Jimmy Carter and Being Real
And I felt foolish, crying for a man I never met.
I’ve spent the afternoon wondering why this touches me so deeply. Why this ache is vaguely reminiscent of the feelings I had when my grandfather lay dying 2000 miles away, and the nurse on the other end of the phone patiently pieced together my sob-staggered phrases to understand my questions, and answer them.
There’s no cause for that kind of parallel: I have no claim on Jimmy Carter. I never sat with him in the evening, watching Hawaii 5-0, and eating chocolate ripple ice cream. He never grumbled at me, telling me to hush in church, only to be ribbed himself – just minutes later by my grandmother, for snoring.
I was 10 in 1976. My mother and my grandmother voted for Carter. There was grown-up talk in the living room, that I parroted in the schoolyard with friends. Not deep conversation, not in either venue, but emotional. There was a rare earnestness and conviction in the air. It was the Bicentennial, and earnestness was in fashion. Americans wanted to believe again. We were painting fire hydrants, and celebrating democracy. Carter was a symbol of adulthood and responsibility. I saw, in him, the grown-up for the grown-ups in my life.
This was a few years before Christopher Columbus fell from elementary school grace, and America changed.
But Jimmy Carter never did change.
While the rest of us moved on to irony and cynicism, he literally kept the faith. He was ridiculed and mocked for it. Yes, people would express admiration, but with a fearful kind of foot-in-the-door when it came to his goodness: an assumption that his compassion went likely hand-in-hand with naiveté. “A good man, but a not-so-good president” was a phrase I heard often. As though compassion necessarily went hand-in-hand with weakness.
But he has been around all these years. Is still here, as a reassuring background in (I suspect, nearly all of) our lives. The hum of his humanitarian work has been constant presence in the news, in the world. He is a part of the good I’ve clung to from my childhood memories. The good from which everything else “grown-up” (the cynicism and scepticism) seems to stand out in relief.
Settling down for the evening with a glass of wine and the computer, I lounge on the couch with the old lady. She’s here for two weeks, and it has been more than two years since I’ve had her with me this long. Next week my ex will be back in town to pick her up and take her home with him. To the garden where she has lived her whole life, where she is happy.
But tonight, I’m rubbing her stomach. She smiles. (I can tell).
I can feel the tumours in her teats. They are still growing, but slowly. I rub her shoulder blades, and find new places I’m not allowed to touch her. The arthritis affects more than her hips now.
She’s well over 15. Over 100 in dog years. She rarely complains. And on walks, she still stops in open spaces and challenges me to a game of tag. And she, still, never takes shit from other dogs.
Vulnerability is not weakness. I see that when I look at her.
Right now, she is the reality that makes real the nearness of death. Not Jimmy Carter. To claim that would be an insult to his family and to the people who do know and love him, to those for whom he is not a symbol, not a background hum.
What frightens me about Jimmy Carter’s illness, about his leaving this world before too long, comes from a selfish and cowardly corner in my spirit: when he is gone, there will be no more grown-ups out there for me, maintaining that white-noise goodness. Daring to believe.
I am not sure I am ready to take over that responsibility.
People say that hope and faith are for the young. They are so wrong.
Now, before bed, I’ll go pull Jimmy Carter’s book of poems off the shelf and read it. Again.