I’ve Been Thinking … Embrace Your Battle Scars
“Show us what you have been through. It tells us what we can survive.”
All of our presidents age in office. It is practically a national pastime of ours to marvel at the toll the job takes on the face of our presidents. During President Obama’s second term, I remember being stunned by photos of him from the 2008 campaign. So young! The Barack Obama from 2008 looked like he could be the son of the man who was president now.
I know all this wear and tear on your face will pose a special challenge for you. You, more than all the men who preceded you, will be judged on your appearance and how attractive you are. I don’t expect you will ever stop paying the “pink tax,” the additional hour or more required for hair and makeup. Those days are not behind us. No matter your age, you will be judged on your face, weight, clothes, and hair. And no matter how lined your face is or isn’t coming into this job, it will age with the job. It will acquire battle scars. I think your battle scars can be a comfort to the rest of us. They will show us what you have endured and tell us what we can survive. I hope you will let them show. I do.
I want my own face to be attractive, but I also want it to tell you something about the life that I have lived. I have had a lot of experiences; I want something to show for them. The first time I noticed wrinkles forming between my eyebrows was during my years in the Clinton White House, and I was happy to see them. I thought the wrinkles told you I had lived through stressful times and gained some wisdom and maturity during them.
Later, I remember seeing a brochure at a spa that told you how you could get rid of the “elevens” between your brows. My “elevens”? I thought. These wrinkles have a name? And I am supposed to get rid of them? But they are so cool! I decided I was going to let my elevens show. They told a story about myself I wanted the world to see.
I also want the joy and sadness I experienced on my fiftieth birthday to show on my face. My fiftieth birthday was one week after Election Day. I had figured out that there was supposed to be a surprise birthday party for me on Wednesday, November 9. I had gotten emails from friends who missed the “surprise” part of the party invitation and said either that they were excited to celebrate with me or were sorry they couldn’t make it. I had not let on to Jim that I knew. On that Wednesday morning, I told him that I’d figured out there was some sort of party and didn’t think I could do it and wanted to cancel. I expected he might protest, but he agreed.
It is Tuesday, November 15. I’ve decided to spend my actual fiftieth birthday in Dana’s hospice room at Silverado Turtle Creek Memory Care in Dallas. It is just me and Dana in the room. Beth and Lisa left a few hours ago, after being there for a week. Misty is out running errands. Ingrid Moss, one of Dana’s amazingly dedicated and knowledgeable home health caregivers, steps out so I can have time alone with Dana. It is a beautiful day in Dallas. We have the window open to let a slight warm breeze into the room. The autumn sun in Texas is something I delight in. It is just bold enough to leave you feeling warm inside and out. I had planned on leaving Dallas the day before but decided I wanted to be with Dana on my actual birthday. I called Jim from Dana’s room on Monday to tell him I was going to stay another day. To my great surprise, Dana hears and understands. “Thank you.” They were the only intelligible words she volunteered to me during my final days with her in Dallas. She can still, at times, respond to direct yes-or-no questions. But this “thank you” was something she initiated. A final gift to me.
It soothes her to hear music. I put on “May the Long Time Sun Shine upon You,” a favorite song of hers from practicing and teaching yoga. I play it over and over. Then I play music she and I loved together growing up. America. The first gift I remember buying Dana was History: America’s Greatest Hits for five dollars at the navy exchange in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977. We listen to it. I move on to Boz Scaggs’s Silk Degrees, which we listened to a lot when all four sisters were living together in Dana’s one-bedroom apartment in Benicia, California, for a few months in 1980. My dad had retired from the navy in April and had started a new job in an- other town, so all four of us girls lived together while Beth and I finished the school year and Lisa, back for the summer from Clemson, lifeguarded at a nearby pool. Poor Dana. She was twenty-two years old, just graduated from college, had her first real apartment on her own, and had to live there with her three little sisters. I know she had some low moments at the time, but the four of us laughed about it for thirty years after.
Next, I put on Dan Fogelberg, Seals and Crofts, Carole King, Jackson Browne. Eventually, we end up in the modern day and I play Sara Bareilles’s “Brave.” This has become Dana’s anthem, and while she was still able to do so, she had sung it every morning. I sing it for her this time. I text Lisa to tell her what we’ve been doing. You were able to get through Brave??? she asks. Me: Yes. It was sad, but good.
And it was. There were many excruciatingly difficult moments in Dana’s illness from Alzheimer’s. But there was never a moment when we felt we had truly lost Dana. You could look in her eyes and see that behind the plaque that built up in her brain and prevented her from understanding and communicating, Dana was still there. I would tell her so. I would look her in the eye and say, “I see you. I see you in there.” Most times she would nod back. I could tell it was a comfort to her. In those moments, she was Dana refined—not reduced, but refined to her most essential self. Time was suspended. It could be 2016, it could be 1976. We are sisters, holding hands and feeling the bonds that bind us together over decades and just able to love each other. Those moments in her Dallas room were the most meaningful and joyful that I spent with her, that I ever spent anywhere with anyone.
I say my final goodbye to her and head to the Dallas airport. I decide to take a picture of myself to memorialize my fiftieth birthday and final day with Dana. There’s a Shiner Bock in the foreground. You can see the two new important talismans I am wearing—a butterfly necklace my father gave the women in our family in Dana’s honor and the small “Love and Kindness” medallion Hillary gave me on the last day of the campaign. In one week I have faced the loss of the most important presidential campaign of my lifetime and saying goodbye to my big sister. You can see the wear and tear of the last year in the photo. There are laugh and sleep-deficit lines around my eyes, smile and frown lines around my mouth. I am okay with them. I decided years ago that I didn’t want all that I have lived and learned to be smoothed over. The moments I just spent with Dana are in those lines. What I hope they show to the world is that you can endure a loss like the one my family experienced and find unexpected blessings, joy, and meaning along the way. I hope that is what shows in the slightly sad but warm smile on my face in that photograph.
I have always found older women’s faces to be a comfort to me. I look at them and imagine what the lines tell me about all they have lived through. They are our connection to a time most of us can’t remember. When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I remember being envious of women who could remember a time from decades before. I imagined that having that long of a memory gave a person ballast and depth. A person who had lived for many decades would know they could trust themselves to handle any situation. I am glad to now be such a person who can remember back decades. Look at my face. It tells you that I was a child in the 1970s. I am your connection to that time. I can tell you the songs that were popular and how we dressed and what the country felt like in that moment. I hope my face, which doesn’t just resemble Dana but shows that I lived in the same time as her, is a comfort to my niece and nephews.
I hope that society eases up on the pressure for each of us to look young. I am exhausted by the omnipresent, stifling pressure of now I see and feel everywhere. Seeing an older face makes me feel more grounded. There was something before this moment, and there will be something after.
I want to see that in my president’s face, too.
Because it’s not just the burden of the job I see in the weathered faces of our presidents. I see the love they have for this country, the same way parents carry the love and concern they have for their children in their faces. Embrace your battle scars. They will show us all what you have endured in your life and in this job. They will tell us what we, too, will be able to survive, and how much care and worry you put into this job on our behalf. They will tell us that you have been looking out for us—that our dreams, our challenges, what we have lost and the times we are victorious, all mean something to you.
Excerpted from DEAR MADAM PRESIDENT: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Palmieri. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.