A friend of mine, some years ago, told me she never failed to read the daily obituaries. I presume she meant the ones written about newsworthy people. In recent days and maybe because of my age her curiosity is easier for me to understand.
In the last two weeks: Rosalynn Carter, Henry Kissinger and Sandra Day O’Connor have been featured. And my music tastes and memories cause me to look back on 2023 and recall the deaths of Tony Bennett, Jimmy Buffett, Tina Turner and Astrud Gilberto. As I looked back I also saw a brief clashing of the expected with the unexpected. This is the most vivid.
Richard Belzer died this year. He played a lead role in Law and Order, Special Victims Unit. A friend reported that his last words were “F____ you, mother f_____”. The same friend reported that he died “peacefully with family at his side.” In a sense these contrasting circumstances frame the question that is behind a lot of books with various titles, but all thematically dealing with how to die better.
My own curiosity revolves around what we can learn from death or the struggles that precede it. Yet technology pulls in the opposite direction. It has created a flourishing derivative force in our culture. Now everybody can be an author and publisher. Especially among younger cohorts many seem to take up the offer as they spend an immense amount of time following friends and otherwise on social media. Reactions are expressed in a variety of ways that follow the thumbs up or down conclusions. Every thing is here and now.
Maybe there needs to be an elementary school course in the art of understanding in the 21st century. My suggestion; put obituaries in a We Have a Lot to Learn column and electronic device provocations in the rear view mirror. In short, the twitch culture ill-serves us individually and collectively.
Aside from appreciating the musicians who died this year, I want to focus on the news-worthies that died in the last two weeks. I did not know Henry Kissinger although we had a close mutual friend, Peter Flanigan, so I was was aware of his tendencies. Aside from his service and books, he loved to hold court and seemed magnanimous in sharing his thoughts and as importantly, listening. While he wasn’t a reluctant teacher, he seemed to enjoy a crucial habit of good teachers, listening.
I did know Rosalynn Carter although not well. I served on a commission led by President Jimmy Carter and spent some time with Mrs. Carter and her husband on several international trips. I was struck by her gracious and understated personality. And notable passion she shared with the former President on their calling of service. To be charitable many who have occupied newsworthy roles can be difficult up-close. Mrs. Carter was, I repeat, gracious.
Sandra Day O’Connor, while a Justice on the US Supreme Court, brought a delegation of Italian Parliamentarians to the Federal Communications Commission during the time I was its Chair. She remained their host through discussions and a lunch to follow. Haughty is sometimes the term used to describe women who are celebrities. Justice O’Connor was the opposite. She was engaged, congenial—a perfect host.
All of which recalls several nights ago when my wife and I watched the documentary American Symphony on Netflix. It is a documentary about Jon Batiste and his wife, the writer Suleika Jaouad. Many are familiar with Batiste, a composer and band leader, who for a number of years shared the stage with Stephen Colbert on his show. What I certainly did not know was that he married his teenage sweetheart in the middle of her fight to defeat acute myeloid leukemia an often fatal blood disease.
Batiste, whose on-stage exuberance is matched by his off-stage thoughtfulness alternates, in the documentary, between musical venues and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where Jaouad was receiving a bone marrow transplant. They both pulled the curtain back. Euphemism is replaced with candor. Staging with character. The emotional intensity is natural. They deliver heart-felt lessons.
While I was hesitant to include Suleika Jaouad in a column which mainly focuses on obituaries, she according to news sources, is in remission. Long live Ms. Jaouad. And long live the legacies of the former First Lady and the first female Justice of the Supreme Court.
Death or near-death can offer clarity in a world of artifice. The living are eager to write about their self-proclaimed accomplishments while telling us how to live our lives. But death and its unyielding trajectory in all of our lives is much more informative and sometimes prophetic.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.