Twenty-five years ago this week, I had dinner at the home of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, adviser for East-West relations, in Bonn. After an improbable candlelit dinner party discussion with several of the Chancellor’s top advisers about how we’d never see a united Germany in our lifetimes (after I suggested it), the “red phone” rang, and during dessert we were told to turn on the television where the news was shockingly announcing that the East German government was going to allow their citizens to cross into West Germany the following day—for the first time in decades. Die Mauer wird zerstort—the Wall will be destroyed.
After I dashed into town with my dinner colleagues, the chief aide in my Bundestag office called to let me know that former German Chancellor Willy Brandt was about to be en route to Berlin. I worked for the German Bundestag at that time and also worked for the Willy Brandt Foundation for Development & Peace (while I received a Deutscher Bundestag Fellowship). Willy Brandt was an esteemed member of the Parliament and chairman of the SDP Social Democratic Party.
So, a few pals and I, who attended the Friedrich Wilhelms Universitat together, rented three cars and drove through the night to arrive in Berlin to be among the very first at dawn to witness the East Germans crossing over Check Point Charlie and to see the first East German Trabant “Trabis” and Wartburg automobiles drive over the border.
Each of us ignored the soldiers standing guard with rifles in arm, and jumped onto the Berlin Wall in a celebration of freedom that still gives me chills today. We celebrated, we hugged, we danced and sang—and cried—as the borders opened and families united. I also was able to stand near Willy Brandt as he made the most remarkable first speech in front of Germans, who were standing united for the first time in almost 45 years.
I stood there chopping down the Wall as the son of a father from Bayreuth whose family traced its German roots back hundreds and hundreds of years. The son of the same father whose bar mitzvah would have occured on that same day, November 9, but 51 years earlier—had it not been for Kristallnacht. November 9: the day the Kaiser was forced to abdicate. November 9: the day Hitler attempted his famous coup “Putsch” in Munich 1923. November 9: the same day that in 1923 my father’s parents, my grandparents, married—also in Munich, Bavaria.
My head spun with joy and a bittersweet worry that a united Germany would forget the 12 horrible years of Hitler’s regime. Yet we celebrated, and I shared my family stories (how my dad served as the US Deputy Security Officer of Berlin after returning to Germany as an American soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, just a few short years after arriving on one of the last ships allowed to leave Germany for the United States six months after the start of World War II).
November 9: I was in Berlin. I stood on the Wall. And I celebrated as we chopped it down. I was hosed by the guards who just hours earlier would’ve been ordered to shoot us. November 9: a day of freedom.
Several months later, on May 8, 1990—45 years to the day that Germany surrendered (and 45 years since my Dad was with General Eisenhower at the “Little Red School House” witnessing the surrender of Nazi Germany) I was sitting with Willy Brandt in his offices in Bonn. He had perhaps spent the best months of his political life. As the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and the father of “Ostpolitik,” he embraced East-West relations in the 1970s when no one argued for it.
The Chancellor, the former Mayor of Berlin who stood next to President John F. Kennedy as he declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was beaming, embracing, and relishing in the thought of a united Germany when we sat together that day in May. He was quite distressed, however, that while I too was excited, I was also quite worried—and that I especially feared the talk that the Unification Day (Germany’s version of July Fourth) would be November 9, a day that held such sad significance in German modern history. He was at first among those who thought the date’s significance would make a positive out of a negative—but he later understood my worry, and that of so many others, that November 9, while extraordinary in its meaning and celebration, could not and should not whitewash its significance in history at the end of WWI, in 1923 in Munich, and in 1938 when all of Germany’s synagogues burned or were destroyed (including the one that day which was meant for a certain 13-year-old German boy’s bar mitzvah in Bayreuth).
That could not happen then. And November 9 could not be celebrated as Germany’s Unification Day now. I can’t take credit for this, nor could I try—especially considering Willy Brandt’s deep understanding and appreciation for perception and the significance of symbolism (he was indeed the first German Chancellor to fall to his knees in Warsaw before the monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto) and it is Brandt who quietly worked with others to be sure that German Unification Day would not be November 9 but rather October 3—the day Germans (East and West) voted to be one.
And, like so many world citizens that day—and every day since October 1990—I, too, celebrate a unified Germany while never forgetting the joy I felt on top of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Alan H. Fleischmann is president & CEO of Laurel Strategies, the global strategic communications firm. He lived and worked in Germany during the period before, during, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He Iives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife and two children.
Nancy Doyle Palmer is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter. Her work has appeared in Washingtonian, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Atlantic, and the Huffington Post. Her screenplay Sluglines is currently in development. John S. Palmer, a veteran news broadcaster for more than 40 years with NBC News, died in August, 2013, and his memoir, Newscatcher, was published this month. Here, Nancy shares their story.
I’m a new widow, so sometimes I’m oblivious. Like when Cat Stevens lyrics circle through my head—“And though you want things to last forever you know they never will…you know they never will”—all day long, and I don’t even realize it’s significant.
My husband of 31 years died a year ago last August, after a sudden 20-day stay in the hospital that, looking back, had all the elements of a slow-motion car accident. The immediacy of the transition was like having a baby—you go from being hugely pregnant to actual childbirth to being a new mother in the space of mere hours. But this time, like taking a series of photographs, I went from—flash!—high-alert nurse to—flash!—holding his face against mine as he quietly left us to—flash!—a widow.
So seamless that there is no pausing to be shocked. You just come out the other side.
The awkwardness came quickly, too. I spent the next week talking to pretty much everyone I had ever met—increasingly tall men and boys stooping over to hug me, me returning the embraces feeling hunched and clumsy. I find myself embarrassed when I am alone with men, a weird and adolescent humiliation. The crone feeling returns as I see myself, crying, in the mirror—hoping for a pretty tear-stained face, sweetly vulnerable, but greeted instead by a perfect rendering of Munch’s “The Scream.”
In my husband’s final days, the young man I married came back—he became thin again, his face unlined, an innocence of intent and heart restored as he became increasingly both less and more himself.
I find myself remembering all our lucky times, all the things that made us us, all the little ways we celebrated. We are the Palmers! We love the beach! We love Dalmatians and Jack Russell terriers! We have one, two, three little girls! We love their schools! We love Jeeps! We ski! We collect Limoges boxes to symbolize everything!
Moments of pure contentment come back in force: early autumn evenings, when I bring him a drink outside while he grills our dinner and we hug in quiet perfection as we listen to the hum of our children inside, the youngest belting out Disney songs up in her room.
That particular child, now 26, sat down next to me on my bed not long ago, half dressed for work, with her arm around me as I wept from the worst kind of dream, the kind that comes right before waking devastation—one where he was back and telling me it was all a mistake. She has his presence and her own grace as she sits quietly next to me.
I met him 35 years ago when he was in the midst of, yet seemingly oblivious to, his own grief. He’d lost his sister, his mother, and then his father, all while working overseas as a television news correspondent. He returned to the US to cover the White House; I was his production assistant. He invited me to be his guest at a luncheon hosted by President Carter for the King and Queen of Belgium. He later invited me to his home in Georgetown to watch 60 Minutes. He told me he loved me the first night we spent together. I chalked it up to so much loss, but worried when he stopped saying it so much. Then he proposed.
My gentle grief counselor advises meditation. We shut our eyes together, and she asks me to find him. He’s usually on a bench at the base of an improbably gorgeous tree, waiting for me. Something happens when I join him that I cannot yet describe or easily replicate, but something happens all the same. I don’t fear it or crave it; it’s elusive. Days or weeks pass before I even want to try to go there again.
My counselor tells me this kind of grief can be a beautiful journey. I accept the dare.
When I was little, I was afraid to spend the night out. My sole, disastrous venture into summer camp involved a daily visit to the director’s office to call home and beg my parents to come get me. The word homesick is one of the most apt in the English language. My long-dormant symptoms have all returned: the awakenings at dawn, the misty distractions that clear into hard truth, the sinking abdominal certainty that something is very wrong.
In the fall, I swim in our overheated neighborhood pool through November, escorted by my increasingly vigilant Jack Russell Terrier and her tennis ball. I start my laps in the warm water at dusk—earlier each day—pausing to look up at the tops of trees still shimmering in golden summer hues. Treetops are my heaven, and I know he is there. I know I will be going someday, too. Sometimes I wish it was soon.
I can’t count the times and places over the last 32 years that he sat by a pool while I swam laps, patiently waiting (okay, sometimes drinking and smoking) or throwing a ball for the dog over and over again. Now, though he’s not there when I check through my goggles, it’s still water where I find him. I swim in it. Can’t drink enough of it. It blurs my eyes.
In the last few years, he cried easily—often to the embarrassment of our daughters—talking about an act of decency or moment of applause, remembering Martin Luther King, President Kennedy, his father. His face would grow wet, and he’d use both fists to wipe his eyes. Sometimes I shared the girls’ impatience with this, but more often my heart welled as much as his eyes did.
Now mine are the tears that spring and sting, unbidden—at the craziest triggers, but most often because of my proximity to love, and love’s wonderful first cousin, kindness.
In the last week of my husband’s life, the doctors noted something called la belle indifference. It’s a phenomenon of naïve or inappropriate lack of concern about one’s illness or disability, also called a conversion disorder. I call it heaven.
In those final days, he was unaware he was terribly ill, that he had lost his sight, that he could barely breathe without machines, that he was dying. He was chatty, sociable, lively, and darling. His often-muted Southern accent was out in force. He was always holding someone’s hand. He knew all the news headlines. He put the chaplain at ease. When our oldest daughter had the idea to take turns reading aloud chapters from his unpublished memoir, he listened with his eyes fixed off in the distance, often finishing an anecdote or punchline along with us.
The night before he died, I drew a lounge chair close to his bed, and we recounted every beautiful hotel room we’d ever been in, deciding the Dolder Grand in Zurich was the very best. I’d drift off to sleep only to awaken to the alarm that signaled he’d removed his oxygen mask. It was like taking care of a restless child. He kept pulling off the mask as if to see something better—listening to someone’s call.
I don’t think his beautiful indifference was a hysteric reaction to the reality of his death so much as it was a choice. A dare.
My husband was a fine man—tender, kind, sincere, and very funny. The quality that always struck me the most was that he was brave. He demonstrated this often in his career as a war correspondent, in the face of danger, illness, career setbacks, but also as a fierce protector of his family and friends. He always went first.
The last day of his life, we gathered around him, and one of our favorite respiratory technicians, a young man named Taki, came in. He told us that while it might feel that we were losing him, we were, in fact, winners. Because we had so much love.
This is what I’ve learned: Love is an element as real and transformative as time and water, a force so powerful it is both the root of and the solution to grief. John’s graceful affect was his gift to us and our lesson to absorb.
The answer to understanding the loss of someone I loved wholeheartedly for most of my life came not in tears, trees, or memory but in simple math—an algebraic formula for my broken heart.
Nancy + John = Love
Nancy - John = Grief
Nancy + Grief = Love
Love is the answer. Love is all you need.
So when the refrain returns—the looping lyrics like Macy Gray’s “There is beauty everywhere” swirling in my head—I finally understand.
For more about Nancy and John, watch a clip of Nancy talking about her husband on the Today show this past Sunday.
Two excellent new books—by Todd Purdom and Clay Risen—have been written that seek to explain how the Civil Rights Act passed when most knowledgeable observers thought it would never survive a Southern Democratic filibuster in the Senate. The LBJ Library at the University of Texas held a “summit,” and the JFK Library in Boston held a forum. Its importance has been duly certified at many other events.
What is often missing, however, is a clear expression of why the act was so important. I’ll wager that most celebrants have only the vaguest notion of what the act accomplished and how it truly changed the fabric of American life.
A good way to test this hypothesis is to describe for a teenager or young adult what life was like for almost all African-Americans before the act passed. Those of us who are old enough to recall life before passage can talk about the inability of African-Americans to buy a Coke from Woolworth’s or take their families out for Sunday dinner at a good restaurant or make a trip that involved spending the night somewhere. The most fundamental things—using rest room facilities, eating, and sleeping were off limits.
Your kids or grandkids look at you as if you're crazy. “No way,” I've been told. “Are you making that up?” Or, “That is just terrible. How can that be?”
How do you bring to life that the achievement of dignity and the stamping out of humiliation in everyday life was the act’s great accomplishment?
I worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey back in 1964. Say what you will about Humphrey, but he had an extraordinary capacity to identify and seize the essential truth of a situation. During the floor debate of the Civil Rights Act, he observed: “It is difficult for most of us to comprehend the monstrous humiliations and inconveniences that racial discrimination imposes on our Negro fellow citizens...What is happening is not so much economics, even though it amounts to economic deprivation. It is not so much education, even though we know people have been denied education. What is happening is humiliation, the lack of a sense of dignity which has been imposed upon people.”
It is the reality of humiliation and the absence of dignity that are so hard to explain today. But this also tells me that, despite all the work that remains to be done, the central objectives that drove the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were achieved.
Thanks primarily to the excesses of Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, the nation finally grasped the heinous evil of racial discrimination and segregation. Maybe it took 200 years, but between 1963 and 1964, a significant majority of Americans got it.
Popular support for fixing these wrongs erupted to the degree that almost every conservative Midwest Republican—politicians who had built careers opposing the expansion of federal power—voted to give the US Department of Justice authority tell restaurant and motel owners that refusing service to African Americans and other minorities would no longer be tolerated. And these same senators went even further in supporting federal authority to combat discrimination in employment. Who could have imagined such behavior?
This determination to attack directly the humiliations faced daily by millions of African Americans led the Senate down the path of legislative miracles, at least by today’s standards. The usual scattershot liberals developed a grand strategy, stuck to it, and outsmarted Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the crafty leader of the Southern Democrats. Bipartisan collaboration to pass the bill was robust and real. The debate was conducted in a fair and accommodating manner, even when it assisted the “enemy,” the Southern Democrats. The limelight was shared by Humphrey, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and Senator Everett Dirksen, the Minority Leader, who delivered the final votes needed to end the filibuster.
And, at the end of the day, all these miracles were possible because a clear majority of Americans had come to believe that “monstrous humiliations” and denials of personal dignity could no longer be tolerated as elements of American society. The legislation passed; it was signed into law; and it changed America.
That is why we celebrate it fifty years later.
Two good books about the Civil Rights Act:
- Todd Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Henry Holt & Co., 2014
- Clay Risen,The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, Bloomsbury Press, 2014
John G. Stewart was legislative director for Senator Hubert Humphrey when Humphrey was the floor manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He stayed with Humphrey from 1965 to 1969, when Humphrey was Vice President. He lived for 10 years on Capitol Hill and for 10 years in Chevy Chase DC. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, Nancy.
“Young lady, do you have NF also?” I felt the weight of my father’s hand on my 12-year-old shoulder. “No,” he said to the woman, “we’re just here to learn.” Dad knew my response was likely to be one of confusion delivered with tears, so he stepped in.
Back then, my only understanding of NF—neurofibromatosis—came from a TV program about the “Elephant Man.” After watching that program, I had begged Dad to take me to this NF conference. It was here that I first learned about genetic counseling. Thirteen years later, I became a genetic counselor—it has been my dream career ever since.
Through teenage angst, academic challenges, boy troubles, and workplace politics, Dad was there for me. He listened, discussed, and advised. He was many things: husband since age 22, father of two girls, government employee since age 16, Army veteran, marathon runner, and deeply steadfast person. When I was a kid, I didn’t see the last part.
When I was in my 30s, I grieved his loss. Although I could still see him, hug him, and talk with him, he wasn’t there. Most of the time, he didn’t know who I was. My father had begun a slow descent into Alzheimer’s disease. The gentle, witty person I loved was replaced by a forgetful, depressed, distant, and belligerent man. When these behaviors peaked in 2010, I thought that when he did actually die, I would not mourn because he would be relieved of his suffering. And my family would be relieved of ours. But I was wrong.
Dad recently turned 85. He resides in an assisted living facility. Caregivers surround him with music.
He usually doesn’t recognize me, but he knows the lyrics to almost every song. He has perfect pitch. He cajoles me into singing with him. I never sing in front of anybody! But I can’t resist—he says he’s never heard me sing before.
Last month, Dad asked me if we still go to the movies and the zoo. I said no, but that we do other things together. That day he remembered me: “Little Beth,” he said when I kissed him. My eyes welled with tears that I pushed back. I was quiet. He looked at me and asked what was wrong. “You look sad,” he uttered. I was.
He often asks me: “Why did this happen?” And so begins his painful chanting of unanswerable questions that rip my heart out. “Why can’t they figure out how to cure me? I want to be your old Dad again. What did I do to deserve this? What else can they do for me?” When I say that I don’t know and that there is no cure, he understands. Sometimes he cries.
These glimpses of my father—the moments of joy, the flashes of empathy, the demands to know why—this is my father fighting. He is holding onto everything he has left. This is the torture of being in a black hole. But my old Dad is still in there.
Beth N. Peshkin is the Senior Genetic Counselor and Professor of Oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. She lives in Arlington.
The movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, about the life of Eugene Allen, who served food and drinks at the White House from 1952 to 1986, is a wonderful window on the 20th-century lives of African-Americans in Washington. Here’s a similar window on Washington, this time down Pennsylvania Avenue at the US Capitol:
In 1949, soon after he was elected senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey took one of his staff, Cyril King, to the Senators’ Dining Room in the Capitol to have lunch and talk of legislative matters. When they got to the door, the head waiter blocked their entrance and said, “Senator, we don’t serve Negroes.” Humphrey said he and his guest were going to have lunch and proceeded to a table, where they were ignored. The head waiter had gone to find senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who headed the committee with oversight of the dining room.
Eastland begrudgingly gave in, and Senator Humphrey and King were served. King, a native Virgin Islander, was later named by John Kennedy, at Humphrey’s urging, to be government secretary, the second highest position in its government. In 1974, King was elected governor of the Virgin Islands.
In 1949, at the time of the Senate restaurant incident, King is thought to have been the only African-American on the professional staff of any United States senator.
In 1964, Senator Humphrey was elected Vice President, and in the next four years he dined often at the White House. Eugene Allen and Vice President Humphrey were together at the White House when President Johnson signed the historic civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965.
Norman Sherman first worked for Hubert Humphrey as a volunteer in Humphrey’s 1954 reelection campaign. He worked in Humphrey’s 1960 effort against John Kennedy to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and joined Humphrey’s Senate staff in 1963. He was Humphrey’s press secretary through most of his vice presidency and during the 1968 presidential campaign. He later edited Humphrey’s autobiography.