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That summer, I started keeping a journal. I bought myself a clothbound black book with purple flowers on the cover and kept it next to my bed. I took it with me when I went on business trips for Sidley & Austin. I was not a daily writer, or even a weekly writer: I picked up a pen only when I had the time and energy to sort through my jumbled feelings. I’d write a few entries in a single week and then lay the journal down for a month or sometimes more. I was not, by nature, especially introspective. The whole exercise of recording one’s thoughts was new to me—a habit I’d picked up in part, I suppose, from Barack, who viewed writing as therapeutic and clarifying and had kept journals on and off over the years.
He’d come back to Chicago over his summer break from Harvard, this time skipping the sublet and moving directly into my apartment on Euclid Avenue. This meant not only that we were learning, in a real way, how to cohabit as a couple but also that Barack got to know my family in a more intimate way. He’d talk sports with my dad as he headed out for a shift at the water plant. He sometimes helped my mother carry her groceries in from the garage. It was a good feeling. Craig had already assessed Barack’s character in the most thorough and revealing way he could—by including him in a high-octane weekend basketball game with a bunch of his buddies, most of them former college players. He’d done this, actually, at my request. Craig’s opinion of Barack mattered to me, and my brother knew how to read people, especially in the context of a game. Barack had passed the test. He was smooth on the floor, my brother said, and knew when to make the right pass, but he also wasn’t afraid to shoot when he was open. “He’s no ball hog,” Craig said. “But he’s got guts.” Barack had accepted a summer-associate job with a downtown firm whose offices were close to Sidley’s, but his time in Chicago was short. He’d been elected president of the Harvard Law Review for the coming academic year, which meant he’d be responsible for turning out eight issues of about three hundred pages each and would need to get back to Cambridge early in order to get started. The competition to lead the Review was ferocious every year, involving rigorous vetting and a vote by eighty student editors. Being picked for the position was an enormous achievement for anyone. It turned out that Barack was also the first African American in the publication’s 103-year history to be selected—a milestone so huge that it had been written up in the New York Times, accompanied by a photo of Barack, smiling in a scarf and winter coat.
My boyfriend, in other words, was a big deal. He could have landed any number of fat-salaried law firm jobs at that point, but instead he was thinking about practicing civil rights law once he got his degree, even if it would then take twice as long to pay off his student loans. Practically everyone he knew was urging him to follow the lead of many previous Review editors and apply for what would be a shoo-in clerkship with the Supreme Court. But Barack wasn’t interested. He wanted to live in Chicago. He had ideas for writing a book about race in America and planned, he said, to find work that aligned with his values, which most likely meant he wouldn’t end up in corporate law. He steered himself with a certainty I found astounding.
All this inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but honestly, try living with it. For me, coexisting with Barack’s strong sense of purpose—sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it—was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it, exactly, but because it was so alive. In the presence of his certainty, his notion that he could make some sort of difference in the world, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lost by comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwitting challenge to my own.
Hence the journal. On the very first page, in careful handwriting, I spelled out my reasons for starting it:
One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world?
Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle on myself.
This little flowered book has now survived a couple of decades and multiple moves. It sat on a shelf in my dressing room at the White House for eight years, until very recently, when I pulled it out from a box in my new home to try to reacquaint myself with who I’d been as a young lawyer. I read those lines today and see exactly what I was trying to tell myself—what a no-nonsense female mentor might have said to me directly. Really, it was simple: The first thing was that I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it. This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was. In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road.
The second was that I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine. I saw it coming already, like a barreling wave with a mighty undertow. I wasn’t going to get out of its path—I was too committed to Barack by then, too in love—but I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.
This meant finding a new profession, and what shook me most was that I had no concrete ideas about what I wanted to do. Somehow, in all my years of schooling, I hadn’t managed to think through my own passions and how they might match up with work I found meaningful. As a young person, I’d explored exactly nothing. Barack’s maturity, I realized, came in part from the years he’d logged as a community organizer and even, prior to that, a decidedly unfulfilling year he’d spent as a researcher at a Manhattan business consulting firm immediately after college. He’d tried out some things, gotten to know all sorts of people, and learned his own priorities along the way. I, meanwhile, had been so afraid of floundering, so eager for respectability and a way to pay the bills, that I’d marched myself unthinkingly into the law.
In the span of a year, I’d gained Barack and lost Suzanne, and the power of those two things together had left me spinning. Suzanne’s sudden death had awakened me to the idea that I wanted more joy and meaning in my life. I couldn’t continue to live with my own complacency. I both credited and blamed Barack for the confusion. “If there were not a man in my life constantly questioning me about what drives me and what pains me,” I wrote in my journal, “would I be doing it on my own?” I mused about what I might do, what skills I might possibly have. Could I be a teacher? A college administrator? Could I run some sort of after-school program, a professionalized version of what I’d done for Czerny at Princeton? I was interested in possibly working for a foundation or a nonprofit. I was interested in helping underprivileged kids. I wondered if I could find a job that engaged my mind and still left me enough time to do volunteer work, or appreciate art, or have children. I wanted a life, basically. I wanted to feel whole. I made a list of issues that interested me: education, teen pregnancy, black self-esteem. A more virtuous job, I knew, would inevitably involve a pay cut. More sobering was my next list, this one of my essential expenses—what was left after I let go of the luxuries I’d allowed myself on a Sidley salary, things like my subscription wine service and health-club membership. I had a $600 monthly payment on my student loans, a $407 car payment, money spent on food, gas, and insurance, plus the roughly $500 a month I’d need for rent if I ever moved out of my parents’ house.
Nothing was impossible, but nothing looked simple, either. I started asking around about opportunities in entertainment law, thinking perhaps that it might be interesting and would also spare me the sting of a lower salary. But in my heart, I felt a slow-growing certainty of my own: I wasn’t built to practice law. One day I made note of a New York Times article I’d read that reported widespread fatigue, stress, and unhappiness among American lawyers—most especially female ones. “How depressing,” I wrote in my journal.
I spent a good chunk of that August toiling in a rented conference room at a hotel in Washington, D.C., having been dispatched to help prepare a case. Sidley & Austin was representing the chemical conglomerate Union Carbide in an antitrust trial involving the sale of one of its business holdings. I stayed in Washington for about three weeks but managed to see very little of the city, because my life was wholly dedicated to sitting in that room with several Sidley peers, opening file boxes that had been shipped from the company headquarters, and reviewing the thousands of pages of documents inside.
You wouldn’t think I’d be the type of person to find psychic relief in the intricacies of the urethane polyether polyol trade, but I did. I was still practicing law, but the specificity of the work and the change of scenery distracted me just enough from the bigger questions beginning to bubble up in my mind.
Ultimately, the chemical case was settled out of court, which meant that much of my document reviewing had been for nothing. This was an irksome but expected trade-off in the legal field, where it was not uncommon to prepare for a trial that never came to pass. On the evening I flew home to Chicago, I felt a heavy dread settling over me, knowing that I was about to step back into my everyday routine and the fog of my confusion.
My mother was kind enough to meet my flight at O’Hare. Just seeing her gave me comfort. She was in her early fifties now, working full-time as an executive assistant at a downtown bank, which as she described it was basically a bunch of men sitting at desks, having gone into the business because their fathers had been bankers before them. My mother was a force. She had little tolerance for fools. She kept her hair short and wore practical, unfussy clothes. Everything about her radiated competence and calm. As it had been when Craig and I were kids, she didn’t get involved with our private lives. Her love came in the form of reliability. She showed up when your flight came in. She drove you home and offered food if you were hungry. Her even temper was like shelter to me, a place to seek refuge.
As we drove downtown toward the city, I heaved a big sigh.
“You okay?” my mom asked.
I looked at her in the half-light of the freeway. “I don’t know,” I began. “It’s just…”
And with that, I unloaded my feelings. I told her that I wasn’t happy with my job, or even with my chosen profession—that I was seriously unhappy, in fact. I told her about my restlessness, how I was desperate to make a major change but worried about not making enough money if I did. My emotions were raw. I let out another sigh. “I’m just not fulfilled,” I said.
I see now how this must have come across to my mother, who was then in the ninth year of a job she’d taken primarily so she could help finance my college education, after years of not having a job so that she’d be free to sew my school clothes, cook my meals, and do laundry for my dad, who for the sake of our family spent eight hours a day watching gauges on a boiler at the filtration plant. My mom, who’d just driven an hour to fetch me from the airport, who was letting me live rent-free in the upstairs of her house, and who would have to get herself up at dawn the next morning in order to help my disabled dad get ready for work, was hardly ready to indulge my angst about fulfillment.
Fulfillment, I’m sure, struck her as a rich person’s conceit. I doubt that my parents, in their thirty years together, had even once discussed it.
My mother didn’t judge me for being ponderous. She wasn’t one to give lectures or draw attention to her own sacrifices. She’d quietly supported every choice I’d ever made. This time, though, she gave me a wry, sideways look, hit her turn signal to get us off the highway and back to our neighborhood, and chuckled just a little. “If you’re asking me,” she said, “I say make the money first and worry about your happiness later.” There are truths we face and truths we ignore. I spent the next six months quietly trying to empower myself without making any sort of abrupt change. At work, I met with the partner in charge of my division, asking to be given more challenging assignments. I tried to focus on the projects I found most meaningful, including my efforts to recruit a new and more diverse crop of summer associates. All the while, I kept an eye on job listings in the newspaper and did my best to network with more people who weren’t lawyers. One way or another, I figured I’d work myself toward some version of feeling whole.
At home on Euclid Avenue, I felt powerless in the face of a new reality. My father’s feet had started to swell for no obvious reason. His skin looked strangely mottled and dark. Anytime I asked how he was feeling, though, he gave me the same answer, with the same degree of insistence that he’d given me for years.
“I’m fine,” he’d say, as if the question were never worth asking. He’d then change the subject.
It was winter again in Chicago. I woke in the mornings to the sound of the neighbors chipping ice from their windshields on the street. The wind blew and the snow piled up. The sun stayed wan and weak. Through my office window on the forty-seventh floor at Sidley, I looked out at a tundra of gray ice on Lake Michigan and a gunmetal sky above. I wore my wool and hoped for a thaw. In the Midwest, as I’ve mentioned, winter is an exercise in waiting—for relief, for a bird to sing, for the first purple crocus to push up through the snow. You have no choice in the meantime but to pep-talk yourself through.
My dad hadn’t lost his jovial good humor. Craig came by for family dinners once in a while, and we sat around the table and laughed the same as always, though we were now joined by Janis, Craig’s wife. Janis was happy and hard-driving, a telecommunications analyst who worked downtown and was, like everyone else, completely smitten with my dad. Craig, meanwhile, was a poster child for the post-Princeton urban-professional dream. He was getting an MBA and had a job as a vice president at Continental Bank, and he and Janis had bought a nice condo in Hyde Park. He wore tailored suits and had driven over for dinner in his red Porsche 944 Turbo. I didn’t know it then, but none of this made him happy. Like me, he had his own crisis brewing and in coming years would wrestle with questions about whether his work was meaningful, whether the rewards he’d felt compelled to seek were the rewards he actually wanted. Knowing, though, how thrilled our father was by what his kids had managed to accomplish, neither of us ever brought up our discontent over dinner.
Saying good-bye at the end of a visit, Craig would give my dad a final, concerned look and pose the usual question about his health, only to be given the merry brush-off of “I’m fine.”
We accepted this, I believe, because it was steadying, and steady was how we liked to be. Dad had lived with MS for years and had managed always to be fine. We were happy to extend the rationalization, even as he was visibly declining. He was fine, we told each other, because he still got up and went to work every day. He was fine because we’d watched him have a second helping of meat loaf that night. He was fine, especially if you didn’t look too hard at his feet.
I had several tense conversations with my mom, asking why it was that Dad wouldn’t go to the doctor. But like me, she’d all but given up, having prodded him and been shut down enough times already. For my father, doctors had never brought good news and therefore were to be avoided. As much as he loved to talk, he didn’t want to talk about his problems. He viewed it as self-indulgent. He wanted to get by in his own way. To accommodate his bulging feet, he’d simply asked my mother to buy him a bigger pair of work boots.
The stalemate over a doctor’s visit continued through January and into February that year. My dad moved with a pained slowness, using an aluminum walker to get himself around the house, pausing often to catch his breath. It took longer in the mornings now for him to maneuver from bed to bathroom, bathroom to kitchen, and finally to the back door and down the three stairs to the garage so that he could drive himself to work. Despite what was happening at home, he insisted that all was well at the filtration plant. He used a motorized scooter to pilot himself from boiler to boiler and took pride in his own indispensability. In twenty-six years, he hadn’t missed a single shift. If a boiler happened to overheat, my dad claimed to be one of only a few workers with enough experience to swiftly and ably contain a disaster. In a true reflection of his optimism, he’d recently put his name in for a promotion.
My mom and I tried to reconcile what he told us with what we saw with our own eyes. It grew increasingly hard to do. At home in the evenings, my father spent much of his time watching basketball and hockey games on TV, appearing weak and exhausted in his chair. In addition to his feet, there seemed to be something swelling in his neck now, we’d noticed. It put an odd rattle in his voice.
We finally staged a sort of intervention one night. Craig was never one to be the bad cop, and my mother stuck to her self-imposed cease-fire on matters of my father’s health. In a conversation like this, the role of tough talker almost always fell to me. I told my dad that he owed it to us to get some help and that I planned to call his doctor in the morning. Grudgingly, my dad agreed, promising that if I made the appointment, he would go. I urged him to let himself sleep late the next morning, to give his body a rest.
We went to bed that night, my mother and I, feeling relieved that we’d finally gained some control.
My father, however, had divided loyalties. Rest, for him, was a form of giving in. I came downstairs in the morning to find my mother already departed for work and my dad sitting at the kitchen table with his walker parked next to him. He was dressed in his navy-blue city uniform and struggling to put on his shoes. He was going to work.
“Dad,” I said, “I thought you were going to rest. We’re getting you that doctor’s appointment…”
He shrugged. “I know, sweetie,” he said, his voice gravelly from whatever new thing was wrong in his neck. “But right now, I’m fine.”
His stubbornness was packed beneath so many layers of pride that it was impossible for me to be angry. There was no dissuading him. My parents had raised us to handle our own business, which meant that I had to trust him to handle his, even if he could, at that point, barely put on his shoes. So I let him handle it. I stuffed down my worries, gave my dad a kiss, and took myself back upstairs to get ready for my own workday. I figured I’d call my mother later at her office, telling her we’d need to strategize about how to force the man to take some time off.
I heard the back door click shut. A few minutes later, I returned to the kitchen to find it empty. My father’s walker sat by the back door. On an impulse, I went over and looked through the little glass peephole in the door, which gave a wide-angle view of the back stoop and pathway to the garage, just to confirm that his van was gone.
But the van was there, and so, too, was my dad. He was dressed in a cap and his winter jacket and had his back to me. He’d made it only partway down the stairs before needing to sit down. I could see the exhaustion in the angle of his body, in the sideways droop of his head and the half-collapsed heaviness with which he was resting against the wooden railing. He wasn’t in a crisis so much as he looked just too weary to carry on. It seemed clear he was trying to summon enough strength to turn around and come back inside.
I was seeing him, I realized, in a moment of pure defeat.
How lonely it must have been to live twenty-some years with such a disease, to persist without complaint as your body is slowly and inexorably consumed. Seeing my dad on the stoop, I ached in a way I never had. My instinct was to rush outside and help him back into the warm house, but I fought it, knowing it would be just another blow to his dignity. I took a breath and turned away from the door.
I’d see him when he came back in, I thought. I’d help take off his work boots, get him some water, and usher him to his chair, with the silent acknowledgment between us that now without question he would need to accept some help.
Upstairs in my apartment again, I sat listening for the sound of the back door. I waited for five minutes and then five minutes more, before finally I went downstairs and back to the peephole to make sure he’d made it to his feet. But the stoop was empty now. Somehow my father, in defiance of everything that was swollen and off-kilter in his body, had willed himself down those stairs and across the icy walkway and into his van, which was now probably almost halfway to the filtration plant. He was not giving in.
For months now, Barack and I had danced around the idea of marriage. We’d been together a year and a half and remained, it seemed, unshakably in love. He was in his final semester at Harvard and caught up in his Law Review work but would soon head back my way to take the Illinois bar and look for a job. The plan was that he’d move back to Euclid Avenue, this time in a way that felt more permanent. For me, it was another reason why winter couldn’t end soon enough.
We’d talked in abstract ways about how each of us viewed marriage, and it worried me sometimes how different those views seemed to be. For me, getting married had been a given, something I’d grown up expecting to do someday—the same way having children had always been a given, dating back to the attention I’d heaped on my baby dolls as a girl. Barack wasn’t opposed to getting married, but he was in no particular rush. For him, our love meant everything already. It was foundation enough for a full and happy life together—with or without rings.
We were both, of course, products of how we’d been raised. Barack had experienced marriage as ephemeral: His mother had married twice, divorced twice, and in each instance managed to move on with her life, career, and young children intact. My parents, meanwhile, had locked in early and for life. For them, every decision was a joint decision, every endeavor a joint endeavor. In thirty years, they’d hardly spent a night apart.
What did Barack and I want? We wanted a modern partnership that suited us both. He saw marriage as the loving alignment of two people who could lead parallel lives but without forgoing any independent dreams or ambitions. For me, marriage was more like a full-on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one, with the well-being of a family taking precedence over any one agenda or goal. I didn’t exactly want a life like my parents had. I didn’t want to live in the same house forever, work the same job, and never claim any space for myself, but I did want the year-to-year, decade-to-decade steadiness they had. “I do recognize the value of individuals having their own interests, ambitions, and dreams,” I wrote in my journal. “But I don’t believe that the pursuit of one person’s dreams should come at the expense of the couple.” We’d work out our feelings, I figured, when Barack came back to Chicago, when the weather warmed up, when we had the luxury of spending weekends together again. I just had to wait, though waiting was hard. I craved permanence. From the living room of my apartment, I could sometimes hear the murmur of my parents talking on the floor below. I heard my mother laughing as my father told some sort of story. I heard them shutting off the TV to get ready for bed. I was twenty-seven years old now, and there were days when all I wanted was to feel complete. I wanted to grab every last thing I loved and stake it ruthlessly to the ground. I’d known just enough loss by then to know that there was more coming.
It was I who made the appointment for my father to see a doctor, but it was my mother who ultimately got him there—by ambulance, as it turned out. His feet had ballooned and grown tender to the point that he finally admitted that walking on them felt like walking on needles. When it was time to go, he couldn’t stand on them at all. I was at work that day, but my mother described it to me later—Dad being carried out of the house by burly paramedics, trying to joke with them as they went.
He was taken directly to the hospital at the University of Chicago. What followed was a string of lost days spent in the purgatory of blood draws, pulse checks, untouched meal trays, and squads of doctors making rounds. All the while, my father continued to swell. His face puffed up, his neck got thicker, his voice grew weak. Cushing’s syndrome was the official diagnosis, possibly related to his MS and possibly not. Either way, we were well past the point of any sort of stopgap treatment. His endocrine system was now going fully haywire. A scan showed that he had a growth in his throat that had become so enlarged he was practically choking on it.
“I don’t know how I missed that,” my father said to the doctor, sounding genuinely perplexed, as if he hadn’t felt a single symptom leading up to this point, as if he hadn’t spent weeks and months, if not years, ignoring his pain.
We cycled through hospital visits to be with him—my mom, Craig, Janis, and me. We came and went over days as the doctors blasted him with medicine, as tubes were added and machines were hooked up. We tried to grasp what the specialists were telling us but could make little sense of it. We rearranged my dad’s pillows and talked uselessly about college basketball and the weather outside, knowing that he was listening, though it exhausted him now to speak. We were a family of planners, but now everything seemed unplanned. Slowly, my father was sinking away from us, enveloped by some invisible sea. We called him back with old memories, seeing how they put a little brightness in his eyes. Remember the Deuce and a Quarter and how we used to roll around in that giant backseat on our summer outings to the drive-in? Remember the boxing gloves you gave us, and the swimming pool at Dukes Happy Holiday Resort? What about how you used to build the props for Robbie’s Operetta Workshop? What about dinners at Dandy’s house? Remember when Mom made us fried shrimp on New Year’s Eve?
One evening I stopped by and found my father alone, my mother having gone home for the night, the nurses clustered outside at their hallway station. The room was quiet. The whole floor of the hospital was quiet. It was the first week of March, the winter snow having just melted, leaving the city in what felt like a perpetual state of dampness. My dad had been in the hospital about ten days then. He was fifty-five years old, but he looked like an old man, with yellowed eyes and arms too heavy to move. He was awake but unable to speak, whether due to the swelling or due to emotion, I’ll never know.
I sat in a chair next to his bed and watched him laboring to breathe. When I put my hand in his, he gave it a comforting squeeze. We looked at each other silently. There was too much to say, and at the same time it felt as if we’d said everything. What was left was only one truth. We were reaching the end. He would not recover. He was going to miss the whole rest of my life. I was losing his steadiness, his comfort, his everyday joy. I felt tears spilling down my cheeks.
Keeping his gaze on me, my father lifted the back of my hand to his lips and kissed it again and again and again. It was his way of saying, Hush now, don’t cry. He was expressing sorrow and urgency, but also something calmer and deeper, a message he wanted to make clear. With those kisses, he was saying that he loved me with his whole heart, that he was proud of the woman I’d become. He was saying that he knew he should have gone to the doctor a lot sooner. He was asking for forgiveness. He was saying good-bye.
I stayed with him until he fell asleep that night, leaving the hospital in icy darkness and driving back home to Euclid Avenue, where my mother had already turned off the lights. We were alone in the house now, just me and my mom and whatever future we were now meant to have. Because by the time the sun came up, he’d be gone. My father—Fraser Robinson III—had a heart attack and passed away that night, having given us absolutely everything.
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