Opinion » Bill Cope


Ted Kennedy and the year of living less


Because of Sen. Ted Kennedy's passing, I interrupt a two-part series on common characteristics of fascism. Next week is plenty early enough to return to the evil that men do. Today, I'd rather direct my attentions to the good.

I have a new theory. I didn't come up with it until recently. Just a week ago, as a matter of fact. Last Wednesday, as a matter of fact, when I woke up and heard that Ted Kennedy was no longer among us. My new theory is this: We don't die all at once. We die in pieces. In fragments. When we lose a figure like Kennedy, a piece of us goes with him. It's like small rocks breaking off from tall escarpments, pebble after pebble, until there is no escarpment left. Our deaths spread out over years. Years and years, in Teddy's case, no doubt going back to when he was only 12. Back to when he learned his big brother would never come home from a war. We die an incremental bit whenever someone else, someone who has added to our own lives--someone who has nurtured our lives with the vital fluids of music or literature or wisdom or caring and promise and love--dies and leaves us only the dry husk of their memory. It doesn't matter how large or small that contribution is. It could be something as small as Karl Malden's neighborhood priest in On the Waterfront. Even as small as his American Express ad. "Don't leave home without it." It could be as small as watching Ed McMahon bring in Johnny Carson for 30 years. "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" As small as the hopeless lust we young guys felt for glossy Farrah Fawcett back when you couldn't swing a chicken without hitting that poster of hers.

Those incremental death fragments are more noticeable of course when it's a weightier piece of our lives that slips away. A more significant part of the mosaic we all spend a lifetime piecing together whether we mean to or not. The scrapbook that we spend a lifetime pasting together from all those separate--seemingly separate--icons and images and reference points and bright, unforgettable moments and dark, unforgettable moments. Like when Walter Cronkite took off his glasses that day 46 years ago and told Americans what Americans already knew by virtue of him having to take off his glasses before he could speak it. Before he could tell us our young president was dead. That Ted's second-oldest brother would never again come home. If everything else about Cronkite were forgotten--even if he weren't the man who let us know the moment when Man first walked the moon, or even if he weren't the man so trusted that when his trust was lost, so went a war--then still, that image of Walter with his glasses off would last until the last remnants of three generations fade away.

Or Michael Jackson. Whether we want it or not, we couldn't help but have Michael in our composite, from bouncy little boy to small, frail and flawed man. Such an enormous part of our collective experience could not help but leave behind a dried husk of no small significance. He may not seem embedded into your mosaic, but he was (whether you want him there or not) if for no other reason than the decades you spent either loving him or scorning him.

Early in the year, John Updike died and a scrap of me went with him. Updike might not have been part of your life, but that only means your loss was greater than mine. Updike read America like a book, then wrote book after book about what he learned, 60 books in all. Everyone who considers their country's literature and poetry, music and art, to be the truest chronicle of that country's heart lost a piece of themselves when Updike went. I had almost forgotten this was the year he'd died. Then with Teddy's death, I started counting up all the others. And that's when my theory was born, when I realized how many yellowed pieces had dropped from my scrapbook. How much of me was already gone.

Newer theory: It just came to me. Our lives are not scrapbooks from which clippings drop or mosaics from which tiles slip away or escarpments from which rocks tumble and are lost. Our lives are like those fragile contraptions of stick and string, feathers and beads: dreamcatchers. We spend our days accumulating bright stones and dark twigs, lacing them all together in a web of family and friends and familiar faces with which we grow so comfortable. We choose not who gets woven into our contraptions. Time, place and circumstance chooses for us. Ed McMahon, Farrah, Karl and Michael, they were all tied into mine, in small ways and large. Eunice Shriver, big sister of Ted ... she was in my web as she was in yours, and when her threads frayed three weeks ago and she fell away, I died a piece more from the absence she left behind. In some small, incremental way, I felt it. As did you if your years here correspond with mine.

This year (if indeed your years here correspond with mine) we have lost more familiar faces, comfortable faces, than in any single other year I can recall. Don Hewitt and Paul Harvey. Roberts McNamara and Novak. Merce Cunningham, David Carradine, Dom Deluise, Les Paul and Andrew Wyeth. And it's only September.

Yet it's hard to imagine that the remaining months could bring an absence that will leave any bigger, more ragged and gaping an absence than Teddy's. For nearly as far back as I can remember, there has been at least one Kennedy laced tightly and unforgettably into my webbing, and when those two brothers were murdered, the only reasonable response was despair. How on God's green Earth could such bright and shining men be snatched away so cruelly? So pointlessly. There is part of me that still demands to know. There will always be part of me that still despairs. I will close in on my own final breath still wondering what might have been.

Teddy had to have wondered. He must have spent from 1944 on--then from 1963 on, then from 1968 on--wondering what roads he might have taken, what seas he might have sailed, with three vibrant, shining brothers at his side. Maybe this is how he wrestled his devils--his drinking--his womanizing--his private, cold and dark Chappaquiddick. Maybe this is how he redeemed himself so deeply, so completely, and in doing so, turned so many of his dreams into a reality as real to you and me and our children as it was to him. Maybe he didn't feel the absence of his shining brothers, but instead, their presence.

And maybe this is how he died so famously, so notably and without tragedy, having done the good work of four good men.