It’s been roughly two months since I (and others) received an email from Peggy Fry, informing us that her beloved sister and our beloved friend Pat had died peacefully with her family at her side after a battle with brain cancer.
In talking to Pat in the final months of her life I can’t recall a moment when she displayed any anger or despair. If the prospect of leaving a world in which she was so engaged and where so much was still to be done dragged her down, it wasn’t obvious to me.
If anything, this daughter of Detroit who assimilated its rhythms, sensibilities, values, political astuteness, and toughness was more upbeat than I was. Even though Pat knew that she wasn’t going to reach the mountain top from where she could see the promised land or fight the next great battle in November of next year when tens of millions of people cast their vote for the next president and elect a new Congress, you would never know it.
I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised though. Feeling sorry for herself for too long wasn’t Pat’s style. While cancer was probably the biggest challenge of her life, her unshakeable convictions, her love of her family and friends, and her sense of an “active” oneness with people fighting for a just and liveable world still captured her attention and touched her emotions.
Even when she learned that the cancer had spread, I didn’t hear despair in her voice. She said her health prognosis wasn’t good, but she wasn’t about to walk away from this fight anymore than she walked away from a good political fight against injustice.
She knew well from experience, however, that not every fight can be won. And at some point in her battle against the cancer ravaging her, she concluded that the climb was too steep and too painful, that the fight couldn’t be won. Soon thereafter she decided to suspend further treatment and go into hospice care at her sister’s home in Traverse City, Michigan, where she had been living for several months, while undergoing treatment.
In a phone call, she told me of her decision almost matter of factly. I listened as best I could and mumbled something back to her. After finishing the call though, I had a good cry. The only consolation was that she would be surrounded by people she loved and who loved her, people who would take extraordinary care of her — her sister Peggy in the first place.
Occasionally after that, we would talk on the phone. And now and then I would send a note to Peggy asking how Pat was doing and she would send me back a note updating Pat’s condition. What I heard wasn’t encouraging.
Worried, I flew to Detroit in February and got a ride to Traverse City to visit her, probably for the last time, I thought. All the while I was sitting in the back seat of the car wondering what I was going to say and what feelings to express.
But thanks to Pat, my dilemma quickly disappeared. Before I could get a word out, shed a tear, or express a hint of sadness, she took control of the conversation, insisting that we speak to what was on her mind.
Which was, first, what was the likelihood of Trump winning the next election? And if he did, what would a Trump White House and a vengeful MAGA movement mean for the country’s future? Second, what would the makeup of a coalition that could defeat Trump look like? Third, where does labor fit into this existential struggle. Pat never – and rightly so – left out the “labor question.”
And, finally, did the movement that she and I joined in the sixties make a difference?
This conversation went on for roughly an hour and a half, only pausing a moment at 4 o’clock to move to the table where we began happy hour with her family, including her gracious, supportive, and loving mother, Ana. Soon though, Pat said she was tired and needed to rest.
I don’t know if our conversation neatly tied together answers to her questions, but to me it didn’t matter. The joy of the moment was in the opportunity to spend a little time with Pat, much like the old days when we shared an office in downtown Detroit. She was the energetic and skillful correspondent of the Daily World, while I was the state leader of the Communist Party there.
In any case, I knew my visit was over and my final goodbye was in order. As best I could, I told Pat that as great a political activist as she is, she is also a great friend to so many of us. I told her that she brings to our lives buckets of friendship, kindness, joy, empathy, intelligence, compassion, and, not least, fun. And we are the better for it! And that counts for a lot.
There was no overstatement here. I’m sure others who knew and loved Pat would say much the same. And I’m sure that we will now take the many beautiful pieces of Pat – her kindness, humility, generosity of spirit, restless mind, readiness to stand up to racists and racism, and more – and carry them forward in our lives.
While walking away, with snow coming down in the nearly empty main street of Traverse City, bounded on one side by a beautiful bay, I thought to myself that Pat is, even on the doorstep of death, what she was in life: intensely political, deeply human, self effacing, beloved by so many, and the kind of person and activist that we should all strive to be.
Pat also had that rare quality that many of us, can’t claim: an ability to listen attentively and empathetically to anyone, no matter who the person.
I don’t know where I fell on the list of her friends, but I didn’t care. To be on the list was enough for me. She could have easily written me off years ago for we were on opposite sides in a very bitter internal fight in the Communist Party. And the truth is she was more right than I was. But she didn’t. Instead, she extended to me a hand of friendship, which I greatly appreciated back then and now.
In recent years, I have lost a lot of friends, some go back to my boyhood, some to my college days, and some to my life in radical politics. Regretfully, Pat now joins that list.
I don’t know if I will see Pat in my dreams. I hope so. But even if I don’t, I’m sure she will show up unannounced in my thoughts now and then, bringing with her a smile, a good laugh, and some good advice.
As Bob Marley sang:
“Good friends we have had, oh good friends we’ve lost along the way.
In this bright future you can’t forget your past
So dry your tears I say.”
Finally, Pat hoped to have a seat on the freedom train when it arrives safely in the station where bells are ringing and a new day is dawning. The trouble is it has its own time schedule and pays little attention to ours.
On the night before his life was cruelly cut short by a racist gunman, Martin Luther King in a speech said,
“Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”
Pat, I would like to think, saw in the course of her own life some glimpses of the promised land as well.
In the example of Viola Liuzzo, who Pat at a young age greatly admired.
In the May 2, 1968 unauthorized strike and shut down of Dodge Main – Chrysler’s assembly plant in Hamtramck – staged by DRUM (Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement) and other Chrysler workers, including her dear friend, Lee Cain.
In the election of Coleman Young in 1973, Detroit first Black Mayor and then his abolition of the much reviled STRESS.
In the acquittal of Angela Davis who had become in the course of her life and death struggle a symbol of radical resistance and Black Power.
In the thousands who in 1971 marched down Woodward Avenue in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
In her first step on the soil of socialist Cuba in the same year.
In September 19, 1981 when the labor movement and its allies – close to a million strong – descended on Washington protesting the policies of the Reagan administration.
In the tens of thousands who gathered in Washington for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 march on Washington led by Martin Luther King.
In the million strong who assembled on the east side of Manhattan and marched to Central Park, demanding no deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe and a freeze on their production here.
In the visit of a free Nelson Mandela to Detroit in 1990 where in the old Tiger Stadium on Michigan Avenue he was greeted by nearly 50,000 people and listened to the music of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.
In the rise of Black Lives Matter and the international protests to the police assassination of George Floyd.
In the spontaneous celebrations on that Saturday in November when Joe Biden was officially declared the winner of the 2020 presidential campaign.
In the simple gathering of her closest friends sharing a glass of wine and enjoying the laughter, conversation, sisterhood and camaraderie of each other.
Of course, this is all speculative, but also easily imaginable.
To all of us who knew Pat – her family in the first place – we will miss her terribly. But we will also draw strength and courage from the love and legacy that she leaves behind.