This week I’ve found myself confused and unnerved by the liberal tongue bathing given to the corpse of John McCain. I certainly do understand thinking about how to speak well of the dead, and apparently there were plenty of good things for his actual friends and colleagues to say. And yes, surviving a POW camp at that time and for so long is something to be remarked upon.
But the rest of us who didn’t know him personally? Why do so many people seem to be falling over themselves to say “he was a hero I disagreed with?” What is their need? This isn’t only because to me, those disagreements aren’t separate from who a person is—if someone sees life so fundamentally different from you, why chalk it up after death to whether or not you hold the anchovies on the pizza? It also just feels artificial and kind of self-serving to go around making sure everyone knows you think this, though I haven’t got that all worked out.
I realized yesterday it’s probably partly because of how I see my dad, who died nine years ago…yesterday. My dad was a great guy and kind of a cruddy guy. He was a terrible husband to his various wives, three or four of them there were, not precisely sure. He was with Mom the longest, in name only a good amount of the time. Mom, one of those 1950s teen brides, was absolutely unprepared in every way for a marriage to, okay, probably most anybody, but in particular a guy like my dad. It was sad. if you could say there is a “meant for,” they were both meant for very different things, even though they had some common tastes, similar intellects, and a willingness to be curious about the world, which was not a given when and where they were from. I guess their “meant for better things” is just what they had most in common.
I’m not going into further details. I loved my dad a whole lot, and he taught me a lot, and we had so much more in common, and in some of the better or at least more amusing ways, I grow more like him every day, though also, I suspect, like Mom’s mom, my Italian grandma. We had some great conversations; he would talk with me about absolutely anything, and I didn’t realize til much later on how unusual that was, and I would change that if I could go back, so that we could have more of them. What a deep thinker he sometimes was. People of his generation didn’t take that kind of thing seriously, though, and he knew it, so not everybody saw that side of him.
But he was no hero, and he hurt some people, deeply, and nothing he did either 50 years in the past or in the recent years before his death renders his life something to hold up like a shining beacon of Americanism. Only the people who knew him pretty well could understand that he was merely a fairly complicated person who had a tough and strange childhood, and who could have been successful at a completely different life than the one into which he was launched and expected to stay. That's about it. If anyone who knew him only on paper or through a job he did came along and started waxing rhapsodic about how wonderful he was despite his inherent flaws and questionable decision-making, I expect he’d be rolling his eyes from the grave. He knew who and what he was, whether or not he always admitted it aloud. I don’t know if John McCain was as self-aware as Dad became in the short time before his death. If so, good for him. That should be enough without us reinventing what went on before.
I expect Dad should have been born in Southern California. He really liked this band and their groovy “maybe it makes sense/maybe it makes no sense” lyrics. I know I’ve talked before about the jazz and big band I got from him, but also he was a sucker for a well-crafted sappy or semi-esoteric pop song. We can, after all, find meaning in just about anything if we care to look for it.
Click on the image for a nice live recording of the song.