There is an empty chair at my family’s table. My mother will be gone 21 years in March. She died at the age of 56 after struggling to breathe with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for about five years and, in the last year or so, often felt like she was suffocating. We believe her COPD was the result of being a lifelong smoker and working in a factory where she was exposed to asbestos. These are the facts.
I often write about my personal life in my newspaper columns, and I do not do so willy nilly. If I tell you I met my birth father last February, that I sat with him at his kitchen table and had a fairly uncomfortable, hour and half conversation, it is because that is what happened. Likewise, if I tell you my mother died at age 56 from COPD and that, from that day forward, I often sat at her table and stared at her empty chair as her husband fried sausage for breakfast and wondered what it would feel like to sit in her chair (I never did), that is also what happened.
So let me tell you how completely enraged I was when I saw GOP gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft playing egregiously loose with the facts when she tried to defend her latest ad, in which she says, “All across Kentucky, an empty chair. A place missing at the table. Families suffering because fentanyl and other dangerous drugs have stolen our loved ones away. As a mother, this is personal to me, because I have experienced that empty chair at my table. This has to stop. We need leadership. And as your governor, I’ll back up our police and stop drugs at our border. So there’s no spot missing at the family table.”
If you tell me — if you tell anyone — there is an empty chair at your table, every human being on the planet knows what you mean. You mean someone important to you died. You mean that person is gone forever. You mean they are never coming back and that you will live with the emptiness of their absence for the rest of your life.
Craft’s campaign told Kentucky Health News that the person she is referring to is ““a close family member” who lived in her household, “battled addiction and went to rehab. By the grace of God, that family member was able to overcome the addiction and move on with their life, but we all know the struggle never ends for a family and remains ongoing.””
No, Ms. Craft. Just no. No matter how you spin it, this is not what it means to have an empty chair at your table, and you know it.
And yet, as appalling as it is to watch Craft’s ad in its entirety and to hear her and her campaign try to explain it, this was the line that really got me: “As a mother, this is personal to me, because I’ve experienced that empty chair at my table.”
As a mother, she said.
As a mother.
Every human being on the planet knows what this means, too. It means you have experienced the loss of your child, one of the most — if not THE most — devastating experiences a person can have. And I would argue that Craft, who is a mother, knows this, which makes her ad and her attempts at defending the ad all the more revolting.
The year after my mother died, my best friend’s son died. He was 16 years old. Two decades later, when she meets someone new and they ask her how many children she has, she still makes a split second decision. Should she say two (as two are living) so she can leave it at that? Or should she say three, the truth, which will likely require her to explain the death of her child to a stranger? But if she says two, if she leaves him out, she will spend the rest of the evening feeling guilty. And so on and so on …
My friend is a mother with an empty chair.
Craft is a politician who made a mistake with her ad and refuses to admit the mistake. Like too many Republican politicians following the example of the former president, she and her team have decided that doubling down on the mistake — and this one turns the stomach — will make the controversy go away.
Shame on you, Ms. Craft.
Shame. On. You.