Last week my mother-in-law's husband Vince died. He was 82 and in relatively excellent health...until he was bitten by a mosquito. By the time the doctors figured out that he was suffering from West Nile Virus, it had infected his brain and spinal cord, and he was beyond recovery.
These things happen every day, but you don't expect them to happen to the people you know. Loved ones rush out the door in the morning, leaving behind their dirty underwear and breakfast dishes and you curse them under your breath. Then, boom, they're dead and you didn't get to tell them you regret the thing you said two days ago, when you were having a mini-nervous breakdown. My neighbor Gerald, who worked in hospitals his entire adult life, said there are two kinds of death: The kind that is merciful to the patient and the one that is merciful to the family. I hope that Vince had the former and didn't suffer. But to my mother-in-law and those closest to Vince, it was unmerciful and tragic.
Over his 40+ year career in politics and government he made an enormous impact on the state of Virginia and you can read his Washington Post obituary here. I can't do justice in this blog to all the ways he served and forged alliances. But what I can do is tell you about the things I remember most about him.
He was a life-long Republican. Just a few years ago, when I couldn't say the word "Republican" without wanting to spit, he started up a conversation with me by saying, "Do you know why I'm a Republican?" I braced myself. I'm sure I'd said something in his presence that clued him into my disgust with the Republican Party in general. He continued, "Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. And the Civil Rights Act was supported by more southern Republicans than southern Democrats. And that's why I joined the Republican Party."
I hadn't known. It may seem inconceivable to someone born in the 21st Century, but Democrats have a long history of racism. They fought tooth and nail to keep slavery alive in the U.S., so much so that we went to war over it. The Democratic Party unabashedly identified itself as "the white man's party." After the Civil War most southern Democrats opposed Reconstruction and the Republican party's (led by Abraham Lincoln) support of black civil and political rights. Even into the 1930's the southern Democrats were so powerful in Washington that anti-lynching laws were filibustered and defeated on multiple occasions. In the early 1960's when Vince was starting out in politics, this unsavory history was reason enough, he told me, to become a Republican. It wasn't until Kennedy that the Democrats started to change, but even that president didn't get very far on the problem of legalized racism. When the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson finally got The Civil Rights Act through both houses of Congress he couldn't have done it without a majority of southern Republicans supporting it.
But Vince knew the party wasn't like that anymore, at least not at the national level. He still felt that at the State level the two parties could work together, though he was dismayed by the far right trajectory of his party over the past 20 years. He was enough of a diplomat not to ever disparage anyone else's politics, in my presence at least. I have no doubt he was more tolerant of any given Democrat than I've ever been of absolutely any Republican. Except for him.
Vince was also exceedingly tolerant of Z, and Z was memorized by the man. A few years ago he made a go at getting Z interested in baseball, explaining bases and pitching and home runs and how superior The Washington Nationals were to every other team. I saw my son nearly cross over to the side of sports fan-dom before we quickly snatched him back from an abyss that would have only intensified his desire for screen time. Sorry, Vince.
I'm so glad he and my mother-in-law visited us in England last Christmas. Their mutual love of military history was easy to indulge over here. We had a particularly edifying trip to Dover castle exploring the WWII tunnels running underneath the 13th Century stone buildings. And in return for us showing him the sights, he gamely played the harmonica during our after-Christmas dinner concert.
So rest in peace dear Vince. Your premature death has helped me consider more carefully almost everything that comes out of my mouth, especially towards the ones I love. I'm less willing now to let either of my boys leave for the day without a kiss or a hug. I hold Z a litle bit longer, a little bit tighter. I look at C and feel thankful for the amazing life we've had together already. We wern't ready for your death, Vince. But we celebrate your life. You served, loved and were loved. And what else is there, really?