We celebrate Independence Day with fireworks and military displays. There are parades; the stores close; all of the national consciousness is devoted to thinking of glory and might. At these times I like to return to my roots: I think of the individuals who make up our fiber. The threads that make it possible for the flag to be woven together.
My dad. He spent most of his life trying to educate promising young people. He started out as a high school teacher; later he became principal; even later he was a college professor. He had an uncanny knack for getting the best out of anyone. I remember that when it came time to register for classes there was a line of students waiting in front of his office. Some were seeking advice, but I heard a large share of requests for “loans” that would go to pay for tuition, or books, or a deposit on an apartment rental. If it was a matter of education he never said no. When he died he had next to nothing in his bank account. I received dozens of calls from former students who thanked me for all that my dad had done for them. He was wealthy.
My mom. She got married at age 16. Had three kids by the time that she was twenty-three. Somehow managed to finish college, and a master’s degree and a PhD, with excellent grades. But what I remember the most were the times that she would take me to work when she taught in a low income neighborhood. She knew everyone: the mothers, the siblings, even the missing fathers of all of her students. She knew where each one of her kids lived and what they had for breakfast. She paid for many a meal out of her small salary. She educated a world famous jockey, and musicians, and teachers like herself. She was wealthy.
My wife. She helped me to raise my daughters. She could have backed out; she could have told me that they were not hers; that she didn’t have the time. She became a second mother to them; numerous times she got nothing but grief for her efforts. Later on she worked taking care of old people who could not help themselves. Again, never a complaint when there were messes to be cleaned and the same question had to be answered a hundred times. Then she became a volunteer driver. She took the old and the blind to places that they needed to go to. She sat at the bank for a half hour any time that her blind person needed to count her money. She waited when doctors were behind on the schedule, or when dentists took longer than expected. And the next day she went out and did it all over again. She will resent it that I have mentioned this in my blog. She’s rich beyond imagination.
My med school classmate Bill. He became a leading expert on retroviruses. He was tapped to be a major contributor to the national effort against AIDS. He was set: nice job; lots of prestige. He could have spent the rest of his life in the lab and lobbying Congress for more research money. Instead he was instrumental in gaining congressional approval for a large grant that went to help stem the horror of AIDS in Nigeria. He tested hundreds of thousands of people. He treated thousands of children and pregnant women. When he found out that corrupt elements were stealing medicine, he took it upon himself to drive to many of the outlying clinics to help eliminate the theft. His life was threatened. No matter; all of his family went along. He is a wealthy man.
My tennis friend Aníbal. He graduated from medical school in Perú. He came to this country to finish his training. He stayed; he became a prominent cardiologist and teacher. Beginning in the 1980’s he led biyearly visits to remote areas in Perú that needed care and equipment. No one was safe from his requests for contributions. He was relentless. In June, even though he was gravely ill and barely able to hold his head up, he flew to Perú to lead one last medical mission. He returned to St. Louis and was immediately hospitalized. He just passed away. He died wealthy.
My med school professors. My high school teachers. Numerous overwhelmed hospital nurses. My office staff.
Every day, without fail, this country is held together by millions and millions of people who give. People who don’t ask for payback. People who get up in the morning and whose default setting is “What can I do for you?” Not because they expect thanks, or a reward, or a place in Heaven. Just because this is who they are.
Tonight I will go to my building’s roof to watch fireworks. We can see a dozen celebrations at once. Every time that there is an explosion and thousands of beautiful colored dots come forth, I will dedicate this splendor to the souls of so many people who make me so happy to be alive. May our nation remember them and praise them forever.