I was mostly asleep when I heard that George Tiller had been killed, so I thought it was a bad dream. My dream self thought, that would be terrible if that happened. Shot in the head in the lobby of his Lutheran church as he waited there like a good usher to guide people in.
The same day George Tiller lost his life, an airplane carrying two hundred people disappeared over the Atlantic. Just disappeared. President Sarkozy told the family, look, we’re probably not going to find anyone alive. And they were so courageous, he said, although I don’t know what act of cowardice you could perform when confronted with tragic news. What could you do—hide under your bed? Punch the president in the nose?
I woke up completely at nine o’clock, and I heard the repetition in the top of the hour news, and I heard that George Tiller was dead, in this violent way, and they repeated, he thought he was doing the right thing. He thought that what he was doing was right and necessary. Performing medical procedures that might be morally blurry, but served his patients’ wishes.
I don’t know how heavily or lightly he took his work. Abortion is a grey area for me. It’s certainly more serious than killing the spider in my kitchen sink. I can’t believe it’s exactly the same as killing a healthy, born and breathing human, though. I do believe that choosing to act, to try to do the right thing, even when the situation is horrible, when all paths are painful, is courageous. I hope Mr. Tiller was courageously trying to do the right thing, as he saw it, even though it was morally ambiguous and painful for everyone involved. But who knows, maybe he was a thoughtless rebellious nutcase. Or maybe, like me, he was sometimes courageous and sometimes a thoughtless rebellious nutcase.
The same day that Mr. Tiller and all those people flying from Brazil to France died, I got a week of my life back. I went to a meeting about one of my summer jobs and the boss said, “Well, we have two weeks before class starts, so….” In the bedtime story of my summer vacation, I had told myself I got two weeks off, free and clear, before I returned to teaching. (I had a root canal and a vacation to pay for.) I suddenly understood, at the meeting, that I had not counted the first week school was out in those free two weeks, since that week always gets polluted with grading final exams and cleaning out my classroom. There were always four weeks in June, but the sensation of realizing I had left one out of my June conception of reality was better than winning a prize on a game show.
I spent that afternoon at the swimming pool. I found the water too cold to actually swim. I just sat with my legs in. I leaned back to see the clouds. I watched two jets trace contrails. I read a little. Slept a little, under a big yellow shade. When I looked at the clouds, or the fevery wobble of the chlorinated water, I thought of George Tiller and how his life had ended. And those people on that airplane. Gone. How huge the world is, actually, and you’re still constantly sending people out into it, not knowing if you will ever see them again. The first week after school ends, I hardly know what to do with myself. I sleep twelve hours a night, and when I wake up, all that unstructured time is more unnerving than exciting. I try to schedule lunches with people I ought to see, and usually they are unavailable. This was the start of the second week, though, and my mind was untangling. I was feeling like myself again, like I wasn’t surprised to see myself in the mirror and words began to stand up for themselves instead of running by in a furious blur.
All those people, there that Sunday morning. It was Pentecost. They might have been having their confirmations. The altar linens were red. The altar flowers were red carnations. People were speaking in tongues in the lesson, and Jesus was saying in John how he would send an Advocate, and everything the disciples couldn’t understand was going to come out eventually. And then somebody shot an usher in the head.
It’s very mysterious, me sitting in my swimsuit just to be half-naked in the open air and sunshine where it’s socially acceptable to be half-naked, and looking at clouds, in the same world where a doctor gets shot in the head at church. Me deciding, capriciously, when I will drive home and make dinner.