When I heard last week that Barack Obama would be leaving the campaign trail on Thursday and Friday to visit his gravely ill grandmother in Hawaii, I have to admit that my first thoughts were not of Obama and his family, but of the political consequences of the candidate removing himself from the mix while so deep in the homestretch.
I should have thought better.
Like Obama, I was raised for much of my childhood by a strong-willed single mother and had a maternal grandmother who was also a powerful influence on my early development. I've often said that I learned more about being a man from my mother and grandmother than I ever did from any male figures in my life and I suspect Senator Obama may feel much the same way.
And as I watched Obama get back to work over the weekend and jump right back into his manic schedule of rallies and speeches, I considered how devastated I had been by my grandmother's passing when I was out at sea as a young U.S. Navy man and the deep pain and loss I experienced when I lost my mother to cancer when she was only 57 years old.
So I felt ashamed for letting political calculation be my first thoughts upon hearing that Obama was going to visit his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, on a short trip that may have been the last time he sees the woman who's been so instrumental in his life, before she passes away.
"Without going through the details too much, she's gravely ill. We weren't sure, and I'm still not sure whether she makes it to Election Day," Obama said Friday on ABC's Good Morning America when speaking of his grandmother, who turned 86 on Sunday. "We're all praying and we hope she does, but one of the things I want to make sure of is I had a chance to sit down with her and to talk to her. She's still alert and she's still got all her faculties. And I want to make sure that I don't miss that opportunity."
"She's really been one of the cornerstones of my life -- she's a remarkable woman."
Seeing interviews in which Obama has spoken movingly about his relationship with his grandmother, while also reflecting on my own background, has made me think a lot about the difficulty Obama faces in the coming days and weeks -- not as the charismatic, larger-than-life man we have watched campaign for president for almost two years, but as a human being.
No matter how long Madelyn Dunham's longevity remains in doubt, Barack Obama will ultimately experience a depth of feelings and of loss that will be unique to him and that he will have to handle during a most extraordinarily public time in his life. This intellectual dynamo that so many of us hope will become the next president will need to be temporarily far more to himself, his wife and his family than he is with us as the man on whose shoulders so many of us have placed our hopes for America's future.
He will simply be a man, mourning a deeply-personal loss right when he is hitting the zenith of his potential.
And, as one who has been there with the deaths of a mother and a grandmother so central to my life, I know that when he loses this woman -- of whom he said last week "whatever strength and discipline that I have, it comes from her" -- he will, for whatever moments he allows himself, not be the presidential candidate, the husband or even the father.
He will, in grieving such a profound personal loss, be transported back in time and will be for however many moments, a young boy remembering the encouraging words, the skinned knees fixed, the hot chocolate and cookies made and the warm embraces that helped nurture him to what he has become.
He will grieve at a time when he has so little privacy and in a large way that only he will know. And those of us who look to him for so much may be inclined to forget that as we consider the enormity of this election and the impact it will have on our lives.
"This election isn't about me, it's about you," Obama has so often said in the course of this presidential election cycle and I don't think that for one minute he expects millions of Americans to drop thoughts of the big picture and of deep concerns we each have about our country and our future.
But whenever Madelyn Dunham leaves this world, we should at least take a moment to consider Barack Obama the man -- a human being who will have just absorbed a terrible loss of a woman who he believes shares so much credit for where he is today and who he is today.
And we should give him the same privacy, sympathy and respect we would give to any relative, friend or coworker under the same circumstances.
For if we fail if only for a moment, to consider Barack Obama just one private person with hopes, fears, joy and, yes, pain and grief, we deny him his essential humanity and in doing so, lose just a bit of our own.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008