I first remember hearing about Obama before my daughter was born. He’s the only president both she and her older brother have ever known. Their mother and I were in Chicago for a long weekend of Bradley Birth Training, staying over a few nights from our home in Madison where I was in grad school and she raised our boy and nurtured the one on the way. The training was at a hotel in Skokie and one day my son and I took first a bus then the train into Lincoln Park to visit the zoo. I carried his two-year old bulk in a framed carrier on my back and in an over the shoulder bag, the accoutrements of parenting: clean cloth diapers, diaper covers, wet wipes, towel, powder, assorted granola bars, water bottles, spare toys, and probably a few old reciepts and gum wrappers to boot.
As we rode the train into the city, winding our way between the brick canyons of refurbished apartments, we saw the campaign signs. Simple and clean: Senator Barack Obama. Some were paired with variations of what has become a hallmark phrase of Obama’s political life, “Yes We Can.” It was spring and the 2004 elections were still fairly fresh for the state. They appeared in so many windows facing the El. I didn’t even think to have my son count them, intent as we were on his first train ride.
We spent the day at Lincoln Park Zoo, walking in the fresh spring air, naming the animals we saw, and doing imitations of their noises. We marveled at the skyline and balked at the price of renting a swan boat. By mid-day, as my son’s energy flagged, we stopped at the food court before catching the train back to Skokie. A fellow spotted the various leftist pins and badges on the carrier and engaged us in conversation about a charismatic politician who he was sure would “be our next President.”
The way this guy talked about Obama was special. Obama was not just charismatic, but progressive. Like Madison’s favorite son, Bob LaFollette. He was smart, this guy also said, a constitutional lawyer. And he was no hypocrite: he was a community organizer. I vaguely recall thinking the pitch was that this Obama guy could right all that Bush and his wars had wrecked and then some. The guy we talked to was slightly younger than me, normally disaffected, but Obama was the first politician he had ever campaigned for. I noted the tenor of the conversation, but my son was fading rapidly into crankiness, so we headed for the train.
Fast forward a couple years. I had completed my doctorate and moved from Wisconsin to Iowa where I had a job as an assistant professor, luckily not the first person — as I was so afraid I would be — to wreck my PhD program’s 100% placement rate. Iowa politics caught my attention and what should pique my curiosity but a call put out by the Obama campaign to be one of ten select people to have a bar-be-que with the candidate himself. All I had to do was write a short blurb on what I thought he most needed to address and why. I did and a few days later, a staffer called my home. For my birthday that year, 2007, I ate a burger flipped by the next president of the United States, had lunch with him and others in a suburban Iowa home, and had him sign a copy of Dreams of My Father. I caucused for him and eagerly participated in the dialogue that makes for a more festive and dialogic Iowa Democratic caucus. I went door to door for Mr. Obama during the campaign, just as I went door to door for Nader in 2000.
For Election Day, we threw a party. That’s a bittersweet day since a friend and I drove 45 minutes to get Indian food for 20 people. That friend would later have an affair with my wife and that would result in our family splitting apart. So the early Obama years really did feel like the world was collapsing. In many ways, it was literally true. But that November night, with new friends and families all gathered around our tiny flat-screen TV, with small kids having particpated in their own mock election and with the youngest even staying up to watch the results come in, we cried and cheered and marked what we knew was an historic occasion. We could feel the cool air of Grant Park as Obama accepted the election results, one with the throngs of people filling the urban space with vibrant and expectant energy. The guy I talked to at Lincoln Park had to have been there.
My kids are up again as Obama bids farewell, outlining the dangers he sees ahead. They are more concerned now with girlfriends, classrooms, their own personal psychological dramas that give them anguish now but that will be the experiences that last a lifetime, imparting lessons on how to deal with others both amenable and difficult. I am to be remarried to a smart and beautiful woman with her own immigration issues, though she is from Australia, so that’s not as palpable as it is for many others. We are and I am more secure, both financially and emotionally. Partly because I have to be, partly because I learned to be, and partly because the past eight years allowed the kind of introspection in myself and availability to my kids I needed. Chalk that up to leaders or not, it’s true.
My son comes in as Barack, Michelle, Malea, Joe, and Jill wave from onstage.
“Is it over?” He asks.
I choke on the word, “Yes” so it comes out more raw emotion than any human language. Tears fill my eyes just as they did eight years ago only this time it hurts. Instead of assassination fears or homegrown terrorism, the fear is more concrete and perceptible. It’s not an unknown and faceless fear, but one slowly rolling in like a dark tide.
It is over.
And it is not. This “it” is but a chapter. We move on to the next. Like episodes of Star Wars or Harry Potter, we can take this as the ending of but one narrative arc. And who is to say it will be the narrative construed tomorrow or the next day? History will render the passage of time differently than we experience it. We haven’t lived the next part and so we cannot assume the ways it will affect our reading of the last.
And Obama said as much. So, farewell Mr. President and until the next chapter can be written, let me just say with all honest sincerity #ThanksObama. It was a very good burger.