Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Traci O. Connor's Voice

Dear Mitt, 

I had three children—two boys, eleven and eight, and a daughter who’d just turned four—when I was met in the driveway by the county sheriff. They’d found my husband’s body in a car in the mountains of Utah, he said, asphyxiated by a propane grill my husband had bought earlier that morning, filled with gas, and then opened—intentionally—in the back seat.

You probably would’ve felt a kinship with my husband, Mitt. He was tall and handsome, clean and healthy, just like you. He served a Mormon mission, too. To Fiji. He almost spoke French—that would’ve been something, huh?—but he loved spending his free days playing soccer with the village kids or helping the neighbor farmer to cut through his jungle with a machete, so it made sense that he would learn Fijian instead. 

My husband, he was smart. He graduated college with a 4.0 GPA in engineering, no kidding. And debt-free, to boot. His first year out, he landed a well-paying job at an important software company. At first he beta-tested, looking line by line for mistakes in huge piles of coded papers he’d bring home. Soon, he was proposing ideas, leading teams. Then he was writing patents and traveling to Italy. Once, just for a fun weekend project, he bought a thousand abandoned office phones, reprogrammed them with Linux, and then re-sold them to other offices at a really nice profit.

My husband was creative like that. And talented. And, wow, he worked hard, even though I’m sure he would’ve rather been surfing off Tavarua Island or biking hard and fast down a single-track lined with Aspens. My husband was a good father, a responsible man. He provided for his family.

We married young in the Mormon temple—just like you—and had three children pretty quickly, as most young Mormon couples do. We built a house in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, a house with a brand-new upright piano and slate floors my husband laid himself. I dressed the boys in khaki pants and white shirts for church every Sunday, my daughter in velvet jumpers and hair bows that matched. We ate home-cooked meals and read bedtime stories about two left feet—

Steak and baked yams, that’s what my husband liked to cook. He was so careful, scattering sea-salt and olive oil, tending to the grill.  That’s still my kids’ favorite meal, though we don’t eat it that often anymore, except sometimes on birthdays.

We were living the American Dream, I guess. A traditional, hard-working, fun-loving family. Our kids were smart, our cars were almost new, we trick-or-treated in elaborate costumes all of a theme: Blue’s Clues, for example. My husband was the crayon.

From the outside, we were picture perfect, a snapshot of happiness.

It wasn’t fair at all, the mental illness that my husband suffered with. It wasn’t his fault, the awful birthright of his DNA. “Shell-shocked,” was the term they used for my husband’s grandfather because doctors couldn’t explain, then, his misshapen collection of whispering voices and black thoughts—the unreasonable algebra of his mind that left him unable to care for his children. My husband’s grandfather spent whole days eating tuna from a can and swinging wildly around and around the kitchen on a rope he’d hung from the ceiling.

It scared my husband, terrified him. He saw his own future, saw himself at the end of that rope and he couldn’t bear it. He loved his kids too much to ever imagine being unable to love them.

This is how my children and I became a part of that 47% of our country’s citizens you scorn, Mitt Romney. This is when my life and everything I had understood about who I was and how I was supposed to be and think and act turned topsy-turvy and inside out. Suddenly, there I was: a single mother. A situation I’d never imagined and certainly never planned for. It was just me. Me alone to care for three children, a piano, a Honda Accord and a mortgage. Sitting in the Social Security office eleven days after my husband’s death, I felt—I admit—shame and disappointment; I felt overwhelmed, a strangeness in my belly. Mostly I felt shocked, numb. Honestly, I’d never thought twice about Social Security; it was just a line on the paycheck, a necessary tax. I’d never imagined, not once, that any of us would collect it so soon.

Now, I am so grateful…I can’t even begin to explain the extraordinarily deep and abiding gratitude I feel. I am grateful for a husband who loved his family and worked so hard. I am grateful for the money he paid to our government every month. I’m grateful for a government that takes care of its own, a country that testifies to the world: give me your tired, your poor... 

It’s true, the social security checks my children collect are an entitlement—yes—but they paid dearly for them, and I know they would rather their father was still paying taxes. They’ll wish that for the rest of their lives. But the thing is, my children will pay it back as they grow to be healthy, educated, creative, productive citizens, not so different from my husband—not so different from you. The taxes they’ll pay, eventually, will help take care of someone else, another American who needs a hand.

Certainly, I am personally thankful for every American who pays taxes, has paid taxes, and who will pay taxes. But I’m thankful for those who don’t, too. I don’t pretend to understand what it means to be truly poor, to be incapacitated by disability or illness or any combination of circumstances that makes living harder than it should be. But a lot of folks do. And I try to see them. I try to care. Mostly, I’ve learned that it’s best for me not to judge another’s character without truly understanding their circumstance, their heart, or how their life might be very different from mine.  I believe, as does novelist Ian McEwan, that  “imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

I want a president with this kind of imagination, someone who tries to know and understand every American, not just the ones most like him, not just those few—hardworking or lucky or both—who have membership in an increasingly exclusive club. We need a leader who respects people, regardless of their economic status, regardless of their employment. Regardless. In the United States of America, Mitt, every person’s supposed to matter. Just like every vote. 

Traci O. Connor

Traci O. Connor is the author of the short story collection, Recipes for Endangered Species (Tarpaulin Sky Press). She lives in Athens, OH where she is currently:  coaching the middle-school volleyball team, writing a couple of novels, attempting a cross-genre project about her Mormon childhood, and gutting a house. She lives with her spouse—the writer Jackson Connor—their four children, a labradoodle,  and a “cat.” CLICK HERE for more on Traci.