My story began in the 1950s, when an Indian immigrant journeyed to the United States to chase the dream this country promised — opportunity. This brave man, my father, had visions of earning a PhD and raising a family. He wanted to affect American society through his work, the way he led his life and the values he instilled in his children.
This narrative of a hopeful, resilient immigrant fighting against the odds to build a life of meaning in the United States is a common story. My father’s story became uncommon when a promise was realized by our nation’s 44th president.
Like many, I was caught up in the euphoria of the country’s election of its first African American president in 2008, tearing up with millions as we watched President Barack Obama’s inauguration. I had grown up as a student of the civil rights movement, finding my voice in local leadership and civic engagement and garnering purpose in a vision to serve this country. This moment in 2008 was special for me, and about to become more so.
It was the summer of 2009, when the Obama administration called me. I had been working as a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focusing on urban redevelopment issues, and the administration official wanted to know if I was interested in joining their ranks as a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. After immediately sharing the news with my wife, the next call was to my parents.
My mother had served as a high school biology teacher and my father as a sociology professor in Chattanooga for decades. For their son, a first-generation American, to earn the opportunity to serve this country and this president was surreal. My parents knew little about the work I was to do; they just knew that I was going to “work for President Obama,” a refrain that would be repeated hundreds of times over the next seven years.
By the time I started my job, my father was already showing signs of dementia. This man — credentialed to the hilt, once a powerful speaker, teacher, preacher and scholar — was being reduced to simple conversations. As Alzheimer’s disease fully set in, my daily calls home assumed predictable patterns. My mother would answer the phone and ask me how I was doing, where I was going — extracting all the details that mothers do. Then, she would hand the phone to my father.
I could not engage him in much chitchat. He waded through my questions but wanted to know only one thing: “Are you going to see President Obama today?”
Without fail, every day for years, he would ask me this one question. He expected me to have daily, personal meetings with the president, but that was not my role. I wondered whether he would stop asking. But he didn’t and, given who he is, I shouldn’t have been surprised. He showed the persistence of a man who traveled for more than 30 days by cargo ship from India with a visa in hand to get to this heralded, yet strange land.
My father’s memory, skills, energy and strength would decline. Memories would slip, but one did not.
“Daddy, who do I work for?” I would ask.
With a smile and pride you could hear through the phone, he would say, “President Obama.”
Meeting the president became my promise to him.
The thrill of serving this country — working on the issues of poverty and opportunity, the same topics about which my father spoke, wrote and taught — never waned for me. Over the years, when White House liaisons asked me, “What can I do to help you? What do you need?” my bucket list request was always the same: “If possible, I would love to be able to take a picture with the president to give to my father.”
In 2016, as my leadership and service were coming to an end, I worried that the promise to my father would be unrealized. Then in April, I received news that I had been selected to be recognized for leadership and service in the administration by the president, acknowledging my early work as a senior adviser and then as a deputy assistant secretary in the later years. I was going to meet President Obama.
Once again, my first call was to my mother. All I said to her was “Guess what?” And with that uncanny sense that mothers possess, she responded, “You are going to meet him.”
On April 28, I walked into the Oval Office. President Obama thanked me for everything I had done for the country. As he concluded, I shifted the conversation.
“Mr. President, I am standing here representing countless members of my family who will never get the honor of this chance, but I am especially standing in the place of my father,” I said.
I told him about those conversations we had every day for years, and the question he would ask me: “Are you going to see President Obama today?”
The president took it all in, and then he said something I could have never predicted: “Well, Salin, let me write him a note.”
In a daze, I walked with the president to the corner of his desk, where he pulled out a blank stationery card and began writing. He thanked my father for his support and, as a proud father himself, said how great a job I had done. It was personal, powerful and priceless. I shook the president’s hand and walked out of the Oval Office, holding on to the card like the cherished possession it was. I was carrying a note from the president to my father.
When I told my mother about the note, she said with a twinkle in her tone, “What a kind man” — the highest of maternal accolades. It wasn’t his power or position that prompted her praise; it was his decency, humanity and compassion. It was his ability to understand and empathize with someone whose experience was different than his own.
My family gathered in Chattanooga nearly a week later to celebrate my father’s 83rd birthday. It had been nearly six decades since he had come to America. As the family gathered for a group photo to commemorate his life, I leaned down to my father and spoke the words I’d been waiting to say for six years: “I saw President Obama, Daddy, and he wrote you a note.”
I don’t know if he understood the significance. Alzheimer’s grip on his mental faculties raised doubts for me. But I believe that the smile gracing his face meant he understood.
I wrote a letter of heartfelt gratitude to Obama and included photos of my father and family. I wanted to thank him for the gesture, as well as his leadership of the country. But I also wanted him to know the story of my immigrant parents coming to the country, becoming American citizens, and making a life for themselves, their relatives and friends here in the United States and abroad — believing that their children would be their greatest gift to America. His was a campaign of hope, and Obama was the carrier of the vision of many Americans, but particularly people of color like us. Like so many, we saw ourselves in the president’s story.
I sent the letter and a photo collage to the White House, hoping that it would get to him but knowing that it might get lost in the thousands of daily letters the president received.
Then, one evening in June, a package from the White House arrived at my house. Thinking it must be a memento given to appointees, I hastily opened it. A letter from President Obama was inside:
“It’s clear your parents have served as a tremendous source of inspiration throughout your life, and their story — from their journey to our country to their commitment to lay down roots and shape a bright future for their children — speaks to our experience as a Nation.”
This was our American story. It was another part of my father’s dream realized.
As he continues to slip away from us, I remember a promise made and a promise realized: “Yes, Daddy, I saw President Obama today.”
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