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And That’s The Way It Is

July 21, 2009

The world since Cronkite’s last broadcast on the CBS Evening News March 6, 1981 has changed radically. Memories about those days are sometimes exhilarating, sometimes heartbreaking.


On Saturday night, my cousin’s 24-year-old son was married. His family and friends weathered the weird winds and cool July weather at Eagle Eye Golf Course to hear Sean and Jamie recite their vows. Many of us danced for hours inside, celebrating marriage, one of the best passages of life, while I wondered if the afterlife spirit of Sean’s Uncle Mike partying with his family was just another crazy fantasy.

The next night, Judy and I attended Shiva for a friend’s mother a few hours before another cousin held Shiva for his mom in California. I remembered the words of my aunt Selma when she called me after finishing my book, Outlive Me, and could imagine her voice cracking when she said how touched she was by my words. As I mourned with my friends and for my aunt Selma, I drifted onto the words that surrounded the Mourner’s Kaddish: “All things pass. Everything that lives must die.”

As my friends and cousins get older, many of them are taking on the sad, new role of orphans. Meanwhile, those we grew up with continue to disappear. Johnny Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon, who kept us company for many decades on the Tonight Show, died a few weeks ago. And the news anchorman who kept us calm and sane as the world drifted into tragedy left his mortal life a few nights ago.

40 years ago today, Walter Cronkite stayed on television for 18 hours during the first flight to the moon. After his first seven tumultuous years as the news anchor, he had been the nation’s most popular broadcaster for both Kennedy assassinations, two elections, and the Vietnam War, helping us weather the ravages to our nation with a calm, steady voice. But he was giddy as a schoolboy when Neil Armstrong took his first “one giant leap for mankind” step on the moon and after being nearly speechless, Walter said, “Man on the moon. Oh boy!”

            Cronkite was the same age then as I am now but didn’t make it to the 40th anniversary of that moment. He lived a long life but died at 92, just a few days before the momentous memorial of the lunar landing. Unlike the evident pain he displayed when removing his horn-rimmed glasses to tell us that “President Kennedy died at 1 P.M. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago” on November 22, 1963, Americans on July 20, 1969 could feel his joy and wonder at our conquest of space. We could share his thrill at the wondrous possibilities of mankind.

            A simple newsman, “Uncle Walt” influenced his country in good times and bad. Sports columnist Drew Sharp admitted, “I immersed myself in the Apollo space program because Cronkite called it man’s greatest adventure. And when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon 40 years ago Monday, the ‘anchor desk’ was set up in our living room for my broadcast into a tape recorder.” (“Cronkite gave sports writer a new dream,” Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press, July 19, 2009)

            Cronkite ended his CBS broadcasts from 1962 through 1981 the same way every evening. When his steady voice boldly said, “And that’s the way it is,” no one could deny it. Unlike the supposed “reality TV” of today, Cronkite’s news reports were true reality TV. Kennedy’s funeral procession, the Kent State killings, the revelations of Watergate, and the daily death tolls of the Vietnam War were our reality, mostly unfiltered by the types of 24-hour-news talking heads that pollute our minds today.

            The world since Cronkite’s last broadcast on the CBS Evening News March 6, 1981 has changed radically. Memories about those days are sometimes exhilarating, sometimes heartbreaking. 40 years ago, I watched the landing on the moon with my parents and my sister as my little brother, Kenny, crawled on the family room carpet, less than seven months old. 13 years later, on the exact same day as the landing, I received a call from a policeman to come to Botsford Hospital. I rushed out the door of my apartment as if I were in my own personal rocket, flying in my car like I was going to a planet I never wanted to visit. I felt like I was drifting without gravity when my mother and I heard from the doctor just after midnight that my dad was okay but my brother, Kenny, had died.

            The day of July 20, 1982 became my family’s Kennedy assassination, our 9/11, our Katrina. When a child, a son or brother, is snuffed out from existence, suddenly, without warning, there are no words to capture the horror. There are no words to make it better or to take away the pain. That’s just the way it is.

            Today, on the 27th anniversary of the car accident that changed my life, a five-year-old is facing the devastating effects of the cancer that is ravaging his little body. Diana wrote in an email to her family and friends that Noah is in extreme agony and on constant pain killers. His legions are larger and brighter and traveling, there are new spots on his skull, collarbone, and scapula, left leg, and pelvic bone, and there are cancer cells back in his bone marrow. His doctor wants to focus on pain management now and advises the family from California and Arizona to visit him now.

            Noah, on two doses of morphine, woke up today as “happy as can be,” “playing with his Transformers and giving the hospital staff a hard time.” But morphine cannot take away the inevitable reality. Diana wrote, “It has been extremely difficult to know that after two and a half years the inevitable is staring me square in the face—I can’t do anything to save my son. To make it worse, I have to watch the pain in him and watch the changes in him. To make it even WORSE, it’s happening faster than any of us could imagine. A month ago, he was considered stable. Now, the cancer growth is out of control.”

            Walter Cronkite lived a long, meaningful life, 40 years beyond the age I am today. But Kenny was robbed after 13 ½ years by a young girl in a car passing through a blinking red light and Noah probably won’t make it till the end of the year because of a rare cancer that is overwhelming his little body.

Yes, all things pass. Everything that lives must die. But no matter how much I want to believe that there are reasons for everything, I can’t.

And that’s the way it is.  



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