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A very sad, frozen day in Green Bay

February 2, 2011

Just returned from Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the NFC champion Packers and my older sister Jan, two of her kids, and four — make that three — of her grandkids.

Last Tuesday evening, just a week ago, Jan’s daughter Colleen’s oldest kid, John Kennedy, 20, was run over by a hit-and-run driver as he tried to get to his duplex in his wheelchair. The sidewalk, covered with snow and ice, was impassable and John decided — a fateful decision — to go out in the street. (A shopkeeper on the corner offered to help him, but John said, no, this is something I have to do myself.) This was a busy street, though, and when John was just 10 yards short of his driveway someone in a pickup ran him over, paused a few seconds, then sped on.

Witnesses identified a late-model white Ford pickup with a camper top. And within a couple of days police arrested a 39-year-old man who lived just outside of Green Bay. He was driving a white Ford 150 — and though he removed the camper top and tried to get auto body work to hide the damage, tipsters turned him in, and he’s now in jail. (For details, see this article from the Green Bay Press Gazette.)

All of which doesn’t restore John Kennedy to life. John was in a wheelchair, tragically, because, just 16 months earlier, at the age of 18, he was drinking with friends — and then drove home and passed out in his car. He barely survived, and when he came to he was in the hospital ICU and required extensive rehab.

For the last 16 months of his life, John was in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. But he was determined to live fully, to become independent, not to give in to his disability. And this, evidently, is what he did. He went through therapy determinedly. He enrolled in a tech college and worked full time. He rented a duplex and moved there with his girl friend. And through it all, witnesses say, he bore his affliction cheerfully. “I drank and drove,” he said. “I made a mistake. I paid for it.” He counseled others who’d been disabled, he bucked them up. He lifted them out of their affliction.

And then, wham, just like that, he was hit by a careless, and cowardly, motorist, who hesitated, looking at what he had wrought, and then fled.  Hit and smashed into the pavement so that his cheek was deeply abraded and an eye bulged out. So that a leg and ribs were broken. So that liver and spleen were burst.

John never regained consciousness but died, later that night, in the hospital.

Twenty years old. Cheerful. Determined to live, to love, to conquer his disabilities. Struck down, then, wiped out, like a bug on a windshield. Splat.

So it might seem, from a cynical perspective, our lives all end up. Splat. Hurtling through the universe, the forces of progress and technology, you see, assail us. Splat. Our insect lives rubbed out like that.

Accidents happen, for sure. And they happen largely become of motion or mobility, they say. If we stayed in one place and did not venture forth, only a small minority of us would be hit by tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes — or other acts or facts of God.

But who can live like that? We venture forth, out of our worm holes. We strive upward into the sun. We wriggle, writhe, work up a sweat. Duck the passing traffic. The storms of accidents that surround, even define, our lives.


It’s the forces of culture, then, including family, that rescue us from this mean biological fate. That make sense out of our animal beginnings and sordid ends. That raise us up above the dirt, the tar, the sweat, the blood, the come, the shit that are our lot. That deliver us into each other’s hands, who care.

Naked came he, John Michael Kennedy, into the world. And naked he was born out, borne out, crushed and bruised, and lifted up and ennobled, impossibly enough, by the love of family and friends.

May you rest in peace, John. And permit us, some day, to do the same.


From → family, mortality

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