The sidewalks in the neighborhood were narrow and uneven. People walking in opposite directions often had to shift or even stop, to pass without bumping into each other. In this century-plus old section of the city, there were many tree roots twisting beneath the sidewalks creating tilts and ridges that threatened each step. So, the need to pay attention to where you were walking was necessary and the norm.
The first time we passed each other, I wasn’t sure he was who I thought he was.
For about a month, I would pass him every day around 7:45 a.m., after dropping my son—AJ—off at preschool. As I walked to the metro, mentally moving from mom to nonprofit exec, I would think about what I had to do at work that day. I was still adjusting to taking AJ to preschool. Until that September, he had been at home with a care provider. Now it was time to get him into a group with other children. So, I had to get him up, dressed, and fed… and me, too. As the saying goes, “it” — parenthood, in this case — “was more than a notion.” In my early 40s, I was an older mother, and the adjustments to motherhood had been many as I also worked to succeed in my career.
Some mornings were a bit unfocused as life’s demands jostled through my mind. Not paying careful attention, I had almost tripped on the sidewalk the previous week. On that first morning, when I saw him, I was head down, focused on carefully negotiating the uneven bricks. I glanced up just as I passed him. The glimpse was quick, perfunctory. I wasn’t sure it was him, but I thought it was.
On the next day and the subsequent days when we passed, I was sure. I knew who he was. At first, I would nod and smile. Then after a few days, I started to say, “Good morning, sir.” To which, he would nod and smile, sometimes replying with a pleasant “Good morning.”
At no time during those few weeks in 1997, when our paths crossed every morning, did I ever try to have a conversation with Congressman John Lewis. I wish I had.
I was reminded of those small encounters when I heard the announcement last month he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
When Congressman Elijah Cummings, a long-time civil rights champion, passed last October, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to him as Congress’ North Star. I understood why. He was a strong and outspoken advocate for what was morally right. But John Lewis has always been my North Star. In 1997, I wouldn’t have thought of him with that term, but I have always admired his courage. I knew of his civil rights work, particularly the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. For me, he was then, and still is, the personification of fierce leadership and dedication to purpose.
After reading his memoir, Walking with The Wind, in 1998, the year after our brief encounters, I remember wishing I had engaged him as we passed each other. His leadership was even deeper and more critical to the civil rights movement than I had initially known. But what would I possibly have said to him or asked? How would I have broached meaningful topics in those brief moments? He was hurrying to important committee meetings, I suspect, with no time to carry on a conversation. I do, however, remember wishing I had said, “Thank you” as we passed on that sidewalk.
I was fortunate. I had a chance to say just that almost twenty years later.
In 2016, he, along with then-Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas, was presented with the Congressional Patriot Award by the Bipartisan Policy Center. I was lucky enough to be invited to the event, held at the Library of Congress. I brought my copy of Walking with The Wind, knowing I would ask him to sign it if the circumstance presented itself. As the guests mingled in an ornately beautiful room before the ceremony, I saw him enter without fanfare. I gathered my courage, walked up to him, and thanked him for all he had done for me, for people who looked like me, and for our country. Graciously, he thanked me for the kind words and signed my book.
At this time of the year when we are focused on resolutions and retrospection, I hope all of us take the time to reflect on those who have made a difference in our lives or in our world. If you have the chance to say something to that person, do so. Don’t wait until the perfect statement forms in your mind. Don’t be shy or intimidated thinking you may be intruding on a moral giant. The opportunity may never come again, and, realistically, your words will never be as perfect as you want. The eloquence will come from the purity of your feelings and the sheer power of uttering the heartfelt words, “Thank you.”
Happy New Year to all and wishing healing mercies for Congressman John Lewis.