. It is, of course, no such thing and being apart from it had been the first, and most daunting, challenge of my island sojourn. Late that Sunday afternoon, as the fishing boat that was my ride back to the mainland pitched and swayed through a gathering storm, I took shelter in the cabin, pulled my iPhone from my pack, and turned it on to see if I was near enough to land to have data service yet.
The first email was from NARAL. The second was from Planned Parenthood. They both said the same thing: a hero had been murdered, shot by a lunatic encouraged by violent rhetoric from the so-called Christian right, who believed that assassination was God's work. Dr. Tiller was gone. I stood, grabbing on to any stationary object I could--and made my way to the nearly-abandoned deck where I sat back down in an empty chair, put my head down, and cried. Another departing volunteer made her way over to me to ask if I was okay. She thought I had been overwhelmed by the lurching of the boat over the choppy waves. I didn't tell her that these were tears not from the ocean but from the plains. I wouldn't have known where to begin.
A year ago tonight, I could not stop thinking of the women who had needed Dr. Tiller, and those who needed him still. Most of all, I could not stop thinking of the women who might have had appointments to see him the very next day. I know that I cannot begin to imagine the pain of the tragedies that led women to Dr. Tiller's clinic in Kansas. The cases of horrific fetal anomaly among wanted, loved, planned-for, prayed-for pregnancies are tragedies. The pregnancies of girls too young to realize they were pregnant or to carry to term without grave risks to themselves are tragedies. The illnesses of women who might dearly love to have children if only their bodies were able to rise to the occasion are tragedies. Rapes and incest and the mental anguish they confer upon their victims--all tragedies. The abortions all these women chose? These are not tragedies, but mercies.
In a society that truly valued women and motherhood, women such as these would be offered all the compassion and all of the options and resources that our society's riches and technology could command. Instead, we have allowed just a few brave doctors to bear the harsh burdens and the enormous risks of caring for these women. The loss of Dr. Tiller tore a gaping hole in the already inadequate safety net that is available to these women whose circumstances are so dire that only a monster could seek to deepen their suffering, as the doctor's assassination surely did and is still doing today.
A year ago next weekend, I found a way to begin to mend a little part of that hole as best I can. It's pretty laughable in comparison to Dr. Tiller's level of dedication. But escorting at a local clinic is what I can do to keep alive some of the kindness, understanding, and support that Dr. Tiller offered women who badly needed it. And making sure that I am never, ever again silent about the need for safe, legal, accessible abortion is what I can do to try to encourage others to join me in restoring and renewing the tattered net of care and compassion through which so many vulnerable women and families fall.
It's bitterly appropriate that today, the first anniversary of Dr. Tiller's death, is Memorial Day. Dr. Tiller, himself a military veteran, died in a war being waged right here on United States soil. He died defending American freedom as surely as any uniformed fighter ever did. It feels like my duty to fight, too, in whatever ways I am able, against religious fundamentalism and domestic terrorism. My human duty, my humane duty. Seeing such a beloved doctor brought down in cold blood, in his church no less, made me realize that there's a war on whether I'm fighting it or not--so might as well join up and ship out.
I'm proud of the escorting and the noise-making work I have done in the last year: it feels good to be making an impact, and I truly love the community of caring, passionate activists, volunteers, and other fighters in whose company I have happily found myself. I was calling myself pro-choice when I was still in elementary school, yes, and have attended rallies in support of abortion rights for years. But if you had told me, a year ago today, what the next 365 days of my life would be like--flights to Kansas? road trips to Kentucky? arguments, debates, and shouting matches with people on record as wanting people like me dead? wait, seriously: standing at a podium talking about abortion? about MY abortion?--I'd've laughed at you, I think. But at the same time, I feel like there's far more I should be doing. I don't know what it is: I'm trusting that with open mind and heart I'll figure it out. The movement will tell me, one way or another, what it needs--or better yet, the women the movement exists to serve will.
This is all I know for sure: I was forever changed by Dr. Tiller's death. His assassin, Scott Roeder, issued my draft notice--you made me a soldier, you son of a bitch, you made me a soldier and my weapons are different from yours but I will never lay them down.