Opinion | The Loss of America’s — and My Family’s — Shared Reality

XENIA, OHIO — My 93-year-old mother was dying. It was the Saturday after the election, and the suburban Georgia votes were being tallied. My sister Cookie and I were sitting in Mom’s memory-care unit, the lights dimmed. About the only thing Cookie and I agreed on politically was not to discuss the orange elephant in the room.

As Mom gasped for breath, the woman who was her last new friend on the planet paced up and down the hallway outside, singing “Georgia on My Mind” in a deep tenor.

Mom had moved to the facility in 2018 against her will after a brief hospitalization. She had lost the right to drive her car in the same manner, after getting turned around repeatedly, trying to find a Kroger the next town over. When I mentioned that she wasn’t supposed to be driving anyway, she snapped, “Oh, the doctor didn’t mean the store.”

Her diagnosis was vascular dementia. She had fought it for five years before being forced out of her condo, clinging to independence through sheer force of will. She kept checking out novels from the library long after she couldn’t keep the characters straight. An astute reader, she had often complained about obtuse cartoons in The New Yorker; even though every Christmas, she gave me a subscription, passive-aggressively in my husband’s surname, which I’ve never used.

Our family’s primary breadwinner, Mom had soldered airplane lights for decades in the factory that dominated my Urbana, Ohio, hometown, before that work moved overseas. As a little girl, I used to point out her handiwork when a plane passed overhead.

In 2014, I dedicated my first book, “Factory Man,” to my “long-ago factory mom, Sarah Macy Slack, whose airplane lights I still imagine I can glimpse, up among the stars.” By the time I showed her the dedication, her mind was too muddied to understand it. She asked if it would appear in everyone’s copy of the book or just her own.

The youngest by far of her four kids, I was a midlife accident. My late appearance explained in part why I was the only one to go away to college, the only one able to cobble together a few scholarships and a whopping package of need-based federal financial aid in the early 1980s. I lucked into getting a bachelor’s degree during that brief window in our nation’s history when it was possible for a promising poor kid to get a degree; probable, even, that she might join the middle class. My factory mom not only edited all my papers, she drove me the two hours to campus in her rusted-out car.

My first day, outside the dorm, she choked up as we said goodbye but refused to cry, lest I change my mind. Weeks later, when I tearfully called her because I felt like an impostor compared to classmates who had doctors for dads and a seemingly unlimited supply of money for pizza and beer, she resisted inviting me back. Mom sensed, correctly, that education would profoundly improve my life.

It also distanced us. When I prepared to move to Savannah, Ga., for my first daily newspaper job, she joked, “I’ve thought about it; you can’t go.” Still, she squirreled away money to help me fly home for holidays; when I mourned the lack of autumn leaves in coastal Georgia, she mailed me Buckeye leaves to burn to recreate the smell.

My family has always been proud of me, but using my maiden name and living in a blue city in a blue state and having kids who identify as queer furthered the divide between us. As I made my third and final drive from Virginia to Ohio in Mom’s last days, my 26-year-old son asked me over the phone, “If Grandma knew I was gay, do you think she would mind?”

I sputtered, “Of course she wouldn’t.” But I had no idea. He loved that she’d once taught him to gamble with nickels and dimes playing a card game called “Oh Hell.” Still, Max hadn’t visited since he’d come out at 18, though they had been close.

From her bedside, I texted him a snapshot from her photo album; he was 4. The two were playing with a yard-sale Playmobil castle. Max wore a headband he’d fashioned from a ribbon, taking on the role of princess. Folded into a miniature chair, Mom beamed. She was his prince.

Four days before she died, Cookie and I made small talk next to Mom’s hospice bed. A houseplant arrangement I’d given her two years ago sat nearby on a windowsill, spindly and parched. My relationship with my sister was equally anemic.

Cookie and I hadn’t spoken much in the past 30 years. She was 13 years my senior, and our lives had diverged early; when she was just out of high school, she had a child. She spent the majority of her life less than 30 miles from where we were raised. Like Mom, I was an agnostic. Cookie had skipped my wedding so she could attend a revival at her rural, fundamentalist Christian church. We exchanged Christmas cards and occasionally played fiercely competitive games of Boggle online. I never noticed her expressing political opinions, but recently she’d taken to posting pro-Trump memes to Facebook.

I was closer to my brother, Tim, who used to visit annually to see our youngest in high school plays. But we, too, had grown apart since 2016. He’d missed the invitation to our son’s senior play after unfriending me on Facebook. “Because of all the liberal [expletive] you post,” he later explained. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was referring to. But that bewilderment was all a part of our lost shared reality.

During a visit to see my great-nephews last year in another small Ohio town, they suggested I drive them to a park that was easily within walking distance. “We don’t want to step on heroin needles, Aunt Beth.”

I have often wondered where I’d be now had I not gone to college and stayed in my hometown. Might I be unemployed? Would I have fallen into addiction, like those whom I’ve profiled in my books? Or might I even be angry enough about my crumbling community to vote for a man like Donald Trump? My mother’s strength in letting me go closed me off to knowing.

In Mom’s final days, my oldest sister, Terry, regaled us with a recent finding in Mom’s room, concerning this new friend she’d made at the facility, Yvonne. A shy person, Mom had never been big on making friends, but one of the best things about her dementia was that she forgot that, too. When I asked an aide what Mom and Yvonne talked about, she said, “escaping.” The staff called them Thelma and Louise.

Terry had found a red tote bag stuffed with a track suit and graduation photos of Yvonne’s kids and grandkids. In Mom’s getaway bag, she found rumpled Kleenex, a pack of Fig Newtons, empty Hershey’s Kiss wrappers and a bra.

In March, Covid restrictions forbade in-room contact. By summer, my husband and I were only permitted to visit through a facility window. I wasn’t sure whether she recognized me. When I told her I missed her, she said unequivocally, “I miss me, too.”

We were forbidden to touch, or to visit in the same room until she was “actively dying.” After a probable stroke the day after the election, hospice nurses started attending to her, administering Ativan and morphine. We were allowed in to see her after a temperature check, wearing full person protection equipment.

That Saturday, I was chatting with Cookie when the hospice nurse’s phone pinged. “News alert. They’re calling it for Bid-den,” the nurse said. Sitting in a rural red county in a red state, it was unclear whether she’d intentionally mispronounced the president-elect’s name.

“No,” my sister said defiantly. “You wait, it’s fraudulent. He won’t win.”

In that moment, next to the wilted philodendron, I considered responding. In her right mind and body, Mom would have — she could never tolerate Trump. But I held my tongue. After a while, Cookie and I suddenly began to talk to each other; she told me about her family’s health and employment issues. That softened something. Soon she told me she had switched from Boggle to Scrabble, and challenged me to a match.

At Mom’s Covid-safe graveside service, tears came when the bagpiper blared “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace.” They came again when Joy, my first friend from kindergarten, a Black lay minister, led our masked-up family in prayer. And they returned when we all huddled under the funeral home tent and recited Mom’s favorite bawdy Irish beer toast.

Back home in our bubbles, Cookie and I now go at it every night on our devices, texting playful jabs after cutthroat triple-word moves. We trade old photos and food-splattered recipes written in Mom’s confident hand. One of my nieces and I are planning a post-pandemic trip to Ireland, where Mom always wanted to go.

My siblings and I are a lot like the country: Uncompromising and unevenly scarred, we are equal parts resentment and love. I don’t know how to move forward, but for now I’ll cling to the little things that bind us.

We are all the handiwork of our feisty mother, our woes as interconnected as our DNA.

Beth Macy is a Roanoke, Va., journalist and the author of “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America” and a writer on a forthcoming Hulu series of the same name.

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