Last week was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I was in the second grade when JFK was murdered in Dallas, and this past week I have allowed myself the melancholic introspection that comes with diving into the many specials, web streaming, and newspapers from the time, reliving the story as it were. With all of its impact, even 9/11 did not affect me as President Kennedy’s assassination did, and it was with more than a bit of trepidation that I allowed myself this privilege of listening and reading and watching. I wondered if a man of 57 living with ALS would experience the same raw effect as the boy of seven living with the idea of his whole life ahead of him. What I discovered is that not only did the strength of the story hold up, but its meaning was enhanced by the introspective lens 50 years of life experience can bring. What I discovered was that in the assassination was my first experience with dis ease, significant for me for it changed the way that I saw life ahead, and significant for our collective national identity as it began the downward slide of trust in the important institutions that have kept us centered since the great war. For the nation as a whole and for me as a seven year old child, the assassination instilled a fear that at any moment, all might be lost in tragedy and horror.
Pretty heady stuff for a second grader, don’t you think?
I had never seen my father cry before Kennedy’s assassination. I had never held such insight as I watched my mother struggle so hard to hold things together with the sudden knowledge that she felt responsible to reassure me that things were going to be all right. There was no such struggle with my dad. He insisted we watch the funeral with his dad, my grandfather. We weren’t allowed to play outside on that day. No one was! On the day of the funeral, the sadness was like a blackout curtain long neglected with dust and tears hidden in drapery folds creased by time, suddenly floating in the air as the curtain was pulled closed to keep out the light and hold in the sorrow. I remember how we watched the marching soldiers, the flag bedecked caisson, and the elegantly dignified, unbelievably poised widow as this great national liturgy played out. No one could possibly predict on that November day how this story, this unbelievable narrative would affect the national psyche in the long-term. In Richmond, Indiana, where I was living at the time, it rained a freezing rain on November 22, 1963, but the day of the funeral was crisp and cold, with a weak sun shining on the naked tree limbs so freshly lost of their leaves, standing bereft in solemn witness to our shock, our horror, our grief, our out of body sadness. We watched heads of state, the first family, their shock and horror and disbelief playing out like taps on a bugle. We watched the country move from the black and white starkness of the announcement that Kennedy was dead to full color, an American flag striped blood red covering the coffin and accompanied by muffled drums, the meaning further underscored by the first color TV that anyone in my family had ever owned. And the grief of my parents multiplied throughout the day of burial, spilling out into the room and lapping against the sands of our own childish sadness in warm waves of tears and anguish.
How can you not be changed by such a propagation of adult tears?
Today, pundits and opinion writers state that the assassination of JFK was the beginning of the divisiveness we now find in American politics. It is a thesis that plays well 50 years later, especially with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. But it is a thesis that requires answers when in reality no answer is adequate to the task. The assassination of JFK spawned a national angst from which we never recovered. It created a need for assurance, requisite surety from our politicians, our religious leaders, our captains of industry, our intellectuals, our artists. Yet even when they spoke the words, deep down inside we knew that such surety is impossible. When the national psyche, indeed the psyche of the world is so gracelessly torn, it raises the most basic, the most obvious, the most primal of questions – if the president of the United States could be killed by such a little man in such a public way, what does that mean to my own safety? And when personal safety becomes the primary focus, then humanity is left open to all kinds of manipulation — from secret wars that defy our moral bearing to susceptibility to the ringing rhetoric of a polished statesman. We became a people that denied the reality each one of us faces. We denied our dis ease, and in the denial came an every person for themselves isolation and loneliness.
The assassination parallels in so many ways the diagnosis of a mortal disease, choices proffered in black and white, morphing into blood red realities that are stark yet not easily discernible. Disease divides us from each other, tricking us into believing that our safety is no one else’s concern and that we are terribly alone. It leaves us susceptible to the need to hear only what we want, what we fear, to deny the reality that is, to seek individual cures and turn our backs on collective healing. Our national angst turned into national denial. It became our national disease, and the more we asked of our leaders, the more lies we heard, the more isolated we became, and the less we received.
The choices of dis ease became the loneliness of disease, and we were sore afraid.
One does not need pundits to argue that faith in government, religion, schools, universities, business, and a whole host of other institutions would never be as strong as it was in the days before November, 1963. We are not just divided, we are alone. Lonely people make desperate decisions requiring greater assurances, greater flights of fancy, greater denial of probability, greater lies that underscore the greatest lie of all—that we can go it alone. November, 1963 was a dis ease moment, a place where we could choose to embrace each other in the collective space of spontaneous humanity or embrace loneliness with the false promises that our national disease and hence our individual angst would be cured. In the days, months and years that followed, we chose to believe that we might be immortal, that this life could be so easily controlled as to remove all spontaneity, all chance, all the bad things, to eliminate any possibility that our princes and princesses would ever be gunned down so easily again.
Dis ease offers choices, disease offers lies.
The Kennedy assassination resonates in the timeless ether of five decades. It plays a polytonal string quartet in the keys of dis ease and disease. On the one hand, it tells us that life’s ease is fleeting but choices abound for us if we will turn to each other. On the other, it tells us that we are alone but somehow we can beat our fate. One key is a key of truth, and the other is a harmful falsehood. ALS, my teacher, requires me to unlearn the lonely lessons embraced fifty years ago, and to sing in a key of beautiful, human, messy, vulnerable space where each of us is afraid and no one knows any fear.
It is a place where mothers and fathers cry in front of their children, and their tears heal the hurt.