BY SARAH TERZO
It was a dull, gray morning when Marjorie Walker drove into the parking lot of North Ridge Women's Center and parked her car. She saw that the clinic manager was already there, her red BMW parked in the employee section of the parking lot. The sky was overcast, and it was cold, and she felt a little bit thankful for that, because it meant that fewer protesters would show up at the clinic.
They had their regulars, most of whom stayed pretty quiet, only holding signs with slogans such as "Let Your Baby Live" and "We Can Help You" with a few more inflammatory "Abortion Is Murder" placards thrown in for good measure. They usually kept their distance from the women coming in and only occasionally approached one to offer literature. When the women turned them down, which almost always happened, they walked away with good grace. There were a couple of protesters, however, who crossed the line into outright harassment. There was a woman who showed up in wrinkled clothes, looking disheveled and unbalanced as she wheeled her baby carriage full of bloody dolls back and forth in front of the clinic. There was a man who occasionally showed up dressed as the Grim Reaper. And every now and then a group of people from out of town descended on the clinic with bloody pictures of aborted fetuses. By now Marjorie knew what fetuses looked like before and after abortion, and the pictures held no shock value for her. But they upset the women who were coming in for their abortions, women who were already nervous and troubled enough without having horrific pictures shoved in their faces. She was glad that those particular protesters hadn't shown up in a while and hoped they would not put in an appearance today.
She walked into the clinic and nodded hello to Michelle Gaines, her supervisor.
"So what's the schedule like today?" she asked.
"Pretty typical. Twenty procedures scheduled for today, all in the first trimester except for two. We've got one 14-weeker and one at 16 weeks. Dr. Donovan's on his way. He got held up in traffic but he should be here in plenty of time. How was your weekend?"
"It was fine. I finally met Bill's parents. His father is nice. His mother seems a little strange. She's really into crystals and auras and things like that. She couldn't stop talking about a psychic she was visiting. I think Bill was a bit embarrassed, but I told him that my family is just as odd."
"Especially that insane uncle of yours," Michelle said with a smile.
Marjorie groaned. "Don't even remind me of him. I told you about the Christmas gift he gave me, right?"
Michelle laughed. "That's right. He's having you frozen. That cryo -- cryo -- what is it?"
"Cryogenics," said Marjorie with a smile. "According to him, it's the science of the future. He's arranged to have the entire family cryogenically frozen after we die and stored for two hundred years in a containment facility in Philadelphia. I swear, he's really gone off the deep end. When I think about how much money he must have spent on this ridiculous idea of his, I can't believe it. He probably could've bought me a top-of-the-line home entertainment system or diamond ring with the money he spent. I'll tell you one thing about Christmas around my house, Michelle: it's not boring."
The door opened, and two of her coworkers came in, Crystal Williams and Patricia Swank, followed by two of the nurses and Dr. Donovan, who was wearing a friendly smile and a button-down shirt which unsuccessfully tried to hide a bulletproof vest. Marjorie smiled back in greeting, then sobered, as she always did, as she looked down at the vest the doctor was wearing. She had to remind herself, all the time, that there was real danger here, that there was always the possibility that one of the protesters would turn violent, or that a stranger, someone they'd never seen before, would try to hurt her or one of the others. Fortunately, there had never been any actual violence or threats that she was aware of, other than some yelling and name-calling from the more rowdy protesters. The doctor poured himself a cup of coffee and offered her one.
"Traffic was awful," he said. "There was an accident on the turnpike, and cars were backed up for a mile. It's a good thing I left early. So no one showed up yet?"
"Not yet," Marjorie said. "But they should be coming in any minute."
"No protesters so far," said Patricia with a smile. "Maybe the cold will keep them away."
"We can only hope," said Marjorie.
Almost on cue, a car pulled up and parked in the patient parking lot. A pale, frightened-looking teenager and an older woman who may have been her mother headed towards the clinic. The receptionist handed the girl some paperwork and Marjorie hurried into the procedure room to prepare the instruments. Things soon fell into the rhythm of an ordinary day. Women came in, young girls with their mothers and sometimes their fathers, slightly older women with their boyfriends or husbands, and sometimes two women came in together, one there to support the other.
Everything was running along smoothly when Michelle nodded towards the window and said, "Looks like one of them did show up."
Marjorie looked out the window and saw a young woman standing there with a small sign that read "Choose Life." She recognized the girl as one of the regular protesters, but had never seen her there alone before.
"Well," Marjorie said with a shrug. "She's one of the regular ones. I don't think she'll give us too much trouble."
"These people need to get a life," said Crystal angrily. "What the hell is wrong with them anyway? We're helping women. We're allowing people to go on with their lives, have careers, get educations. We're making the world a better place. All these people do is stand around and wave signs. If they care so much about babies, why aren't they out there taking care of abandoned children and orphans? Why aren't they out there fighting poverty? All they want to do is deny women their freedom."
Marjorie forced a smile. "You sound exactly like me when I first started," she told the young woman. "Back then, I used to complain every day about the protesters. After a while, though, you just sort of get used to them. They fade into the background. No big deal."
"It's just so frustrating," Crystal muttered, as she turned away from the window.
Photo by Elvert Barnes; some rights reserved.
It was almost an hour later and between procedures when Marjorie heard a heart-wrenching scream coming from outside the clinic.
"Oh my God," she muttered. "What's going on?" A small group of clinic workers were clustered around the window, and Marjorie shoved her way into the front.
The pro-life protester was on the ground. A man towered over her, shouting. She cowered beneath him, half his size, holding the sign up above her head as if for protection. As Marjorie watched, the man grabbed the sign out of the woman's hands and raised it above his head. Marjorie saw the girl cringe as the man swung, bringing the heavy sign down on her back. The girl cried out in pain.
"My God," Marjorie gasped.
A few feet away from the man and his victim, a young woman stood stiffly, staring at the confrontation in fear and helplessness.
The man was shouting, but Marjorie couldn't make out what he was saying. He raised the sign to strike again.
"We have to do something," Marjorie said. "That poor kid's getting beaten up!"
"Don't get involved," Michelle ordered. "Stay inside."
But Marjorie ignored her.
"Call the police," she said. Then she stormed out of the clinic and ran towards the huddled girl and angry man. Approaching the man, she spoke loudly and firmly. "Stop. Stop that at once."
The man turned on her, his face red, his eyes wild. "She has no right! Who the hell is she? Is she going to raise this kid? Take care of it? Let her drop out of school and take a job supporting some snot-nosed brat. This is none of her business!"
The man was slightly unsteady on his feet. His eyes were red-rimmed and he appeared to be swaying. Marjorie thought that he must be drunk or on some kind of drug.
"Sir," she said, "you need to calm down."
"I don't need someone judging me! We're doing the right thing! This little self-righteous bitch shouldn't be out here!"
He raised the sign to strike again. In the distance, Marjorie heard a siren. The girl on the ground looked up, her eyes wide and terrified. Marjorie grabbed the man's arm.
Angrily, he shook her off. Then he turned and backhanded her across the face. She staggered back, pain blasting through her. She tasted blood. Then a police car was turning into the lot and police officers were running towards the man. One of them grabbed him and pulled his hands behind his back, cuffing him. The other one went over to Marjorie.
"Are you okay?"
Marjorie touched her nose. It hurt but did not seem to be broken. "I'm okay."
The other officer was reading the man his rights. The first officer then turned to the girl on the ground.
"What about you? Do you need medical attention?"
"No," whispered the girl. There were tears running down her face.
By now, some of the other clinic workers had come out to talk to the police. The man's partner, the woman coming in for an abortion, was quickly ushered into the clinic while Michelle talked to the police officer. Marjorie was left alone with the girl.
She squatted down. The girl cowered.
"It's all right," Marjorie said gently. She held out her hand. "What's your name, honey? I've seen you around here but I don't know your name."
"Kelly," the girl answered, as Marjorie helped her to her feet. "My name is Kelly."
"I'm sorry this happened, Kelly," Marjorie said. "But you're safe now. Do you have someone you can call? Someone who can pick you up?"
Kelly looked up at Marjorie, sniffling slightly. Her eyes were still filled with tears, but she straightened in resolve.
"No," she said. "I want to stay. As long as they're doing abortions, I want to stay."
Marjorie sighed. The girl shouldn't be here, but she couldn't force her to go home. She reached into her pocket and pulled out some tissues. She handed them to Kelly, who took them gratefully and began wiping her tears.
"Do you have a cell phone?" she asked the young woman.
"Yes," said the girl.
"If you need to, call someone to pick you up. You should. Maybe it's not such a good idea to be here alone."
The girl nodded. "I know. But I have to stay."
Marjorie turned to leave and the girl said "Wait."
Kelly looked straight into Marjorie's eyes. "Why do you work here?" she asked. "You were so kind to me. Obviously you're a good person. Why do you help kill babies?"
Marjorie frowned. "I help this girl and this is the thanks I get," she thought angrily. How stupid to think she had something in common with an anti-choice protester. Without answering, she turned and walked away.
For the rest of the day, she avoided looking out the window.
* * *
By the end of the day, it was getting dark and the temperature had dropped even further. As Marjorie said goodbye to her fellow clinic workers and walked to her car, sleet began to fall. The parking lot was slick and wet with ice that was beginning to form.
She took one last look at Kelly, who was still standing in the cold outside the clinic. The girl's head was bowed and her lips were moving in silent prayer. Marjorie turned away and got in her car.
She drove. The sleet turned into snow and visibility was poor. As she approached a stop sign, she stepped on the brake. She pressed on the brake harder, but the car kept moving, skidding into the intersection. Marjorie fought the wheel, trying to steer out of the skid, but the car was spinning around. She watched in horror as a pickup truck came bearing down on her, ready to hit her head-on. Then there was a horrible crack, a moment of violent, agonizing pain -- then nothing.
* * *
Marjorie could hear voices, but she couldn't make out any words. She opened her eyes, but her vision was blurry. She could hear the beeping of machines. "Where am I?" she wondered.
Slowly, her memories came back. The clinic. The protester and the man with the sign. Then the drive home and . . . an accident. She had been in an accident.
Gradually, her vision began to clear and she realized she was in a hospital room. She looked around and saw that she was lying in a hospital bed attached to an IV. There didn't seem to be anyone in the room with her. She tried to get up and realized she couldn't move. She could only move her eyes and her head a little bit, but her body was frozen in place, paralyzed.
She heard footsteps and was able to turn her head enough to see a nurse bending over one of the machines next to her bed. She struggled to speak. At first, all that came out was a faint croak. Then she said "Where am I?" Her voice was hoarse and cracking.
The nurse looked up, and her eyes widened in surprise. She paused a minute, looking uncomfortable. "You're in a hospital," she said. "You were in an accident."
"I know . . . I remember." A terrible thought occurred to Marjorie. "I can't move . . . I can't move . . . am I paralyzed?"
"The doctor will explain everything to you in a minute."
The nurse left the room. Marjorie was left waiting. She heard the beeping of the monitors and looked up at the white ceiling. She didn't feel any pain, only a strange numbness. She tried to imagine going through the rest of her life as a paraplegic. She blinked back tears. How long had she been in the hospital? Where was Bill? Where were her parents? Did anyone even know she was here?
The nurse came back with two men, one who may have been a doctor. He began checking her vital signs, reading the numbers on the many machines and adjusting them around her bed. He said nothing to Marjorie.
"Are you my doctor?" she asked. "I know I was in an accident. What hospital am I in? Has anyone been here to see me? How badly am I hurt?"
The doctor ignored all her questions. He pulled out a flashlight and leaned over her, shining the light in one eye and then in the other.
"Please, won't you talk to me? What's going on? Please tell me . . . Am I paralyzed? Will I ever walk again?"
The doctor turned to the nurse at the side of the bed. He nodded.
"Everything should be fine. Get her prepped for surgery."
"Yes, Dr. Hall," said the nurse.
"Wait," Marjorie cried to the doctor's retreating back. "I'm having an operation? What's wrong with me? What are you going to do? Why won't you talk to me?"
Photo by Zdenko Zivkovic; some rights reserved.
One of the nurses looked at her and quickly looked away. The other one turned and followed the doctor out of the room. A third nurse came in with a tray. On the tray was a large needle.
"Please," said Marjorie. "Please talk to me. What's going on?"
She locked eyes with the nurse holding the tray. "Please," she pleaded.
The woman sighed deeply. "You're being prepped for surgery," she said. "Try to calm down."
"Don't talk to them, Alicia," said the other nurse. "I told you a million times. It only makes it harder for you and for them."
The nurse who had scolded Alicia took the syringe and leaned over Marjorie. She injected the medication into her IV line. Then she turned and walked away.
"Please," said Marjorie again, looking up at Alicia. "Am I going to be okay?"
"It'll all be over soon," Alicia said sadly. "Just close your eyes and go to sleep now."
The nurses walked out of the room, but she could still hear them in the hallway.
"I think I've about had it with this job," said one of them, the one named Alicia, she thought. "I mean, seriously. I know what the Supreme Court says. I know we're saving lives. But this just doesn't seem right to me."
"I know it's hard. It's hard when they wake up, especially, and when they're so young. But you have to understand. The heart will be going to a woman in the city who's been on a transplant list for over a year. The liver and kidneys and even the lungs will go to other people. We need these donors -- there's a need for organs; you know that need can't be met any other way. Besides, she has no relatives. At least none who are willing to pay for her care. Imagine the medical bills it would generate to rehabilitate her and get her walking again, functioning again, living again. An astronomical amount of money, and when you think about it, she had her chance at life. Even if she were to survive, how could she understand the world and what's going on in it 200 years after she died? It's kinder to her -- and everyone her organs will save."
"And the fact that the hospital is getting thousands and thousands of dollars from selling these organs is irrelevant, I suppose."
"Well, you know, this is what we do. We save lives. And it's legal. And if you don't do it, someone else will. I know it's hard. I know it's taxing sometimes, but we're doing the right thing."
"Maybe you think so. But I'm done. This is the last time for me."
Marjorie had been listening to the conversation with growing horror. "I died," she thought. "They brought me back. And now they're killing me."
She began to drift away. She struggled against the narcotic, dreamy darkness. She gritted her teeth, tried to thrash around on the bed, but her body seemed to be encased in a straitjacket of paralysis. She couldn't move, could barely breathe, and her vision was growing dim. She heard the beeping of the machine speed up as her heart pounded and she struggled with all her strength to stay awake. Everything began to fade. As she slipped away, she heard the door opening and closing, heard footsteps, and felt the bed being wheeled away, away, into darkness.
* * *
Melanie Lane stood quietly outside the hospital with her small group of friends who came every Sunday, rain or shine. She watched, sadly, as an ambulance left, bearing the organs of some poor human being who had been killed, used and destroyed for the selfish gain of others. She blinked back tears. She wondered about the victim. Was it a man or a woman? Young or old? She would never know. She raised her sign as two of the nurses left the hospital and walked to their cars. Maybe, one day, one of them would stop and talk to her, would listen to her, would realize that what they were doing was murder. Maybe one of them would leave. Maybe someday, other people would speak out and it would all end. She turned to her friends and fellow protesters, and read the sadness in their eyes. Sometimes, the sign seemed so heavy. The human tragedy was more than she could deal with. She could only imagine what went on behind the walls of this hospital, so modern, sleek and professional.
Then the day was ending, the night was falling, and she and her friends turned to leave.
Photo by Eric P; some rights reserved.