Politics & Policy

Yes, 2016 Was Awful — but Not Because of the Election

(Dreamstime image: Natalia Belotelova)
Sometimes we treat national political campaigns as all-important, but for many people the pain of 2016 had nothing to do with politics.

‘Mom, Luigi died.”

Those crushing words came from my daughter Victoria. Her friend Luigi died on May 28 of cancer. He was 16.

A big, quiet kid, Luigi was a kind soul liked by everyone. He was diagnosed his freshman year at Carl Sandburg High School in my Chicago suburb, so he missed most of those first two years fighting the disease. He missed dances and parties and football games. He never got his driver’s license.

He had called Victoria and asked her to come see him, saying that he didn’t have much more time. I still remember listening to his message and thinking that a teenager should never have to leave a voicemail like that. She was planning to see him on Monday, but he died two days earlier.

Luigi’s funeral was heartbreaking, in part because so few of his classmates were there — not because they hadn’t cared, but because Luigi had been out of sight for so long. His brother and sister spoke of their loss. His parents, immigrants from the Philippines, were devastated.

It was a tragic start to the summer. What I could not know was that before the month was over, two more boys from families we knew would be gone. And for many people I know, this loss — not the campaign or the election results or anything to do with politics — is why 2016 was awful.

On June 13, Jake died of leukemia. He was 17. Jake was the only child of the director of the Illinois State Police and his wife, a former Chicago cop. He had been diagnosed midway through his junior year at Brother Rice High School in Chicago, where his classmates had elected him student-council president. He was a straight-A honor student and wanted to study engineering or medicine in college.

My husband attended Jake’s funeral on June 17. He called me after the Mass to tell me how brave it was for Jake’s mom to deliver the eulogy in memory of her only child. It is every mother’s worst nightmare.

A few hours later, that very same day, I received a text from my daughter: “The cops shut down our street. They were just here asking if we saw anything happen.” I wasn’t at home so I immediately texted my friend who lives down the street, asking her if everything was okay. She texted back: “No.”

When I finally reached her, she told me what had happened. David, a 17 year-old boy who lived several houses down from us, had been hit by a car while mowing his front lawn. In a terrible freak accident, the driver of the car, an elderly man who lives in the neighborhood, drove up on David’s front lawn and struck him. He was pronounced dead a few hours later. It was the Friday before Father’s Day.

Our suburb was devastated. David was a straight-A honors student who wanted to go to Stanford to study medicine, like his father. He was a friend to everyone, a popular kid at a big public high school who also volunteered tutoring other teens. He was the incoming captain of Sandburg’s hockey team. As Victoria told me, “Mom, of all the smack kids say about other kids at my school, I have never heard anyone say anything bad about David.”

His classmates were overcome with shock and grief. They planned a sunset balloon launch in his honor and a memorial service at our local ice arena. We spent part of Father’s Day tying gold and blue ribbons — Sandburg’s school colors — on trees and mailboxes in our subdivision.

Sometimes it’s important to step back and realize that what matters most is what is going on in our families and in our communities.

A few weeks later, I saw David’s mom outside of their house, watering the dozens of flower arrangements from the funeral she had set out on their front steps for the neighbors to see. I hadn’t spoken with her since David died. We stood on her front lawn — just a few feet from where a cross and a candle marked the spot where she found David that sunny, summer afternoon — and cried for several minutes without speaking. There wasn’t much I could say that hadn’t already been said or would be of any comfort to her. The only thing I could manage: “Sometimes I think people like David are too good for this world.”

I know it’s easy to get wrapped up in the anger and bitterness of post-election America. The 2016 campaign and its aftermath have been painful for most people at some level, for those whose candidate lost and for those whose candidate won. Friendships have ended, relationships have frayed, and trust has eroded on both sides. Our national political conversation matters, and we should be deeply and even passionately concerned about the future of our country. But sometimes it’s important to step back and realize that what matters most is what is going on in our families and in our communities.

The loss of these three boys, people who would have been very good men — good husbands and fathers and citizens — matters more than any single electoral loss or win. Amidst the laments about how awful 2016 was, remember how those three heartbroken mothers, and others like them, looked around at family gatherings this Christmas for their child who was no longer there.

In time, hopefully, we will recover from whatever wounds the 2016 election left. We might begin, as we eagerly await the start of the New Year, by remembering not to treat political events as if they were personal tragedies. Ground is constantly won and lost in political battles, but some losses are irrevocable.

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