Obama: Lesson Learned from Grandmother's Death

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The death of Barack Obama's grandmother the day before the presidential election is like the crushing of a glass at a Jewish wedding: a reminder of the bitter with the sweet that life serves up even on the happiest of days.

Their parting also has a profound lesson for us, we the people.

How Obama dealt with the death of a loved one speaks volumes about his character. He made the time to say good-bye, telling campaign aides the trip to see his grandmother in Hawaii was "non-negotiable." He spent a full October day paying visits to her bedside. Cancer came to claim her 10 days later -- and one day short of seeing her grandson perhaps win a historic election for president of the United States.

Madelyn Dunham, R.I.P. Eighty-six and known as "Toot" to her grandson Barack. She was the last one left of the adults who raised Obama, as his parents and grandfather are also dead. With her jovial husband Stanley, a furniture salesman, Madelyn, who worked for years as a bank vice-president, raised a remarkable, free-spirited daughter, named Stanley Ann.

When the Dunhams transplanted from Kansas to Hawaii some 50 years ago, Stanley Ann fell in love with a vibrant Kenyan student at the University of Hawaii named Barack Obama. They married young and named their only son after his father. They didn't stay together and over the course of his peripatetic youth, Obama was raised mostly by his mother, but also in part by his grandparents.

Obama's farewell to his beloved grandmother is worth pausing over, but not only because he took time out from a close presidential contest to fly to Hawaii to be at her bedside as she lay dying from cancer.

Making that personal decision, putting first things first for family, shows Obama learned from his own bitter experience.

The 47 year-old has said the biggest regret and mistake of his life was not making it to his mother's deathbed in time to say good-bye before she succumbed to cancer in 1995, in her 50s. It's not something you can do over again. It haunts me still that I didn't say good-bye to my cherished 99-year-old Wisconsin grandfather in person.

Obama wrote of his late mother, trained in anthropology, with work that took her to villages in developing countries in Asia and Africa, as "the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her."

We the people like presidents who learn from the past so they don't repeat history's mistakes. With the way things are going, there's no room for unforced or repeat errors in the Oval Office. We can all agree on that.

Obama paid a high compliment to his grandmother in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father. Comparing his Chicagoan wife Michelle with his grandmother, he wrote, "in her eminent practicality and midwestern attitudes, she reminds me not a little of Toot."

Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.