I've been working in the clinic long enough now that some of the clients coming in for abortions are repeat customers that I've counseled in the past. The first time I knew of this, it was because a coworker, who counseled the repeat visitor, mentioned it in passing. At my request, she handed me the patient's file.
I read through the notes I'd made in what seemed like a completely unfamiliar chart, hoping to jog my memory or find some reassurance that I saw this coming and did my best to educate and encourage good thinking about birth control. After all, even then, it wasn't this particular woman's first abortion. In fact, it was her fourth. But there was nothing written to indicate my effort or concern beyond the routine "Jane says she is certain of her decision to terminate her pregnancy and that no one is forcing her to be here today. We discussed the procedure, risks, after-care precautions... She plans to use the pill for birth control..." I paged back to the photocopy of the client's driver's license. I did not remember her smiling grainy black and white face at all. I didn't remember her name. Nothing stood out in the details of her case. The only thing I recognized in that chart was my handwriting.
I handed back the file and fell into a chair, not moving for a full minute, feeling as if gravity had doubled. On some spirit-level, that woman and I are deeply connected. But the fact is, I spent a good half hour or more one-on-one with her, and not only had I not made a dent of impression on her life, as far as I could tell, she hadn't made any impression on mine either.
How many women have I counseled similarly, without making any difference? Without being changed at all myself? And how often have I felt, as I realized I've felt on more than one occasion, like I was failing the woman I counseled because I wasn't arming her properly to go out into the big wide wild sexual world and take good, firm, conscious care of herself? And what was I going to do differently from here on out?
That's the thing about cycles in life, sometimes you have to live through the same thing over and over before the cycle itself makes an impression. And even then, when something cuts through the routine and the drab, it only raises questions. The answers may not be forthcoming.
I think of Rainer Marie Rilke, who wrote in 1903, in his book, Letters to a Young Poet:
"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."