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How we come back

At some point when I was in either high school, or possibly college, my mother clipped a newspaper column she gave me to read. At that point I was more Israeli than American, and when I saw the long last name of the writer, “Krauthammer,” I mentally skipped it, simply registering it with major brains and sharp writing. From then on, though, my mother would regularly clip Krauthammer columns for me. They would be stacked up, waiting for me on my dresser upon return home for visits.

That brilliant columnist with the long last name became one of the guiding forces that molded my thinking. Long before I became a columnist, or ever in my wildest dreams thought I would write one for over 15 years, it was Charles Krauthammer’s Pulitzer Prize quality writing that was the benchmark.

His colleagues’ summation of his work says it all: “Towering intellect.” “Piercing clarity.” “Voice of a generation.” “Agree or disagree you had to consider what he wrote.” “Timeless wisdom.”

He was the unequalled mind, the unequalled writer, the unequalled role model. I, along with millions of Americans, have been touched by his writings and by the life he lived. And the legend that he was.

As the years passed, often when political developments arose, I found myself thinking, what would Charles Krauthammer say? Only to find his column and wisdom yet again bringing clarity and insight. He always made me think. His words pointed me to the political North Star, so to speak.

Krauthammer’s passion for politics was the motif in many of his columns because, as he wrote in “Are We Alone In the Universe,” “there could be no greater irony: for all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics. Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction . . . fairly or not, politics is the driver of history.”

What resonated the most for me were his rare, but more personal, columns. While the implied wisdom of Socrates “the unexamined life is not worth living” is a given, in “Beware The Study of Turtles” Krauthammer balanced that view by warning of “the too examined life.”

“Perhaps previous ages suffered from a lack of self-examination. Our problem is quite the opposite.”

“It is an overrated pursuit,” as is our obsessive “quest for self-love.”

He encouraged a more organic and hard working approach to finding that all too elusive sense of self-love with a compressed phrase: “self- esteem follows achievement.” He counteracted the self-absorption and navel gazing that can become paralyzing with: “Act and do and go and seek.”

But Charles Krauthammer “was not only just one of the best columnists of our time,” as he described his friend and colleague Meg Greenfield in “The Gift of Navigating a Life Worthwhile,” he was a columnist whose thoughts were outgrowths of a unique life. Its varying yet intersecting roads, derived from a life-altering experience, made his a storied, heroic life. Charles Krauthammer was a man of letters, with a degree from Oxford in philosophy. He was a man of science, with an MD from Harvard Medical School. He was Jewishly educated in cornerstone texts such as those of Maimonides.

His voice was a culmination of these perspectives. More than anything, though, Charles Krauth-ammer was an indomitable spirit, in the truest sense of that phrase. He knew something about struggle. Daily struggle.

He poignantly captures a universal spirit of growing up, painting a picture of his idyllic childhood — “the golden youth of our childhood” — shared with his only brother, his sidekick. “Ever brothers. Ever young. Ever summer.” ends the column in “Marcel, My Brother,” the prelude to its final line that delivers the news and purpose of the column: “My brother Marcel died on Tuesday, January 17. It was winter.”

Throughout the column the love of sports shines through their bond and their boyhood: “For those three months of endless summer, Marcel and I were inseparable, vagabond brothers shuttling endlessly on our Schwinns from beach to beach, ballgame to ballgame. Day and night we played every sport ever invented . . . for a couple of summers we even wangled ourselves jobs teaching at the splendidly named Treasure Island day camp nearby.”

It is spirit that followed Krauthammer into adulthood. At the end of his first year of medical school Krauthammer took a day off to enjoy the outdoors and in a freak diving accident, in a mismarked pool, his fate as a paraplegic was sealed. An elegant, strapping six foot one athletic guy . . . his life would never be the same.

In a “Man of All Seasons,” Krauthammer eulogizes his professor, Hermann Lisco, the associate dean of Harvard Medical School, whose loss Krauthammer grieves. “I mourn a man who saved my life.” Lisco visited Krauthammer in the ICU and asked what he could do to help. “To keep a disaster from turning into ruin, I had decided to stay in school and with my class,” was Krauthammer’s response.”

Within a few days, a hematology professor, fresh from lecturing to my classmates on campus, showed up at my bedside and proceeded to give me the lecture, while projecting the slides on the ceiling above me.” (“I was flat on my back in traction, but I’m sure Hermann had instructed everybody to carry on as if such teaching were entirely normal.”)

How does one whose life gets kicked from the front bleachers of life, to such searing pain, go on?

“I don’t like when they make a big thing about it,” Krauthammer commented in an interview from the 1980s in the Washington Post. “The worst is when they tell me how courageous I am. There’s nothing ennobling about disease. And there’s nothing degrading about it. It’s a condition of life.”

He did not want his accomplish-ments to be measured by a new yardstick, the handicap yardstick. What writing afforded him was the opportunity for his ideas to be evaluated on their own merit, his handicap invisible to the reader. Same with television. The table, or the screen, masked his wheelchair. People had no clue. Just as Charles Krauthammer wanted it.

To bear witness to the life of Charles Krauthammer is to witness resilience in action (have you ever known someone paralyzed from the neck down to find an ingenious way to teach his son how to play baseball?) — to me, that is indeed ennobling; as well as inspirational and heroic.

In Krauthammer’s last column, he wrote: “ . . . the catastrophe that awaits everyone from a single false move, wrong turn, fatal encounter. Every life has such a moment. What distinguishes us is whether — and how — we ever come back.”

Not only did Krauthammer come back. His superhuman and dignified life of accomplishment, endurance and overcoming difficulty with abundant grace, modeled the essence of coming back. Another benchmark he left is a new height that is possible to strive for.

In the final column Krauthammer penned, “A Note To Readers,” without a trace of bitterness he bids farewell in his characteristically humble manner:

“I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny . . . I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life, full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”

I mourn a man who had great influence on my life.

Charles Krauthammer died on Thursday, June 21. It was the first day of summer.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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