Filed under: abortion, Culture and Catholicism, depopulation, Green Catholics | Tags: abortion, bilingual, Catholic, grace, priesthood, sidewalk counseling
It was dawn in Chicago, in January. Seven-thirty, the pink was fading and day was showing its fangs: low grey clouds everywhere, and ugly.
There’d been two days well above freezing after Christmas, and the season’s first snow had melted away except in gutters, where the remainder was hard and black as iron. Then it froze up again, and the wind attacked. The bared sidewalks released their secrets: discarded pop bottles and plastic bags that swirled along in the wind like undead creatures in a nightmare. It felt way colder than 12°. Nothing to sweeten this corner, with its filling station, the pancake house, the pharmacy—and the abortion clinic.
Two women and a man stood outside the clinic. They prayed the rosary to keep warm. The man was a priest, but you could not see his collar under the parka. He liked it that way. He liked to begin his thirty-second chance (from when they opened the car door to when they entered the “clinic”) by speaking of pending lawsuits and breast cancer, not God. They are not thinking of God, he says, when they come here in sweats, dressed to kill.
Nor does he offer pictures of a fetus. They aren’t thinking of the baby, either, he says. If they were thinking at all, he says, it’s about their health. That’s what he advises the other sidewalk counselors. That’s what they call themselves.
But in the summer, when a coat doesn’t obscure his collar, Father simply doesn’t mention this theory. He doesn’t take off the collar. It’s illogical, but there you were. Father says one thing in the winter, nothing in summer.
In fact, Father always talks about God. He just worries about the other counselors; they might talk about God too early. It was delicate. You only had those thirty seconds, tops. So Father hurries through the lawsuits against local “clinics” for perforating this or that female body part, then hurries through the research linking breast cancer to abortion. Then he says something, almost always, about God. Or about love. The same thing.
Father’s good talking about love because he’s handsome, with fair skin nipped pink by the cold or the heat, either one, and bright blue eyes, and one thing about some women at the clinic—they have been known to fall for a handsome guy, or two. Okay, or three. Father’s handsome when he talks to the women about God. There’s something about a young priest. The most sin-shellacked women (there are a few of those for sure with tattoos running up and down their extremities, and pierced cheeks, and broken hearts), still listen to a priest on his knees pleading for their unborn kid.
The clinic’s a dramatic place, with contradictions. Sex for fun, versus sex for the purpose the body keeps insisting on, that’s one.
Another example, there’s inside the fence, and outside. The sidewalk counselors are outside. They’re not allowed inside the parking lot with the large sign proclaiming Private Property/Keep Out/This Means You. Clients can enter, of course; they have permission.
Those outside the fence look like felons gripping the bars and thrusting their literature through it, calling out to the women entering the clinic. They choose their own literature. One will have leaflets with a baby picture and something like, It’s not a Choice, It’s a Child, or another a leaflet with Cease Fire on the top, and a fetus sucking its thumb in the middle. They pay for their own leaflets, eight cents apiece.
Father counsels against the premature use of one particular brochure with pictures of tiny dismembered bodies discovered in inappropriate places like discarded refrigerators or trash bins, and thus minor sensations at the time, so that pictures were taken. Tiny heads the size of a dime, tiny hands flung up as if in defense, dismembered legs, torsos gouged and bruised. Most of the time pictures are not taken, though. Most bodies are disposed of “appropriately,” you see, in red bags labeled Dangerous Waste.
Father says ‘don’t use these brochures because it might harden the women’s hearts against contrition, afterwards.’ Father himself dares use them, however, if he sees a certain soft expression cross a woman’s face. He risks it. Father sometimes thinks with his head and acts with his heart, and knows it; he, too, must confess his sins. He doesn’t hate the women entering the clinic. Sometimes he knows one thing, and does another. So do they.
But some sidewalk counselors use the brochures anyway. And Father keeps not just that very brochure in his pocket, but a little dvd player on which he has the disk that shows a tiny, perfect twelve week old fetus swimming happily in a miniature, tear-shaped sac in his own mother’s soft, warm womb and then—how did they get this picture?!– a whooshing sound sucks him out; you can see his little flesh begin to tremble and then flatten just at the instant before he disappears!
And Father will get down on one knee, if he can induce a woman to come over to the fence, to hold the player up at just the right angle so she can see. And he looks exactly like a man proposing marriage, and not a few have been touched to the heart, and relented, and let him drive them to the crisis pregnancy center. And yet he still counsels against using that particular brochure. Because it’s all in the timing and he can’t find a way to teach the timing. He thinks it every Saturday and during the week, too, if he can get time to come.
As cars pull up to the gate, the trio rapidly assesses the nationalities of the occupants. “Americano!” Father exclaims. “No,” someone says, “Honduran!” Another exclaims, “No, no! Mexicanos!” It’s entertaining and besides, necessary. Ever since Babel.
Naturally, they are often wrong. Like today. The young couple with the noses they bet to be Peruvianos turned out to be from suburban Pallentine, and drove oblivious through the net of Spanish Mina had thrown up around the car as it slowed down for the gate. And the Asian-looking women, apparently a mother and daughter, turned out to be from Yucatan, and workmates. Eyes drawn slant-wise in their sorrow, one accompanying the other on their shameful errand.
All the counselors speak English and Spanish. Mina’s from Mexico, in Chicago for twenty years, her whole large family with her. A lucky one. Father’s Polish, and besides speaking that and English, speaks good Spanish he learned in seminary. The English-speaking woman doesn’t speak good Spanish. She learned from the poor, knows only their rhythm and rhyme, and uses it, innocently.
So, when the guessing game fails and she gets Spanish-speakers, she’s magical, for she’s a well-dressed woman, well-kept, and then to talk like that! Slang and bad grammar! She doesn’t know how heavily this weighs with the women from Honduras and Columbia and Mexico entering the clinic; it’s as if the Virgin of Guadalupe herself stepped down from her niche beside the altar and slapped them and called them putas like their mothers would, if they only knew what their daughters were doing this cold morning across the border, over there.
Thus the English speaking woman has this luck with Spanish women; sometimes they pause, listen. Sometimes they even turn around. Father analyzes this phenomena. He doesn’t consider that her crude Spanish might call out to some crudeness in them. Because he doesn’t think them crude. Because he loves them.
Still, the English-speaking woman always lets Father and the other woman, Mina, approach Spanish-speaking clients first, and she approaches the English speakers, especially the African American women, for they have, or feign, difficulty understanding a Spanish accent, just as the Hispanic-speakers sometimes pretend not to understand any English thrown their way outside this place of death.
Just this particular ordinary Saturday morning as they were beginning the third decade of the joyful mysteries, a road-salted Plymouth rolled up to the gate, an attractive African- American behind the wheel, her chubbier, plainer sister-in-crime in the passenger seat. Or maybe the other way round. No clue which the mother, which the accomplice, but the language was easy to guess, and the English- speaking woman approached the car. She motioned for the driver to roll down the window, her face saying please. Usually they won’t, but nothing ventured and all that. The woman hesitated, and then yielded and rolled it down an inch.
The English-speaking woman held up a brochure. “Hi,” she said. “My name is Mary.” Father always reminded them to smile and introduce themselves, even if it used up a whole two seconds. “Abortion is dangerous. This brochure has the addresses and phone numbers of centers that help pregnant women, with clothes and baby furniture and stuff. See, right there on the front.” She had circled the nearest one. “They’re open right now. I’ll go with you, if you want. They have free ultra-sound. They know about housing and financial help. So take this and read it? It’s free.”
The woman tossed her pretty fake hair. “I made my mind up,” she said. “I already made my choice.” But she did not raise the window.
Mary nodded. “I know you did. I know you thought about it.” She put her hand up, in a mitten, on the window, close to the other woman’s hand inside. “But just take this brochure inside with you.” She leaned forward. The woman was looking into her eyes, and she leaned forward, too. Mary could feel Father watching. But she went for it. “Let God help you,” she whispered.
The woman broke the eye contact. She began to raise the window, and snarled, “God! Huh! Like He’s gonna raise my kid! Look: I already thought about it! So stay outta my business!”
Mary leaned down a little more toward the window. “Please,” she whispered. “He’s trying to talk to you!”
It sounded ridiculous (sure He’s here with us, in this place; in this world, sure He is!). A mistake! She’d blown it! Come, Holy Spirit! She flapped the blue brochure hopefully.
The woman hesitated, just one second, and then she sighed dramatically, rolled her eyes, and lowered the window again, saying in a world-weary voice filled with exaggerated patience for all the annoying old white ladies in the world, including this one standing right here: “Oh, alright! Just give it here to me!” And she took it with the tips of her long, red-lacquered nails, and accelerated through the gate.
Mary returned to the group. Two more Mexicans, an older man and woman, had joined them. The wind blew, and they prayed. It sure was an ugly day to kill a child, they were all thinking then. Not that there’s any good day. This is what they always thought outside the clinics, as the women, day after day and year after year, drove in, or more likely were driven in, to kill their children. Fifty million since abortion was legalized, and there was never a good day.
They were only in the middle of Dios te salve in the last decade of the joyful mysteries, daydreaming sadly of that attractive African-American woman who would have had such a beautiful child, when the Plymouth came back through the gate, pulling out of the clinic, and caught them napping.
“Are you — leaving?” Mary asked in surprise, walking once more toward the car, whose passenger side was now before her. “You’re not going to do it?” The accomplice rolled the window all the way down. The African-American woman shook her head. Her extensions bobbed.
“I’m going home. Right. I’m not going to do it.” She looked straight at Mary and for one second she dropped the mask. Woman-to-woman, the real deal. You stood with me, now I’m back. Then, flippant again, “I read it,” she said. “You were right, I guess. No, okay, I know you’re right. It’s not safe. And it’s wrong. I know it’s wrong. Nobody has to tell me it’s wrong.”
Mary didn’t answer, because she was crying. The priest and the Mexicans had the car surrounded and they were all crying. And they were all smiling. If the wind had not been so bitter, they might have only been smiling. This baby had cost!
Mary blew her nose. “Promise me –call that Women’s Center on the front of the brochure.” She noticed then that the woman was looking at the bunch of them with wonder. What a scraggly bunch of riff raff they must seem, standing crying in the wind. “Don’t mind us!” Mary tried to excuse them. “We can’t help but – be happy! A life spared! That’s how it is for us. Thank you so much! Thank you!”
The Plymouth rolled on out then, and the group re-formed by the fence and sang a cheerful song to the Guadalupana, the dark little Madonna of the Americas. Father was distracted, though. He was analyzing and analyzing, and finally concluded that along with timing, you just had to count on grace. He was going to write that down as soon as he thawed.
“What a bunch of weirdos, huh! But I guess, well I guess it proves they’re not the KKK, right? Out there saving ” the woman joked to her companion as they approached their turn onto the interstate. “Yeah, not them,” her friend played the sidekick, and privately considered what that meant about her, who’d not protested her best friend’s decision to kill a black baby, not even once, and she winced.
But the driver let her go. She was somewhere else. She was smiling. Really smiling. Because she was thinking, not about the snow beginning again, not about the scary potholes, or her rotten job. She was remembering what God told her, right after she’d turned off the engine to go in. The words, out of nowhere (although she’d just said to herself or– Somebody, I’m not listening, hear me?). The words. Clear as a bell. I sent this baby to love you. Out of nowhere, like snowflakes. I sent this baby to love you. And then her surprising body had put its arms around her baby. That’s how it felt. It was love.
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