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Kennedy’s death still leaves a void

by Marilee Swirczek

Sleep. . .Oh! How I loathe those little slices of death. . .

– Longfellow

Each semester, one of my students invariably asks, “What was your first piece of writing to be published?” That’s an easy one; that first one is carved in my heart. Last November marked the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, the subject of my first published work. Like all of us, though, if I could change the past, it never would have happened.

I was 15 years old, and our daily newspaper in Pennsylvania, the Sharon Herald, printed my paragraph, “Reflections,” on Nov. 30, 1963:

A child saluted, and the world cried. A caisson’s wheels creaked, a horse’s hoofs beat a steady tattoo on the pavement. A drum rolled, its solemn cadence repeated in the throbbing heartbreak of the multitude. The muted tone of a bugle penetrated the barrier of mankind’s prejudice and fear, and the world cried. A woman wept brokenly, a child whimpered, a man’s muffled sobbing could be heard mingled with the wailing of bagpipes. Jets roared overhead and screamed their indignation. Quiet enveloped all. A rustling flag was folded, a sputtering flame was lit, a day ended. A child saluted, and the world cried.

I remember that piece for obvious reasons, but there is more to it. My father had died suddenly only two months before Kennedy’s death, and I was still reeling. Our family was shaken to its core. Nothing was the same; certainty was gone. If death could take my beloved father, only 43 years old and in the prime of his life, and if death could take a young and powerful president, then death could take everyone I loved, with no warning.

These two events, one coming upon the heels of the other, were so life changing that even now, I cannot distinguish the public from the private grief.

It was after Kennedy’s funeral that the nightmares began, a series of recurring terrors that occasionally still return to my dreams. In these dreams I am a child, and the landscape is always that of my childhood home. In one dream, I awaken from sleep to find my parents and little sisters changed into stark skeletons lying in their beds, bony jaws gaping. In the dream, I run outside for help, only to find the world absolutely silent and devoid of life, even the trees blackened, bare limbs utterly without leaves.

The lion comes in another dream – a huge, menacing male with a black mane who prowls around and around outside our house, looking for a way in. The lion always sees me, and when our eyes meet, I awaken, frightened, my skin prickling.

In the last dream, I am alone in our house with my sisters, and somehow, with the prescience that exists in our dreams, I sense that something is coming – something dark, threatening, vague, and therefore all the more frightening. I hide my sisters in our tiny bathroom, one under the sink, one in the bathtub. I realize too late that there is no place left for me to hide, and I turn to the sound of the front door breaking.

The dreams come less often now. Sometimes only an image floats through, a reminder that the terror is still there, just below the surface. And of course, it is Death lurking, bursting through the door with no warning.

Those of us who lived through the horror of Kennedy’s assassination, no matter our politics, remember every detail – where we were, how we felt – but there is something else we remember as well: the dark threat of chaos testing the very foundation of our nation. The sickening realization that evil is as real as you or me. The sadness that comes later, when we replay the bloody images in our minds, knowing that forevermore, we will be different.

For me, the killing of President Kennedy underscored what I suspected after my father died: Death is personal, capricious, and final. Like a rogue wave, it snatches you when your back is turned. It does not distinguish between poor man and rich; it does not honor youth or aspiration. Death is the assassin, after all, and no one is safe.

This past November, as I watched the black and white reruns of Kennedy’s death and funeral on television, I realized with a shock that 40 years had passed. Forty years spent watching for the assassin. Starting in 1963, I cried each November for my father and for President Kennedy. This November, I finally cried for myself.

Marilee Swirczek lives in Carson City and teaches writing at Western Nevada Community College. To contact her about English classes, call 445-4284.