25 Years Ago
25 years ago today, I was with Laura. For me, Tiananmen Square will always be tied up with these memories.
I had come to Chicago for an Amnesty International conference, and, of course, to see my sister. She went to the conference with me. It was held at Loyola University Chicago on a humid early summer weekend. We stayed in single beds in shabby high-rise dorms that were absent of students for the summer.
I remember being cross with her because she seemed so, so out of shape. Just walking three blocks to a nearby restaurant wore her out. That made me a little crazy – she wasn’t even 40 at the time. I chastised her to get more exercise, to go swimming, to do more. I thought she was just lazy.
What neither of us knew back then was that multiple sclerosis was already damaging her nerves and that there would never be a way to get back to her former physical condition. Within a few years, she would be unsteadily walking 25 or 30 feet and falling along the way.
That’s not to say she didn’t have a great time at the conference.
A famed Chinese human rights lawyer spoke at the event. He had just come to the United States for a fellowship at Columbia University, and of course, with Tiananmen Square in the news, he was the star of the show. Everyone mobbed him with questions and concerns. Furrowed brows were the de rigueur facial expression when addressing him.
Laura, of course, was different. She sat next to him on the lawn at lunch, telling him hilarious stories about American life and making him laugh uproariously. I could see people giving her the side-eye – how dare she be so unserious at such a serious time? But she was at her best, there in the sunshine on the green lawn, eating her box lunch and making a new friend. He didn’t mind, either. He smiled and his shoulders relaxed as they talked.
To provide those moments of connection and fun in such a tense time was a true public service, even if she never would have thought of it that way. It’s just what she did for people – let them know, even in the worst times, that we’re all in this together, humans, muddling through as best we can with some dignity and grace.