District resident Lewis Geer is 97 and has lost most of his hearing. But he knows plenty.
A dedicated newspaper reader, Geer is aware that John Edwards is John Kerry's choice as his vice presidential running mate. A former South Carolina sharecropper, he knows the indescribably soft feel of just-picked cotton. Through the words of his late, former-slave grandfather, he knows how slavery looked and felt to one small boy.
Geer is completely aware that 25 of his relatives, most of them from South Carolina, chartered a bus to visit him this week, to crowd in and out of his three-bedroom Southeast home. He's thrilled about the Italian dinner they arranged to pay him their respects.
But Geer knows nothing about his relatives' other mission in visiting Washington, which they accomplished Wednesday night: to link hands in a circle at Lafayette Park across the street from the White House and pray for President Bush to support stem cell research.
As of last night, no one had told the family patriarch that his 24-year-old grandson, Franklin Geer -- who used to come north every summer to visit him -- has a form of leukemia that doctors say will respond only to stem cell therapy. Family members feared that the stressful news might aggravate the elder Geer's asthma.
So today, Franklin Geer -- a former UPS employee who received the diagnosis in August and whose disease is in remission -- will rest at his Tuscaloosa, Ala., home, sorry that he couldn't join his kinfolk in toasting his grandfather. But he'll be happier than he has been in months.
Hours after his family gathered to pray for him and President Bush, he learned that the bone marrow operation they held a half-dozen bone marrow rallies for has been scheduled for the end of the month, thanks to the emergence of what his mother described as a "near-perfect" DNA donor.
While his relatives celebrate here, Franklin might do a little reading. Being a Geer -- a family that his Uncle Columbus says "believes that prayer will do anything and everything" -- he'll likely do some praying.
And he'll probably ponder what he's considered over and over since his diagnosis:
"When you're sitting in the hospital, sick, you mostly think about all the time you've wasted," he said.
Advocates of stem cell research, and people whose illnesses could be cured as a result of it, also worry about time wasted. In such cases as Geer's, stem cells come from anonymous, unpaid volunteers whose cells are extracted from their blood for infusion into a recipient's bloodstream, a treatment used on people with leukemia, lymphoma and certain blood disorders.
But the Geer family's prayers concerned embryonic stem cell research. Such research requires the destruction of human embryos -- which some opponents view as tantamount to murder. Advocates want President Bush, whose policy prohibits the destruction of embryos with taxpayer dollars, to loosen limits on federal financing. They point out the studies that suggest that millions of patients with diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other maladies could benefit greatly.
Last month, 206 members of the House -- including nearly three dozen abortion opponents -- signed a letter urging the president to allow the federal funding of studies on embryos that currently are discarded by in vitro fertilization clinics. Ronald Reagan's recent death from Alzheimer's brought additional attention to the issue as his widow, Nancy -- who has raised millions for stem cell research -- renewed her request that Bush rethink his policy.
On this issue, I'm with Mrs. Reagan. So is Franklin Geer, whose chances of finding a DNA match were less promising than those of his white counterparts because of the dearth of minority donors on the marrow program's list.
Geer didn't have to look far for an advocate. Rocky Twyman of Rockville, Franklin's kin by marriage, is an activist who in the past decade has organized dozens of bone marrow drives across the nation, adding more than 10,000 potential donors -- most minorities -- to the national marrow donor program (for information, call 1-800-Marrow2).
Twyman's urgency on the issue was fueled by his friendship with Alicia Nelson, a black D.C. General Hospital clerk who died in 1995 at age 27 after local gospel concerts and a downtown rally failed to help turn up a DNA match.
Franklin Geer's mother, Shelia Mitchell, wants people to understand why minorities should become donors. Learning of her only child's potentially fatal illness was "terrifying," she said. "Words can't even describe it."
But yesterday, after hearing that a wonderful stranger had agreed to assist her son in a transplant, Mitchell rushed home from work to "rejoice" with Franklin.
"I just feel like shouting -- I'm so happy, I don't know what to do with myself," she said in a phone interview. Other black, Latino and Asian mothers, she continued, "deserve to know that their child has a second chance at life."
Yesterday afternoon, Twyman announced the match to Geer family members, who'd just completed a tour of historic sites. The bus erupted into cheers.
Franklin's uncle, Columbus Geer of Rockville, was so impressed that the news came within hours of the family's prayer vigil that he jokingly told everyone that he planned to get the preacher who'd accompanied the family -- his "cousin's cousin" Glenn Davis -- to pray for him.
"We've never been so happy," Columbus Geer, 73, said. "Never."
No wonder the family is thinking about revealing the happy truth to the family patriarch. As Rocky Twyman put it, "Why not?
"This is really good news."