Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sadly, passed away Thursday morning, but I can still clearly remember his hand moving toward mine one day during a House Oversight Committee hearing — slowly, but with purpose. He wasn’t going to interrupt my opening statement or my questioning of a witness.
But he had something he wanted to say right after I was done: The witness had been highly critical of the then-Budget Committee chairman, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. I didn’t like what she’d said, and I spent my allotted five minutes letting her know it.
Then Elijah’s hand came toward mine, like a father getting ready to tell his adult son he could have done better.
“You were too tough on that witness, son,” he said. “The fact that you can do something does not mean you should do it. I understand you like Paul — he’ll be fine. Make sure she is, too, when this is all over.”
There are more than a few YouTube videos of Elijah and me disagreeing with one another over the years. Unfortunately, there are no videos capturing his calls of encouragement to me. Or of me pushing him in his wheelchair — he would have done the same for me — because I wanted to talk with him while we walked.
Or of Elijah going out of his way to encourage a member of my staff because he knew what it was like to be a young professional of color.
He was a fighter. He was a more than formidable political opponent. He could punch hard. And then the hearing would end, and life would begin. He was my friend.
I met him while riding on a bus in Mexico. It was late in the evening and everyone was either asleep or trying to get there, but we sat beside each other and he told me of our mutual connection to South Carolina. His family had roots there. He still had relatives there and visited periodically.
I asked, “Why did your family leave South Carolina, Mr. Cummings?”
We were separated by quite a few years, age-wise, but at that moment, his reply reflected a separation that was more like many generations: “To get an education, son ... to get an education.”
And I immediately knew what he meant. He turned to look out the window into the darkness of a foreign land, leaving me to dwell on the starkly different paths that we’d taken to find ourselves side by side on a bus, in another country, both serving in Congress.
Our political beliefs could not have been more different. We disagreed on most issues, from gun violence to questions for a decennial census. We both had a passion for criminal justice reform, but even when we agreed on the destination, we frequently had different paths to get there.
Yet we never had a cross word outside of a committee room during the years we served together.
To the contrary, I had genuine affection for Elijah, and I admired the path he took, over the course of his life, rising to becoming a leader in Congress.
He knew I could never fully understand the South Carolina his family had to leave, that he might have more opportunity to get an education. He didn’t need me to understand what I could never understand — he needed me to try. He needed me to acknowledge the pain that others felt, and still feel, and be mindful of it.
And I needed him to never lose hope that the story of our shared background could have a happier ending. That things can change.
He never lost that hope.
It’s not the hearings or political squabbles I’ll remember. I’ll remember his laugh. I’ll remember the commanding voice that made him the most compelling orator in Congress.
I’ll remember his hand coming toward mine to let me know that a piece of advice was headed my way, once I stopped talking.
Members of Congress don’t always give advice to (or take advice from) one another. Most don’t have the kind of relationship where you can, but we did.
We served in a Congress that was often bitter and divided. None of that exists where he is now. If I make it to the other side, we will serve together again in a place of only peace and forgiveness.
I’ll listen for his voice and look for his hand, reaching out to try to teach someone how to be better.