My son is many things. He is smart. He does sarcasm exceptionally well. He’s a teenager, though in the later stages and I am really enjoying the man he is finding within himself. He is black.
We live a middle class suburban life in a pretty integrated suburb of Chicago, so while he has experienced some of the ugliness of racism directed at him, those episodes have been few and far between. The perpetrators have been his classmates for the most part; the one exception happened a few years ago, when he was stopped by police while walking home from the grocery store. He left that encounter shaken but physically unharmed.
He’s also Jewish, though he’s quick to tell me (or anyone else) that he doesn’t believe in God. Even so, he doesn’t doubt the commandments that implore us to deal justly with those in need, to defend the poor, the orphan, the widow, and to not stand idly by.
When he was 5, he asked me if I was happy that George W. had been elected for his second term just the day before. I told him no, and why, in ways a 5-year-old could understand. He took it all in, thought for a minute, and said, “Know what I’m gonna do when I get older, mama? I’m gonna build houses for all the poor people, and make sure they all have enough to eat.”
When he was 13, he chose the Torah portion for his bar mitzvah based on the fact that it had a long section that talked about how we are to treat the Stranger—the Other, the Outsider. He had already spent a lifetime as all of these. His early years were spent in an area with few people of color. There were less than a handful of African Americans in his elementary school, and none in our neighborhood. There were about the same number of Jews. There were more bullies than either Jews or Blacks, and those bullies weren’t just kids.
Still, or maybe because of this, he is fierce in his belief that we must protect the Outsider among us, deal with him or her with kindness and compassion. It doesn’t matter why a person has been shunted to the fringes—whether it’s their skin color, belief or ideology, gay or straight or trans or still trying to figure it out. Science geek, theater nerd, gaming wonk—he makes room for them all.
It’s an essential part of who he is. This is how he fits, and how he makes his way in the world. I couldn’t be more proud of him.
He devoured this election cycle. How could he not? He hated the anger of it, the meanness of the discourse. By the end, when there would be four commercials in a row, all spewing invective rather than providing position and policy, he’d yell at the screen, “My God, shut up!” But he knew the stakes, and understood the importance of this election in particular.
When the returns started coming in on Tuesday night, I felt the first tension in my belly. My fingertips got that icy cold that comes with fear. “Mom, don’t worry,” said my son. “It always starts this way.” This from the vantage point of his 17 years of experience. “It’s early, and the polls are still open out west. Hillary will start building her base.”
He had no doubt that Hillary would prevail. How could she not? While hate had a loud and shrill voice, surely love and justice would be stronger. I still had that pit at the bottom of my stomach.
He woke yesterday morning to a world turned mad. Whatever optimism he had had not eight hours prior had turned to nonchalant cynicism. “Whatever, mom. ” He shrugged his shoulders. My heart ached. He showed me an email he got from his high school principal. The school was setting up a “safe space” for three periods, to give students a place to process the results of the election. He laughed, shrugged again, and left.
As I was making dinner last night, I asked about school. Did he go to the safe space? “Yeah.” And? What happened?
“I mainly listened. A bunch of my friends are really scared for their families, and what’s gonna happen to them.” No surprise, but many of his friends are from immigrant families. They are mainly first generation, but some have only recently come to the States, fleeing whatever nightmares have invaded their birthplaces. “And then I thought of you, and I started crying.”
Crying? But why?
“Because what will happen to your healthcare and all your medications and doctors and stuff?” I get my insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, and that may now be in jeopardy. And believe me, I need every doctor and medication I can get: I take a handful of pills in the morning, and another at night. In between, there are two different inhalers and two different kinds of insulin. My son is right—we’re in jeopardy of losing that all in this new and scary landscape. I cannot survive without every one of my medications, and I cannot afford any of my medications without insurance.
So, in less than 12 hours, he went from matter-of-fact unquestioning belief that of course we’ll elect a female president, to concern for the physical safety of friends and fear for the health of his family.
My son will have many journeys in front of him. The one he’s been on the last day and a half may be the longest he’ll ever have to make.