The last time my mother was in a hospital, an essay by Thich Nhat Hanh moved in front of my eyes. “Our mother is the teacher who first teaches us love, the most important subject in life,” he wrote. “Without my mother I could never have known how to love. Thanks to her I can love my neighbors. Thanks to her I can love all living beings. Through her I acquired my first notions of understanding and compassion.”
My mother, Miriam A. Solomon, died on January 20, which happened to be the seventh anniversary of the inauguration of a man and a presidential regime that she loathed. Once, several years ago, when I referred to George W. Bush as “an idiot,” she made a correction by pointing out he’s much worse than that; she used the adjective “evil.”
At my parents’ apartment, taped on the front door for a long time, a little poster said: “The America I Believe In Doesn’t Torture People.” The poster was from Amnesty International USA — an organization that my mom wrote many protest letters to dictators for — and it summed up her devotion to human decency rather than counterfeit versions of American democracy.
The day after my mom died, the Washington Post that arrived on the apartment doorstep carried a lead editorial under the headline “Martin Luther King Jr.: His Words Are More Relevant Than Ever This Election Year.” But the editorial did not include the word “war” — even while it grandly commented on “the vision of Dr. King” and, of course, quoted from his “I Have a Dream” speech.
My mother was among the hundreds of thousands of civil-rights supporters who gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial and heard King’s speech that day in 1963. But unlike the Post‘s editorial writers, she did not suffer from arrested development in subsequent decades.
She shared in King’s expansive view of essential struggles for human rights during the last few years of his life. And in the decades that followed, she took to heart his denunciations of economic injustice and what he called “the madness of militarism.”
In contrast to the Washington Post — with its fevered editorial support for the war in Vietnam and, a third of a century later, the war in Iraq — my mother was a humanist who cared about human life far more than geopolitical positioning. In October 1967, then a 46-year-old mother of four children, she joined in the large antiwar march to the Pentagon.
She was passionate about the Bill of Rights. In the early 1970s, she did extensive volunteer work for the ACLU in defense of the civil liberties of antiwar demonstrators. And for decades she worked to get progressive Democrats elected to office. She was never in the limelight, and she never sought it.
Sometimes she’d tell me about her father, Abe Abramowitz, a socialist who did tireless political work in Brooklyn. As a girl, she went with him to branch meetings of The Workmen’s Circle, where social justice was on the agenda. Once she showed me how he showed her how to quickly seal a lot of envelopes by wetting many flaps all at once with a sponge. Along the way he supported Norman Thomas for president; later on, as circumstances and possibilities shifted, he opted for Franklin Roosevelt.
My mom adored her father, who had a sparkling sense of humor, a love of literature, and — most of all — an overflow of humanistic kindness. He died young, when she was only in her mid-thirties. It must have been a terrible blow to my mother.
My mother did not die young (she was 86), but since then I’ve felt awful waves of sadness. And sometimes I think of people who are mourning loved ones of all ages, due to distinctly unnatural causes. The people dying in Iraq as a consequence of the U.S. war effort. The children in so many countries who lose their lives to the ravages of poverty. The healthcare system in the United States that — in the absence of full medical coverage for everyone as a human right — means avoidable death and suffering on a large scale.
In mediaspeak and political discourse, the human toll of corporate domination and the warfare state is routinely abstract. But the results — in true human terms — add rage and more grief on top of grief.
Our own mourning should help us understand and strive to prevent the unspeakable pain of others. And whatever love we have for one person, we should try to apply to the world. I won’t ever be able to talk with my mother again, but I’m sure that she would agree.
After my mother died, I learned about a poem that she wrote long ago — apparently soon after her father passed away. The poem is titled “Bereavement.” Here is how it ends:
More than cherished memories are left
Behind; they leave us — us
To know our duties and our powers
And to carry on without much fuss.
In the crushing grief of the moment, we think of how
vital and good our
loved ones were,
and vow to be worthy of them.