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Just There

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For whatever reason, the MARC trains were on a holiday schedule. I missed the first hour of my Philosophy class, since the train I normally take wasn’t running. I arrived as my professor was discussing Descartes’ theory of natural laws: shortly after I took my seat, he pulled his keys out of his pocket and held one up. “What’s this key for?”

Wary of being too confident, the class waited a beat, then various people spoke up: a girl volunteered, “For unlocking things.”

“Or locking things,” a boy responded.

Dr. Gorman smiled. “In the Middle Ages, there was supposedly this huge debate about whether a key was for locking doors or unlocking doors,” he said with a wistful shake of the head. “Isn’t that cool? Those were the days.”

He moved to the window, laughed softly and shook his head, then turned again to the lesson at hand. “Outside this window,” he said, peering through the Venetian blinds, “There’s a telephone pole with a bike crossing sign nailed to it. There’s a rock lying by the base of the pole. What is that rock for?”

Again, silence. The same girl said: “It’s just there.”

“Very good,” he said. “It’s just there. I was afraid someone was going to say, ‘To give glory to God,’ or something like that, and we really don’t want to get into that right now. To us, it exists merely as a thing. A thing without a purpose.

“If I were to take this key,” he said, getting it out again, “and put it in a vise, bend it right here along the ridges, it would be useless. Ruined. Its purpose could no longer be fulfilled. But if I went outside and took the rock and scratched it, or even broke it in half, it wouldn’t be ruined; it would be there, fulfilling its purpose of ‘just being there.’ It would still be there. It would just be different.

“If functioning properly, my heart obeys the laws of physics, right? Pressure is high in the heart, so the blood has to go somewhere, so it flows out into the arteries. Then pressure is low in the heart, and the blood has to come from somewhere to fill it, so the blood in the veins is sucked into the heart, where it is oxygenated and pumped back out.

“But what if there’s a big hole in one of the chamber walls? Then the blood may be flowing one way, maybe another. It upsets the pressure system; depending on the severity of the defect, I may die instantly or maybe I can be operated on, cured. Clearly, my heart is not functioning properly, but it still obeys the laws of physics. Where there is high pressure, blood is expelled; where there is low pressure, blood is sucked in. In that sense, it’s ‘just there’ the way the rock is just there.

“This is an interesting point of view, but it’s dangerous. You can use it to say that nothing’s ever wrong with the world, because it is still subject to the laws of nature. Be careful.

“If I worked for United Airlines pumping gas into the jets, I would have to calculate very carefully the amount of fuel needed for each flight. It’s obviously a bad thing to be short on fuel, and you want some extra just in case you can’t land right away. But you can’t just fill the tanks all the way up; you may be dragging around extra fuel all day if you don’t need it all, and that’s just more weight.

“So: I have to take measurements. I find out how many people are on the plane; ideally, I would know all their individual weights, but probably I would just multiply it by an average weight. And if it were all football players, or something like that, I’d use a higher average, I suppose.

“Then, what about the baggage? Well, I do the same thing. Except probably each bag is individually weighed anyway, at check-in. So I add up the weights of the passengers and the weights of the bags, and I get a total net weight that I can use to decide how much fuel to pump in.

“Now, what if someone said, ‘That’s a horrible thing to do, treating people just like luggage!’ I’d say they were being ridiculous. But you do have to be careful. After 20 years of working for United Airlines, maybe I will start to think of people as just weight on planes — as cargo. And then we have a problem.

“You can’t think of things as “just there” all the time. You have to be more discerning than that.”

Class ended, and I crossed the street to the Architecture library, where I had some readings for my Islamic Art class to photocopy. I was debating whether to take the train to the March for Life rally in Washington. On one hand, I had a ton of stuff to do. On the other — I wanted to support the pro-life cause. As the photocopier churned out patchy black and white prints, I peeked between the slats of the blinds, looking for the telephone pole with the rock beside it. The rock that was “just there.”

When my eyes grew tired of scanning the ground, I focused outward to the crowds of people being funneled into the subway. I saw the pro-life signs, the American flags, the crosses and rosaries. I felt a surge of patriotism coupled with piety, and I gathered my things and followed them.

A man had set up shop just outside the station and was selling signs, hats and gloves. I picked up a button with a picture of the White House, a rose and a dove on it. It said “March For Life, January 22, 2002.” “How much?” I asked. “They’re just two dollars,” he replied, ever the suave salesman. I paid and entered the subway.

As I exited onto the Mall, a man with a baby boy — about eighteen months — on his back was handing out stickers. I walked toward the baby, and after accepting the obligatory sticker (“All men are created equal,” with a picture of a fetus) I played peek-a-boo with the baby for a few minutes and got him to giggle. I thought, as I walked away, how different this was from the other Marches in which I had participated. Last summer, while in Greece, I had picked up something of the Yia-Yia syndrome: now when I see a baby in public, I have to touch it, tickle it, exclaim over it and, preferably, wrench it out of its mother’s arms for a few minutes. I felt, now, like something was at stake for me. These babies that had died — what was it? 100 million since Roe v. Wade? — were all potential playmates, little warm things that I would have loved to change diapers for and feed bottles to. I thought suddenly of my priest’s sermon two days before, in which he mentioned a staggering statistic: seventy percent of women who have had abortions claimed that if they had had one friend, just one supporter to help them bear the burden, they would have been able to go through with the pregnancy. I watched the teenagers stream by me, chattering and laughing and waving their “Abortion is Mean” signs. I thought, abortion is sad. That’s what the shirts should say.

Free literature abounded, and buttons were being sold for half as much as the savvy salesman’s price. I was pressed with offers for signs from the Knights of Columbus, stickers from Rock for Life, pamphlets and tracts from various religious and political groups. I smiled and made eye contact each time, but with a firm “No.” Disillusionment began to creep over me; were these people here to drum up votes and donations, or to take a stand against something they thought was wrong?

I reached the main platform, where an a capella group was belting out campy favorites like “God Bless America — Again.” I wandered around the fringe, looking for signs with Byzantine icons on them and then moving closer to see if anyone from my parish was there. I felt vaguely disillusioned. What was I supposed to be doing? Handing out signs? Cheering loudly? Praying? (I didn’t see anyone doing that.) I didn’t think these people were wrong, but I felt instinctively that this was the wrong way to go about whatever they were trying to do.

I listened to some speeches, including President Bush’s, which he telephoned in. Then hunger took hold, and I wandered off a block or so and bought a hot dog and an ice cream. I ambled slowly down the street a block away from the Mall, wondering if I should go back or not. I thought, I could definitely get at least one of those articles read before class.

I walked through a small grassy area, with benches and saplings planted at equal intervals around the perimeter. A small crowd was forming around what looked like the first “scene” in what had been a relatively peaceful rally. An older man, holding a “Face It . . . Abortion Kills” (text accompanied by a black-and-white photo of a baby’s face) sign, was planted firmly on the sidewalk making quiet accusations at the girl before him: “You work for Planned Parenthood, and I’m telling you, it’s all lies there. They just lie. Lie and kill.” He had obviously been severely indoctrinated in how to deal with basket cases like this one. She was livid: tears streamed down her face, her knees buckled and she slumped to the ground at the foot of the slender tree, sucking the life from the remaining half-inch of cigarette she clung to with three fingers. “I am afraid of this man!” she screamed. “This man killed my doctor!”

Her statement sounded overblown, but her behavior disturbed me, and as I approached her I could feel the pain, hatred, anger in her spirit. She was broken, weeping uncontrollably, lashing out the only way she knew how, trying to keep the demons at bay. “He killed . . . my doctor . . . the man who saved my life,” she moaned.

I knelt down beside her, patted her back softly. “Are you okay?”

World’s Dumbest Question. “No, I am NOT okay!” she was screaming again.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Please don’t cry. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

She sobbed on my knee for a moment, and I studied her: she was dressed nicely, in a brown blazer and skirt, white blouse, a pretty silk scarf with a green paisley pattern. In fact, the only signs of her distress were her head and feet. Her leather boots were covered in mud, signaling many hours trekking around in the post-snow sludge of this morning. Her close-cropped hair was rumpled, more than would be stylistic. And her clear blue eyes were swollen almost to slits, dried and wet tears streaking her face. “Don’t cry,” I said, over and over. “Tell me what happened. I’m so sorry.” She recovered some of her strength, straightened up and moved away from me, her chin firm. “Why don’t you ask this man?”

“I’m asking you,” I said. “Please tell me what happened.”

“My doctor is dead,” she said. “Someone sent a bomb to the clinic where I . . . got . . .” a hand strayed unconsciously to her stomach. “Help. After I was RAPED!” The last sentence was a scream as she lunged toward the man again. He baited her: “Oh, yeah, I’m sure,” he said sarcastically. And then: “It’s okay to kill your baby, but not okay to kill your doctor?”

I ignored him, though I wanted badly to hurt him almost as much as she did. I felt a lump in my own throat as I looked at her. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I came here today because I need to know who killed him,” she said. “He saved my life. He helped me when I needed it. Now he’s DEAD!” Even her obviously fake melodrama was heartrending. I couldn’t stand to hear it. She turned back to me and took another drag. “All I have left are these two feet to stand on,” she said. “And I have to know who killed him. Someone here knows. One of you knows.” Her eyes turned hard, accusing. “Maybe you do.”

My eyes filled with tears, and she looked shocked for a split second. “I’m sorry,” I said again. “He didn’t deserve to die.”

“You believe in life. You support life,” she said.

I was sobbing now, too. “I know. That was wrong. It shouldn’t have happened.”

She looked away and smoked in silence for a few seconds. The she turned back. “I can stare you down,” she said. “I’ll stand here all day if I have to. You will never make me change my mind.” Set chin, firm shoulders. Clenched fist at her side. Betrayed by a shaking in her voice.

I reached for her hand. “I don’t want to change your mind — I just — ”

“Don’t touch me, please.” She stepped back.

It was then that total despair overwhelmed me, despair for this girl and whatever terrible pain she was enduring. I couldn’t comfort her. She wouldn’t allow herself to be comforted. She wouldn’t even talk to me; she wanted to stand there, to argue with this man, and to create a scene to draw attention to her cause. I could see why the man thought she was a Planned Parenthood plant. She had come because she wanted a fight. But her accusations were correct, at least in part; didn’t Christ command us to turn the other cheek? Yet the man stood there, unblinking, at a respectably safe distance, repeating rehearsed lines just as she did, ignoring the obviously personal nature of her sadness. It seemed so cruel.

We stood there in silence, just crying, looking at each other. I have never wanted anything so badly as I wanted to be able to ease her pain just then. But a growing feeling of helplessness made me both powerless and resolute, and I realized with horror that I needed to just walk away. I asked: “Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all?”

She shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” I said, one more time.

“I know,” she answered.

“What’s your name?” I asked. “Kate,” she said.

“I’m Emily.”

She extended her hand cordially. “It’s very good to meet you.”

I fought back a fresh wave of tears. “I hope you have a better day,” I said, adding silently than I’m going to have.

“I will,” she said, her chin firm and her face set. Her features spoke silently, I don’t need you or your pity — don’t even think about me, I’ll be just fine. But her beautiful blue eyes, red-rimmed and puffy, and her shaking fingers, and her yellowed teeth — as she reached for another cigarette — said otherwise, and I knew I would not be able to forget her face for a long time.

I walked on, crying as discreetly as I could, looking for someplace to sit down. I saw a church with opened doors and hurried inside, only to find there was a string quartet giving a lunchtime performance there. I went in anyway, sat in the back pew and tried to compose myself.

I had seen some pretty disturbing anti-abortion propaganda that day; the bloody pictures of tiny dismembered corpses were almost to be expected, but when I saw one juxtaposed with a photo of the Twin Towers aflame, I thought: this is just wrong. Yes, more children are killed each day by abortion than were killed en toto by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But to compare the hate and rage of the Taliban with the last-ditch efforts of so many suffering mothers is not fair. As Frederica Mathewes-Green once said, it’s equivalent to an animal in a trap, gnawing off her own limb to escape.

She was, of course, deceived. She was not in a trap, and there were many other ways out. But we are all deceived. The man on the sidewalk was deceived into thinking that a cold-hearted front would give him strength to fight. But we have done too much fighting and not enough loving. Kate was deceived in thinking that she couldn’t trust me, but she had probably learned that behavior the hard way. I was deceived, as were so many others, in thinking I was doing some good by just showing up at the rally with a strong voice and a button announcing my support.

And yes — when confronted with the sad fact that close to 4000 babies are killed daily (one-third of my generation is missing) an instinct is to treat it as one would any other social problem. If 4000 a day were dying of tuberculosis, the government would quarantine those infected with such severity that individual rights would be trampled, much as individual souls are injured in the highly efficient work of abortion protesting. But this is treating abortion as a medical evil. Like the rock by the telephone pole, we think it is “just there” — it’s a problem that we can use a predetermined solution to fix.

But it hasn’t worked. It has never worked. Like our country’s reaction to the Taliban attacks, we have moved far too quickly from grief to rage and get-‘em-back anger. Who is grieving for these children? Rachel wept and would not be comforted; we are comforted only in marches, in protests, in the insane acts of violence that tortured Kate and would not let her go. For her, this doctor had saved her life. It wasn’t just nine months of her twentysomething years she couldn’t spare; it was a lifetime of heartbreak, whether she kept the baby, aborted the baby or gave the baby away. And it doesn’t matter whether she was raped or took part in a one-night-stand. In her eyes, she had no choice. No choice, and no one person to support her. Her pain was not “just there.” Her problem was not “just there.” It was so much bigger than that.

I left the church with no makeup and a still-unfulfilled desire to pray. On the way to the metro station, there was a man selling roses, fifty cents each; I bought six, thinking to place them in front of the icon of the Virgin in the Byzantine chapel on campus. As I paid, he read my button aloud: “March for Life, January 22, 2002. — Oh! You part of that anti-abortion rally?”

“Yes,” I answered numbly, though I wasn’t at all sure anymore.

“Well, that’s good,” he said. “You got one for me? Where’s my button?”

“They’re selling them for a dollar down there,” I said, pointing. Then I looked at him for a minute. Then I took mine off and handed it across the table. “Well, thank you — thank you very much,” he said, smiling broadly. “You have a good heart.”

I moved to the other end of the table, where his business partner was wrapping my flowers in newspaper. The man wearing the button said to him: “My daughter’s mother is against abortion. This will just burn her up!” They laughed commiseratively. I thought, I should tell them that suckers like me would buy that for two dollars. Then they’d have enough to buy one apiece. There are plenty of people waiting to get mad.

Photo: Rodeo Drive - Los Angeles, June 2006

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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