By Stephen Sigmund
A year ago this week iconic journalist and author Cokie Roberts died.
I lost an aunt that day. But more important, I, like so many others, lost the three most comforting words in the English language, her voice saying “Hi, it’s Cokie.”
You see with those three simple words, you knew things were going to be better. Because Cokie was so much more than her career. She was a person first.
Cokie was my mother’s younger sister. My mom, former Princeton mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund, died of cancer in 1990. After that, Cokie pretty much took over as my adult mother.
Cokie was a human safety net. Just having her in my life felt like there was a safe place to fall.
Her fame grew in the years after my mom died, but her time and attention for me only seemed to grow with it.
There were countless examples through the years of her being there.
A couple of years ago, one of our children got really sick. Cokie was the first person I turned to for advice on how to handle it and she kept me going through the ordeal.
We were faced with potentially devastating six-figure medical bills because we needed to seek treatment outside our insurance plan. While we advocated getting our child treatment, and with the insurance company to get covered, Cokie simply said “do what you need to do, I’ll pay for it, take that worry off of yourselves.”
We ultimately did get covered, but just knowing that we wouldn’t have to drain decades of savings was like immediately having a thousand-pound weight lifted off our shoulders.
But more than a financial lifeline, Cokie was always there. Flying up at a moment’s notice after my kids were born, seeing us and being part of our kid’s lives, attending school plays and concerts, reading her children’s book at our kids’ school, making sure we were part of family vacations and holidays.
And she called, often. Shortly out of college, I was working on a gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey and a negative story was leaked. The staff was suspicious of each other that day as a result. In the middle of a staff meeting, my desk phone buzzed, “It’s Cokie Roberts calling,” the receptionist said. All eyes turned to me as the potential leaker, before everyone burst out laughing in recognition of our relationship, breaking the tension (for the record, it wasn’t me. Although I did get her some other tips over the years.
She checked in. She refused to lose touch. And she was a funny, smart, comforting and caring voice on the other end of the phone
Only twice in my adult life did I get the great honor of doing, just briefly, what she was able to do for me so often, provide comfort. Both when my father and my brother died, I was the one to call Cokie and tell her. These were the only times I heard her lose her composure.
She took the news of both deaths extremely hard, blaming herself for not doing more to get them expert care or “the best” that could have saved them. In both cases, she’d in fact moved heaven and earth to help them.
I was able to say comforting words. To let her know how much she’d done for both my dad and my brother, and how much they cared for her.
She recovered quickly, of course, and went right back to be the dynamo who helped me organize the funerals and get all the necessary legal work done.
But in those moments, I saw a side of her I’d didn’t get to see often, vulnerable, grief-stricken, not superhuman. I am so grateful to have had those moments.
Like so many others, I miss Cokie beyond measure. I miss her personality. Her laugh. Her link to my mother (that comforting voice sounded so much like my mom’s).
But I mostly miss just knowing she is out there in the world, ready, willing and more than able to help, to connect and to just be there with me.
Stephen Sigmund, a Maplewood resident, is a native of Princeton.
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