Death and Reshaping Legacy

Last night at around midnight (Central Time), I learned on Twitter that Sen. Ted Kennedy had died. It was one of those things that was rather disheartening to see but not that unexpected. His health had been failing for a little while now. On top of that, seeing all the hullabaloo about the polarizing health care debate can't exactly give a champion of health care the additional will to live.

After that initial half-shock came over me, I thought about where this would leave the health care debate. Sen. Kennedy's passing does leave the democrats without a filibuster proof 60 seat majority. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post noted last week that Sen. Kennedy's passing could be perilous to health care reform without special circumstances put in place in our now current situation.

But after all that, I noted things in the big picture. I kept seeing folks reference "the Chappaquiddick incident." In fact, as of this writing "Mary Jo Kopechne" is the fifth highest ranked trending topic on Twitter. Yet, even with so many bringing up the dark points of Kennedy's past, so many more noted the great parts of Kennedy's legacy. They noted his influence in the senate, his pushing for the civil rights act, the voting rights act, his strides in health care, and other progressive policies that while controversial in their time has made America all the better (even retrospectively to republicans).

The news is like that all over right now. The good of Kennedy's legacy is consistently juxtaposed to the bad. It sharply paralleled another major historical figure who recently passed: Michael Jackson. As many across the globe mourned in June, there were others who noted that the world lost a really famous alleged pedophile. Seeing folks mentioned that dark corner of the past offended me, but looking back just a few months ago, I realize now that reflecting on death involves a recollection of one's whole past. We honor the dead through remembrance, but we mustn't neglect those dark corners out of some semblance of respect. Honesty should prevail. All the while, we do not burn others in effigy now that they are no longer with us.

This summer has seen many great losses, big and small in the public eye. In all this, I cannot help but think of their positives and negatives and the importance of remembrance. Last month, my former Chaucer professor died. It bothered me that I didn't know about it until a week ago. Yet, in my memory of him, I thought about how I thought his assignments were innovative, how he seriously loved what he was studying, how his views of academia and honest scholarship shaped mine. Yet those thoughts came immediately before the thoughts of others talking of how his class was boring. I never thought so, but I'm a huge nerd, especially for English. I loved how Dr. Glaze could make British Literature, a subset of English literature that I really don't care for, all the more interesting to me.

A friend of mine lost his father last week. I know this had to be especially painful to him because there was a certain estrangement for a while with him and they were just beginning to reconcile once again. Coupled with the pain of loss is the confusion of the whole situation. It made me think about my own father (the biological one, not the really really awesome stepdad who I claim). If my father were to die, how would I feel? Would I even be able to put a positive memory next to all the negative I feel toward him? Where would my feelings of loss begin after the vitriol? In seeing my friend grieve over his father, I was confused as to why he was sincerely sad. I forget that not all sons feel the same way for their fathers, no matter how far they stray.

Death may have that ability to absolve. It may trump up health care and civil rights over car crashes in Maryland. It may turn a superstar child molester into the last global icon who allegedly touched boys. It makes us pay special attention to jazz drummers and hip hop groups with good production. It makes bearded, blue shirted loud guys who sell you stuff a little less annoying.

Chuck Klosterman's third book, Killing Yourself to Live, notes that sometimes the best career move one can make is to die. Somehow, moving on into the ether gives one's work gravitas in the public eye. He may have not been too far off. Death is transformative. It not only is the end of life and the beginning of a new world for us all without a person, it is the beginning of a new reality. Legacy is all the more important. The individual can no longer shape how s/he will be perceived. The work must stand alone. Perhaps naturally, we want that work to mean something a little more... out of respect.

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