Barack Obama has said that his biggest mistake was not being at his mother's side when she died of cancer in Hawaii in 1995 at the age of 52. His first book, Dreams from My Father, had come out only four months before, and he was starting his first campaign, for the Illinois state senate. Her death came quickly, and he didn't make it back in time.
So it makes sense that now he would do things differently. Just two weeks before Election Day, Obama has decided to leave his campaign to be by his grandmother's side in Honolulu for two days later this week. Madelyn Dunham, 86, is gravely ill, although the campaign has not released details about her condition. Dunham is Obama's last living parental figure, and by his own accounts, she played as big a role in his upbringing as his mother did.
In fact, since Dunham has declined to do interviews since the campaign began, most of what we know about her is from Obama himself, who referenced her in two of the most important speeches of his career.
On March 18 in Philadelphia, Obama attempted to defend his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, by talking about another complicated relationship: "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
Then this summer, Obama talked about his grandmother again when he accepted his party's nomination in Denver. "She's the one who taught me about hard work. She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she's watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well.
Obama never really knew his biological father, who died in a car crash in Kenya in 1982, and his grandfather died in 1992, three years before his mother. But Obama's grandmother has always been there. She took care of Obama when he was 10 and returned to Hawaii to attend school while his mother spent a few years continuing her anthropological research in Indonesia. At the time, his grandparents helped Obama get a scholarship to Punahou, an élite prep school on the island. All three of them lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment on Beretania Street in Honolulu.
Dunham's nickname in the family was Toot, short for Tutu, which means "Grandparent" in Hawaiian. Her role as the family rock predated Obama. She had her first and only child, Obama's mother, when she was 20 and living in Kansas. Her husband had wanted a boy, so they named the girl Stanley, after him. Over the next two decades, Dunham moved at least five times — always in pursuit of her husband's next adventure as a salesman. They went to California, Texas, Washington and finally settled in Hawaii.
Obama's birth does not appear to have been planned. His mother and father met at the University of Hawaii and got married when she was already pregnant. To help provide for the new baby, Obama's grandmother, who did not have a college degree, got a job as a secretary at a bank. For more than two decades, she got up at 5 a.m., put on a suit and took the bus to work, arriving first at the office. Eventually — and much more slowly than her male counterparts — she advanced and was promoted to vice president. She earned more money than her husband, and her job became a "source of delicacy and bitterness" for the couple, Obama wrote in Dreams.
Dunham was motivated by "the needs of her grandchildren and the stoicism of her ancestors," he wrote. "So long as you kids do well, Bar," she would tell him, "that's all that really matters."
Since the campaign began, Dunham has watched her grandson on TV from her apartment, avidly following his campaign. This week, for two days at least, the candidate will come to watch her.