September 24, 2008 my daughter M was hit by a truck as she returned to her dorm after a cross-country workout. She had been at her college for just a few weeks, and was by her account happy for the first time in her life. She nearly died from a traumatic brain injury which left her in a coma for a month. She had deep brain bleeds, shearing in her brain stem and severe bruising to her right frontal lobe where her skull had been fractured. It was hideous.
When we transferred her to NYC for her in-patient rehab, in the first attempts to orient her, therapists asked, “who is the president?” Not knowing how long she had been unconscious, upon hearing that it was Bush my poor child was bereft, thinking that he somehow managed a putsch. When she discovered that the election was yet to be held she was relieved and excited to cast her first presidential vote. When we filled out her absentee ballot for Obama, it was the first time she wrote her own name after her injury six weeks before.
After the election M wrote Obama a letter telling her story. It was written by hand in many colors and embellished with drawings. She asked him to do something to help the many Iraq veterans who were returning with TBI’s. It was charming and compelling. He wrote her a gracious reply that was her most prized possession. I had it framed with a transcript of the letter she had sent him on the back. She took it with her when she returned to Swarthmore in the fall.
Three years later when I sold our house, she hadn’t taken it to the dorm with her. She reminded me that I had to be sure to bring it with me. Whatever I did with it, I cannot find it. I’ve searched repeatedly. There were so many things that didn’t make the move either by design or happenstance. I had to deal with the belongings of five people’s lives single-handedly. It was December, I was sick. Yes, I understand how this could have happened; but more so I understand M’s complete furor that it did. One object of the hundreds, thousands I was responsible for! I’ve sadly said my goodbyes to the porcelain ginger jar I had brought from Japan for my parents which housed my father’s ashes before we spread them with my mother’s. It was too bad about that crystal mantel clock that was left behind! And yet I have my mother’s wedding gown and her first Holy Communion veil. But not the Obama letter.
Every time it comes up, it causes fresh anger for M and pain and guilt for me. When I packed up again a few months ago, I hoped that I would find it but I didn’t. I spoke to my congresswoman’s chief of staff who recommended that I write and ask for a copy. When I arrived here in Pittsburgh I did. I reported to POTUS that with enormous effort M had graduated in seven semesters rather than the usual eight; that she was thriving in NYC. I told him that of the many changes that were put into motion that awful September afternoon, if I could have a copy of his letter it would allow me to attend to one aspect of our altered lives.
Today I received two envelopes in the mail from the White House. The letter addressed to me expresses President Obama’s relief in M’s recovery, encouraging words to me and, most compellingly, empathy as a parent for the pain of watching a child suffer. The other is for M; I will forward it to her unopened. Will it be the same letter he wrote six years ago? Will there be a different one reflecting the coda of her recovery and courage? We are both hoping that it is a replica of his first, kind letter. Whatever the letter contains, it brings with it a measure of relief and gratitude that I cannot fully express.
I am also certain that it will be perfect. The letter to me was dated June 26th in the midst of what has been called Obama’s greatest week: Obama care upheld, marriage equity became the law of the land and he delivered his soaring eulogy for Charleston murder victim Clementa Pickney. At the same time, whoever authored the messages to M and me, President Obama took his pen to paper to sign a message of personal support and concern.
M and her siblings asked what I had said in my letter to the president and each expressed surprise at some of the details I included when I read it to them. What I was guided by was the deep desire to make clear just how much his effort had meant to us. It was important to me that he see how brave and successful M has been negotiating every day before and since her letter to him. In retrospect, it was confessional: I told the leader of free world that I made an enormous error and needed his help to rectify it. He did.