There is losing. And there is loss. In November, in the space of a few days, I learned that harsh life lesson.
I lost my bid as U.S. Senate Democratic nominee from Maine on Nov. 6. One of my biggest supporters, a woman named Carol, died on Nov. 17.
Carol was the most unlikely of role models. I met her as a child when my parents were divorcing. Carol wasn’t my mother; I have a mother whom I love dearly. But Carol became my second mom, marrying my father when I was nine years old.
In her heart, Carol knew the journey she was about to take with my father and my siblings could cast her in the hurtful role of outsider, aggressor, divider in our family.
So she became the polar opposite. Instead of my family being ripped apart by divorce, a trauma that so many children and parents experience, Carol became a valued addition.
When I was younger I thought our family wasn’t ordinary because of the divorce. Later, I understood that family isn’t always neatly defined. Its possibilities are limitless. And because of Carol’s presence, my life became richer.
Carol was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and faithful conservative; so was my father. And I was always the left-leaning Democrat of the family.
I entered politics shortly after George W. Bush was re-elected, running for town council as a way to cope with my disappointment. One day, Carol wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, extolling my “peacemaker” role in the family. It was a part I didn’t realize I even played until she pointed it out.
I lost my first election by six votes. The next several races I won. My career in politics progressed: town councilor, state representative, state senator, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. All along, Carol was there. All along, we held opposite worldviews.
Again, Carol, this most unlikely role model, inspired my love of politics. Through her values and actions, Carol taught me that politics is personal, but not hurtful. People carry beliefs with passion because they care deeply for their communities and their nation. We are all members of a larger, diverse family that doesn’t always agree.
Carol never held back her political viewpoints. Nor did I. The disagreements made us closer as we sought lovingly to understand each other. Carol ardently followed all my campaigns, giving me suggestions and advice. This year, when I ran for U.S. Senate, Carol studied all my debates and sent follow-up emails with comments.
“We liked the answer you gave about old white rich men,” one email read.
Another: “I have a suggestion for you. There is an old saying, ‘It is not what you say, but how you say it.’ Sometimes you sounded sarcastic. Other than that you were good.”
Yet another: “I know you must be beside yourself with these outside donations, but Cynthia, this is politics, just like lobbying is. If you want to be in politics you will witness this going on everyday. We are sorry you are in this as a profession, it is a dirty one. Hope you don't get caught up in it.”
On Nov. 5, the day before my biggest election and one that I would surely lose, Carol emailed: “GOOD LUCK TOMORROW! Dad and Carol.”
Carol, 75, learned to use Twitter just to track the campaign Tweets; I was her only “follow.” After I wished my chief opponent, Angus King, good luck on Election Day, she tweeted me: “What a nice thing to do!”
On election night, Carol cried. She wanted Mitt Romney, the Republicans - and me - to win.
She wrote: “Sorry you couldn't do it. I guess it just was not your time. You ran a hard race.... Love, Dad and Carol”
Several days later, Carol died from a stroke.
Then I understood what loss really was. Some things that we fail at can be tried again; some choices can be made anew. Some damaged relationships can be repaired; some families torn apart can be restitched and enriched. Losing the election was tough, but Carol’s loss put that defeat into perspective.
I gave the eulogy at the service, noting her steadfast commitment to our family and her honesty, loyalty, kindness, generosity and patriotism. The people in life who give you unconditional love can never be replaced. But you can always hold fast to their love and wisdom, their teachings and legacy.
Through Carol’s life, I learned that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. For there are too many improbable destinations for us to even imagine. I am still on my journey and, thanks to Carol’s inspiration and impact, she will always be there with me.
Not to the side, left or right, but to the center of one’s self, where love resides.