I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:7–10
When I was a young girl, we moved quite a bit, crisscrossing the country twice before we settled in Texas for good when I was ten. Mostly we moved to follow my father—where his job took him, it took us, too—but wherever we lived, we tried to spend as much time as we could with my grandparents. We never had a lot, but what we had was what mattered most: family.
My mother’s parents still lived in the panhandle of Texas in the small town of Muleshoe. My grandfather, Nealy Stovall, made his living for most of his life as a tenant farmer, and when he was in his mid-sixties, he suffered a massive stroke. From that moment forward, he lived the rest of his life in a nursing home. He was partially paralyzed, and as a result he had a very difficult time forming words.
When my mom and my siblings and I would pile into my mom’s old Volkswagen hatchback to visit him in Muleshoe, we would pick him up at the nursing home and take him to be with us in his real home for the weekend, the home he had shared with my grandmother. On several of those occasions, my grandfather would beckon me into the kitchen and I would sit with him at their old Formica table—the kind with the silver band that goes all the way around. He would bring out a piece of paper, point very determinedly at it, and I knew my task—he wanted to “dictate” a letter to me so he could communicate with a friend.
As you can imagine, him sitting there in his wheelchair and me with my skinny legs stuck to the plastic chairs in their kitchen on a hot summer day—it was a lot of hard work. Those hours with a pencil and paper, decoding and deciphering the words he was trying to say, were slow and difficult and challenging, not just for him but for me as well. Nothing could have been more important than the task he’d entrusted me with. So much was riding on my getting it right; so much depended on both of us working hard to do what needed to be done. Watching him struggle made me even more determined. If my grandfather had the fortitude to try to speak despite the broken pathways in his brain…well, then I could certainly do my part.
Invariably on those occasions, he would start crying, which meant that I would start crying, too. It’s a very hard lesson for a ten-year-old to witness the despair on her grandfather’s face. One of my favorite photos of the two of us was taken on one of those bittersweet weekends. He’s in his wheelchair with his right arm in the gray sling he always wore after his stroke, and I’m leaning in to him on the edge of his chair with my little arm around his big shoulder. I’m smiling, and he is, too, if only just with his eyes.
Of all the memories that have stuck with me, and formed me, and made me who I am, the ones from spending time with my grandfather are among my most cherished, because the experience drove home such a powerful point to me: the importance of having a voice, how painful it is to lose it, and how important it is to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, and to be true to what they would say if they could.
I couldn’t possibly have known then that years later I would be leading a historic nearly thirteen-hour filibuster in the Texas state senate to defeat an anti-abortion bill, giving voice to thousands and thousands of women pleading to preserve their access to lifesaving health care and reproductive rights. As much as was written about that day—the sneakers I wore, the battle over the rules of order, the dramatic closing of the capitol building in Austin that night because it was filled to capacity with people in opposition to SB 5—and as much as I will add to that account later in this book, the true power of that day transcended anything I could have expected.
June 25, 2013, was an awakening. It was an awakening that went beyond reproductive rights. It was an awakening for a group of citizens, all over the state of Texas, and all across the country, who understood that night that when people do stand up and when they do cry out, they can be heard and they can make a difference. And even though that bill passed just a few days later when a second special session was called, people were empowered by what they had been able to accomplish that day. They saw that we cannot continue to cede our values simply because we may not win every time we speak out.
It was also an awakening for me.
As I was finishing my third hour on the floor, I began to read another letter aloud—one of thousands and thousands of letters that had poured into my office via e-mail from women all across Texas who wanted to share their deeply personal testimony in the hopes of stopping the bill. This particular letter, from a woman named Carole, described how she learned twenty weeks into her pregnancy that the precious little girl she was carrying was dying in her womb of a rare and fatal prenatal condition, and it shared the unfathomable decision she and her husband then faced: wait and deliver their daughter as a stillborn, or take measures to terminate the pregnancy in order to spare themselves the agony of waiting for nature to run its inevitable, but unendurable, course.
It was a heartbreaking letter, so raw and honest and painfully sad that I could barely get through the reading of it. Each paragraph and detail of Carole’s tragic story and her eloquent plea to consider the emotional well-being of parents facing such devastating choices and losses as well as the humanity of the unborn baby, undid me, and I had to stop several times to wipe my eyes and to regain my composure. And each time I did, I felt something deep inside me loosen. Giving voice to the human stories behind the bill we were fighting had emboldened and empowered me to push on through all those hours on the senate floor; it had made me realize fully how the passage or failure of that bill would affect the lives of women and their families all across our great state.
But reading Carole’s letter touched me profoundly and connected me to the moment, and to the issue, in a way I see now I hadn’t expected and that I had, whether consciously or unconsciously, tried to ignore. It made me understand why I was there and how all the paths in my life had led me to be in that place, at that exact moment in time, to fight that particular fight. Giving voice to the truths of so many women made me see that I needed to give voice to my own truths, the truths that had made me who I am and had brought me to stand there that day, and not yield until my job was done.
I had a story to tell, too.
A story I had never told before.
And it was finally time to tell it.
Excerpted from “Forgetting to Be Afraid” by Wendy Davis, reprinted with permission from Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA).