I have been thinking a lot about my friend Steve lately. We’ve known each other for a few years, usually getting together for lunch around town now and then and talking, mostly about our parents. Steve and I were among the fortunate few, fiftysomething guys whose parents were still alive—and still together. We were lucky. Hell, we were blessed.
Our parents all called southern California home. My folks, both 91 and born ten days apart, are living out their days in a Los Angeles nursing home. Steve’s dad turned 93 last year. His mom is 88, so, like a good son, Steve made regular trips to Palm Springs, spending whatever time he could with them, while he could.
Both of us had to learn over time to forgive our parents. And to be forgiven by them, especially for actions typically fueled by alcohol. Steve and I still shudder at those bad choices we made. But he found Jesus. I found Charlotte. We went from wild, rebellious young men to loving, dependable sons, fortunate to enjoy a second chance with our parents.
Steve’s work takes him around the country a lot, but he sometimes calls me from the road, just to check in. “How are your folks,” he wants to know, almost immediately after saying hello. “How’s your mom? How’s your dad?” We act as cheerleader for one another as we brace for the inevitable, reminding each other that we are good sons, that our parents mattered, and that we would be ready to say goodbye.
So when Gerald Ford passed away in December, and the nation began to mourn, I immediately thought of his family, and especially his son Steve and how my friend would cope with it all. I knew this would be an emotionally draining time for him, but I underestimated the glare of the TV camera, the intensity of the national spotlight.
If you or I lose a parent, friends and colleagues know to respect our privacy and give us needed space. But if your dad is a former U.S. president, well, privacy is tossed out the window as the grief spreads exponentially. Cameras pop up everywhere, recording every move, every emotion, splashing it all across newspapers and TV screens, dissected by network analysts and pundits.
So as Steve Ford made his way from San Luis Obispo to Palm Springs, onward to Washington, D.C. and finally to Michigan, the nation tagged along. For six straight days, I swear I could not pick up a paper, click on a Web site, or flip on the TV without seeing Steve. Los Angeles Times. Washington Post. C-SPAN. Yahoo. There he was, trying to hold it together. Being strong for his mom. Strong for his dad. Strong for his country.
Three separate church services. Arrival and departure ceremonies. Spending time in the Capitol Rotunda, greeting many of the 35,000 well-wishers who came to say goodbye to his dad. There he is on TV, helping President Bush escort a fragile Mrs. Ford from the National Cathedral. There he is, at the Michigan church service, standing at the pulpit, reading a passage from the Bible, his voice cracking with obvious emotion. There he is, sitting in the front pew, listening to the likes of Jimmy Carter, Tom Brokaw, and Henry Kissinger praise his father, somehow maintaining his composure.
Yes, I called and emailed my friend a few times during the week, offering my condolences and support. Surprisingly, Steve responded promptly each time. There was that familiar voice. “How’s your mom? How’s your dad?” he wanted to know. Even in one of the darkest moments of his life, here was Steve, trying to be encouraging about my family.
Forgive me if I keep the rest of our exchange private, but obviously Steve was overwhelmed by all the love and affection on display for his dad and he was looking forward to coming home to San Luis Obispo.
This much I will say. Rarely have I encountered a son who loved his father as much as Steve Ford. His heart must be shattered in a million tiny pieces. Yet he made this incredible journey in the media spotlight with grace, dignity, and courage. Unlike his dad, famous for the occasional misstep, this Ford didn’t stumble. Not once.
SLO City News (January 2007)