On the stretch of I-95 north highway between our house and the exit for school, he is suddenly in front of us, this man (I have never seen him but I have always known him to be a man) with his small pickup the color of washed-out blue eyes, and his trailer hauling a portable billboard. Once I turned hard down a side street and forewent buying gas even though the needle on my gas gauge pointed to the bottom of the E. I limped home on fumes, relieved that the kids had not seen.
Usually we can avoid him, circumnavigating a crazy course to the breakfast place we like, the one with the best johnnycakes. Rather than hanging just the one left onto Broad Street, we loop up and down short streets. But we go home from breakfast the direct way. He’s usually elsewhere by mid-morning, and the Planned Parenthood clinic on Broad is just another nondescript brick building.
But this morning, right here on I-95 north, he lumbers in the slow lane, right in front of me, his trailer adorned with images of torn-apart fetuses blown up to epic proportions. You know the ones. The signs are smack dab in front of us, and I swerve dangerously to position my Toyota behind an eighteen-wheeler, hoping the massive truck will block our view of his puny one, but the traffic is too tricky. Please, I pray inside to a God who may or may not be this man’s God, please let me lose sight of him. I don’t want to glance behind me to look at my children. I want to imagine that they are half-asleep or staring out the side windows, oblivious. Then there is my daughter’s pinched whisper.
“Mom. There’s something really bad.”
And then my son. My 9-year-old son who snarls at his sister, who feels persecuted by her 7-year-old cuteness. He is all at once her protector. “Don’t look,” he says. “Keep your head down.”
I adjust the rearview mirror to see them staring at their laps. In just a minute the man takes the Thurbers Ave. exit and disappears. “He’s gone,” I say.
We take our own exit and head for the private school where I teach, where they go. As the day wears on, I will tell this story to my colleagues. “What did you tell them?” they will ask, and I will admit that I fumbled, that I diverted my children’s questions: What WAS that? That wasn’t real, right?
When possible, when appropriate, we try to give them information and context. Just a few weeks before this incident, my husband had told my son about the miracle of life. My son was duly grossed out, and when I asked him if he had any further questions, he said, “No Mom, and I will never ever want to talk about this again.” So there, in our car, five minutes from school, I could not make the leap. I could not say, “Remember what Dad told you about where babies come from? Well there’s this thing called abortion.”
On pro-life websites and blogs supporters of the blue-truck man’s images contend that our children will not be irreparably damaged. “They need to know the truth,” is the rallying cry. One mother talks about how she calmly explained, in detail, what it was that her children were seeing, and that she felt confident that the good outweighed the bad. As an advocate of giving kids information, I can see her point. As someone who years ago marched on Washington, I find these giant bloody images to be mean-spirited, presumptuous, disrespectful, violent, hateful. I could go on.
But this is not about moral outrage, or shouldn’t be. It is, for me, about being a mother, this thing that happened to me. I will not call my motherhood a choice. I know plenty of women who would have liked to make it a choice but could not because of bad plumbing or timing, or because the right guy didn’t come knocking. My kids are not my choice. They are my good fortune. One day inside of me an egg and a sperm came together and things went right and nine months later I held a child who now asks me, “What are those gross pictures, Mom? They’re not real, right?”
“You bet they’re real,” I could say, like the online pro-life mom. Or “No, it’s just special effects, like a horror movie” or “Let’s talk about something else” like my own mother might have said. Or “I just hate that bad man. I hate his guts.”
My actual response is closest to the last one. We get to school, go about our day. No one has nightmares that night. No one is damaged.
Still, I do fantasize about confronting the blue-truck man, pulling alongside him at the gas pump one day and dumping on him all my uppity, liberal indignation. But no matter how many times I play out versions of this scene, there is nothing satisfying about it. He talks about murder of the unborn, I talk about traumatizing children, he talks about the greater good, I say more banal things, and my son says, “Mom, mom, can we go? People are staring.” And as I pull away, I feel a twinge of guilt about our differences in education, this man and me, about his bad teeth. And because the scene is not real, I feel further guilt about my assumption that his education is lesser than my own, that his teeth are bad.
I cannot protect my children from bearing witness to this man’s holy passion. But maybe, on another day, I can think of some better way to help them understand it, even as I cannot. Maybe I will say, “OK guys, I need to pass here. Can you see behind me? Let me know when it’s safe.”