She told me that the sea otter who followed her was her dead daughter.
We sat across from each other at a square wood dining table with our half-eaten meals between us, ice melting in sturdy glasses, efficient neighborhood waitress pausing to refill then leave us alone. We kept eating, pressing our forks into salads, or grain bowls, or omelets — that particular I do not remember. What I remember is her matter-of-fact-ness and her certainty. I filled in the vision she painted – the otter swimming behind her canoe, watching her, keeping pace — with details from my own memories of a different watery place decades before — the slant of sun powering through thick bayou treetops, bouncing off the water and turning it green. A boat and oars. Rippling water. Moving through shade and light.
I remember thinking as I listened to her – this mom, this survivor – why not? who am I to be certain of a world where that cannot be true?There are mysteries, after all — Maybe God, and maybe Not. I was no fundamentalist, either way. I accompanied her to consider the possibility, to Maybe.
Seven years later, having come close to more deaths and companioned more grief, I circle back to that conversation, to the vivid image of the otter swimming behind her mother, not so close as to touch her, but close enough to be seen and known. I circle back to that restaurant, to the mother describing the moment, and to then-me who received her memory. And I change what I knew and understood to be true: of course that was her daughter, gliding through water dark with life, bracing and cool.
Einstein said, “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed,” but it takes me a while to catch on. An orange butterfly followed me for a mile before I recognized her and gasped hello.
My boys declined my invitation to vote with me; they’d done it before, many times. But Maria accepted. I wasn’t sure if she was being kind, indulging me where my boys wouldn’t, or if she was as interested in seeing American democracy unfold as I was excited to show it to her. Knowing her, it was both.
We stepped out of the house, turned right, and began the familiar three block walk to the park where our polling place was set up. I was giddy, if a bit self-conscious in my all-white attire, until I saw other women approaching the polling place similarly dressed. It was a quiet way to scream how much this vote meant to us.
There is a preciousness to a town, to a country, where the place I cast my vote is the same place I asked my parents to take me on Saturdays. Where I ran through the sandbox barefoot; spun around dizzy on the merry-go-round; and licked ice cream cones bought from the freezer of the small store, not minding the dripping down my wrist. This park is where my own kids rode their first slides and I teared up to see their first shoots of independence. Where they made me chase them through obstacle courses of their design — up the fire engine, around the swings, to the monkey bars, until I begged for a break. Where my father coached my then-7-year-old niece’s basketball team and brought the team snacks. Where my sons played T-ball and baseball and basketball and flag football, and where Christopher and I now walk our dogs and see young families playing, masks on their faces.
As Maria and I approached the park gym four years ago, two little voices rang out from the sandbox, sweet and high in pitch, “Maria! Hi Maria!” She waved and called them by their names, a neighborhood celebrity greeting her fans.
We entered the gym, basketball rims and hoops pulled out of the way above the folding table where volunteers greeted us, the same elders who showed up every election, the one woman who always thinks I am my sister until I sign my name. In exchange for my signature, she handed me a ballot.
I led Maria to a table, chest-high, with a voting machine. Step by step, I explained every logistic, huddling together to make sure she could see. “You have to press the ink hard so it makes a complete mark,” I instructed, thinking still and forevermore of Florida 2000, of “hanging chads” and recounts.
As we left, we took a picture to mark the historic day. We talked about how she would be able to vote by the time of the next Presidential election, and she said, “I can’t wait.”
The line for naturalization has slowed; still she waits. But about a year ago she told me with pride that during a visit to her cousins she had successfully gotten one, a member of the National Guard, to register to vote. They weren’t sure how to begin, and she suggested they go to the post office. When they got there, unsure of what to do next, she coached him, “Laura says if you don’t know, just ask.” I don’t remember saying that; I think she told herself.
The things our parents teach us. How to roast a turkey. How to make a U-turn. How to think for yourself. How to vote. They teach us the importance of showing up and speaking up, and that our voice is powerful. And, as with that day four years ago when things did not go as I had wanted, they teach us how to grieve and get up again. How to stand up for yourself, and even more importantly, how to stand up for others.
Election day 2020 dawned today. I put up our American flag. I am not as ebullient as I was four years ago — we have been through too much for ebullience. But I am hopeful.
I have hope for our democracy, imperfect and rattled as it is. Maybe seeing where the cracks in our system are shows us what needs shoring up, like just enough of a rainstorm to reveal where our roof leaks, but not big enough to bring the whole thing down.
I have hope for our American family, too, caught up in this crisis. Like any family rift, there comes a time to make a choice: Dig into estrangement, refuse to engage, isolate in pain, write each other off. Or, dig in for the challenge of reconciliation. Resolve to repair. Speak our truth and truly listen. Disagree with compassion. Say, “I don’t see it that way” not “You’re evil.” See each other’s full humanity and flaws. Accept that we may never be in full alignment, but know we are still one family. One country.
(Caveat: I do not know what to do with the dangerous my-enemy-drinks-blood-of-children trope. Maybe lovingly disengage for one’s own mental health. Maybe double down on love?)
I have hope for our country, our democracy. We are scarred, but we are wiser for it. Today, as we make a choice for President, may we choose to heal.