In one week: a wedding and four funerals.
It begins on Saturday in a heat wave in New Hampshire, with a radiant bride, balloons and bagpipes, with the guests dripping-wet hot by a listless pond in the woods, and all the cousins dancing and singing and toasting into the airless night. The news has come out that John F. Kennedy Jr. is missing, but our family keeps on celebrating, hanging on to this shared moment of joy, looking ahead to the future.
Two days later I stand in a heat wave in Arlington Cemetery with a crowd all in black to celebrate the life of an Apollo astronaut and mourn the loss of an old friend. By now the world knows that Kennedy and his wife and her sister have died in a plane crash at sea.
Under a searing sky, we bury Charles P. "Pete" Conrad, commander of Apollo 12, which landed on the moon nearly 30 years ago. Hundreds of people form a long line behind the coffin, from politicians to childhood chums to second wives, moving slowly in the breathless noon, hanging on to shared memories, looking back to the past.
Pete was father, husband, Main Line rebel, race-car driver, country music lover, forever the pilot of the old code--cool, quick, competent and competitive--a compact, spring-loaded kind of guy with a hallmark laugh. He died at age 69 in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident.
Long ago, we lived near Pete and his first wife, Jane, in Texas, in a suspended era when astronauts went to the moon every few months. In our spacenik subdivision called Timber Cove, it was an ordinary world of small children and barbecues and men away from home a lot. It was also an extraordinary experience of exploring the planets in an almost wartime atmosphere of thrill and dedication.
And then it was over. The Saturn V rocket went the way of the dinosaur. People scattered.
I look around. Instead of boyish jet-jockey faces with crew cuts, there is white hair and no hair, some heaviness around some middles, retirement and grown children with children. Thirty years! In a flash, we are old.
But in death, chronology collapses and the past becomes the present again. Pete is remembered all at once as school kid, astronaut, post-Apollo entrepreneur. For a moment as we mourn Pete, we, too, are ageless and can glimpse life in its totality. It matters less when events take place but that they take place at all. What is the sum of a person? As the service proceeds, I am no longer rooted in real time.
Afterward, on the news, it's reported that the bodies of JFK Jr. and the two women, along with the fuselage of the plane, have been located off Martha's Vineyard. The images flash by--3-year-old John-John saluting, college graduate on the arm of his mother, dashing husband with glamorous wife, and then the chronology stops.
Two days later, in the lingering heat wave, I am in the back pew of St. Luke's church in Hot Springs, Va. Another funeral and another rendition of "Amazing Grace." The deceased is a cousin of my mother's whom I called "Uncle Dan," a man of the mind who was a professor of Sanskrit and read Shakespeare aloud to his children, a man who served in the Army in World War II, who loved the lush valley in Bath County. He suffered with emphysema for many years and died at age 82.
He is the last of his generation in the family, and as we gather after the service, the loss hangs heavy in the living room where he always sat. There is an unspoken question of how we shall keep connected as the family extends out along different branches. There is some anxiety. We all seem so young and unfinished compared with his completed life. How can we measure up against the past?
Driving home, I hear on the news that the Kennedy family has decided on a burial at sea.
A few days later, another service, another remembrance of a life, this time on a rocky coast with the waves crashing below. He was a family friend who lived to be almost 100. When he was a teenager, he had a crush on my aunt. His daughter is my childhood friend. We miss him, but we do not wear black. We praise him and let go.
Meanwhile, a still-stunned public follows the services for JFK Jr., 38, his wife, Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34. Once again, the singing of "Amazing Grace," the reading of the 23rd Psalm, the personal reminiscences.
It was a week of rituals. The wedding was about hope. The funerals were about finding peace. Each funeral was different--from the public horror at the Kennedy tragedy to the private meditations on the loss of friends and family.
For the Kennedy and Bessette families, death came abruptly from injury, not disease, and it came without warning, and much too soon. For Pete Conrad, it was also too soon, but he had the years to live a full life. For my cousin and family friend who lived well beyond their life expectancy, death was slow, anticipated, but just as final.
All funerals are about grief and understanding loss. The rituals enable survivors to start accepting what is often unacceptable sorrow.
The death of a distant public figure like JFK Jr. becomes an intimate loss for many people because it stands as a symbol of all deaths. The loss of those so young and prominent triggers deep fear and heartache in each of us. In a way, public deaths help us mourn our personal losses.
And in the midst of grieving, maybe you stop and take stock: What is the sum of your life? Where is it going beyond the flow of a weekly calendar?
Whether it's the public drama of the Kennedy family or a personal loss, the journey of grief takes you to the same place.