TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Life Is Gray

I was reminded by an e-mail from a friend that May 31 marked the eighth anniversary of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination. I realized then that it was time for me to finally write about the reality that life is rarely starkly black and white but a palate of grays. 

I still remember the wail I heard from the cell phone as my wife drove from the hospital in Bismarck. “There’s something wrong with the baby!” Those words echo in my head. That wail.

The woman doing the ultrasound — typically performed around 20 weeks — had seen something awful and had abruptly left the room, leaving my wife alone, scared.

The physician returned, and even though two subsequent ultrasounds would reveal how clear-cut the diagnosis was — our baby had half a heart — we were told a second opinion, two weeks out in Fargo, was necessary. Already we had the sense that our obstetrician at that Catholic hospital was running out the clock. That’s how it felt. I don’t know if it was real. Nothing seemed real.

We had 14 days to consider our options, to absorb the pain, with little support or information. Arduous searches on our dial-up connection — this was 18 years ago — offered little hope. An experimental series of operations by a doctor in the Northwest, had minimal success rates. If survival is always success. The process seemed torturous.

By the time the second physician confirmed the condition was “not compatible with life,” our options had been legally restricted by a relentless clock. It felt like a noose was being tightened by a system bowing to politics, indifferent to mercy.

We had terrible options — the desperate series of operations that almost certainly would drag out the inevitable. …  The Fargo hospital had offered to allow our child to die in the delivery room. Small mercies. But would they really stand by and do nothing? We’d lost trust in the medical community. Was it worth the risk to physical and mental health?

I know what I felt. My God, what was my wife feeling?

The doctor made some calls. There were only a few possibilities for an abortion at that stage of the pregnancy. In America. After Roe v. Wade. Only one accepted us, the clinic in Wichita, Kan.

We kissed our young son, Dylan, goodbye, and with the weight of some family members who opposed our decision bearing down on us, drove south to a man Bill O’ Reilly called “Dr. Tiller, the Baby Killer.” When you frame it that way, it’s easy to draw black and white lines. But our world was gray.

The clinic was a fortress. It had withstood a bomb, and Dr. Tiller had already survived five bullets. Even today, abortion providers wear Kevlar vests. In America. Land of the Free. For sure, Home of the Brave.

Each day, the clinic was surrounded by protesters. “There’s still time to save your baby,” they yelled. Oh, were it true.

We had opted for an intact delivery. Over days, using natural methods, labor would be induced. But first, another ultrasound to confirm what we already knew. An injection stilled what there was of our baby’s heart. My wife was under conscious sedation during the process, merciful and logical, I suppose. There’s no turning back.

After our baby was euthanized, she wondered, “When do you suppose they’re going to do it?”

“They already have,” I answered in that motel room. And then I wept.

There were other couples from across America, each carrying their own personal tragedy into a room where we met each day for counseling from Dr. Tiller. Among the refugees was a young lawyer and his wife from Pennsylvania. Their daughter, Olivia, was missing a brain.

It dawns on me that we were clinging to each other like shipwreck victims.

One by one, the women went into labor and then went home to heal. We were the last. Gunnar was stillborn the day before my birthday. Dr. Tiller, who was ordained, performed a baptism as I held the tiny cold body of my son. It was hard to let him go.

As we drove back to our living son, my wife began to emerge from the fog and grapple with her grief. We were at different stages in the process.

The ashes arrived in a small brown package. Dust. We held a small funeral, conducted by an understanding minister, and scattered the ashes at the base of a freshly planted weeping willow, forever known to us as Gunnar’s Tree. My wife framed the tiny ink footprints they gave us and later had them replicated in a tattoo.

Two physician friends told us we had made the right choice. That eased some of the pain, doubt and guilt. Our new obstetrician encouraged us to not give up, and we didn’t. India was born full of life in 2000.

On May 31, 2009, we heard the news. George Tiller had been gunned down while ushering. In church. In America. And I wept.

Our marriage ended last year. I got the footprints and the tree. I tucked the footprints into a drawer months ago. Time to move on, right? Sometimes I look at that splendid tree and don’t associate it with heartbreak. Should I feel bad about that? Another gray area, I suppose. Other times I wonder if I really ever left Kansas.

© Tony Bender, 2017

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