Last year at this time I was reeling, along with many many others. I remember the phone call I received on May 31st 2009, to give me the news that Dr. Tiller had been murdered in his church. I could not believe it. I vacillated between disbelief, anger, shock and back again. Over and over and over the feelings waved onto me.
This lasted for a good month, if not longer. And what I know is that, were it not for the amazingly supportive prochoice community I find myself a part of, I would not have made it through the grief intact. The most difficult part was that my closest friends and family (who are not so involved in choice issues) could not grasp what I was feeling. My husband was very confused. He understood why I was upset, but he couldn?t grasp the depth of my grief. Lucky for me, I was still working in the clinic and found the support I so desperately needed– that we all so desperately needed. We leaned on each other, told stories about having met Dr. Tiller, and all the great work he did. We told our own stories about helping women. We sat in silence.
I was terrified. I used to go into work very early in the morning by myself. And for several weeks, I was very nervous about going in to work.
And I was pissed. LIVID. That they could do this to us. That they could take this man away from the world. That they could rock my world so wholly and completely. That they could make me feel unsafe in the most loving place I had ever been to.
I turned to the online community in a big way. I became obsessed with information on the murder. Because eventually, people went back to life as usual. But I couldn?t see how that was possible. And I didn?t think the response was big enough. People were just going to let this go. As long as I found support with people who were still talking about it, I could heal.
All over the country, people mourned for this man that literally saved women?s lives. But nothing was happening in Michigan. Not one vigil, not one memorial service. People were scared. Planned Parenthood was scared. MARAL no longer existed. There was no one to organize a vigil.
So I did. I found support through a feminist student group at my alma matter, the University of Michigan. Together we secured the Diag as the space for our vigil. I contacted every group I could think of, made a flyer, and wrote a ceremony. We gathered, shared, spoke, and supported. And together, we heal and move forward.
In honor of Dr. Tiller, I repost the ceremony here again. This blog started on the 4th of July, 2009, with the Dr. Tiller vigil. Here we remember him, a year after his murder. you are not forgotten, Dr. Tiller.
CANDLELIGHT VIGIL TO HONOR AND CELEBRATE DR. GEROGE TILLER
OPENING AND WELCOME:
Good evening, and welcome everyone.? We have come together tonight to find comfort in each other? to mourn? grieve? honor? and celebrate the life of Dr. George Tiller.?
Dr. Tiller was assassinated on Sunday May 31st while serving as an usher in his church? He was targeted because of his unwavering commitment and passionate belief in providing abortion services to women from all over the country.?
Tonight I am honored to welcome Rabbi Robert Levy, from Temple Beth Emeth on Packard Road, to come forward and offer the opening blessing??
Thank you Rabbi Levy.?
All of us know of Dr. Tiller as a man who was dedicated to kindness? courtesy? justice? love? and respect.? We all know that he provided women and families who found themselves in unthinkable situations with a last resort?a late term abortion with compassion and love.? Dr. Tiller was a rare gem, a man who understood deeply the complexity of an abortion decision, and who ministered to the hearts and souls of women.?
But Dr. Tiller was not just that.? He was a husband?a father?a grandfather and a dear friend to many.? He was a veteran ? a US Navy flight surgeon.? When he was young he wanted to be a dermatologist.? But life had different plans for Dr. Tiller.
Dr. Tiller?s father, a family physician, his mother, sister and brother-in-law were killed in a plane crash in 1970? Dr. Tiller went back to Wichita to run his father?s office before closing it down to pursue dermatology.? It was then that he learned from his patients that his father had been performing illegal abortions for women who needed them?Dr. Tiller decided to keep his father?s office open.? In 1973, after Roe v Wade was passed, Dr. Tiller began performing abortions.?
I would now like to welcome Renee Chelian, Executive Director of Northland Family Planning Centers, to come forward and speak.? Renee was a friend of Dr. Tiller?s and a cofounder of the Abortion Care Network (formerly the National Coalition of Abortion Providers) with Dr. Tiller.? I would like her to share some of her own stories about Dr. Tiller as a man, and the spirit in which he served his patients.
There are so many things I want to say here tonight.? I am honored to have known and been a friend of George Tillers for 30 years.
Being an abortion provider and in my case, an activist as well, carries a host of blessings and challenges –that is what makes it compelling and wonderful and the life work that I and many others have chosen. We are privileged to serve, care for and be constantly challenged by very complex patients at very complex points in their lives–we move on the edges of life and death and when we do things well, we ease passages, provide space for transformation and second chances, provide safe haven, and treat many who have never been treated as so with dignity, respect and deep compassion.? We believe women can be trusted with the most difficult moral challenges and we live this belief every day. Dr. Tiller lived by and recited many axioms and one of the many was TRUST WOMEN.? In fact at Dr. Tiller?s funeral, next to a large portrait of him, was a wreath with a banner that read ?TRUST WOMEN.?? (Point to button)
My daughter Lara and I attended the funeral.? I would like to share with you a bit of the?Man —George Tiller – as we experienced?him at?his funeral.??
?As we pulled up to the church, not the one he was?killed in but the large one that always had a service for patients and volunteers when?his clinic was the target of?”operation rescue” summers of terror,?we saw about 50 Patriot guards lining the streets with their gleaming motorcycles and large American Flags flying.? They did not care one way or another about?the abortion issue, but Dr. Tiller was a?United States Navy Veteran and they?were there to?help honor him and keep protestors away.??There were also?about 100?volunteers lining the streets with?bright blue shirts on that?read??National Organization for Women? on the front and on the back??ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING?, a very favorite saying of Georges?–separating media and possible?protestors.? When we entered the church we were given long stem white carnations, as?a sign of Hope and Love.?
We got there?early because?a crowd of more than?1,000 were expected.? Lara and I got separated from the?friends we?walked and while we were not happy about being separated from?close?friends we could grieve with, we stayed put.? To my left were 3 kids?roughly between 16 and 19 years of age.? I leaned over and politely asked them if they knew Dr. Tillers family.? The oldest one spoke and said ?No Ma?am, we are members of his congregation.? I said “I am so sorry that you all had to witness something so horrible and tragic”.? He told me that his younger sister was standing very near Dr. Tiller and had seen the entire thing,?she and her?family?are in counseling and they would in time, heal.? I told him I was so sorry again, and introduced myself and told him where I was from and why I was there.? He seemed shocked that I had traveled so far.? I pointed out some friends and the distant cities they had traveled from.? About 10 minutes later he tapped me on the shoulder and said” Dr. Tiller was a kind and good man.? I don’t know much about abortion but I know that if he did them, there was a reason and I hope that you do not quit what you do because of what happened here”.? Another 10 minutes and the lady behind me tapped me on the shoulder and essentially gave me a prayer for safety and the same encouragement and thanked me for coming, apparently having spoken with the 3 kids next to me.?
I saw Lara engaged in a conversation with the woman next to her. Lara told me she had told her that?”she did not know if she belonged there or not, but Dr. Tiller had done an abortion for her–when she was suicidal a number of years ago.? She was now healthy and had recently adopted a little girl.? She told Lara that Dr. Tiller had not only saved her life but that her present life, including being a mother, was only possible because of his compassion.? Lara told her that she belonged at this church service as much as anyone who knew him well—–she was the reason he chose his life work.? Before we left the church I heard her tell Lara, I don’t believe that it was an accident that we sat together and she wished us many blessings.
The family decided to keep this service about George the man, not the doctor.? His best friend?of 50 years, Larry,?made us laugh and cry as he told personal stories of their long friendship as boys, men and as married couples. I would like to?repeat 2 of those?as I think they?really?illustrate George,?the man. ?
1.? When?George was living in student housing with his wife Jeanne, they got on their bicycle and rode about an hour to where ever Larry and his wife lived.? When they arrived, the?surprised couple met them at the door and joyously told them” we are so glad you came over we have good news to share”.? They told the Tillers that they were expecting their first child and the 4 spent the day together celebrating and dreaming.?
The next morning the Tillers got on their bicycles and rode the hour again and rang the doorbell.? When Larry and his wife let them in, the Tillers said “we have good news to share also” we are expecting our first baby.? Larry explained to us that they never let on that first day as they did not want to diminish the joy of their friends; they let them have their day and came back the next?to share their own happy baby news.
I don’t know about any of you but that made me really think of how I wanted to?BE with other people for the remainder of my life.
2?? The second was when Larry lost his job in the 90′s and told George I lost my job and don’t know what I will do.? George told him, you will find another job but don’t take the first one–take the best one.? Then George told him that he was now assigned Federal Marshall 24 hour protection, and he lived with it for more than 3 years, He said Larry you have?lost your job and I have lost my freedom. Larry told the gatherers “today George is a free man”.
Larry finished his eulogy with these words ?Dear God, get heaven ready, because Mr. Enthusiasm is coming.? Heaven will never be the same.”
His four children all spoke, each telling a different story about their dad. Before they began they gave a big group hug and after each one finished, they did another group hug.
One told of letters he had written her while she was growing up, and read one that was particularly moving.? She had lost a race at 13 years old and was pretty upset. She read
“I am proud of the ways you handled yourself—no whining or complaining today.? One race does not spoil the entire racing season.? Remember, nobody wins all the time, not Dad, not Mom.
Be gracious in victory, never arrogant. Share the credit and the praise. And the sting and the loneliness and the depression of defeat or setback will be less severe. Because the friends with whom you have shared the good times will not abandon you in the bad times.? Love dad and underlined several times
One daughter told us of?their shared “warped sense of humor”, action movies and especially Star Trek. She read from a poster he bought her of Star Trek axioms as he told her “read these every day before you go out and you will be successful in life”.
The third daughter told of the prior week vacation to Disney world with George, Jeanne and her husband and children. How much fun he was and what a geeky kind of grandpa and tourist he enjoyed being.? She also told us a story about how he shared some life lessons with her recently.
He said “life is like an Impressionist painting. When you are up close to it, it can be confusing and not make any sense. ……Only when you stand back from it can you see the broad, masterful strokes of the artist.? And then he laughed at himself, she said.
After her father?s death and the out pouring of condolences, sympathy and stories, she said ” I thought, Well if life is a painting, then dad, you’re the artist.? As I look out on you today—all of you, in many colors—I see all the brush strokes, I see all the dots.? I see all the people, the color, the canvas of my dad’s life.? I can stand back from it and I can see the plan. I can see the whole picture.? He really did paint an incredible masterpiece, and it’s you.? It’s all of you. You are my dad’s living masterpiece.
George’s son, Maury, the son of his sister who?he and Jeanne had? adopted when his mother and father along with Dr Tiller’s mother and father were killed in a plane crash when he was one year old was the only?one of his children ?who made reference to how George died.? He said
“I struggle with the manner in which he was welcomed into heaven. I believe that God decided you have done everything I asked a person to do here on earth.? Now I will show the world what a loving, compassionate, courageous, selfless man you are. And so it happened.”? He said “his dad was in a much safer place now, where he can see his family every day. You cannot see him with your eyes but if you close your eyes and take a deep breath, you feel him right next to you”. But please, don’t do this while you are driving.”?
This kind of statement seemed so “Tiller children”.?
The emotional high point came near the end of the service when Jeanne Tiller stood before the gathering and sang the “The Lord’s Prayer” in a strong unwavering voice dedicating it to “the love of my life and my best buddy”.?
As we sat for lunch with the 1000 or so family, friends and colleagues –on big screens were power point pictures of George from a child all thru his life complete with his 10 beloved grandchildren.?
Several of us, who though we knew him so very well, were blown away by this extraordinary family and really how little we knew of so many?parts of his life.? It seems that he was teaching us yet another lesson. One lawyer friend of many of ours remarked “I really need to get a life” Dr. Tiller lived as fully with his family as he fully worked with his patients.
George was really PRESENT with anyone he spoke with.? His attention or eyes did not wander.? He asked questions and?listened to your answers.??He was or seemed genuinely interested, even telling a new employee of a friend?recently that as she answered the phones in the clinic she worked in to remember that she had the most important job in the clinic as she was the first?person to be able to help women who were calling looking for?their help.
He really listened to people because he cared and then he often shared one of his famous axioms. I will try hard to remember this lesson and live my life?in the PRESENT?with my friends?and loved ones.?
How do we make sense of this horrible event? It is my job to help navigate the hardest things…..to frame them in some way we can respond, get better, and grow through our challenges. But I cannot make sense of this. I am heartbroken. Part of this is the violent way in which he was killed. I am sure anyone who loses someone suddenly to violence feels there is no sense to it, no good. This is magnified by Dr. Tiller?s real work with patients, his leadership and courage for all of us. But does this mean we are without hope, the ability to take action, a path of direction.? NO. Absolutely Not.
Why do we do this work? Why are we abortion providers? Abortion is about the reality. There is nothing theoretical about being faced with the decision to terminate a pregnancy.? Dr. Tiller lived this reality and he said?OFTEN and so very beautifully:
?”Abortion is not a?cerebral or a reproductive issue. Abortion is a matter of the heart. For until one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about abortion makes any sense at all.”
I have heard many times —and this message was reinforced in the tone of the media coverage immediately following Dr Tillers murder.–that the risk of violence comes with the territory of being an abortion provider. I do not accept this.? ?I will live with it–as do the incredible people around the world who work in abortion care, at much higher risk than I do every day. But, I do not accept that this risk comes with the territory. I do not accept that I have become an unwilling expert in combating?domestic terrorism, that my gut instincts are so finely honed doe to a concerted expenditure of effort and energy and fear.? I do not accept that this is our lot. I challenge this expectation and I ask you to do the same.? I can live with it, but I cannot accept it.
This is often –incorrectly –framed as a war. This thing is –in a war both sides have weapons. Our only weapons are dedication, knowledge, courage, compassion, trust, justice, and dignity–the bedrock’s of care Dr. Tiller preached to us.
How did we end up here?? We are health care providers already signed up to do something complicated and difficult without the threat of violence lurking. We ended up here because a concerted, real effort on the parts of thousands of people who mask benignly under the guise of being “prolife” as they proliferate violence with constant threats, the dehumanization of all of us who work in abortion?care, funding activity that goes far beyond simple, legal and harmless protest.
But I believe that goodness will reign-that this outrage will spark change.? I believe in the possibility of 45 million women, and their partners, living in the United States who have had an abortion sharing their story and breaking their unspoken code of silence. I believe in each of you here tonight, honoring Dr. Tiller.? I believe in humanity, just like Dr Tiller did–and that is why I am an abortion provider.
I want to thank all of you for coming tonight and thank you Jennifer for organizing this event. It would not have happened in Michigan, had you not almost single handed, followed your heart, stepped up and did the right thing to honor George Tiller
Thank you, Renee.
It is important to say out loud that we understand the full target of the bullet that killed Dr. Tiller.? That bullet was not only meant to kill Dr. Tiller, but to intimidate?terrorize? and silence all who work for reproductive rights.? Tonight we break that silence.? Tonight we are here to say out loud that we will not be terrorized, and we will not be intimidated.?
But most importantly we will not be silent.?
In the United State since 1973 there have been more then 45 million women who have chosen to have safe, legal abortions. ?They have received excellent care from physicians like Dr. Tiller and have done the best they know how to for themselves and their families.? Yet they are silent.? What does it take to keep 45 million women, and their families and partners, their significant others and friends, silent?? They have to spend millions and millions of dollars to shame us.? To tell us we are murderers over and over until we almost believe it ourselves.? It is time to break the silence.? Speak out to someone you love.? Tell someone ?I had an abortion.????I had an abortion, and I am not ashamed of my decision?and I will always protect the rights of women to choose.?
I would like to invite Lara Chelian to come forward and share with us a poem.??
An Open Letter to 21 Million Women by B.J. Isaacson-Jones ( 1988 )
Where are you??
For over 16 years we have provided?
you with choices?
I remember??I sometimes cried with you.?
Choices, nevertheless, when you were desperate.
Remember how we protected your privacy?
and treated you with dignity and respect?
had been brought to us in shackles?
with an armed guard, or?
that you would run into?
one of your students??
I remember each of you.
Our clinic was firebombed.?
Do you recall??
Exhausted and terrified we had?
been up all night.?
We rerouted you to another clinic?
because you wanted an abortion that day.?
Where are you?
Priding ourselves on providing abortions for?
those who cannot pay, we have spent millions?
of dollars that we never really?
had caring for you. We wanted?
to give a choice.?
I also gave you cab fare and?
money for dinner from my own pocket.?
Have you forgotten?
I remember you cried and asked me how?
you could carry this pregnancy to term when?
were abusing the children you had,?
were having an affair,?
tested positive for AIDS,?
could not handle another,?
were raped by your mother?s boyfriend,?
pregnant by your father and?
shocked and torn apart when?
your very much wanted and loved?
fetus was found to be?
Your mother picketed our clinic?
regularly. We brought you in after dark.?
Have you mustered the courage?
to tell her that you are pro-choice??
I recall shielding your shaking body, guiding you?
and you husband through the picket lines.?
They screamed adoption, not abortion!?
You wondered how you could explain your?
choice to your young children.
You broke our hearts.?
You had just celebrated your twelfth birthday?
when you came to us. You clutched?
your teddy bear, sucked your thumb?
and cried out for your mom who asked?
you why you had gotten yourself pregnant.?
You replied that you just wanted to be grown.?
You?re twenty today.?
Where are you?
I pretend I don?t know you in the market,?
at social gatherings and on the street.?
I told you I would.?
After your procedure you told me that you would?
fight for reproductive choices (parenthood,?
adoption, and abortion) for your mother, daughters,?
and grandchildren. You will . . . won?t you?
I have no regrets. I care about?
each and every one of you and?
treasure all that you?ve taught me.?
But I?m angry. I can?t do this alone.?
I?m not asking you to speak about your abortion, but?
You need to speak out and you need to speak?
out now. Where are you?
Thank you, Lara.
By now we all understand the power of silence.? Let us take that power back and use it to heal our hearts and reflect on the courageous life of Dr. George Tiller.? For the next 2 minutes, let us observe a time to silently reflect and honor Dr. Tiller.? At the end of our silent reflection, I will invite everyone back for a closing prayer.
2 MINUTES SILENCE.
I would like to end this service with a few of Dr. Tiller?s own words, and a prayer.
In 2001 Dr. Tiller said, ?This battle is about self-determination by women of the direction and course of their lives and their family?s lives.? Abortion is about women?s hopes and dreams.? Abortion is a matter of survival for all women.?
In his own words:
?I am a woman educated physician?? I have been given the gifts of understanding from women who have had terminations of pregnancy.? Abortion is about a woman?s hopes, dreams, potential? the rest of their lives.? We expect our daughters to be dynamic, bright, growing, aggressive women.? What sense does it make to tell you that you?re not smart enough, because that?s what it is; you?re not smart enough to make a decision about the rest of your life.? Abortion is not a reproductive issue.? It is a matter of the heart.? Until you understand the heart of a woman, let me say that again, until you understand the heart of a woman, nothing else makes any sense about abortion at all.?
In closing, I would like to invite Kimberly Leung to read a prayer written by Reverend Rebecca Turner, executive director of Faith Aloud.? Faith Aloud is the religious and ethical voice for reproductive justice.?
Blessed be our numb spirits.
Blessed be our aching hearts.
Blessed be our fearful journeys.
Blessed be our happy memories.
Blessed be our loving families.
Blessed be our wounded dreams.
Blessed be our enduring friendships.
Blessed be our tearful disappointments.
Blessed be our righteous outrage.
Blessed be our courageous mission.
Blessed be our unwavering commitment.
Blessed be the women of the world.
Blessed be the legacy of Dr. George Tiller.
I want to thank Rabbi Levy for opening our vigil with the blessing.? Thank you to Renee and Lara Chelian for sharing with us tonight.? I also want to thank from the bottom of my heart Kimberly Leung and Ruthi Hortsch from The F-Word, a student feminist organization on campus.? We would literally not be standing here if it were not for them and I thank you for your dedication.
I would welcome you to stay and find comfort in each other.? We do have permission to gather here on the diag until 9:30pm, so let?s take advantage of it.? I have handouts on what you can do to help; there is a Dr. Tiller Fund.? Also there is information about the Abortion Care Network?s ?Enough! Basta! Stop Sidewalk Bullying at Women?s Clinics? Campaign.?