“I sat in the barn using an overturned bucket for an executive office chair because all the hay had been doled out to cows during the winter. I’d stored documents out there because I didn’t want to be reminded of my Washington job when I was in the house. And I liked sitting in the barn. I’d gone from chatting with John Glenn on the anniversary of his historic space flight to commiserating with widows and calling in tranquilizers on the anniversary of their husbands’ deaths.”
— Carolyn Jourdan, Heart in the Right Place
As political maneuverings out of Washington, D.C. bombard us, I want to share one of my old columns, first written in 2007, and updated a bit today.
As summer kicks in to high gear, if there is time in your day to pick up a good book, I recommend, Heart In The Right Place, a memoir written by Carolyn Jourdan.
I read it and wrote of it in this space in 2007, and it is one life story that has stayed with me intensely. That, friends, is a sign of a story well told.
Carolyn is a big shot Washington political aid, moving in impressive circles, when suddenly she receives a life-changing phone call. Her mother has been taken to the hospital with serious heart trouble, and her father, a rural family physician and farmer in East Tennessee, needs her help. Pronto. Dr. Jourdan and his wife had passed up the chance to make big money in a city practice, opting instead to quietly care for the poor and ailing folks of rural Tennessee.
Carolyn, their only child, had earned two impressive degrees and landed a position as a U.S. Senate counsel, leaving Tennessee fading in her rear-view mirror. When her mother opened her eyes in the hospital just long enough to ask Carolyn to please stay and help her father, this devoted daughter found it impossible to say no.
She took a leave of absence from her high-ranking Washington position to answer phones, find time slots for needy patients, and fill out insurance and Medicare forms in her father’s small, but busy, doctor’s office.
At the end of their very long day, she helped her father complete farm chores.
Life-altering seems a term that falls short. This young woman suddenly finds herself seeing her father as the beloved hero that he is — a man who often accepts a peck of peaches as payment from patients who have not a dime to their name.
Her fancy lifestyle, driving a Mercedes and rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful in Washington, suddenly paled in comparison. She finds herself drowning in the emotion of watching people she’s known all of her life aging and struggling with pain and no-hope endings.
This real-life tough stuff is so sharply in contrast with the well-orchestrated world of D.C. she’s left behind.
The here and now forces her to focus on what is real, and what matters most. She turns to her father’s quiet, steadfast best friend, Fletcher, while doing barn chores one evening, telling him she’s not sure she can continue on in her new, thankless, incredibly tough role.
“The pitiful truth is that sometimes the best thing, the only thing, we can do for another person is just show up,” he advises this young woman.
He points out that, in Bible stories, whenever an angel shows up, first thing he always says is, “Fear not!”
He explains, “Well, it took me most of my life, but I finally figured out that he’s not trying to comfort us when he says that. He’s giving us an order.
“It’s a command given more than 300 times in the Bible. The Lord’s telling us not to let ourselves be afraid. We can’t afford to be scared. It just gets in the way of us doing whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing.”
Such an interpretation had never occurred to Carolyn, who writes that suddenly she realized that fearlessness didn’t come from being patted on the back by God, “it meant making a conscious decision not to indulge ourselves.”
In the end, Carolyn made the tough decision to listen to Fletcher — to not let the fear of doing the right thing run her life, to not let her frustration send her packing back to the glamorous life of nightly news reports delivered by the prettied-up version of the doctor’s daughter in Washington, D.C.
She decided to stay, because she was truly needed by not only her father, but by an entire community in a poor section of East Tennessee.
This is a true story worth sharing, for many reasons. It shows the glaring differences in political maneuverings for the constituents and the real-life, day-to-day needs of those constituents, all through the eyes of one young woman who is living it, straddling that chasm of suit-and-tie idealism and the gritty, hard truth of those who sometimes have no way of getting to a doctor’s office for necessary follow-up care.
There are many suffering quietly with no voice, while wealthy, political-minded dress up and court their vote.
It is a reminder that life is made up of some thankless jobs, and the decisions we all must make along the way can seem mighty complicated. In the end, what will matter most? And sometimes, the hardest thing is to just show up.
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