Standing at my desk wearing my 3-month-old son asleep on my chest in his BabyBjörn, I call my parents to ask if they voted for Donald Trump. It isn’t planned — neither my wearing my son nor making the call. Wearing him is one of the few ways to lull him to sleep at his age. And as for the call, I can’t wait another minute. I have to know. And if they did vote for Donald Trump, I have to ask why.
At Thanksgiving they came and went, but by some unspoken agreement we avoided the topic of the election altogether. As they left though, I felt sad that I hadn’t said anything. I worried that I had acquiesced to having an irreconcilable difference with my parents, that I was letting a part of my relationship with them go to ruin, like some closed, forgotten room in an old house.
It will help, I think to myself, having my son's sleep-heavy head poised just below my chin as I talk with them. It will help me keep calm and avoid raising my voice for fear of waking him. As the phone rings I decide I won’t talk except to ask questions. I won’t say I have felt sick, almost grief-stricken ever since the election. I won’t say it was a tragedy, an act of collective nihilism, to elect a leader so unpredictable, so full of lies, who bullies and systematically demeans entire groups of people. I choke it all down — not just for my son’s sake, but also for theirs. I have to understand them. After all, they are the reason this election felt so personal to me in the first place.
* * *
It all began a few years back when my mom, a woman in her late 50s, tried to learn to ride a Razor RipStik. (If you're not familiar with the Razor RipStik, it's a kind of skateboard with wheels that swivel so you can drive yourself along without touching the ground by using your back wheel as a propeller.) My mother fell off. She broke her arm and had to wear a cast.
It was at this point that I decided to have a serious conversation with my parents about health insurance. For 20 years or more they had gone without coverage. They were fortunate enough to have few health concerns, so the risk had become a matter of principle for them: Why buy something you don't want and hope you'll never use? They saw it as a stand against fear. Worse than a medical emergency would be to allow fear to control their lives.
This was during one of my first years in graduate school, and I lectured my parents using every argument my training could supply. I talked about statistics, policies, medicine, bureaucracy, attempting to wow them into submission with my expertise. But this fell on deaf ears. My parents, you see, are a pair of born challengers. They're rugged individualists who tend to make their own way in life, working where they want and living where they want (currently in an old elementary school building my dad bought).
When I look at them, I still see my parents, but I also see them haloed with a cloud of inconvenient data: They are nearly senior citizens, and they are at the cusp of entering the high-risk ages for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis (though they are not yet in range for Medicare coverage). In their minds, though, they're still the same people who went skydiving, parasailing, cross-country biking and canoeing when I was a kid. A few weeks back I mentioned to them that I'm thinking of running a half-marathon this summer. "Sign us up," they said.
The stakes became higher two Christmases ago. My wife and I drove in late from out of town to meet my family for dinner. When we showed up, half of my dad's face didn't seem to work. The right half smiled, frowned, talked like normal. But the left half drooped down motionless, as though it had become unhooked from its internal mechanism. On the same side as the slumped expression there was a big wad of cotton stuck over my dad's ear.
While we waited for a table, I stared at my father’s now-unfamiliar face as he explained rather nonchalantly that earlier in the year he had been diagnosed with an inner-ear infection. A specialist had recommended immediate surgery. Without insurance the surgery, he was told, would cost $150,000. So he would wait it out, he said. If he could wait long enough — at least a year or more — his infection would no longer be considered a pre-existing condition. Then he would get insurance and have the surgery. Meanwhile, he had completely lost his hearing in the affected ear. And the infection was spreading, leaching into the bone around his brain, paralyzing the nerves responsible for moving his facial muscles.
With a look of pained concern, my wife asked, "Can you hear out of the other ear OK?"
"Huh?" my dad said, the working half of his face twisting into a grin.
"The other ear. Does it work just fine?"
It took a few more repetitions for us to realize he was putting us on.
Obamacare was a godsend. At least for my apprehensive mind. My parents embraced it out of necessity only, having never supported the law or its namesake. But come Jan. 1, 2014, they signed up. And thanks to a key provision in the law, my dad could not be denied care due to his pre-existing condition. With insurance in place for the first time in decades, my parents hopped in their truck and drove from their home — they just call it “The School” — in North Dakota to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic. They had been told that, due to a cancellation, my dad could have his procedure done right away.
The surgery was more complicated than they thought. An incision in my dad's inner ear revealed that the tiny bones required for hearing — the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup, as you may remember from middle school — were gone, totally destroyed by infection. Using cartilage harvested from a cadaver, the surgeon carefully reconstructed the bones. The infected bone behind the ear had to be removed and more cartilage was used to insulate the area where brain was vulnerable, just as you might cover a hot wire with electrical tape. If he had delayed the surgery a few more weeks, the doctor told him, he would have been dead.
He made a full recovery, more or less. Both sides of his face work again. He gets a checkup every six months, and he is under strict orders to never allow any moisture to enter his left ear. I had hoped the surgery might slow him down, make him more cautious, more careful, more concerned about his health. But within a week he was working again.
When he arrived for Thanksgiving this year I was hardly surprised to see that his index finger was swollen and pink with a purplish gash across the knuckle. He said he had been using an angle grinder to cut steel bolts and accidentally cut through his glove and into his finger. It took away the flesh — “the meat,” I remember him calling it — nearly reaching the white tendon, which was visible deep inside the cut.
“What did the doctor say about it?” I asked him.
He didn’t go to the doctor, he explained. He scrubbed the debris and metal flakes out of the cut himself using a toothbrush and hydrogen peroxide.
* * *
When my parents pick up the phone, I sound like a cross between a pollster and a game-show host explaining the rules to new participants. I want to ask about their political opinions. I won’t be stating my opinion, only gathering information, I tell them. Do I have their consent?
I do, they say, a bit confused.
"So you both voted for Donald Trump, right?" I blurt out.
“Right,” they said. So that was out in the open.
As I begin to ask why, I’m surprised by what I hear. I brace myself to hear about fears — fear of poor race relations, fear of immigrants, fear of terrorism, fear of America's economic decline or any one of the whole range of fears that fueled Trump’s campaign. But I don’t hear about these things. They are positive, filled with hope about change, about Trump’s business acumen and his ability to make deals. They’ve never had much faith in career politicians anyway, having come of age during Watergate and having been let down by every president up to and including Obama, whose health care plan recently became so expensive that they dropped the coverage and decided to pay the penalty instead.
All this surprises me. But it shouldn’t; my parents are not fearful people. In fact, I realize that I’m the most concerned, not about the fears they express but the ones they don’t express. They have no fear of climate change, no fear of a resurgence of fascism, no fear of increasing income inequality, no fear of Trump becoming a role model for sexists and bigots everywhere. But above all, I’m distressed that they don’t share a more intimate fear of mine, the fear I feel for them, for what could happen to them in a world without Obamacare and the other safety nets they need whether they want them or not.
I manage to stay quiet about these fears, at least for now. I look down at my sleeping son and think about my parents caring for me when I was his size. I try to channel his ability to trust, to live in raw and uncontrolled vulnerability. I go on listening. I listen until they stop talking, and I let the silence sit, heavy but comfortable, as it always is among family, waiting in case there’s one last word or thought that they want to express.
As I hang up, a weight lifts and some dull but growing sense of joy creeps in. I understand them. And that, at least, is a gift. It is not fear, in the end, but understanding that brings us together. Common enemies can sort us — for brief times — into tribes. But that just belies the cracks that fear creates between people. Understanding binds us together in spite of the ways we hurt one another and hurt each other by hurting ourselves. I understand that I have RipStik-riding, angle-grinding, hospital-avoiding, Trump-supporting parents. Loving them will never lend itself to comfort or security. But statistics and analysis be damned, I accept the risk.