Dear M and S,
I do not ask for understanding, but comprehension. You both have questions. Some I’ve answered, insinuated, or obscured for the normal parental reasons. I owe you, though, the story as I remember it so you may understand through comprehension how dangerous it is, even in the 21st Century, to contradict and undermine conventional thinking. I hope our family’s historical facts illustrate our ongoing obligation to confront fundamental Pentecostal thinking so we move forward, not backwards. I am now a mere four years younger than your grandfather when one blinded by fundamentalism and the hate it naturally engenders created a symbol of the man who you never knew.
I last saw my father on Sunday, 7 March 1993. We did not see each other often, but we talked with relative frequency and were repairing a fairly entrenched rift in our relationship that began 10 years prior when he left our family for another woman after moving us—your grandmother, aunt, and I—to a shit small hovel of an antiquated old southern town in Alabama split between the poles of old blue blood southern aristocratic antebellum money and dirt floor poverty. Dad came and stayed the weekend with me in Birmingham as he did infrequently. Three days before his visit, I’d had my wisdom teeth removed. He called, as he was want to do, late in the afternoon on Thursday or Friday and announced he was coming into town and would be staying with me. It was a conversation like any other and I don’t recall any real detail other than he was coming.
I know he stayed over at least Saturday and Sunday 6 and 7 March 1993. I have no memories whatsoever of Saturday night; yet, I do vividly remember Sunday dinner, can still see the round wooden table and mismatched chairs I took from home when I moved away in 1989, and know we grilled cow protein of some form or another—it was probably a New York Strip as I’d not developed an appreciation for the rib eye yet. Due to the recent dental surgery, the steak, though cooked appropriately, was difficult to chew which made it more difficult to swallow. We enjoyed our meal, some more than others, while Billie Holliday gently but huskily sang in the background. Our conversation drifted from school, to my sister—she was 17 and in the final days of her senior year, to politics—President Clinton had just been inaugurated, to my progress in school, and to his work.
Dad explained the protesters were becoming ever more aggressive and confrontational. The few protesters I personally encountered a few years prior when I traveled the circuit with dad were the typical abortion porn sign holders and silent layers of hands. In my teen years, I found his weekly schedule nothing but normal though it took him from our small town hell to Columbus, Georgia then to Montgomery, Alabama, then to Mobile, Alabama, and finally to Pensacola, Florida only to resume anew the next week. Other kids’ parents traveled so what was so different about his schedule? I did not figure out until much later that he made this circuit because no one else would. I certainly never took it a logical step further and deeper to ask why no other local doctor in Columbus, Montgomery, Mobile, and/or Pensacola serviced these clinics. It was my normal and I was 14 when I first started driving him on some of his trips; yet, as we discussed the present situation, I noticed he seemed preoccupied. We finished our meal, drained a few more beers, and awoke March 8 and said our goodbyes.
I was aware clinics were bombed in the past and even asked him once if he ever worried about one of the clinics he serviced getting attacked. He reassuringly told me it did not concern him, and he went on with his day. Over the weekend of his last visit, though, I thought about the heightened protests, and the ever increasing threats of violence; additionally I remembered my mom calling me one afternoon about a year before this final visit to tell me strangers were in town passing out wanted posters of dad which included his weekly schedule. When that incident occurred, he again brushed off our concern and said he was not preoccupied with the actions of some crazies.
That Monday morning, prior to seeing him off for the last time, I confronted him about the posters, the renewed threats, and told him I was scared for his safety. Dad finally told me he had been carrying a gun for a few years, that he suspected he was being followed frequently, and that a strange protester approached him that previous Friday (would have been 5 March) while he was in the car leaving the clinic in Pensacola heading my way. He said this man had an eerie look about him and spoke to dad through his car window while staring deeply at him with glazed long staring maniacal eyes. I remember asking when the stalking started, and he indicated it had been going on at least as long as the wanted poster’s origination about a year or so earlier. I asked if he considered quitting the circuit and going back to less controversial OB/GYN care. He told me if he stopped, it would be difficult to find a replacement and he was committed to his patients. He left headed south, and for the first time I admitted to myself that he had a dangerous job and as anyone whose parent has a dangerous job, I wrapped myself in the warmth and security of “not mine”, “not this time”, and drank the Lethean water temporarily cooling my angst and trepidation.
I spoke with your grandfather again on 9 March 1993. We did not discuss anything specific. I was preparing for exams; he was in another of the endless line of hotel rooms and sounded lonely. Sadly, our terminal conversation was brief and unremarkable. He indicated he was well and heading to Pensacola, and I told him to be safe. In retrospect he seemed to hang on the line as though he did not want the conversation to end; yet, neither of us could find a way to carry it forward.
I drove to class the next morning on what was, otherwise, an exceedingly peaceful and beautiful spring day in Birmingham. I’ve always preferred living in Birmingham than other cities as it is big enough to provide some degree of needed anonymity; yet, small enough to retain remnants of its prior smallness which is both sides of the pole simultaneously. As I was studying for a Semantics class, dad was driving to work. As I got into my car to head home, he was very likely getting out of his for the last time.
You guys have never seen a real answering machine as far as I know since everyone has digital voicemail these days. In ’93 you were lucky to have the kind with a microcassette (I’ll explain that later) that was the size of a stereo component. I don’t recall who checked the messages on the afternoon of 10 March—my at the time girlfriend or me—but I remember thinking it odd to get a message from my grandmother in the middle of the week in the middle of the day. It was an altogether cryptic but clear message. She simply said “call me when you get home.” Both of you are still too young to know there are certain messages you don’t want to return. I don’t mean the messages from people you’ve left behind or don’t want to talk with at that particular moment, but the messages from family purposely ambiguous so you are intrigued enough, but not too scared, to return the call as soon as you hear the message. Of course I sensed something was wrong, and, logically, I feared it involved dad.
Dad called me one night in January surprisingly upbeat and happy sounding. It was the night of the 20th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision (Supreme Court decision that guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion as you may or may not know when you read this; I’ll get to abortion proper later), and he actually to and was genuinely excited to share his day with me. First, he said someone from Rolling Stone magazine contacted him recently looking to do a profile on his experience as one of the few Southern abortion providers; secondly, he told me how he had finally had enough of the protesters and their bullshit. He then described how he sang “Happy Birthday to You” at the protesters outside one of the clinics in Montgomery and in the penultimate verse added, “happy birthday dear Roe v. Waaaade.” He subsequently aimed a small boom box at those gathered outside the clinic and played Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” singing loudly along.
For some reason, I thought of this event as well as the suspicious protestor dad described over the weekend as I returned my grandmother’s call. When she answered, I immediately knew what I suspected was true; yet, we had to play out the charade. I asked her why she called. She asked if I had seen the news. I told her I had been at school studying. She said good. I asked why. She then told me what I intuitively knew. “Your dad was shot,” she said and I could hear her sadness as she said it. I asked if he was ok thinking people survive gun shots routinely. She told me he wasn’t and that he died e route to the local hospital. She said she was sorry, that she loved me, and asked that I call my mom.
One day both of you will confront my mortality. Let’s hope it is much longer than four years from now when I’ll be 47 which is how old your grandfather was when he died. I know that seems old, but it is really very young, and when you hit forty, you’ll both realize how young it is. My desire is you are prepared for it and it doesn’t pounce on you from behind a corner while you’re busy reading some goddamned semantics notes.
I drove to my mother’s house where some friends and my sister had gathered. We hugged, cried, and watched cable news run the story of dad’s death and label him “the first abortion doctor to be murdered” ad infinitum. You have to contextualize the nature of the event and times to truly understand. On one really used the internet, e-mail was barely in anyone’s vocabulary, and few people had cell phones. CNN was the only 24 hour news source (it’s hard to conceive of life without Fox, but it was pleasantly non-existent at the time). Abortion clinic violence was still considered fresh news and had not yet matured and then expired. In laymen’s terms, your grandfather’s assassination was a big fucking deal, and was the news for days, months, and years as more doctors and nurses in the abortion field died violently. Cable news still had some decency about the images they showed, or they were simply too late to get images of your grandfather’s body. The image I recall from that spring day is a shot of his bloodstained glasses disfigured and broken in the grass where his body most assuredly fell.
Within hours of the killing, my mother’s phone started an interminable ringing which would not abate for months. On the other end of the line was a New York Times reporter looking for comment. I considered whether or not we wanted to talk, I had mixed feelings of surprise and anger at being asked for comment on the day I found out my dad was dead, and I had no idea what to do given our family’s life capsized, up righted, capsized, and sank in the span of a few hours that afternoon. We had large issues confronting us: burial, finances, familial relations, loss, and grief, and it was overwhelming to add media and politics into the mix. Initially, I wanted to simply hang up on the woman from the Times; yet, I remembered how joyful dad was when he thought someone was finally going to tell his story and write about the insane conditions under which he worked all at the hands of fundamentalists. I also remembered his calm happiness when he relayed the events of 22 January 2010 and how he joyously sang in defense of his profession and services. I made a decision, asked for the reporter’s name and number, and said I’d call her back later as we had other pressing needs to address.
I always wondered if the protester dad described to me the weekend before he died was Michael Griffin, the man who assassinated your grandfather. If so, he looked into the eyes of his assassin five days before he struck, and it was the last time he looked into his eyes as Griffin attacked from behind too cowardly to face the person he hated, stalked, and still feels deserved to die. I am still convinced others were involved in dad’s assassination. There was an organized protest in front of the clinic the day
Griffin struck, and the organizer of the protest had witnessed to Griffin in the weeks leading up to the assassination. This self styled minster had an effigy of your grandfather in his garage, and I do not doubt he influenced or seduced Griffin to take his violent action. I will tell you more about these events as I continue the story.
To this day I cannot forget the image of his glasses. I also continue to celebrate his fine voice which was inspiring to me personally and has proven inspirational to others. I am now the dad where I once was the son, and it is my obligation and duty to pass this history on to you so, perhaps, in some minor way, it helps you understand the essence and roots of hatred as well as how one fine voice can make all the difference if you simply sing out.
PS. The title was taken from Treblinka by Jean Francois Steiner