I wish they could have seen her, those white-wigged guys in their buckle shoes. Propped up in a hospital bed, wearing one of those silly gowns, she was nearly as pale as the bleached white sheets and pillowcases behind her. She was one month shy of her 41st birthday, six months into chemotherapy. She’d hit a rough patch at the start of July, spiking a fever and landing herself in the sixth-floor oncology ward. I came to distract her, because that’s what friends do, staying with her for the afternoon while her worried and worn-out husband—trying to keep things normal when “normal” no longer had meaning—took their nine-year-old kid for a swim.
Hospital stays are boring, and she was glad for the company. We talked about books, about weather, about how much our dogs hated fireworks. About anything except cancer. She asked how my novel was coming along—my first attempt at fiction after years of writing nothing but facts—and I told her it was slow going.
“Stay healthy,” was what I usually said when someone asked me that question. “We’ll both be old before it’s done.” This time I didn’t say it. The joke wasn’t funny right then.
“Got any plans for the Fourth?” she asked.
I shrugged. I’d never liked the Fourth of July, with its gunpowder noises, its traffic and crowds, its picnic food sitting out in the sun. “It isn’t my kind of holiday.”
“Really?” she said. “I love it.”
That’s what I wish those patriot guys in the knee breeches could have seen: the transplanted Jersey Girl history-geek, minus a breast and too sick to eat, climbing up on her figurative soapbox to praise the Fourth of July.
It’s not about hot dogs and sparklers, she said. It’s the day the American colonies stood up and said, Enough is enough. We’re changing the rules of this game. There will be no aristocracy now, no landed gentry, no king on a throne, no titles passed down through bloodlines. We will—somehow, when we figure it out—elect our own citizen leaders and thereby govern ourselves.
It was an imperfect vision. “Citizen” meant, in most places, white men wealthy enough to own land (though even this, she pointed out, was a significant step away from Old World inherited power). At the same time—and this was the part she liked best—those guys we call Founding Fathers intentionally crafted a system in which the next generation of leaders would come from outside the gentleman class. Men who could have reserved the highest positions of leadership for themselves, their peers, and their children explicitly chose not to do so.
It was a huge experiment. And they weren’t sure it would work.
Were they faultless? Not by a long shot. They bickered and fought with each other, chose up sides, carried grudges. Being neither clairvoyant nor magical, they couldn’t predict or address all the issues (assault weapons, digital privacy, corporations as “persons”) that would plague and divide America more than 200 years in the future. Even in 1776 they failed to deal decisively with the poisonous subject of slavery—abhorrent to some, essential to others—they knew would explode down the line.
“But that’s what the Fourth is good for,” she said. “It isn’t a Hallmark holiday. It’s not about religion or gifts. It’s a day to stop and consider the experiment that is America. So I watch the fireworks and think about where this country came from, and where it might be going, and what I can do to help it live up to all those early high-minded ideals.” Like liberty, equality, and a fair shot at pursuing happiness. Potato salad’s a bonus, but it isn’t really the point.
So that’s what I think of now, on the Fourth. That and the fact that the Jersey Girl totally beat the cancer. As a favor to me, she’ll be spending her upcoming holiday weekend reading the first 20 chapters of my current work-in-progress—a novel that features, of all odd things, one of those guys in the buckle shoes who helped declare Independence. He’s smart, optimistic, funny, and flawed. A little bit like America.
Enjoy the hot dogs and sparklers. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Heather Lockman is the author of The Indian Shirt Story, a Northwest novel of history, celebrity, salmon and beer. Available from Amazon and most other online booksellers, and from Orca Books in Olympia.