Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Then, There Were None


Jack, Bobby, Ted, Circa 1961 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

How America Works (as opposed to the Idea Of America) as presented in High School Civics classes doesn't admit to the power of money and influence in our society, or of political murder.

That version of America doesn't make allowance for a Joseph P. Kennedy, rising to prominence and wealth out of what had been, just a generation before, an openly derided and despised ethnic group -- the Irish, and Irish Catholics at that; how Joe partnered with Italian Mobsters to make a killing smuggling whiskey during Prohibition, and how that association would come back in the form of another killing forty years later.

The Civics Class vision of America doesn't include Joe Kennedy's drive and ambition, handed down to their sons like family silver or crystal of an earlier time. It won't mention the dark blend of connections -- from Chicago Ward and Texas Precinct politics; to JFK's sexual relations with a number of women; to the paranoid and self-serving, closeted universe of J. Edgar Hoover; to anti-Castro militias, and Mafia help in CIA attempts to assassinate Cuba's leader; to the Cold War and rich, right-wing anticommunists -- that dogged JFK's Presidency and ultimately led to his murder in broad daylight. And, Bobby's, less than five years later.

Edward Moore Kennedy -- 'Ted' -- was the last Brother left, and after his sister Eunice had died a week ago, the next-to-last of the children of Joe and Rose Kennedy. Only his sister, Jean-Ann, aged 81, is left.

The New York Times can eulogize him; the dregs of the nation's Right will drag up Chappaquiddick and dismiss him as nothing but a Liberal -- I expect Limbaugh will make it a point to revile and insult him, particularly in death -- but the truth is, through his long Senate tenure Ted was more a force for good than the Limbaughs and Becks and O'Reillys could ever hope to be.

And it was a long dying. He was diagnosed with a rather uncommon form of cerebral carcinoma -- a brain tumor, Glioblastoma Multiforme, which I know too well; two members of my immediate family died as a result of it.

Most people with that diagnosis, with all the money and medical care available, get La Chute -- six to eight months, at best. Ted got a little more than a year, and I know what that looked like: Even with the surgery, radiation and chemo, the slow loss of mobility, vision, speech, cognition, continence; dignity -- and how the family thinks He could get lucky; we still might beat the odds. And how even with all the hope, prayer and medical intervention, they watch the known and loved reduced, inch by inch, from wit and laughter and memory to incoherence and near-mute suffering; then longer and longer periods of sleep that dwindle into a coma. When it comes -- finally, and it seems as if it never will -- death is an almost tangible blessing.

I don't necessarily disbelieve in an existence after death, but I don't know that there is one, and neither does anyone else. Whenever anyone notable dies, one of my first thoughts is, Now They Know What We Do Not. I'm not invoking an image of that old song ("Abraham, Martin, and John") which always made me vaguely uncomfortable ... but it's at least a vision with good feelings behind it to wish that somewhere, The Brothers and Sisters -- Joe Jr., Kathleen; Rosemary, made whole again; Jack, Bobby, and Ted, along with Eunice and Patricia, are together.

I'm not much concerned with the politics and the history, today. I'm thinking about the man, and the family, because that's what loss is supposed to connect us with -- an empathetic, common humanity, that reminds us (as Thackeray put it) Good or Bad, Rogue or Fool, [We] Are All Equal, else there is no meaning in death.

Requesat Im Pacem, Ted.

UPDATE: Man, I hate being right about things like this.
Limbaugh said he was cracking up this morning on the mainstream media's coverage of Kennedy's passing and said that his listeners are frustrated over the "slobbering" media.

"No matter where you watch television today – even if you turn on FOX – you are going to get the syrupy - everything they say is going to be predictable: let's put aside our differences for today and respect the great work and achievements of Sen. Kennedy," Limbaugh said. " I am going to vomit and puke all over everyone with this analysis today."

Know what, Lard Boy? Let's see you present symptoms of Glioblastoma Multiforme -- and then let's see what happens.

UPDATE II: Another busy day in the Trenches for Obit writers: Dominick Dunne, writer for Vanity Fair and brother of novelist John Gregory Dunne (husband of novelist Joan Didion), also died today.