Blessings learned from a car accident

I was driving down Cadieux toward Mack.  The name of the streets don’t really matter. I had just left dinner with a good friend and was headed home.

As I approached the car in front of me, which was at a stop sign, my car surged forward. I smashed my foot on the break and for a second, just a second, I wondered where I was. You know how some people say they hear a Bang or a Crash, or a Thud at the point of impact between two cars I will never be able to tell you what it sounded like when the car hit mine. I just remember hearing nothing else for just a moment.

Not the car in front of me that continued through the stop sign.

Not the cars that swerved around our stopped cars to continue their journeys.

I thought about getting out of the car until I glanced around and saw only complete darkness, no other cars and a sign to the right that said “Welcome to Grosse Pointe.”

I was on the other side of that sign, outside of it.

And the driver behind me didn’t get out.

I dialed 911 and a rude woman answered and asked whether I was hurt, whether I could walk, whether the car was hurt. I told her I wasn’t sure but that I was reluctant to get out and check the car because the guy who had rear-ended me was still sitting in his car.

“Do you want EMS?” she said, impatient, bored, ready to move on.

“No,” I told her. “I’d like an officer.”

There was a pause, then she said she’d send someone. I could hear in her voice that it wasn’t true.

The driver got out and walked to the window, and I breathed a sign of relief. He appeared to be 16 years old.

“There’s no damage to the cars and you’re OK and I’m OK, so why don’t we just leave?”

I could imagine him having to tell his mother about the accident. He had been visiting his girlfriend and had to go through what he called “a bad neighborhood” to get home. She had called him. He reached to get the phone and ran into me.

It was his mother’s fault. Continue Reading

The best gift of all

This Christmas, I am working harder on holiday gifts than ever. This year, I’ve decided not to buy them. This year, I am writing letters, notes of admiration, realization and reflection, for my dearest friends.

The decision really made itself. I just returned from a trip to Dakar, and just didn’t have time to spend in stores trying to decide which thing that my friends already own I should try to replace. I imagined strolling down aisles and through department stores and the very idea gave me a headache.

Which one could use another sweater? Which one might like another pair of earrings that are more my taste than theirs? How many more ties can I buy?

Nope, this time, this year, I am using the gift God gave me to create a unique gift for each of them: notes of encouragement and gratitude, words to let them know how I feel about them, how much I appreciate them being in my life.  If they take them in the right spirit, they won’t think I’m dying and saying goodbye, but will understand how much I love them.

I made three exceptions: my friend, Shelley, who is among the smartest, funniest and most practical people I know. I got her a picture frame. She’s already decided what to put in it. my friend, Phyllis. I had decided before I left that I wanted her to have something tangible that she could show off; and daughter, sister, brother, aunt and cousin, who comprise my nuclear family, the core that is left back in North Carolina. I knew before the plane took off for Senegal that I would bring them something back from there.

Everyone else gets the best of what’s inside of me, what I think of them and feel about them.

I hope they appreciate the words as much as I appreciate them.

Three old men and a “baby”

I love it when an old man calls me “baby.”

I know that when it happens, the man means no harm, no offense, that he is remembering, that he is, for just a moment, living another time when he was a mack daddy and he called all the girls “baby.” He might have, for a moment, been thinking of his daughters or granddaughters and let me have their term of endearment for a moment.

The man, whenever and wherever he is, could have been my grandfather, who called me that almost every day. My grandfather was a gruff, hard-working man who raised two families and never complained. He called me baby and he called every boy and man in our town “Charlie.”

I was as amazed that he did it as I was that everyone let him. No matter who he saw, he’d cry out, “Hey, Charlie!” And they’d always say, “Hey!” – whether it was Donald or Nathan or Bridgers or Derek or Tony or Nino or Winston.

The man on the scooter looked nothing like my grandfather, save skin like ebony and a wonderful smile.

I was walking, Desi, The Wonder Dog, when I saw the old man this evening. He was on a scooter with a basket in front and his cane in back. He was bowed over his lap. My heart stopped. Had he died while out for a ride? I called over, “Sir, are you all right?”

Nothing.

I called louder, “Sir, is everything OK?”

And he stirred as if from sleep, because that is what it was. He raised his head, still looking forward, never at me, and raised his thumb in the universal sign of “Everything’s all right.”

I smiled and continued our walk. But before I got to the corner, the old man was flying past, doing at least 5 miles per hour. He was totally awake, vibrant, the lost moment gone. He turned and waved, “Hey baby, how ya doing?”

“Fantastic, sir!”

And like that, he had turned the corner and headed down the street. I am a writer, not a photographer. By the time I realized that I should get a photo of him and fumbled with my Iphone to take it, he was gone. Continue Reading

Rachel Beckwith: Girl’s passion to help others lives on

She was trying to help.

Rachel Beckwith decided last spring that her friends should skip the birthday presents and instead help her raise money to provide clean water to African villages. She was trying to raise only $300.

On the page, she wrote this message: “I found out that millions of people don’t live to see their 5th birthday. And why? Because they didn’t have access to clean, safe water so I’m celebrating my birthday like never before. I’m asking from everyone I know to donate to my campaign instead of gifts for my birthday. Every penny of the money raised will go directly to fund freshwater projects in developing nations.”

By the time she turned nine on June 12, she had raised $220. She closed her page.

Rachel didn’t live to see her tenth birthday.

She was killed last week in a 13-car pile-up not far from Seattle. The pastor at her church, Eastlake Community Church, reopened her page. Rev. Ryan Meeks gave Rachel a second chance at her goal.

By Thursday morning, she had raised $518,916 – and counting.

From tragedy, miracles rise like phoenix from ashes.

Her heartfelt effort keeps Rachel alive for her community and for her nation. That moment when she decided to put passion to action meant she would continue to make a difference for people she ever met. Her generosity of spirit should inspire us all.

When the pastor takes the money to whatever country Rachel had in mind, I hope the TV cameras go with him. Or maybe he can call the folks at www.water.org, the charity that actor Matt Damon supports, and they can make the trip for him – and for Rachel.

We’ll be watching – and remembering a little girl whose heart was as big as the world and whose passion could inspire a generation.

Thank you, Rachel.

To contribute to Rachel’s medical bills and her cause to bring water to an African village, visit http://mycharitywater.org/p/campaign?campaign_id=16396.

Proud moments are to be shared, savored

Rochelle Riley (center) celebrates receiving the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award from James Rogers (second from left), the great-grandson of humorist, actor and cowboy Will Rogers. From right: the award’s founder, Bob Haught, NSNC conference chairman Brian O’Connor and Riley’s editor, Ron Dzwonkowski.

Sometimes, you have to stop. Just stop and live in a moment, life fully in it.

That happened to me Friday night when I stood before a group of hugely talented writers and journalists because someone wanted to give me a pat on the back.

Newsrooms aren’t keen on pats on the back. We are, after all, producing products that are vital one day and trash the next.

But every now and again, someone stops you with a word of encouragement, a pat of recognition and thanks. And it takes your breath away.

For 10 years, I’ve written about adult literacy and the challenge Detroit and Michigan face because of the number of adults who read below a sixth grade level – something that, at the height of American auto making, didn’t matter.

But in the new global economy, one where most auto jobs require college degrees and there are fewer auto plants than in the past 30 years, reading is – as it has always been –fundamental and necessary.

On Friday night, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists recognized me for that decade of work with the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award.

Rogers, Oklahoma’s most famous resident and one of America’s most beloved celebrities of the 1920s and 1030s, was born in November 1879 and died in August 1935, but in that span, he was a humorist, vaudeville performer, cowboy, actor and comedian. A descendant of the Cherokee Nation, he wrote more than 4,000 newspaper columns, made dozens of silent movies and became a a part of America’s tragic lore when he died in an airplane crash with pilot Wiley Post. Known for his quick wit and hilarious stories, Rogers has been among the most quoted Americans in history. His most famous: I never met a man I didn’t like. Continue Reading

White House: Don’t release bin Laden death photos!

The mission is now accomplished.

President Barack Obama did what he said: He got the man who brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11 – a date that never again needs a year or an explanation after it.

In the days since the late Sunday announcement, I have watched with mixed emotions the swirl of reaction to the death of a madman.

I participated in the early Twitter chaos:

Trump: “I got the birth certificate.” Obama: “I got Osama bin Laden.”

I watched television journalists chomping at the bit to break the news, not knowing that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had already scooped them all.

And I watched for spontaneous jubilation in the streets of New York.

Except it didn’t look like New York. It looked like coverage from all those other cities on the other side of the world where the oppressed cheer death in a sustained release borne of years of hurt.

I don’t remember seeing that before.  It seemed wrong to celebrate a death, even that of a monster.

Then I remembered the images and the horror and the numbness and the anger that I felt that day.  And I thought of the thousands of victims and  the police officers and the firefighters and the continuing suffering, all from the malignant hatred that led to a plan to wipe our landscape.

President Obama closed a heavy, heart-breaking chapter in the book on terror.

It wasn’t an hour before goofballs and so-called pundits  began to question whether the operation, the death, was real, demand proof, question whether the president deserved the credit and whether we are now in more danger.

It wasn’t a day before the demands increased for the White House to release pictures of a dead body. I hope that never happens. I hope we don’t put our children through that. The White House should deny a blood lust so great that it makes us look like. . .

. . . Them.

Please, Mr. President: Don’t release photos and videos full of blood and gore. It’s time to stop having to prove anything to people for whom satisfaction is not the goal. I hate that you released your birth certificate. You don’t need to release a death certificate. Continue Reading

March Madness: Why I Root for Underdogs

I woke up early Thursday morning, headed to the computer and changed my NCAA bracket hours before the first tip-off. Rather than make mine match President Barack Obama’s or ask sports columnists for advice, I decided to play with my heart. After all, it’s only money.

I chose Princeton over Kentucky.

Princeton was this year’s Cornell on my bracket. A win for an academic powerhouse would prove something: that students can be athletes.

I chose Gonzaga over St. John’s because, well, I choose them every year. And they do not disappoint.

And I chose Oakland over Texas – even though I’ll be attending the Final Four with a best friend who is a Longhorn. (I don’t plan to let her see my bracket. It wasn’t about foolish loyalty. I reserve that for my alma mater, Carolina, who I just know is going to the championship game every year (although this year, just for the money, they fall to Syracuse in my bracket. I’ll never be so glad to be wrong).

Yes, I cheered for the little university just miles north of Detroit because I believe I believe in magic, miracles and Cinderella. And they almost proved me right. They gave the Texas players a run for their money at the end that left them losing by only 4 points.

That’s respectable for a Cinderella team that no one thought had a chance.

You always have a chance. Just ask Morehead State players who sent Lousville home.

Japanese tsunami follows first emotional one….

As I watch CNN coverage of the tsunami resulting from an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit northern Japan, I am spreading my prayers between those impacted there and in Hawaii where the waves then headed – and with the families of two girls in Detroit.

Today, I am watching footage that seems to come from a movie – “The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012” – pick your disaster.

Last night, I got the call that put words in my head I can’t stop hearing:  My friend’s 14-year-old came home from school to tell her that a 15-year-old classmate had committed suicide.

15 years old.

Her teen got that news right after the news that another classmate, also 14, had run away with an older man – not a boy, not a classmate, but a man. And the teen’s mother had not even reported her missing.

What is happening to our children that their sadness so overwhelms them that they feel death or unspeakable risk is their only way out?

I don’t remember being particularly happy at 15; I didn’t like where I lived. I didn’t feel attractive, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t allowed to date (not for another three years).

But I knew that I was loved, and I enjoyed school and reading and all the activities I participated in during my years in school. I stayed too busy to think about being sad.

Even my parents’ divorce and the realization that I’d probably never see my father again wasn’t enough to take me off my path.

I never thought about quitting. I never, ever thought about dying. Or catching the first guy who could take me away from it all.

I’m praying for the people of northern Japan, where hundreds have died – and for the people of Hawaii who are battling the resulting tsunami.

But I’m also praying for three Detroit families: one who has lost a daughter, one who is missing a daughter and one whose daughter is grieving for people whose lives were so much sadder than hers.

  Continue Reading

Detroit Gets “Super Plug” in Bowl Commercial

I knew it wasn’t a regular commercial when the gruff voice says: “I got a question for you. What does this city know about luxury?” And then crooked sign to Interstate 75 flashes by. . . along with broken buildings, green, rusted statues and the Louis Fist that defiantly points a fist at Hart Plaza, a doorman in full black and royal blue regalia. . .

I knew it wasn’t just a commercial when I stopped doing the handful of things I was doing besides watching the Super Bowl and actually paid attention to the television.

By the time the familiar bass of Eminem’s Oscar-winning “Lose Yourself” rises through the images, we were no longer looking at a commercial, but a life, a history, a demand for fair attention.

Folks across the country buzzed about the mini-documentary, which was supposed to sell us on the Chrysler 200 but actually might help sell America on Detroit. Not the Detroit people have heard about, but the one they should see for themselves.

Come see for yourself.

To read more coverage of the Chrysler commercial that tells Detroit’s story in the two-minute longest commercial in Super Bowl history, visit www.freep.com and www.freep.com/rochelleriley.