When I was 13 years old, my mother lost a lifelong battle with depression, committing suicide in the bathtub of my childhood home in Southern California. She left behind my younger brother and me. I am telling you this because of how similarly I felt during the time of my mother’s death and the time of Donald Trump’s election to president of the United States. Both can only be described as the results of extreme mourning and heartbreak.
When someone you love dies suddenly, immediate and unprecedented shock washes over you. I think the surprise and shock of Trump’s victory is what caused such an intense reaction in so many of us. The consequences of his victory will come and will surely be devastating, but what initially has so filled us all with this sense of loss and heartbreak is the fact that we didn’t believe it was possible. I spent my previous semester abroad in New Zealand and was frequently asked how I thought the election would turn out. I would often roll my eyes and remark that there was no way in hell Donald Trump would become our president.
I learned of my mother’s suicide late at night; it was a school night. I cried myself to sleep, of course, and the thoughts that raced through my head contained all of the events and life experiences I had yet to embark on that my mother would not be there to see: my high school and college graduations, my first boyfriend, prom. It’s funny how arbitrary many of these events now seem, but when you’re a 13-year-old girl like I was, those events were my world. I had these same thoughts as I cried myself to sleep on the night of the election. I thought about Trump being president when I graduate from this university next spring. I thought about Trump being president when I begin my career, when I continue to develop as my 20s mature. I thought about these things as my boyfriend, a straight white male who will likely feel little (if any) repercussions from Trump’s presidency, fell into peaceful sleep beside me. My boyfriend who — eight years ago — I cried about my mother never getting to meet.
Other thoughts included the possibility that the awful thing had not actually happened, that it was a mistake. I never saw my mother’s dead body, so how did I actually know she was dead? I had a lot of dreams about my mom after her suicide. One of them was her returning to me and telling me that my dad had only found her finger in the bathtub, that it was all an elaborate scheme to get me away from her. I often did not like who my mother was in these dreams. When Donald Trump was announced president, I hoped beyond anything that the election was rigged, that Trump’s cronies had paid people off to count the votes improperly. A revelation of a presidential candidate’s personal demons would be a greater relief than the personal demons of millions of Americans.
The day after my mom died, I acted as though nothing had happened. I chose to go to school while my brother stayed home. I pulled my best friend aside and told her what had happened but also made her swear not to share the news with anyone else. My aunt picked me up from school that day and asked how it went. I remember telling her that it had been good because I got to forget about my mom for a little bit. I remember her scolding me that I couldn’t forget what had happened, telling me instead that I needed to face the reality of the situation. This made me cry.
The day after the election, I did the same. I went to my classes, I took notes, I got lunch with an old friend, I celebrated my roommate’s birthday. Of course, the election results came up everywhere, and you couldn’t pretend something didn’t happen when the entire country knows it did.
I accepted my mother’s decision to end her own life relatively quickly. I had seen her struggle with depression and alcoholism for years and had been negatively affected by it in a number of ways. I did not (and do not) love her any less for the things she did in life, nor for her final decision to leave it. I used to be afraid of the relief I felt in my dreams about her. I felt guilty, like I was happy she had chosen to kill herself. But, now, I think my relief stemmed from knowing she was no longer suffering. Living life is hard to do. We cannot control the actions of others, only find ways to accept them and continue the struggle ourselves.
In John Barth’s “Night Sea Journey,” the narrator is constantly swimming onward for the sheer purpose of not drowning, never really knowing where he is, trying to end his journey but also blindly hoping for some kind of final destination. He witnesses fellow swimmers give up at various points throughout the journey, unable to continue to fight through their exhaustion. He watches them give in to the promise of something better than life as they know it. Why we press on is something of a mystery that most people would likely admit they have no justifiable answer to. We hope for something, we don’t know what, and I think a lot of us know that we won’t ever live to see this unidentified hope be realized.
When I think back on history, on the deaths of people such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, people who, agree with them or not, represented this kind of hope, I realize that Trump’s presidency is just another speck in a collage of bad things that have happened and will continue to happen as long as we exist on this earth. And we can, and should, mourn the loss of the hope that his victory represents. But, at some point, our lives will go on for better or worse, and this struggle to live will prevail. And, somehow, we will be stronger for the things we will see and the challenges we will inevitably face in the wake of this man’s presidential term. No matter what, time will pass and the night sea journey that is life will continue, and we will be right there with it.
Contact Summer Langton at [email protected]