A Rosalyn Carter Moment


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We had just gotten the kids settled, sitting cross-legged with us on the carpeted floor in a semi-circle, when the two secret service guys, laser eyed tree trunks in suits, led Rosalyn Carter through the locked doors of the Ward to the single chair at the front of the room.

The building where this happened, lifetimes ago, The Northwestern Institute of Psychiatry on Huron Street in Chicago, is being demolished as I write these words. But the memory of Mrs. Carter’s small chat with those children is as sparkling golden fresh as this morning’s sunlight streaming through my window right now.

Later on this morning, Mrs. Carter will be standing next to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius in Atlanta, for the announcement that we, as a country, have taken some steps in treating illnesses of the brain on parity with the ways we treat illnesses of the rest of the body.

What follows will be the usual piercing shrillness of commentary on the Affordable Care Act. The attacks grounded in an ethic that says, “If I don’t like something, it’s OK to just make stuff up when I say why I don’t like it.” Celebrating a world where words have no meaning. Or a history that only goes back a day. A fight destined for the dustbins of history.

But as the torrent of venom spews out on Ms. Sibelius and The President, and all those struggling to change the ragged, sickly broken way we all try and take care of each other; to make a system change at it’s core where all the poison has been buried in the very way we think, while all that is happening, Roslyn Carter will be at the front of the room. Just as she was when she spoke with us on that sixth floor locked ward all those years ago.

She said to the kids, “If you’d like, you can ask me questions. Anything you want.” And what happened next was something we counselors didn’t see too often from our kids. We saw their wide eyed, bone deep silence of what it means to be in the presence of someone who is important for all the right reasons.

None of the kids and none of us know it all counselors could have named any of the reasons why the woman was able to elicit an immediate and heartfelt respect simply by completing our circle and speaking 11 words.

Perhaps because kids have a built in bullshit detector. One set at a much higher frequency, And perhaps kids with an illness of the mind, perhaps their bullshit detectors are tuned up the highest of all.

Spending eight hours of the day on the ward taught us counselors to feel the rise and fall, the trouble and the terrors of the group, We might have had words for that at the time. If we did, I don’t remember them. But I can remember vividly how those waves and swings of group feelings would move us through our days and nights. So, I can remember so clearly, even now, how when Mrs. Carter started talking with us, she instantly owned the room and every living shred of respect in that room.

A kid asked her what it was like living in the White House. And her eyes got all wide and she said, “Oh my goodness, we still get lost! See, my office is on one side and Jimmy’s is on the other, and the other day I thought it would be nice to have lunch? So I tried to take a shortcut? And I had NO idea where I was! I ended up having to ask,” and here she burst into laughter, “how to get to Jimmy’s office!”

And as she begin to laugh harder, she opened up the floodgates of 20 children who none of us counselors had ever seen laugh all that much at all. Seeing what laughter could do to heal, something I never, ever forgot. And that’s where I saw it first. That’s where I learned it.

Then, because this was a real conversation, she started asking questions. Her voice was soft and soothing like a southern pine tree alive in the wind. Not lost on the young buck counselors was the thought, this is an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Later, the whispered line in the nurses station was, “Now we know why Jimmy always smiles.”

She asked one young girl. “Why are you here?” Perhaps the most important question of all. But one that most visitors would avoid. And the young girl, electrically charged, just lit up to be noticed, answered her back with the simple elegance and honesty Mrs Carter had brought onto the ward and populated every inch of that room. The girl answered, “I’m here because my Daddy died last month, I got so sad, that I didn’t know what to do. So I tried to hurt myself. Then someone brought me here.”

“What’s your name, child?” Mrs. Carter asked.

“Sarah.”

“How old are you Sarah?”

“Thirteen.”

“You know, I was just about your age when my Daddy died. I didn’t know what to do either. But Sarah?”

“Yes?” The girl barely breathing. Riveted to this one moment in her life.

“Sarah, I really hope you don’t ever try and hurt yourself again.”

Sarah les out a breath, you could see a tension in her core relax. She looks down at the floor, and all of us counselors see something we have never seen before. A tiny flowering bud of a smile.

This morning when they sign the papers saying that taking care of the mentally ill is just as important as taking care of the physically ill, maybe Sarah wherever she is, will hear the news, cut through the noise and remember that moment. Her smile. I don’t know.

But I do know that Rosalyn Carter will be standing there when we all take a step towards taking better care of each other.

Just like the time when she said to the little girl, “Sarah, I really hope you don’t try and hurt yourself again.”

4 Responses to “A Rosalyn Carter Moment”

  1. toritto Says:

    “Perhaps because kids have a built in bullshit detector”

    Indeed Roger. Indeed.

    Nicely done. And kudos for Rosalyn.

    Regards

  2. helen gagel Says:

    Like her husband, Rosalyn Carter was grossly under-appreciated while in the White House. Thanks for reminding us what a good and gracious woman she is. So glad she’s getting her just due today.

  3. David Ramesh Says:

    Amen, Roger. Amen.

  4. Paul Haider Says:

    Roger, thank you for writing this great post about the second greatest First Lady after Eleanor Roosevelt. It was during the summer of 2014 that Jeanne and I shopped at a used bookstore on Broadway, and I proudly purchased First Lady from Plains (1984); it was not until I completed reading the memoir that I realized it was by Rosalynn Carter herself. It was in March of 2014 that I met President Carter in person, and he signed a copy of his most recent book, A Call to Action (Women, Religion, Violence, and Power), for me at Women & Children First. I know that Mrs. Carter made the issue of mental health treatment as the cornerstone of her work while in the governor’s mansion of Georgia and in the White House. This is still a noble and relevant campaign when compared with the failed “Just Say No” campaign of Nancy Reagan (drugs were used by yours truly out of spite for that horrible woman!) and the literacy campaigns of Barbara and Laura Bush, who both did a “stellar” job with George (he has still not successfully completed reading My Pet Goat since September 11, 2001). Jimmy and Rosalynn (she is referred to as “Rosie” by her husband) will always be personal heroes of mine, and they are still a great couple with an incredibly strong marriage.

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