The timing was perfect. Smoke from just-extinguished candles trickled off my mother’s 96th birthday cake when excited shouts erupted from the living room. Notice of an incoming communication from a foreign site lit up the screen of a laptop computer. It was my daughter Christina skypeing from her university in the Netherlands. Sighing with relief, I silently looked on as her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins patiently awaited their turns for a chat with a smiling face on the monitor. She had just concluded a consulting assignment in Africa. Even though her travels on that huge continent were father away from the outbreaks of Ebola than Boston is from Liberia, it was small comfort. The pandemic was on everyone’s mind. But, now that a confirmed case was reported in New York, our fears had to be recalibrated for a threat — remote, but still real — 200 miles down the interstate.
The index of my parent’s manual lacks any reference to hemorrhagic fever. So, I steeled myself when my child first informed her mother and me that she would be touring rural Tanzania to evaluate agricultural projects for a German foundation. Christina, whom I refer to as my swan, gave her usual blithe assurances about anti-malarial pills, mosquito nets and inoculations. These seemed so trivial now that a nagging preoccupation with the Big E had overridden my emotional circuitry. As a father, I take small consolations wherever I find them and do my best to tamp down unfounded fears for my child’s safety. But, listening to snatches of the online conversation from a distance, a toggle switch was accidentally tripped and old fears surfaced once again. And, when that happens, all kinds of stuff tumbles off the conveyor belt from my cargo hold of ‘what ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’. My thoughts turned back to 1994…
As a rite of passage, when she turned 12, Christina began a several year stretch of appointments with a Brookline orthodontist near Cleveland Circle. My wife and I arranged for a pick-up and drop-off routine for a year or so until our bright-as-a-penny child was ready to solo on the Green Line trolley as a high school freshman. All went well with the business of straightening her pearly whites through the fall semester: metallic braces, rubber bands and retainer plate. But, mid-morning on December 30, 1994, 26-year-old John C. Salvi III entered a Planned Parenthood Clinic at 1031 Beacon Street with a 22-caliber rifle and opened fire in the waiting room. A receptionist was killed and three staff wounded. He then drove his car further up the road to 1842 Beacon, stopping at a medical office building which housed Pre-term Health Services for women. It also happened to house the offices of Christina’s dentist on an upper floor. Salvi shot and killed another receptionist and also wounded a secretary and security guard. As he fled the crime scene, he fired at passers-by before speeding away. He was apprehended several days later during an attack on a Norfolk, Virginia abortion clinic.
Was it due to fate or the intervention of a guardian angel that Christina’s dental appointment had not been scheduled over the Christmas school vacation? It was difficult to suppress the ‘what-ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’, but you can be sure that she was escorted by one of her parents thereafter until her orthodontist gave up his lease to distance himself and his patients from a now infamous crime scene permanently stained by a madman and guarded by an ominous police detail standing watch over protesters beyond the outer glass doors.
The skyped conversations were winding down as we neared a final online sign-off.
I stowed my fearful ruminations back into their cargo hold and prepared myself for a jaunty, upbeat fare-thee-well for my child. I asked her to lean as close to her computer’s camera lens as she could to give her my final blessing. Yes, I realize how this might sound. But, in silent prayer, I made a tiny sign of the cross with my thumb over the pixels of her forehead on the screen. God bless my child. Godspeed my daughter. She could not see what I was doing, but she smiled and nodded obligingly. She understood what I was up to. She knows me only too well.
Another shout went up from the television area. The home team had just scored a touchdown as Christina’s image was about to vanish. I was happy. I was sad. My swan was safe, gliding serenely upon the tranquil waters of a faraway lake. But I missed her terribly. And, there was nothing in my father’s manual about how to deal with that.
From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.