Today I watched the clip of Walter Cronkite announcing to America that President Kennedy had died. He is visibly shaken. The consummate professional, he removes his glasses, gives himself a moment to compose himself, puts his glasses back on and continues. But his voice breaks. Shock. Disbelief. And I feel the lump rise in my own throat. Again. These fifty years to the day later.
That was when I understood grief for the first time. A couple years earlier when a neighbor kid drowned in a local lake, everybody felt really bad. My mom took us to the funeral home, and I saw people cry. But nothing had prepared me for this.
I was twelve, a seventh grader sitting in Mr. Deland's Science class when the announcement came over the intercom that the President had been shot. I was in Study Hall when the speaker crackled once again and the Principal uttered those horrible words, "I'm sorry to have to report that the President is dead." There was stunned silence and then I heard someone sniffing. Behind me, a couple of older girls snickered, obviously uncomfortable and not knowing how else to respond to the terrible news.
For the next four days I, along with the rest of America, sat riveted to our black and white television sets. There were only three networks at the time, and up until now there had been no such thing as twenty-four hour news coverage. That changed. I could hardly tear myself away, horrified by the events but feeling the need to be connected is this way. We as a nation were reeling with grief, and even as young as I was, I knew we were in this together. So I missed nothing, including the horrific moment when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald as he came through that hallway.
I had never felt such sadness. I remember the intense longing for the pain to go away, not quite believing it to be real, hoping that this was just a horrible dream from which I would soon awaken. But I never did, I only woke up to the reality that life is harder than I could have ever imagined. And it changed me.
Following the funeral, a spirited black horse was led behind the caisson through the streets of Washington to Arlington Cemetery. The symbolism wasn't lost on me, and if there had been any part of my heart that was still intact, the vision of that horse finished it off. My heart was completely broken, grieving for that little boy and for his sister and his mother. And I grieved for me, for what I had lost. And for us. All of us.