LIGHTS IN THE DARKNESS

Someone I did not know has died. So why should it matter to me?

Early each morning I drive by a long-term care facility on my way to work. My route takes me over a hill, and when I reach the top, the sprawling structure is barely visible in the predawn shadows. But once every few months when I come up over the incline, I look over and see emergency vehicles in the parking lot, their red lights piercing through the darkness. And each time this happens a feeling of sadness sweeps over me because I realize that someone has died.

My name is Jack Barton, and I am the longtime political columnist for The Daily Post. But today I want to step away from that role and write about life and death as a person – not as a commentator.

I’ve passed by this particular facility each weekday for years, and, unfortunately, I have seen ambulances there on multiple occasions. Although death is an inevitable part of life, there is just something about the darkness of the early hour and suddenly seeing all the flashing lights that make it troubling.

You may be curious about why I would care about the death of someone I’d never met. After all, I didn’t know their name, their age or their gender. In every way, they were a complete blank to me.

However, their life mattered just as much as yours and mine. If we don’t believe that, we lose our humanity. We lose our sense of who we are and what is really important.

But this time was different. This time seemed worse. This time it happened on Christmas Eve.

As I continued to drive to work I couldn’t stop thinking about how this death would forever change this holiday of love and peace for all of those who cared about this individual.

So, I decided to write about someone I did not know, in the hope that together you and I could find an appreciation for the importance of every life and death.

 

Let me introduce you to the person whose time on this earth came to an end in the early morning hours of a cold December day.

Florence Bowman was eighty-six-years-old. She was African-American, born in a small rural community in the Midwest on January 25, 1931. She was the third of five children.

Her father was born in 1893, her mother a year later. Her paternal grandfather was born into a family living in slavery in 1859. When he was six years old, the civil war ended, and they moved north.

Florence’s early years were uneventful. She was surrounded by loved ones including her maternal grandmother who lived with them until her death in 1942. Although the family frequently struggled to make ends meet, she always talked about her early childhood in the fondest terms.

But then suddenly at the age of seven, Florence contracted polio. Although she was critically ill for a long period of time, she eventually recovered. Unfortunately, the disease left her with severe weakness in her right leg that forced her to endure a lifetime of chronic pain.

But Florence never complained about her discomfort. It was not in her nature. However, her experience with illness and disability gave her tremendous empathy for those who also lived with challenges.

Despite her bout with polio, she was a happy little girl. She was smart, talkative and a fast learner. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

In February of 1952, Florence married the love of her life. She had met Ray Bowman at a community picnic the year before, and they soon fell in love. For the next sixty-three years, they shared their lives together. They had four children. Their firstborn was a son, followed by three daughters.

Eventually, they had eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Florence’s family was an endless source of happiness, and she loved them unconditionally – but there were also difficult times. Over the years she miscarried twice and had a baby boy that was stillborn.

As she was raising her family, Florence found herself drawn to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She did not want her children to have to experience the racism and segregation that she had grown up with.

In 1963, she and Ray proudly participated in the march on Washington D.C. where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was something she took pride in for the rest of her life.

But that joy was tempered by the activist’s assassination in April of 1968. Now, more than ever, she felt like she had to try and make a difference so she volunteered with Robert Kennedy’s short run for the White House, only to have senseless violence intervene again, leaving her feeling furious.

It was at that point in her life when she took up the cause that would remain her passion for the rest of her years. She joined the ACLU as a Field Organizer. From that point on, she dedicated herself to fighting against injustice in all forms.

But the single event that would define her life was still ahead.

In early 1971, Florence’s life was shattered by the death of her son Louis. At the age of nineteen, he was killed while serving in Vietnam. Although he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his gallantry and bravery under fire, it was small comfort to his heartbroken mother.

For more than four decades she carried the pain of losing her oldest child. Those closest to Florence said that in some ways she never got over it, but her way of dealing with the overwhelming grief was to fight even harder for those who were forgotten, ignored, and marginalized.

But of course, a person is more than just what they do or what they accomplish. Their humanity shines through in the type of person they are.

In Florence’s case, I was told that she could be comically stubborn to the point of exasperation to those around her, and she was very opinionated and always ready to share her point of view whether someone else wanted to hear it or not.

She was faithful to her beliefs even if they were unpopular. She did not suffer fools gladly, and she had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. It did not bother her one bit to ruffle the feathers of the establishment because she was a fighter.

Her personal crusade was to find the truth in every situation, and she refused to back down from those who tried to hide it.

But her most prominent characteristic was her compassion. If you were a person in need, or you were in pain or you suffered a loss, Florence would give you her heart. The kindness, generosity, and consideration she shared with those who were vulnerable was unlimited.

In her later years, she and Ray enjoyed their retirement. They were able to do some traveling and, most importantly they returned to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There, just like tens of thousands of other parents, they went to the wall and traced the name of their son onto a small piece of paper.   

But, as is always the case, the years began to take their toll. Ray, in particular, began to have serious health issues that gradually wore him down. Finally, in 2015, Florence’s beloved husband lost his battle with time. And for the last three years of her life, she struggled to go on without him.

During that time, Florence declined physically, but her mind remained sharp. She was always ready to argue about politics or any of the other issues of the day. She stayed engaged with life until the very end.

But just after Thanksgiving, she was struck down by a massive stroke, and it was too much to overcome. 

On December 24th, at five a.m., Florence Jean Bowman passed away peacefully in her sleep. She was surrounded by the family that meant everything to her, and on the nightstand next to her bed was a small picture frame that displayed the delicate tracing of her son’s name.

One hour later I drove by, glanced over at the facility and noticed the red lights in the darkness. I remember thinking at that moment that another person had died, but I callously assumed it was probably no one of consequence.

How could I have been so wrong?

 

 

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