Lesson in courage

Geraldine Ferraro, the U.S. representative from Queens who was the Democratic Party’s 1984 vice presidential nominee, died last week.

New York Times (1978)

Geraldine Ferraro, the U.S. representative from Queens who was the Democratic Party’s 1984 vice presidential nominee, died last week.

When we measure the impact of a hero, it helps to consider the difference between worship and admiration. • Worship promotes an illusion of perfection in one person and relies on a belief in our inherent inferiority to keep the myth alive. • Admiration, on the other hand, closes the distance. A person admits to overcoming everyday stumbles and major obstacles of ordinary life, and we're inspired to find our own courage. • Well, why not? we think. Let's give it a go.

Geraldine Ferraro, who died last week at 75, never tried to hide her real-life struggles or human imperfections. As a result, those of us who admired her — and there were so many — dared to see our own potential in her success.

In 1984, the former stay-at-home mother became the first woman of a major party to be nominated for vice president of the United States. In a New York Times video interview recorded in 2007 and posted after her death, Ferraro described walking out to the podium at the Democratic National Convention and being surprised to see that most in the thunderous crowd were women.

Ferraro said she later learned that many of the male delegates gave their floor passes to their female alternates so they could experience the historic moment.

I was a stay-at-home mom in my late 20s wondering whether I'd ever again write for a living when Ferraro came to Cleveland during the presidential campaign. By then, I already was holding on to many of the particulars of her life: Before her career in Congress, she was a teacher and then a lawyer who put her career on hold until the youngest of her three children was old enough to go to school.

"I did all the things other homemakers do," she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in May 1984. "I took care of my kids, participated in the local women's club, taught school one afternoon a week. I carpooled. … Being a mother is not an easy job."

It was as if she were speaking straight to me.

Ferraro was bravely prochoice, even though she was a devout Catholic and made clear that she never would have an abortion. When she returned to Cleveland on the last day of the campaign, antichoice hecklers tried to shout down her speech.

A Plain Dealer columnist described her calm response:

"I know you want to make your point," she told them. "It's made. I believe in free speech, but just give me an opportunity to speak this morning. … If you're concerned about life, it really must go and continue for those who are born as well. I accept your view. Please allow me to present mine."

It's one thing to be brave when the whole world is watching and you have the force of a political party behind you. It's another thing altogether when your battle is personal and your life hangs in the balance.

In 1998, after a losing bid for the U.S. Senate, Ferraro was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Doctors said she had, at most, five years to live. She outran that prognosis by seven years.

Ferraro went public with her cancer to champion those who didn't have her resources. She testified before Congress and, in 2007, was interviewed on the Today show as a $1,000-a-week drug dripped through an IV into her arm.

"It just is a very, very expensive thing to do, very expensive thing to do, and that's the one thing that bothers me," Ferraro said. "Having to come in twice a week … doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that what's available to me is not available to every person who has cancer in this country and it should be."

I met Geraldine Ferraro only once, in the summer of 1984, when she came to Cleveland for a speech. I wanted my 9-year-old son, Andy, to be a part of history, so there we were, standing in a crowd of hundreds, waiting for the vice presidential candidate to appear.

As soon as I saw her, I did the mother thing: I pushed Andy in front of me, hoping she'd see him.

Ferraro did the mother thing, too: She stopped, grabbed his outstretched hand and leaned down to ask his name.

As she walked away, Andy turned to me and whispered, "My knees feel weak."

I pulled him close and felt a whole new kind of strong.

© 2011 Creators Syndicate

Lesson in courage 03/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 6:49pm]

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