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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Becoming’ shows Michelle Obama’s transcendence of bias to ultimately flourish

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By Wednesday, Jan 2, 2019 Arts & Entertainment 4

Becoming
Michelle Obama
Crown Publishing Group, New York
© 2018 by Michelle Obama, all rights reserved

Because Michelle Robinson Obama is such a good writer, “Becoming” beguiles, informs and transforms all at the same time. Because it is so very unpretentious, so thoroughly accessible, it so unexpectedly moved me. And because I often write about politics, I found myself realizing the wrong woman had run for and lost the presidency for the Democrats. Not that I’d wish the presidency on her—not that she would have wanted to run or win for that matter—but, after reading “Becoming,” it is clear her empathy, her respect for others, her cellular understanding of self-doubt, human failure and most especially her appreciation of what’s won and lost when one engages in social and economic struggle, not to mention her well-earned suspicion of politics, makes her such a compelling counterpart to Hillary Clinton.

She seems unable to help herself. In a world of near constant political posturing, of never-ending spin and unbelievable pomposity, she is authentic. Always Michelle Obama, always a black girl from Chicago with limited means who, with the inspiring help of friends and family managed—and she calls the process “reaching”—to transcend the biased ideas others had about her gender, her race, her economic reality and ultimately flourish. All of which, in my opinion, offers a marked contrast to Hillary Clinton’s arrogance and highly suspect, though constantly trumpeted, concern for working people.

Sasha, Michelle and Malia Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

She beguiles because Michelle Obama is acutely aware of irony and has managed, in the midst of her family’s embrace of our nation’s mad politics, to continue to laugh at herself and her husband: “To this day, Malia and I still crack up about the fact that she’d been eight years old when Barack, clearly feeling some sense of responsibility, posed the question one night while he was tucking her into bed. “How would you feel if Daddy ran for president?” he’d asked. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“’Sure, Daddy!.” she’d replied, pecking him on the cheek. His decision to run would alter nearly everything about her life after that, but how was she to know? She’d just rolled over then and drifted off to sleep.”

But back to the serious for a moment. We live in a world where refugees who manage to walk 2,000 miles with their little children are considered criminal because they’re brown and poor and want a better life and speak another language. We live in a time when understandably angry white working people are considered deplorable because they express their sense of betrayal that their jobs and dignity have been taken from them. Clearly, we need to appreciate the dignified, hardworking poor. Clearly, we must acknowledge the toll the extraordinary shift in income upward from the many to the one percent has taken on the land and our people. Unlike so many politicians, insulated by wealth and power, on a cellular level, Michelle Obama understands.

There was a time in America, following World War II, when hardworking Americans made just enough to buy or rent a modest home, support a family and imagine that the college education they had sacrificed for themselves could be possible for their children. Proud to consider themselves the lower middle class.

Michelle Obama as a baby with her brother and parents in 1965. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

Michelle Robinson Obama was born, in her words, “a black working class girl” at a time when her hardworking father, tending boilers for the city of Chicago, provided a cramped apartment on the second floor of “a tidy brick bungalow” owned by her mother’s aunt on the South Side of Chicago. There, she and her brother and parents lived in a space meant for two.

“Becoming” offers all the opportunity to see real-life people who are so much more than today’s prejudices about the poor: “My father went to work every day dressed in the blue uniform of a city laborer, but at night he showed us what it meant to love jazz and art. As a boy, he’d taken classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in high school he’d painted and sculpted. He’d been a competitive swimmer and boxer in school, too, and as an adult was a fan of every televised sport, from professional golf to the NHL. He appreciated seeing strong people excel. When my brother Craig got interested in basketball, my father propped coins above the door frame in our kitchen, encouraging him to leap for them.”

Michelle Obama with her father’s Buick Electra 225. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

They had a car, her father’s prized bronze-colored two-door Buick Electra 225. “The car provided another form of closeness for my family, a chance to talk and travel at once … It would be years before I fully understood what driving the car meant to my father. As a kid, I could only sense it—the liberation he felt behind the wheel, the pleasure he took in having a smooth-running engine and perfectly balanced tires humming beneath him. He’d been in his thirties when a doctor informed him that the odd weakness he’d started to feel in one leg was just the beginning of a long and probably painful slide toward immobility, that odds were that someday, due to a mysterious unsheathing of neurons in his brain and spinal cord, he’d find himself unable to walk at all. I don’t have the precise dates, but it seems that the Buick came into my father’s life at roughly the same time that multiple sclerosis did. And though he never said it, the car had to provide some sort of sideways relief.”

Michelle Obama discovered class at an early age: “At Whitney Young, I met white kids who lived on the North Side—a part of Chicago that felt like the dark side of the moon, a place I’d never thought about nor had reason to go to. More intriguing was my early discovery that there was such a thing as an African American elite. Most of my new high school friends were black, but that didn’t necessarily translate, it turned out, to any sort of uniformity in our experience. A number of them had parents who were lawyers or doctors and seemed to know one another through an African American social club called Jack and Jill. They’d been on ski vacations and trips that required passports … my first months at Whitney Young gave me a glimpse of something that had previously been invisible—the apparatus of privilege and connection, what seemed like a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes that lay suspended overhead, ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky.”

When Michelle’s brother got older, her mother went back to work: “right about the time I began high school, catapulting herself out of the house and the neighborhood and into the dense, sky-scrapered heart of Chicago, where she found a job as an executive assistant at a bank.The job, for her, was a welcome shift in routine, and for our family it was also more or less a financial necessity. My parents had been paying tuition for Craig to go to Catholic school. He was starting to think about college, with me coming up right behind him.”

Imagining college, Michelle then encountered her high school college advisor: “I can’t tell you much about the counselor, because I deliberately and almost instantly blotted this experience out. I don’t remember her age or race or how she happened to look at me that day when I turned up in her office doorway, full of pride at the fact that I was on track to graduate in the top 10 percent of my class at Whitney Young, that I’d been elected treasurer of the senior class, made the National Honor Society, and managed to vanquish pretty much every doubt I’d arrived with as a nervous ninth grader. I don’t remember whether she inspected my transcript before or after I announced my interest in joining my brother at Princeton the following fall … rightly or wrongly, I got stuck on one single sentence the woman uttered.

“’I’m not sure,’” she said, giving me a perfunctory, patronizing smile, “’that you’re Princeton material.’ Her judgment was as swift as it was dismissive, probably based on a quick-glance calculus involving my grades and test scores. It was some version, I imagine, of what this woman did all day long and with practiced efficiency, telling seniors where they did and didn’t belong. I’m sure she figured she was only being realistic. I doubt that she gave our conversation another thought.

“But as I’ve said, failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result. And for me, it felt like that’s exactly what she was planting—a suggestion of failure long before I’d even tried to succeed. She was telling me to lower my sights, which was the absolute reverse of every last thing my parents had ever told me …

“I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself … then I settled down and got back to work. I never thought getting into college would be easy, but I was learning to focus and have faith in my own story. I tried to tell the whole thing in my college essay. Rather than pretending that I was madly intellectual and thought I’d fit right in inside the ivy-strewn walls of Princeton, I wrote about my father’s MS and my family’s lack of experience with higher education. I owned the fact that I was reaching. Given my background, reaching was really all I could do.”

With every page of “Becoming.” I felt myself shedding protective layers of cynicism, despair, her simple clear words penetrating the shield I’ve erected these almost two years of the Trump presidency. We’ve grown so used to diminishment and disparagement that it took a while to recognize the alternative. It’s such a dramatically different way of seeing the world. Michelle Obama appreciates and recognizes people. She is tougher on herself than others. She understands how hard life can be and knows that, if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge fear, doubt, occasional defeat. Then we can attempt to move forward.

She writes: “I’ve been lucky enough now in my life to meet all sorts of extraordinary and accomplished people—world leaders, inventors, musicians, astronauts, athletes, professors, entrepreneurs, artists and writers, pioneering doctors and researchers. Some (though not enough) of them are women. Some (though not enough) are black or of color. Some were born poor or have lived lives that to many of us would appear to have been unfairly heaped with adversity, and yet still they seem to operate as if they’ve had every advantage in the world. What I’ve learned is this: All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.”

“And ultimately, I suppose that I did show that college counselor, because six or seven months later, a letter arrived in our mailbox on Euclid Avenue, offering me admission to Princeton. My parents and I celebrated that night by having pizza delivered from Italian Fiesta.”

Michelle Obama at Princeton University. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

And, unlike many others on their way to university, she knows well the other road available: “My eagerness to leave town was fueled in part by the fact I’d spent the last couple of months working an assembly-line job, operating what was basically an industrial-sized glue gun at a small bookbinding factory in downtown Chicago—a soul-killing routine that went on for eight hours a day, five days a week, and served as possibly the single most reinforcing reminder that going to college was a good idea …”

“Becoming” offers male readers and white readers a constant opportunity to see life through the eyes of an extraordinarily observant and self-reflective black woman: “Princeton was extremely white and very male. There was no avoiding the facts. Men on campus outnumbered women almost two to one. Black students made up less than 9 percent of my freshman class … we were now a glaring anomaly—poppy seeds in a bowl of rice. … I’d never been part of a predominantly white community before. I’d never stood out in a crowd or a classroom because of the color of my skin. It was jarring and uncomfortable, at least at first, like being dropped into a strange new terrarium, a habitat that hadn’t been built for me.”

“Becoming” offers a chance to fully appreciate the multiple advantages the world offers the more fortunate, and an opportunity to learn: “For one thing, nobody seemed much concerned about crime. Students left their rooms unlocked, their bikes casually kickstanded outside buildings, their gold earrings unattended on the sink in the dorm bathrooms. Their trust in the world seemed infinite, their forward progress in it entirely assured. For me, it was something to get used to. I’d spent years quietly guarding my possessions on the bus ride to and from Whitney Young. Walking home to Euclid Avenue in the evenings, I carried my house key wedged between two knuckles and pointed outward, in case I needed it to defend myself.”

Michelle Obama and her brother Craig were blessed to be raised by a mother and father who worked hard; endured want and pain with perseverance, patience and without complaint; and taught their children to push through whatever barriers life presented—a simple, unheralded bravery.

“At one point when Craig had a home basketball game on a Saturday, my parents drove all the way to Princeton to see it, and I got my first look at their shifting reality—at what never got said on the phone. After pulling into the vast parking lot outside Jadwin Gym, my father reluctantly slid into a wheelchair and allowed my mother to push him inside.

“I almost didn’t want to see what was happening to my father. I couldn’t bear it. I’d done some research on multiple sclerosis in the Princeton library, photocopying medical journal articles to send to my parents. I’d tried to insist that they call a specialist or sign Dad up for some physical therapy, but they—my dad, primarily—didn’t want to hear any of it. For all the hours we spent talking on the phone while I was at college, his health was the one topic he wouldn’t touch.

“If I asked how he was feeling, the answer was always ‘I feel good.’ And that would be that. I let his voice be my comfort. It bore no trace of pain or self-pity, carrying only good humor and softness and just the tiniest hint of jazz. I lived on it as if it were oxygen. It was sustaining, and it was always enough. Before hanging up, he always asked if I needed anything—money, for instance—but I never said yes.”

“Becoming” offers us the opportunity to fully appreciate, in three dimensions, the kinetic, dynamic swirl of differences and similarities that make us all Americans. For, at one and the same time, our former first lady is both extraordinary and remarkably ordinary. She navigates her way through the challenges of her father’s health; making a living; trying to get pregnant; the stress of a marriage to a man remarkably different and driven to be a state senator, a congressman, a senator, a president when what she wants most is the more usual family life.

Let’s jump ahead a few years to an unvarnished, honest accounting of the modern-day American family juggling I can’t for the life of me imagine coming from either Melania Trump or Hillary Clinton:

Sasha, Barack, Michelle and Malia Obama on vacation in Hawaii. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

“On Clybourn Avenue in Chicago, just north of downtown, there was a strange paradise, seemingly built for the working parent, seemingly built for me: a standard, supremely American, got-it-all strip mall. It had a BabyGap, a Best Buy, a Gymboree, and a CVS, plus a handful of other chains, small and large, meant to take care of any urgent consumer need, be it a toilet plunger, or a ripe avocado, or a child-sized bathing cap. There was also a nearby Container Store and a Chipotle, which made things even better. This was my place. I could park the car, whip through two or three stores as needed, pick up a burrito bowl, and be back at my desk inside sixty minutes. I excelled at the lunchtime blitz—the replacing of lost socks, the purchasing of gifts for whatever five-year-old was having a birthday party on Saturday, the stocking and restocking of juice boxes and single-serving applesauce cups.

“Sasha and Malia were three and six years old now, feisty, smart, and growing fast. Their energy left me breathless. Which only added to the occasional allure of the shopping plaza. There were times when I’d sit in the parked car and eat my fast food alone with the car radio playing, overcome with relief, impressed with my efficiency. This was life with little kids. This was what sometimes passed for achievement. I had the applesauce. I was eating a meal. Everyone was still alive. Look how I’m managing, I wanted to say in those moments, to my audience of no one. Does everyone see that I’m pulling this off?”

“This was me at the age of forty, a little bit June Cleaver, a little bit Mary Tyler Moore. On my better days, I gave myself credit for making it happen. The balance of my life was elegant only from a distance, and only if you squinted, but there was at least something there that resembled balance.”

Michelle Obama at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

And always Michelle Obama is grounding herself and us with a forthright appraisal of society’s shortcomings, appreciating the political dilemmas and racial and economic divides that informed American life, and she confronted working in community affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center: “The hospital job had turned out to be a good one, challenging and satisfying and in line with my beliefs. It astonished me, actually, to see how a big esteemed institution like a university medical center with ninety-five hundred employees traditionally operated, run primarily by academics who did medical research and wrote papers and who also, in general, seemed to find the neighborhood around them so scary that they wouldn’t even cross an off-campus street. For me, that fear was galvanizing. It got me out of bed in the morning.

“I’d spent most of my life living alongside those barriers—noting the nervousness of white people in my neighborhood, registering all the subtle ways people with any sort of influence seemed to gravitate away from my home community and into clusters of affluence that seemed increasingly far removed. Here was an invitation to undo some of that, to knock down barriers where I could—mostly by encouraging people to get to know one another … I instituted programs to take hospital staff and trustees out into neighborhoods around the South Side, having them visit community centers and schools, signing them up to be tutors, mentors, and science-fair judges, getting them to try the local barbecue joints. We brought local kids in to job shadow hospital employees, set up a program to increase the number of neighborhood people volunteering in the hospital, and worked with a summer academic institute through the medical school, encouraging students in the community to consider medicine as a career. After realizing that the hospital system could be better about hiring minority- and women-owned businesses for its contracted work, I helped set up the Office of Business Diversity as well.

“Finally, there was the issue of people desperately needing care. The South Side had just over a million residents and a dearth of medical providers, not to mention a population that was disproportionately affected by the kinds of chronic conditions that tend to afflict the poor—asthma, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease. With huge numbers of people uninsured and many others dependent on Medicaid, patients regularly jammed the university hospital’s emergency room, often seeking what amounted to routine non-emergency treatment or having gone so long without preventive care that they were now in dire need of help. The problem was glaring, expensive, inefficient, and stressful for everyone involved. ER visits did little to improve anyone’s long-term health, either. Trying to address this problem became an important focus for me. Among other things, we began hiring and training patient advocates—friendly, helpful local people, generally—who could sit with patients in the ER, helping them set up follow-up appointments at community health centers and educating them on where they could go to get decent and affordable regular care.”

One of the most impressive aspects of “Becoming” is Michelle Obama’s willingness to ask and answer the kind of questions so few in the public eye ever address: to examine her own motivations and acknowledge the ways she might have shortchanged herself. She’s willing to confront her own significant ambition and admit how her strong desire for approval might have sent her on the “established path” while closing off other possible avenues for her talents, other adventures and “swerves.”

She looks back at many of her life choices: “Each spring, corporate recruiters descended on the Princeton campus, aiming themselves at the graduating seniors. You’d see a classmate who normally dressed in ratty jeans and an untucked shirt crossing campus in a pin-striped suit and understand that he or she was destined for a Manhattan skyscraper. It happened quickly, this vocational sorting—the bankers, lawyers, doctors, and executives of tomorrow hastily migrating toward their next launchpad …

“I can admit now that I was driven not just by logic but by some reflexive wish for other people’s approval, too … and when I mentioned I was bound for law school—Harvard Law School, as it turned out—the affirmation was overwhelming …

“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path … and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve … Maybe you spend three years in Massachusetts, studying constitutional law and discussing the relative merits of exclusionary vertical agreements in antitrust cases. For some, this might be truly interesting, but for you it is not … you yourself are not called …

“You reach for the next rung of the ladder, and this time it’s a job with a salary in the Chicago offices of a high-end law firm called Sidley & Austin. You’re back where you started, in the city where you were born, only now you go to work on the forty-seventh floor in a downtown building with a wide plaza and a sculpture out front. You used to pass by it as a South Side kid riding the bus to high school, peering mutely out the window at the people who strode like titans to their jobs. Now you’re one of them … At the age of twenty-five, you have an assistant. You make more money than your parents ever have. Your co-workers are polite, educated, and mostly white. You wear an Armani suit and sign up for a subscription wine service …”

And because Michelle Obama has been willing to ask the difficult questions, she’s been willing to see the complicated and challenging answers: “I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it. This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was. In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road.”

The Obamas steal a moment of rest on the campaign trail. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

While she forthrightly shares a lot about what was and is challenging in her relationship with Barack, she has also grown to appreciate one of the more positive differences between them: “I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and my parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed … My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had. I’d scored myself two Ivy League degrees. I had a seat at the table at Sidley & Austin. I’d made my parents and grandparents proud. But listening to Barack, I began to understand that his version of hope reached far beyond mine: It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck.”

The Obama family joins Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 2015. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

We live in a time where many of the gains of Selma and desegregation, of Martin Luther King, seem to recede with the renaissance of racism. Politicians in the Deep South reverting to the code words of Jim Crow. The almost daily shooting of unarmed black men and women by fearful, angry, sometimes hateful white police. A president who repeatedly demeans black women of intelligence and achievement.

I used the word “transform” because I believe an openhearted reading of “Becoming” provides today’s generation another chance to learn the lessons the civil rights movement provided to their parents or grandparents. The chance to fully appreciate the enduring similarities that we share, common traits that are far stronger than the differences of race, creed, national origin.

Michelle Obama tells a story that many of us, were we as honest as she, could tell about the challenges we face when we first learn someone near and dear to us falls victim to serious illness. The shock followed by disbelief, an almost unshakeable need to deny potential death. It’s a long excerpt, but I think it says so much about her willingness to look without blinking into the mirror and examine her own behavior:

“I’m not sure that I ever believed that life was fair, but I had always thought that you could work your way out of just about any problem. Suzanne’s cancer was the first real challenge to that notion, a sabotage of my ideals. Because even if I didn’t have the specifics nailed down yet, I did have ideas about the future …

Michelle Obama’s friend Suzanne Alele. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

“For me and Suzanne, it was supposed to go like this: We’d be the maids of honor at each other’s weddings. Our husbands would be really different, of course, but they’d like each other a lot anyway. We’d have babies at the same time, take family beach trips to Jamaica, remain mildly critical of each other’s parenting techniques, and be favorite fun aunties to each other’s kids as they grew. I’d get her kids books for their birthdays; she’d get mine pogo sticks. We’d laugh and share secrets and roll our eyes at what we perceived as the other person’s ridiculous idiosyncrasies, until one day we’d realize we were two old ladies who’d been best friends forever, flummoxed suddenly by where the time had gone.

“That, for me, was the world as it should be. What I find remarkable in hindsight is how, over the course of that winter and spring, I just did my job. I was a lawyer, and lawyers worked. We worked all the time. We were only as good as the hours we billed. There was no choice, I told myself. The work was important, I told myself. And so I kept showing up every morning in downtown Chicago, at the corporate ant mound known as One First National Plaza. I put my head down and billed my hours.

“Back in Maryland, Suzanne was living with her disease … I enlisted Verna, my law school friend, to go by when she could, as a sort of proxy for me. Verna had met Suzanne a couple of times while we were at Harvard and by sheer coincidence was now living in Silver Spring, in a building just across the parking lot from Suzanne’s.

“It was a lot to ask of Verna, who’d recently lost her father and was wrestling with her own grief. But she was a true friend, a compassionate person. She phoned my office one day in May to relay the details of a visit. ‘I combed her hair,’ she said. That Suzanne needed to have her hair combed should have told me everything, but I’d walled myself off from the truth. Some part of me still insisted this wasn’t happening. I held on to the idea that Suzanne’s health would turn around, even as the evidence against it stacked up …

“By then, Suzanne had been moved to a hospital. She was too weak to talk, slipping in and out of consciousness. There was nothing left to feed my denial. I hung up the phone and bought a plane ticket. I flew east, caught a taxi to the hospital, took the elevator to the right floor, walked the hallway to her room, and found her there, lying in bed as Angela and her cousin watched over her, everyone silent. Suzanne’s mother, it turned out, had died just a few days earlier, and now Suzanne was in a coma …

“I regretted not coming earlier. I regretted the many times, over the course of our seesawing friendship, that I’d insisted she was making a wrong move, when possibly she’d been doing it right. I was suddenly glad for all the times she’d ignored my advice. I was glad that she hadn’t overworked herself to get some fancy business school degree. That she’d gone off for a lost weekend with a semi-famous pop star, just for fun. I was happy that she’d made it to the Taj Mahal to watch the sunrise with her mom. Suzanne had lived in ways that I had not …

“To say that it was unfair that Suzanne got sick and died at twenty-six seems too simple a thing. But it was a fact, as cold and ugly as they come. What I was thinking as I finally left her body in that hospital room was this: She’s gone and I’m still here. Outside in the hallway, there were people wandering in hospital gowns who were far older and sicker looking than Suzanne, and they were still here. I would take a packed flight back to Chicago, drive along a busy highway, ride an elevator up to my office. I’d see all these people looking happy in their cars, walking the sidewalk in their summer clothes, sitting idly in cafés, and working at their desks, all of them oblivious to what happened to Suzanne—apparently unaware that they, too, could die at any moment. It felt perverse, how the world just carried on. How everyone was still here, except for my Suzanne.”

I’ll end with another excerpt that transforms, and I challenge readers not to be deeply affected by Michelle Obama’s powerful recollection of her father’s last days:

Michelle Obama’s father, Fraser Robinson, worked for more than 20 years tending boilers for the city of Chicago. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

“At home on Euclid Avenue, I felt powerless in the face of a new reality. My father’s feet had started to swell for no obvious reason. His skin looked strangely mottled and dark. Anytime I asked how he was feeling, though, he gave me the same answer, with the same degree of insistence that he’d given me for years.

“‘I’m fine,he’d say, as if the question were never worth asking. He’d then change the subject … We accepted this, I believe, because it was steadying, and steady was how we liked to be. Dad had lived with MS for years and had managed always to be fine. We were happy to extend the rationalization, even as he was visibly declining.…

“Despite what was happening at home, he insisted that all was well at the filtration plant. He used a motorized scooter to pilot himself from boiler to boiler and took pride in his own indispensability. In twenty-six years, he hadn’t missed a single shift. If a boiler happened to overheat, my dad claimed to be one of only a few workers with enough experience to swiftly and ably contain a disaster. In a true reflection of his optimism, he’d recently put his name in for a promotion …

“My parents had raised us to handle our own business, which meant that I had to trust him to handle his, even if he could, at that point, barely put on his shoes. So I let him handle it. I stuffed down my worries, gave my dad a kiss, and took myself back upstairs to get ready for my own workday. I figured I’d call my mother later at her office, telling her we’d need to strategize about how to force the man to take some time off.

“I heard the back door click shut. A few minutes later, I returned to the kitchen to find it empty. My father’s walker sat by the back door. On an impulse, I went over and looked through the little glass peephole in the door, which gave a wide-angle view of the back stoop and pathway to the garage, just to confirm that his van was gone.

“But the van was there, and so, too, was my dad. He was dressed in a cap and his winter jacket and had his back to me. He’d made it only partway down the stairs before needing to sit down. I could see the exhaustion in the angle of his body, in the sideways droop of his head and the half-collapsed heaviness with which he was resting against the wooden railing. He wasn’t in a crisis so much as he looked just too weary to carry on. It seemed clear he was trying to summon enough strength to turn around and come back inside.

“I was seeing him, I realized, in a moment of pure defeat. How lonely it must have been to live twenty-some years with such a disease, to persist without complaint as your body is slowly and inexorably consumed. Seeing my dad on the stoop, I ached in a way I never had. My instinct was to rush outside and help him back into the warm house, but I fought it, knowing it would be just another blow to his dignity. I took a breath and turned away from the door …

“It was I who made the appointment for my father to see a doctor, but it was my mother who ultimately got him there—by ambulance, as it turned out … Dad being carried out of the house by burly paramedics, trying to joke with them as they went.

“He was taken directly to the hospital at the University of Chicago. What followed was a string of lost days spent in the purgatory of blood draws, pulse checks, untouched meal trays, and squads of doctors making rounds. All the while, my father continued to swell. His face puffed up, his neck got thicker, his voice grew weak. Cushing’s syndrome was the official diagnosis, possibly related to his MS and possibly not. Either way, we were well past the point of any sort of stopgap treatment. His endocrine system was now going fully haywire. A scan showed that he had a growth in his throat that had become so enlarged he was practically choking on it …

“We were a family of planners, but now everything seemed unplanned. Slowly, my father was sinking away from us, enveloped by some invisible sea. We called him back with old memories, seeing how they put a little brightness in his eyes … 

One evening I stopped by and found my father alone, my mother having gone home for the night, the nurses clustered outside at their hallway station. The room was quiet. The whole floor of the hospital was quiet. It was the first week of March, the winter snow having just melted, leaving the city in what felt like a perpetual state of dampness. My dad had been in the hospital about ten days then. He was fifty-five years old, but he looked like an old man, with yellowed eyes and arms too heavy to move. He was awake but unable to speak, whether due to the swelling or due to emotion, I’ll never know.

“I sat in a chair next to his bed and watched him laboring to breathe. When I put my hand in his, he gave it a comforting squeeze. We looked at each other silently.There was too much to say, and at the same time it felt as if we’d said everything. What was left was only one truth. We were reaching the end. He would not recover. He was going to miss the whole rest of my life. I was losing his steadiness, his comfort, his everyday joy. I felt tears spilling down my cheeks.

“Keeping his gaze on me, my father lifted the back of my hand to his lips and kissed it again and again and again. It was his way of saying, ‘Hush now, don’t cry.’ He was expressing sorrow and urgency, but also something calmer and deeper, a message he wanted to make clear. With those kisses, he was saying that he loved me with his whole heart, that he was proud of the woman I’d become. He was saying that he knew he should have gone to the doctor a lot sooner. He was asking for forgiveness. He was saying good-bye.

Standing in for their father who’d died a year and a half earlier, Craig Robinson walks his sister, Michelle, down to the aisle at her Oct. 3, 1992, marriage to Barack Obama. Photo courtesy ‘Becoming’

“I stayed with him until he fell asleep that night, leaving the hospital in icy darkness and driving back home to Euclid Avenue, where my mother had already turned off the lights. We were alone in the house now, just me and my mom and whatever future we were now meant to have. Because by the time the sun came up, he’d be gone. My father—Fraser Robinson III—had a heart attack and passed away that night, having given us absolutely everything.

“It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colors go flat. Music hurts, and so do memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful—a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of kids—and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way …”

“Becoming” is always interesting. I’ll leave it to you to read about how she adjusted to having a “big deal” boyfriend-then-husband, the stresses and strains of decades of campaigning, of raising two girls while he legislated, the extraordinary adjustment from living a normal life to surrendering all privacy, and, of course, the fascinating White House years.

I learned from it all and believe you will, too. But, for me, what was most important was getting to know someone I thought I sort of knew but didn’t know at all, and receiving a great gift: a look at the world from her eyes, a world I now so appreciate.


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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Grier Horner says:

    I didn’t expect to ever read a book review that brought me close to tears. Dook Snyder may have given too much away in his appraisal of Mrs. Obama’s book, but he did it beautifully, often letting her own words do the work.

    1. Grier Horner says:

      Carelessly, I hit Post Comment before rereading my comment and ended up with two versions of the first sentence. I’ve searched but can’t find a way to edit it. Sorry for the screw up.

      1. Grier — I edited it for you, removing one of those sentences — just as you used to improve my copy (and everyone else’s) when we were at The Eagle.

  2. Sonia Pilcer says:

    Dook Snyder’s appraisal of Michelle Obama’s Becoming is a rich, thoughtful, passionate introduction to her wonderful. book. Read it and feel her aliveness, her humanity and willingness to share her life. And then there’s her Barack and the experience of being the first African American First Family. She reads the audio version if you’re so inclined.

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