Rosalynn Carter: A reflection
In a long life of 96 years, Rosalynn Carter of Plains, Ga., touched millions of lives.
Luckily for me, mine was one of them.
As a journalist, and later as a public historian, it was my great privilege to get to know Mrs. Carter and her husband, former American president Jimmy Carter. A warm friendship developed, and this was cemented during lunches, dinners and more during my annual visits to Plains over the past 15 years.
The highest honour this remarkable couple extended to my wife, Alison, and myself occurred in 2012 when they visited Kingston and stayed over at our home.
So, it will surprise no one that I have been reflecting on Mrs. Carter's life and legacy since her death on Nov. 19.
She died, at home, with her husband of 77 years by her side.
For me, the most important reflection involves the support she gave me at a very difficult time. A tireless champion of lifting stigma and encouraging open discussions around mental health, she was there for me when my lifelong battles with depression became too much a few years ago.
After not hearing from me for a long time, she phoned me one day out of the blue. She said she was just checking in, guessing that Black Dog might again be at my door. Patiently, she reminded me I had nothing to be ashamed of and there would indeed be better days. She encouraged me to discuss my episodes more openly with friends and family, and to seek professional help if need be.
In so many ways, that call (along with my wife's support) helped put me on the healthier journey I am now on. While
I'm not naive enough to say
I'm cured (depression doesn't work that way), I can say with pride and confidence that I am better. Speaking more openly has given me great strength, just like she told me it would
Another reflection dates back to 2011. Alison accompanied the Carters on a Habitat for Humanity building project in Haiti. Correctly assuming I might be worried about my wife, Mrs. Carter called me from Haiti to let me know Alison was doing fine. She also sought Alison out, inviting my wife to share a meal at the Carter table. Mrs. Carter then loaned my wife her phone and had her call me back here in Kingston.
Both Alison and I will also forever cherish a letter she sent us when both my in-laws, in the twilight of their lives, started to face the difficult reality that is Alzheimer's and dementia. Mrs. Carter, who pioneered the first-ever studies of caregivers through her founding of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in the 1980s, reached out to my wife when I told her one day in Plains of the situation.
A day or two after I returned to Kingston, a letter arrived.
“You must take time for yourself and not feel guilty,”
Mrs. Carter wrote Alison. “That is very difficult. I know because I have been there. But it is absolutely necessary. I am sure you feel overwhelmed and that there is no way you can `take off' any time for yourself. … Just put all of your duties out of mind for a while every day. Know in your heart that you deserve it, and I believe your parents will understand. You can tell them that I told you that you had to do this, and without feeling guilty!
“One of the most important things we have learned at the Rosalynn Carter Institute is the caregiver must take care of her/himself. If not, the quality of care given is diminished, and both the caregiver and the one being cared for suffer.”
She added a handwritten postscript after signing the letter.
“If I am out of order sending this message, I apologize,” she wrote. “It is just that I care for you and want you to have an easier life.”
She was most definitely not out of order.
I am also reflecting on her sense of humour and fun. There was the time she confessed to us over dinner in Plains that she actually wasn't the greatest fan of peanuts; or the occasion she put her stubborn husband in his place. In a lively political discussion around our dinner table, President Carter kept repeating a point of contention.
“Jimmy,” Mrs. Carter said, “you can keep arguing with me, but you're still going to be wrong.”
He stopped, and Alison and I burst out laughing.
Eventually, President Carter did, too.
I am not saddened at her death in the usual way when you lose a friend. I'm not because I know Mrs. Carter's legacy in a life dedicated to waging peace, fighting disease and building hope (the motto of the Carter Center) will live on for generations to come. Countless thousands, just like Alison and me while she was alive, will continue to be comforted, inspired and empowered by her memory and example.
To know Rosalynn Carter was to love her. And most important of all, you knew she loved you back.
Thank you, Mrs.
Carter. Rest in peace.
I am a lucky man.
Kingston's Arthur Milnes, whose books include two studies of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, is the in-house historian at the Frontenac Club Hotel. He is the author of the daily feature, Art's History, on National Newswatch, a column devoted to celebrating historical political milestones.