“That’s the last time I’ll vote.”
My mother spoke those words in a matter-of-fact manner, devoid of emotion. We were entering her apartment lobby, one of those old, stately pre-World War II buildings standing between the embassies and the Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. Last spring when the radiologist had painted an unrealistically rosy scenario, I might have mounted a tepid protest to her statement. But this was November, and what was the point? The tumor was growing and she was out of options.
Another person in her situation—90 years old, with spreading pancreatic cancer—might have opted to skip voting altogether. That choice never occurred to either of us. Getting her successfully to and from the polls was our chief focus of the day.
We set out early, on one of those wet, dark, dreary election mornings that seem to forebode, at least to a superstitious soul like me, ominous outcomes. Though the polling place was only a few blocks from her apartment, the entire expedition took well over an hour. We crept along at a painfully slow pace in an effort not just to sidestep puddles, but to keep her dry and erect under the umbrella I was holding. Her body, brittle and shrinking by the day, looked so frail and tentative against the heaving rains I was afraid the wind might sweep her away, or break her in two.
When we finally arrived, the atmosphere was chaotic. Crowds of people milled about inside and out, shaking off raincoats. Many recklessly wielded their umbrellas. We managed to push our way inside, where we found multiple confusing lines. Somehow, we found a poll worker who shuffled my mother into another room. As she disappeared behind a cordoned off curtain, I felt a shiver of fear. Would she come back? How would I explain to my siblings that I had lost our mother at the polls?
My fiercely independent and very strong-willed mother continued to reject full-time help, even as she increasingly needed it. So, my two brothers, two sisters, and I played sibling tag team, trying to keep the days she was left alone to a minimum. My week to stay with her came during the election, which was fitting, since politics was the currency of our conversation.
As mother/daughter duos go, we had always been something of a mismatch. My mother was a striver and overachiever, directed and driven. She grew up as the cherished only child in an extended Irish-Catholic family that suffered greatly during the Depression but collectively sacrificed to ensure her success. She worked hard, put her head down, and followed a direct trajectory to achievement and success. I, on the other hand, was raised by two professional parents, financially comfortable, but squeezed in the middle of five siblings close in age. I was a zigger and zagger, reaching any destination, wherever that might be, only through fits and starts.
The overriding outside forces in my mother’s childhood were the Depression and World War II—mine were Vietnam and political assassinations. She grew up idolizing Franklin Roosevelt—I, despising Richard Nixon. If my mother became aware early in her life of a certain “specialness” that spurred on her confidence and ambition, I’d say my dominant motif was “one among many.”
“Herded along” is how I might describe my baby boomer upbringing. In addition to being one of five, I was the sixth of 11 cousins, frequently in a class of 30 or more in school, and lived on a street teeming with children under the age of 15. Wherever I looked, I’d see someone prettier, smarter, more athletic, funnier, more determined or more talented.
So, we struggled, neither of us quite understanding the other. I know that my choices frustrated, irritated, and confused her at times. When I told her that I planned to drive part of the way back to the East Coast after a long stay in California, she asked, “Why would you do that?” genuinely confused about what might propel me to take a non-linear path from here to there. She could be sharp, impatient and critical, with a tendency to verbally lash out. To protect myself, I became secretive, on-guard, and evasive. She in turn, I think, often felt ganged up on by my siblings and me, and a little paranoid (not unrealistically) that we were conspiring against her.
But time, life, and experience had mellowed us both. I moved away, married, had children, and settled into a career of sorts, and I think that eased her worries about me being forever a drifter. As I became more comfortable in my life, I began to trust my own feelings and priorities, thus making me less defensive in her company. My children, while acknowledging that she was more sardonic and caustic than the traditional “nanas” of their friends, found her funny, lively, and entertaining. The sharp critiques and lacerating judgments that she still occasionally leveled at me and my siblings—capable of slicing through layers of armor that I had carefully constructed over decades—were mostly absent in her interactions with them, replaced by humor, generosity, and even protectiveness.
By the last decade of her life, and especially after my father, who had frequently served as a buffer between us, had died, we had come a long way toward achieving a truce and maintaining civility. In the later years, our relationship even approached affection. Yet, some old grudges and unpleasant patterns of interaction endured and occasionally flared up. She snapped, I’d get defensive, we’d both retreat. Even cancer couldn’t entirely dislodge those.
If politics divides many families, it was actually a sweet spot for my mother and me, the one place where our instincts and ideologies were almost totally aligned. So I was happy to take the first week in November with her because I figured that the drama around the election would give us an outlet for our anxiety. We’d have a ready topic of conversation that did not involve her health, her medications, her fear of encroaching pain, her instructions to put my name on furniture I wanted to claim after she died, and her directives about who should speak at her funeral.
Instead, we could obsess endlessly about the Senate races, the prospects that the House would flip blue, and our fears that, like two years before, all of the pundits and polls could prove to be tragically wrong. My mother’s illness had not mitigated our mutual tendency to conjure up worst-case scenarios. We both vehemently agreed that if the Democrats didn’t, at a minimum, win back the House, we were done for. Our country would never recover. Democracy would be dead.
Our peculiar political alignment, laced with a heavy dose of Irish fatalism, started in my childhood with the campaigns of Robert Kennedy and later George McGovern. But it was sealed—or seared—during Obama’s first campaign in the fall of 2008. We both agonized daily about the polls, about Sarah Palin’s ascendancy, about our fears that Obama’s lead, like so many other Democratic candidates before him, would disappear. Over the course of a lifetime, we had become so inured to electoral defeat and disappointment that neither of us could quite believe that our preferred candidate—our first choice from the early primaries—might actually prevail. We both kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Finally, a week before the election, with the polls consistently showing Obama comfortably ahead, I pronounced myself, during my weekly phone call, confident that he would win. “Don’t go screwing everything up by getting positive on me now,” my mother chided. “Being negative has worked out really well so far, let’s not mess it up at the last minute.”
And with that, I determined to resume my neurotic fretting until the moment when the networks called Ohio for Obama, putting him over the top. Both of us had campaigned door to door for him, made phone calls and contributed to his campaign. But I couldn’t help but feel that our combined angst had also helped propel him to victory.
Call it the power of collective negative thinking.
That giddy moment felt like centuries ago on this rainy and dark election day of 2018. After my mother voted, we had nothing to do all day but worry about what could go wrong. My mother really wanted to attend an election party that she knew would be her last. Our ride didn’t come until close to 8:00 pm. By then, the results were already unnerving me. There had been troubling reports all day about voting difficulties in Georgia, and Joe Donnelly quickly fell behind in his Senate race in Indiana.
During the 20-minute drive, Andrew Gillum lost his lead in Florida. When we arrived, I got my mother a plate of food, situated her on a couch, and took a seat near the television. As people walked by and spoke with her, I focused on the returns flashing on the screen, feeling increasingly tense and scared. Stacey Abrams was not hitting her marks in Georgia. Claire McCaskill’s seat in Missouri looked increasingly lost. I wasn’t seeing any indication of the vaunted “blue wave” that we had been promised. The man next to me said, “I’m starting to feel the way I did two years ago.”
That was my trigger. I felt my face go flush, and waves of panic raced through my body. Could it all slip away again?
I felt the walls closing in on me. I needed air. I looked at others around me. No one else seemed particularly distressed. Guests were eating from the buffet, talking to one another, holding drinks. The hostesses’ dog roamed around. Didn’t anyone else feel rising bile in their throat?
I could see that my mother did. She looked at me. “What is going on?”
That’s when I knew we had to get out of there. I could feel in my bones that a change in venue was our only chance to salvage the night.
Our Uber showed up within moments. The ride managed to calm me down. By the time we turned the television set on in my mother’s apartment, Wolf Blitzer announced that the Democrats would indeed prevail in the House. Sherrod Brown easily won his Senate race in Ohio. Jon Tester showed signs of life in Montana. It looked like the Democrats might actually pick up two seats—one in Nevada and one in Arizona—to partially offset Senate losses elsewhere. The Democrats would increase the number of governorships they held, and had made some inroads in state legislatures.
Maybe democracy would live to see another day after all.
The next morning, as we drank coffee and I prepared to leave, we both voiced relief that the country had dodged a bullet, and that we had weathered the testy evening together. 2018 was not 2016 redux. My mother smiled, patted me on the arm, thanked me for coming, and said, with just a touch of exasperation, “We have a unique relationship.”
That seemed to sum it all up. We both recognized, I think, in that moment, that we had probably gotten as far as we could, in this lifetime anyway.
The next time I saw my mother, right after Christmas, she had declined dramatically. She stayed in bed almost all day, ate very little, and needed help getting up. She finally accepted the care of a full-time nurse. Once, lying in bed, eyes closed, she seemed to look up, and moved her hands, as if parting the waters. She was trying to grasp for something or someone: her mother, my father, the light?
She died a few weeks later in January. Her gift at the end was to go gently, quietly, willingly. It felt like an inverse birth—the midwife there, all of the children she had given birth to surrounding her, waiting for her delivery. After a year and a half of battling the cancer, she had told us over and over again she was ready, impatient, and eager to move on.
My mother was born two months before Herbert Hoover was elected President, and a year before the stock market crash that brought on the Depression. She married five months before Eisenhower’s first election, and gave birth to her fifth and last child on the eve of the first televised Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960.
That is how we measure time in my family. So, while some of us may note that my mother died in the midst of Trump’s government shutdown, I see it a little differently. I prefer to think that she stuck around long enough to ensure that the Democrats made a comeback.