There was a particular cast to the eyes of Ellis Boyd “Red”
Redding when he sat down before the parole board at Shawshank Prison having
served forty years of a life sentence for a murder committed as a young
man. Played with characteristic
brilliance by Morgan Freeman, Red abandoned the ruse of forced humility. Instead, he laid bare the wisdom gained over
decades of living with regret. Reflecting
on the misguided youth that he had been, Red said “I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him. Tell him the way things are. But I
can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this
old man is all that’s left. I’ve got to
live with that.”
Frank Darabont’s powerful script gave voice to Red’s
transition from a thoughtless, cocky youth to a grown man who knew himself, and
had taken full advantage of his incarceration to develop insight and a strong
moral character. I saw a distinct
parallel to this memorable scene in the first presidential debate of 2012
(which aired October 3rd).
Barack Obama’s eyes mirrored feelings that Red experienced, and that I
I am a contemporary of Barack Obama; him, born August 4th,
and me on October 26th of the year 1961. While it is true that I have long been drawn
to his intelligence, honest countenance, and personal and political values,
there has always been that feeling that we could have taken Social Studies
class together. In a word, I get
him. I watched him react to Mitt
Romney’s smarmy assault, and felt certain that I knew what he was feeling.
commentary of liberal broadcasters was passionate. Their president had disappointed them by
failing to fight back. Chris Matthews of
MSNBC was incensed, and minced no words in his critique of Barack’s performance
in the debate. I have to say that even
though I remained steadfast in support of my president, and I was, and am,
proud of him, I too wondered why he did not object strenuously to some of
Romney’s charges. On the subject of
Obamacare, when accused of pushing the Affordable Care Act through to
legislation without regard for the tenth amendment to the Constitution, why did
Obama not remind Mitt, and the audience, that the constitutionality of the Act
had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court? When Romney repeatedly stated that,
under Obamacare, those who were satisfied with their insurance coverage would
see it changed, why did Barack neglect to mention the millions without coverage
who have been granted access to quality healthcare? As a Registered Nurse,
these were moments that distressed me, but there were others that I need not
mention. They are permeating the media
today, and we all know what they were.
To close the loop, where does Red Redding come into this
editorial? Allow me to explain. As I look at video clips from the debate, I
see the same wise, tired, time-worn expression on the face of Barack Obama that
I recalled from Morgan Freeman’s memorable scene in The Shawshank
Redemption. Barack realizes that he
entered the office of President of the United States as a young, fully-charged,
idealistic public servant. He had every
intention of fulfilling his promises of renewing hope and inspiring
change. What he found out is what all of
us discover somewhere between forty and fifty.
He was forced to confront “the way things are”, as Red so eloquently
expressed one of life’s largest lessons in so few words.
The way things are is that, as President, you aren’t given a
free pass to construct the reality of your dreams. There are countless others with a dog in the fight,
with opinions of their own, and with leverage that you cannot ignore. Barack has learned the full extent to which
the leader of the free world must compromise, ingest partisan and idealogical
excrement (how’s that for a euphemism?), and endure analysis and criticism of
every spoken word, every gesture, and every decision. Our president has aged visibly in
office. His hearty, confident, booming
speaking style has given way to measured honesty. He knows, now, that sober topics on which he
is speaking are not grounds for self-aggrandizement or pandering. He also grieves the pieces of himself that he
has sacrificed in the fight for equality, empowerment and basic health and
safety for all Americans. There is no
doubt in my mind that he is fully aware of his responsibility to the citizens
of this country. I believe accounts that
he sits up late at night reading their letters, and loses sleep over their
Barack Obama bore an expression of resignation that closely
concealed a simmering indignation. He
met Mitt Romney’s glib smirk with a look that said “You have not been where I
have been”. Commentators who remarked
that sitting presidents are unaccustomed to being challenged should consider
how it must feel to be challenged on work that has claimed one’s very heart and
soul. Should Barack Obama have to
explain what it was like to visit Joplin, Missouri, or Bagram Air Field in
Afghanistan? Is he forced to express the responsibility he feels for the daily
casualties of war, or the stress and risk accompanying the decision to
assassinate an enemy? Imagine what it is
like to do the best you can at the most difficult job in the world, and to have
the dissection and analysis of your every move be the full-time occupation of
millions. Under this microscope, Barack
Obama has learned the ropes of American presidency. There have to be moments when he doubts
himself, as anyone would. And it is
impossible to encapsulate in a two-minute response in a debate all that went
into a particular outcome. Concessions
were made for the greater good.
Ground-breaking, significant processes have been initiated (as in
healthcare) for which it will take time and ongoing collaboration and
development to reap full benefit. Barack
Obama owes Mitt Romney no explanation.
“What do you really
want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?” I can almost hear Obama using Red’s words. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel
regret. Not because I’m in here or because you think I should. I look back on
the way I was then…”
It is my opinion that Barack Obama has reviewed his first
four years in office. He has asked
himself whether the journey has been worthwhile, and whether he has risen to
the challenges of office. He can look
proudly upon an admirable list of accomplishments hammered out along a
harrowing road. And, when confronted by the likes of Mitt Romney, he feels no
compulsion to prove himself.
(Red again)- Because, to tell you the truth, he doesn’t give
The death of Whitney Houston has stirred controversy as the nation mourns a woman who many viewed as a flawed, troubled diva. Just as we saw in the period immediately following the death of Steve Jobs (a founder of Apple Inc.), facebook users are posting emotionally-charged images of brave men and women who have given their lives for our country; captioned with words to the effect that, in grieving the deaths of popular idols, we are somehow denigrating their memory. As a proud American citizen who has devoted some thought to the subject, I would like to try to put this issue into perspective.
On March 31st of 1991, Whitney Houston welcomed heroes of the Gulf War at a performance at Norfolk Naval Air Station, Virginia. The video can be seen on YouTube, and although twenty years have passed, it was a beautiful broadcast that remains stirring and inspirational to this day. Her classic version of "The Star Spangled Banner" brought tears to the eyes of soldiers and civilians alike; and resurrected national pride.
Along with creative performing and visual artists who preceded Whitney, her contemporaries and those who have come after her, she has become embedded in the soundtrack of our lives. How many of our military heroes have sung and danced to Whitney's hits in Hummers, tanks and barracks, or attached special meaning to her songs? In "The Greatest Love of All", she sang:
Everybody's searching for a hero,
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my need.
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me
When Whitney sang this song for members of the Navy, their response was tremendous. Thousands of sailors swayed with heads held high, hands held up, and some waving flags, raptly enjoying the sincere and moving tribute. Although Whitney's musical ministry and outreach diminished in later years due to her personal struggles, it cannot be disputed that she had a loving and giving heart, and that, through her limitless talent, she brought a great deal of pleasure and happiness not only to heroes, but to the world.
Our military heroes would be the last to place the value of their lives above hers; or anyone's for that matter. Humility is one of the hallmarks of heroism. They fight and die for us all, and before that, they are human beings with the same love of American culture that we all possess. The lives of soldiers are enriched by technology (yes, Apple products; and Microsoft's Skype), good music, hilarious and inspirational movies, books and magazines, the miracle of Kevlar and other life-saving equipment, Hershey's chocolate, and countless other of life's blessings. In that sense, for their service to those who serve us, individuals like Jobs and Houston are indeed heroes.
As for Whitney's battle with drugs, alcohol, and self-destruction, our soldiers understand that as well. The re acclimation to society is a hard transition for men and women bruised by combat, and many of them wrestle the same demons. Illness and addiction are not all that make up the person they plague, and it is possible for them to coexist with traits of humanity, strength of character and sensitivity. The ones who are hurting understand this fact; unfortunately, the remainder of us often do not.
The English poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Our lives are diminished by the death of Miss Whitney Houston. She was one among us, and out of appreciation and respect, we mourn her passing.
I was three-and-a-half years old in
July of 1965. My brother Dan was two, and together we contracted whooping cough
that summer. We had raging fevers and coughed
continuously, violently and to the point of vomiting. This posed a problem for our very pregnant
mother, because our brother Gil was on his way, unwilling to hold out until our
crisis was averted. He was born on July
22nd, too new and fragile to be exposed to us. That’s when Grandma
Dorothy, my Dad’s mother, and Grandma Chase (given name, Ella), my Mom’s
mother, sprang to the rescue. Dorothy traveled to our house and became
full-time nursemaid to Dan and me. She cleaned up all that spewed forth from us
and slept between us in bed at night. When we coughed to the point of near
strangulation, she reached for us in the dark, pulling us to an upright
position by the hair of our heads if she touched that first. Terrified, she had to get us to sit up and
resume breathing by whatever means necessary. Ella’s contribution was that of
picking up newborn Gil at the hospital and taking him to her house. The first order of business was soothing her
crying, post-partum daughter through the separation from her baby and the
return home to tend to three kids, two of them sick (brother Rick was eight,
and healthy). Then, for two weeks she endured the sleepless nights of a new
mother; feeding, changing, burping, cuddling and coping as best she could. We
were lucky to have such loving and involved grandmothers. These were not women
who phoned the job in, writing postcards from tropical vacations and signing
birthday cards. They were there for us whenever we needed them; as we so often
did throughout our growing-up years and beyond.
Fast-forward to the summer of 1979,
the year I swooned over the seat of a young man’s Levi corduroys as he bent
over, hard at work in the frozen food section of the Super Duper where we both
worked. We had been dating for a short
time when, one day, Mike’s father called him.
“We’re going to go and take my Dad
some money,” he told me.
I was eighteen, and the idea of giving
my parents money, although we’d never had much, was foreign to me. “Why?”
“He asked me for ten dollars for food,” Mike
I went into his bedroom to fluff my hair or
whatever I thought would make me appear a suitable companion for this man’s
son. I walked back into the kitchen to
find my twenty-three year old future husband making a sandwich at the counter.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m packing him a lunch,” he
“But I thought you were taking him money for
He folded the paper bag closed. “He’s going to
drink with the money. I want him to have something to eat.”
I know today about alcoholic families and
co-dependence, but what I witnessed was a child’s unconditional love.
I was a young mother in 1982. My
Katie was just over a year old, and I had enrolled in nursing school full-time
in addition to my part-time job as a checkout girl. Mike did a great job taking
care of her and keeping things in order at home, but I was often overwhelmed
with work, guilt and responsibility. One night I had gone to bed exhausted.
About an hour later, my baby was crying, and I went to her. I had a city bus to catch in five or six hours,
but I sat rocking my daughter while the world slept quietly and time stood
still. Held tight against me with her feet in my lap, she was the perfect
height to rest her head on my shoulder, breathing softly into my neck. I told
myself that I would remember that night forever, and I have. That was the night my life’s priorities were
clearly revealed to me.
My son Jesse made the scene in
1988, and was two or three years old when I gashed my finger doing dishes. Dan,
a bachelor at the time, was staying with us, and assured me that he had
everything under control while I took myself to the Emergency Room for
stitches. He busied himself finishing the dishes and, soon afterward, Jesse
called to him from the bathroom.
“Uncle Dan, I need you to wipe me,”
Dan would go on to have two
children and wipe many, many a fanny, but on that particular day he was a
“Sorry, Dukie,” he chuckled. “Uncle
Dan doesn’t wipe.”
The kid cried, and Uncle Dan had no
choice. The situation was addressed, however gingerly and reluctantly, and I
returned home with my finger-splint just in time to hear the tale.
“Sorry,” I laughed.
“No problem,” Dan said. “What could
I do? He needed me.”
Love is easy when all is going
well, but it is one of life’s profound, humbling lessons that few people love
you enough to wipe your butt.
My father was diagnosed with
Squamous Cell lung cancer in August 2009, and the news rocked our worlds. Mom had had breast cancer fifteen years
earlier and had survived gratefully, but with the nagging fear of recurrence.
His diagnosis took us completely by surprise. That evening, as we sat together
absorbing the news, Bud said “I never thought I’d get cancer. Did you, Sue?”
Without missing a beat his wife of
forty-nine years quipped, “Nope. I thought your driving would kill you.”
Bud got through surgery with a
Stage 1b diagnosis. He had some post-operative complications, but within four
months had come through the worst of it and was improving. We dared hope that life would return to normal. Literally the next day, Susie was also diagnosed
with lung cancer. She had started with a harsh, nagging cough as my Dad
recovered at home; she called it her ‘sympathy cough’. It seemed impossible that this disease could
strike us again within such a short time, but strike it did. Mom’s outcome was very different, with far
more extensive surgery, a Stage 4 diagnosis, a difficult post-operative period,
medical rehabilitation, home care and, finally, Hospice care. We took care of her together; my Dad, brothers,
Aunts and Uncles, and me. When she was
feeling her worst we’d lie in bed with her, within easy reach. My grandmothers’ legacy of loving care had
come full circle.
Susie died at home as she wished,
in the wee hours of a Sunday morning in May 2010, at the age of seventy-one;
within five months of her diagnosis, and nine months after my father’s. Gil and I watched her draw her final breath,
and although the pain that followed was unlike any we’d known, we realized that
the love we shared hadn’t gone with her.
She had left it with us.
Throughout the time we had spent together there had been no drama, no
arguments. We laughed and cried on a daily basis, and our bonds were
strengthened, just as she wanted it.
It seems, on the subject of love,
that it has shown itself to me in a million ways over my lifetime. There was not a singular moment when I
understood its impact, but rather an accumulation of moments; each a small,
transient miracle of its own. I have
been merely a conduit for the love that has come to and through me, and it is
my happy privilege to pass it along.