SOUTH PORTLAND — This past Saturday was Robert Kennedy’s birthday. I yearn for him – for him and for what he represented to my generation.

I can’t separate how much is my age and how much is this age, but I can barely remember that visceral belonging and sense of purpose that were so much a part of our connection to him and to our government.

Bobby – we referred to him like he was one of our friends – had rock star status. We liked his brilliance, his quiet and self-effacing humor, his guts and the thick pate of Kennedy hair that he was forever smoothing down. I was smitten with everything about him. I was in love with Bobby Kennedy.

Branded for all time on my mind are the dual images of him waving to us after winning the California primary, and then, almost in the same frame, lying on the floor in the hotel kitchen. My father and I were leaning in to the television image.

I remember saying, “I saw his hand move.” The camera was in close until it wasn’t – and the faces of those in the circle around him said what my 17-year-old brain could not conceive.

“Turn it off, honey,” my father said softly. I couldn’t. I wanted to see the film replayed with a different ending – with him leaving through another door. Not the kitchen, don’t go that way. There’s a guy with a gun!”

I was bereft in a way that was isolating. It was personal. Years before, when President John F. Kennedy was shot, the entire nation paused together to absorb the shock and to attend to our shared grief as we all watched the days and events unfold before us on television. Not this time.

Loss landed hard. My grief was like that of a young widow unequipped to carry more than her years can properly understand. The context conspired, I suppose, to elevate the meaning for me – for all of us. With the backdrop of the first Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed just two months before the California primary. And now Bobby.

Bang, Bang, Bang. And they were gone. And we could barely imagine carrying on without them.

But we did. Later on our college campuses, we raised our voices – the voices that Jack, and Martin and Bobby had helped us find. We protested our country’s role in the Vietnam War. We reminded President Nixon that he ran for office with the promise of ending the war. We opposed the draft, and some of us dodged it. We demanded to know what really happened at My Lai. And when the United States invaded Cambodia, our protests got bigger and louder. We were engaged, participating, taking our roles as citizens seriously, and it felt good – for me a healing homage to Bobby to Martin and to Jack.

And again – Bang. Four killed and nine wounded at Kent State. Unarmed college students protesting the Vietnam War were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. Bang.

No longer the young innocent, I wore this grief with “maturity” and only just a modicum of disbelief as I hung up my activism for more than two decades.

It was the late ’90s when my voice bubbled up once more. Graduate school in social policy, work with low-income women and having my own children combined to have me once again clearly and keenly invested in our collective future.

I started working on campaigns, showing up at the Legislature to testify, and ultimately I ran for and served in elected office.

Now, after more than a dozen years of public service, I’m feeling this same “maturity” as our public discourse has devolved into a sort of vitriol unworthy of us. As I teeter on the brink of disconnection, it is Bobby who calls me back, beginning with this Aeschylus quote he spoke the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

I miss Bobby Kennedy, and more than that, I yearn for a public voice, any public voice that can say like he did: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

I miss you, Bobby.

 

– Special to the Press Herald