For The Rest of My Days
My husband Mark and I left a cold and snowy Cleveland on Sunday morning to fly to Washington DC, our first solo trip since the birth, cancer diagnosis, near death and remarkable recovery of our second son, Austin. Once on the plane, it was clear that we were a part of something big: everyone was talking and joking, asking which balls people were attending and what tickets people had secured. There was much excitement and a genuine feeling of camaraderie — we were in this together.
Sunday evening we attended the Ohio Gala Celebration at the Mayflower Hotel which was fabulous — good food, good drink, the entire Ohio State Marching Band! People warned us to enjoy this because it was bound to be better than the official Midwestern Ball (which we had worked very hard to get tickets for), but we didn’t quite understand the seriousness of that statement until later (keep reading).
Monday was a day of rest and exploration. The entire city felt like a party: bands were playing on street corners, everyone was wearing their Obama buttons and Obama hats and Obama scarves and Obama t-shirts (it was a street vendor’s dream come true), every bar and restaurant had signs advertising their Inaugural specials and hawking ObaMartinis. We wandered onto Dupont Circle where we encountered an enormous Declaration of Independence on which we signed our own names and those of Braedan and Austin (safely at home with Gram and Gramp). Mark took part in a mass shoe-throwing at a huge blow-up of George W Bush (“Give Bush the Boot” it said and we happily did).
And then came Tuesday. January 20, 2009. The day we’d all been waiting for. It was here. The future had arrived. We left our rented apartment at 7:30 in the morning and joined an already crowded sidewalk of Obama supporters, walking the 3.9 miles to the National Mall. Every step we took, the crowds and the excitement grew. And as we got closer, the confusion grew as well. We were directed this way and that by well-meaning but poorly-informed officers (many from out of town and with little sense of direction). We walked through the 395 tunnel, a stretch of highway that runs under the Mall suddenly filled with the walking masses, growing thicker by the second. We finally found our “line,” a swarm of Silver ticket-holders awaiting the removal of the barricades at what we thought was our gate. Minutes turned into hours as we covered mere feet of ground. We made it to the road, believing our sacred spot was just across it, only to wait for dozens of horse trailers to cross to the parade route nearby.
We finally crossed the road only to discover we were in another holding cell: a mass of thousands in front of the American Indian Museum and none of us could see above the crowds to even know which way we were going or what was happening. Despite the cold and growing confusion and frustration, everyone’s spirits remained high. People were sharing what little information they had, letting wheelchairs through, warning others of upcoming steps or curbs. There was laughter and joking about how special we all thought we were when we got those Silver Tickets (not so special after all), brief snippets of “Where are you from?” and “Isn’t this something?” Finally, finally, the police removed the barricades and let us onto the Mall, where we found a good (enough) spot with a slightly-obstructed view of a Jumbotron.
And then it started, just like that, no more waiting. The screen showed the important people walking down the steps onto the Capitol, as we watched in awe, alternately cheering and booing (and relishing that sight of Cheney, weakened and weak). I turned my back as Rick Warren gave the invocation. Mark thought this went against Obama’s call for unity and tolerance but I think Rick Warren goes against Obama’s call for unity and tolerance. We listened to Aretha and Yoyo Ma, swaying to the music and to keep warm. We jumped up and down as Biden was sworn in.
And then suddenly the moment was upon us. The Moment. It happened so fast. One minute we were regular Americans and the next minute we were witnessing history. We screamed and shouted and jumped up and down and laughed and cried and embraced perfect strangers. An older white man stopped three black women and asked to take their picture. They stood arm in arm in their finery — full-length fur coats and hats embellished with feathers and flowers, beaming with pride. As they walked off, one of them said, “Oh that makes me want to cry” and I reached out and touched her arm. She smiled and started to go, but turned back and wrapped me in her arms. We stood there, hugging, patting each other on the back and crying tears of joy, two strangers, as different as can be, brought together in that great moment, brought together by this great man.
We listened to what we could of the speech, stuck as we were between two sets of speakers with a slight but distracting delay. And then it was over and we began filing out, star-struck and awestruck by what we had experienced. And then the real chaos began. People were still well-behaved but no one knew where to go and each time we walked in one direction, roads would suddenly be barricaded in front of us. We spent a good ten minutes stuck at one intersection where the crowd was so thick that there was literally no movement in any direction. In front of us, officers were shouting, “You have to turn back” and behind us people were shouting, “There’s no room to turn back!” Mark and I kept our spirits up, shaking our heads in wonder and laughing at the insanity of the situation. I was getting increasingly worried that I would never again see the inside of a bathroom. Somehow, an hour after we’d left the Mall, we ended up back at our exit, that elusive Silver Gate, and meandered through the underground tunnel where the crowds were dispersing and we were able to move forward without being crushed. Eight hours after it began, we were back in our apartment with bowls of chicken noodle soup and cups of hot tea, exhausted and sore but basking in the O-glow.
After napping on the couch with the Parade on in the background, we picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off to put on our black-tie attire and head to the Official Midwestern Ball. Now I’d read that these balls don’t really live up to expectations but I must say I didn’t fully get that until we arrived. Oh, and we arrived by walking another six blocks (in heels and bare legs) because our cab couldn’t get close enough to the Convention Center. Lo and behold, there was even a cash bar! A plastic cup of mediocre wine cost nine dollars. I will not tell you how much we spent on our tickets, but cash bar is not what we had in mind. We ate small plates of cafeteria-style pasta and wandered to the far side of the massive hall, away from the Motown band and the dance floor, to where a crowd seemed to be gathering. And we happened upon Our Spot. Clearly, this was the place to be. A stage was set up in front of us, with a moat around it for Secret Service, two screens on either side, and we were three rows back. We made some more friends and waited and waited and waited. Sheryl Crow helping us pass the timeSheryl Crow appeared and played five songs, rocking the house for a very tired crowd. Shortly thereafter, Joe and Jill Biden arrived. He spoke and they danced and we all cheered and snapped photos, thinking we’d be graced with Obama’s presence in mere moments.
And then we waited. Guys came in to switch the musical set. We waited. Someone came and checked the sound system. We all cheered and then we waited. Someone else came and fluffed the flag. We all cheered and then we waited. The sign language interpreter arrived and took her spot on the corner of the stage. We all cheered and then we waited. The color guard appeared and a military band struck up some music. We all cheered and then we waited. And finally, three hours after staking out our spot, the glorious strains of “Hail to the Chief” reached our ears and we all screamed and started taking photos of an empty stage, wanting to catch the exact moment when they appeared.
And there they were. Just at that moment when we were beginning to wonder if it was all worth it, there they were. Michelle and Barack strode out on the stage, so obviously in love with one another, so obviously ready for the task ahead. He spoke and they danced. We took picture after picture, holding our camera up over the crowds and snapping away in any direction. It was quick. They were there for maybe ten minutes. But it was all worth it.
And we turned and walked away, wondering whether to use the rest of our drink tickets or just head home. Footsore and weary, exhausted but exhilarated, we opted for home and ventured out to find a cab, assuming there would be a line of them waiting for the thousands of exiting guests. Not so fast. The roads were still blocked from traffic, so we walked in what we believed was the direction of “home,” cold and achy from ten miles of walking already. Remember the high heels and bare legs? Well, twenty minutes later with no cabs in sight, temperature in the 20s and wind-chill in the teens, we were miserable and frustrated and wondering what on earth to do now. Finally, finally (again finally) an empty cab appeared and the heat was blasting and they whisked us back to our place where we quickly fell into bed.
Wednesday afternoon we arrived back in Cleveland, thoroughly glad we did it and thoroughly committed to never doing it again. There is a reason it was “once in a lifetime.” As soon as we stepped off the plane, the magic seemed to disappear. Our 1.5 million new best friends were spread back out across the country, the giddy sense of hope and togetherness was replaced by an ordinary workday feel. I tried to position my shiny new “I Was There” button so anyone I passed by could see it, but no one made eye contact, no one smiled and nodded in that “Oh god, me too” kind of way. The Moment was over and I felt sort of let down. And then it hit me. I realized, I understood, that the parties might be over, the parade had finished, the celebration wrapped up. But it was all there inside of me. Forever more, literally for the rest of my days, I will have it inside of me. I witnessed history. I was a part of history. I WAS THERE.