After a week of emotional conversations about vaccines, wealth disparity, and the future of education governance in Vermont, a colleague tearfully spoke on the senate floor. He said he’d been verbally attacked by strangers for supporting the vaccination philosophical exemption. Later that day, a friend of mine who works in the statehouse told me of a pregnant colleague of hers who had been cornered in a bathroom and accused by a complete stranger of poisoning her child in utero by having received a flu shot.
Politics demands an armadillo’s armor.
In the midst of all the drama, I learned that my neighbor in Brattleboro had died after a hard-fought battle with cancer. In quiet moments I could admit that he probably wasn’t going to be able to fight it off, but mostly I wanted to believe he’d beat it, because he was a workhorse, because he was burly, and because he had so many things he wanted to live for.
His death means a political touchstone of mine is gone. During my first term in the Senate, I have often thought of him and what he’d think about whatever topic we debated.
My neighbor was born and raised in Brattleboro, and he’d seen this town and county through so many changes. He would often come over to chat when I was stacking wood or doing yardwork. At times laconic, he had a wry sense of humor, and it was sometimes hard to tell when he was pulling my leg; he could hold a poker face for so long.
We often discussed history, something we both adored. He shared stories about the neighborhood “back in the day”. He appreciated classic cars, restored old British motorcycles, and was fanatical about the Beatles. Despite our different political views, he still strode over to chat and crack a joke. He made an effort to connect, and as the new neighbor, I appreciated the overtures.
During the contentious debate over whether to change current Vermont gun laws, I kept him in my mind and heart as I discussed this issue with colleagues and constituents. After years of conversations in my driveway and across my fence, I had a pretty good sense of how he’d feel about any changes to our gun laws. My understanding of who he was and how he felt as a fiercely proud lifelong Vermonter provided me critical insight into the issue. Any approach to this topic needed compassion and context in the conversation.
The week after the gun vote in the Senate, I worried that we might have a tense exchange under my maple tree. Instead, he chose to talk about what plumber I’d recently hired and whether he thought that had been a good choice or not.
We were—outwardly—unlikely conversationalists. We had strong opinions and often opposing views, but relationships and loyalty were extremely important to both of us. History and personal ties ordered our worlds, providing perspective and connection.
In the statehouse, there is an area of the cafeteria known as the “Republican” section. As I gazed over my colleagues in that corner last Friday, I remembered when I first told my neighbor I was running for office. He said, “No offense. But I won’t vote for you. I am a lifelong Republican.” This was not news to me, nor did I take offense. He didn’t need to vote for me, he’d already shown his respect for me in dozens of other smaller gestures.
When his condition worsened, he told his family and the staff at Dartmouth-Hitchcock: “Tell me when it’s time to go. I sure as hell don’t want to die in New Hampshire.” Agreed.