Ever since Friday, when I started officially working in the clinic, I’ve been thinking of Sallie Tisdale’s essay “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse’s Story.” (http://realweb.ifastnet.com/articles/weabort.html) I’d first read the essay years ago, when “abortion” was an amorphous term to me, a vague possibility for women in the most desperate of circumstances. At that time I could barely conceive of sex and pregnancy, much less termination.
I re-read it when I began applying for the position several months ago, trying to prepare myself for the things I might see and hear in the clinic, since I had had no prior experience with the procedures. I had a textbook understanding of abortion, obtained mostly through researching the debate and my work organizing campus Planned Parenthood events. I knew the difference between a D&C and a D&X, at least on paper, and I knew that Bush had outlawed intact D&E in the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003. In spite of this knowledge, I had no real tangible conception of abortion.
I finally returned to Sallie Tisdale’s essay last night, after ruminating on what I remembered it being about. This time her words jumped into strange, startling clarity. “How can you stand it?” they asked her, as they ask me. “What a strange job you have,” one client remarked as I held her hand and chatted with her before the procedure began. Tisdale remarks on the anger of the women she serves. In my case it is often the anger of the friends that accompany the younger clients, rather than the anger of the women themselves.
“I am learning to recognize the shadows that cross the faces of the woman I hold. While the doctor works between her spread legs, the paper drape hiding his intent expression, I stand beside the table. I hold the woman’s hands in mine, resting them just below her ribs. I watch her eyes, finger her necklace, stroke her hair. I ask about her job, her family; in a haze she answers me; we chatter, faces close, eyes meeting and sliding apart.
“I watch the shadows that creep up unnoticed and suddenly darken her face as she screws up her features and pushes a tear out each side to slide down her cheeks. I have learned to anticipate the quiver of chin, the rapid intake of breath and the surprising sobs that rise soon after the machine starts to drum. I know this is when the cramp deepens, and the tears are partly the tears that follow pain—the sharp, childish crying when one bumps one’s head on a cabinet door. But a well of woe seems to open beneath many women when they hear that thumping sound. The anticipation of the moment has finally come to fruit; the moment has arrived when the loss is no longer an imagined one. It has come true.”
Sometimes the women cry, sometimes they are simply silent. One, as the machine began to whir, said plaintively “Talk, just talk. I don’t care what about. Just please talk.” The women I have stood with do not cry, at least not during the procedure. They scrunch their faces up, crush my hand in theirs, curse enough to make a sailor blush. One remained perfectly composed throughout the procedure, and only once the doctor had left the room did she allow a single silent tear to course down her cheek. Her strength amazed me.
Once upon a time, I would have simply admired Dr. Tiller for his perseverance (this wasn’t the first shooting he had endured), but I would not—could not—have understood it. Now, after having heard the stories and seen the fear/pain/relief/confusion/sorrow/happiness in so many women’s eyes, now perhaps I can begin to comprehend.