Way To Go, Kay

Posted: Jul 23, 2001 12:00 AM
The death of Katharine Graham has got more attention than the death of anyone else in recent memory. This is so because she became a mythogenic figure in her profession: a woman; a victim of a deranged husband; unworldly heir of a seedling enterprise she superintended with growing authority, knowing almost always when to yield to professional advice from journalists, and when to assert her own voice. She did this progressively, even -- in the opinion of some -- here and there wantonly, as if sending a subordinate to the scaffold every now and then reminded her that she had the power to do so.

The normal things about Mrs. Graham of course attract the most attention. She was a natural star, and her posture was nicely demure. She wrote an autobiography by her own hand and took a kid-author's delight in the reception it got. She was faithful to her friends and attended their parties with a nice combination of amusement and fatalism. She did stray kindnesses (including to me) and she seemed to be hoping it would all go on more or less forever.

She was rich, famous, aristocratic, wealthy by lineage but convincingly self-made, the mother of four children, including a talented and industrious journalist and a successful male heir. She had money, a great newspaper, a Pulitzer Prize, and a lustrous court of friends and admirers.

One mourns her death, but this is a matter of form, surely. One (correctly) mourns everyone's death. I certainly did that of my own mother, who'd have been 90 one day later. But it is wise to struggle for perspective in such matters, and Mrs. Graham, patron of investigative thought and journalism, would surely have encouraged this.

"What a terrible way to go," a friend remarked. One nods one's head when things like that are said, but on deliberation, this surely wasn't so. Mrs. Graham was 84, she tripped and fell over, lost consciousness and never regained it in the two days before her heart stopped beating.

There was a touch of the wry there: She had been going off to play bridge with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. One doesn't know about her prowess in bridge, but a playful imagination wonders: If the bridge game had been consummated, would Buffett or Gates have ended up owning the Washington Post? My journalist son reminds me that Malcolm Forbes Sr. played bridge in London one night with Warren Buffett, got into his airplane (The Capitalist Tool), landed in New York and forthwith died.

Ironies reach out to provide some distraction from the natural gloom of the mourner. And go further, reminding us that mortality is an aspect of the human condition, and that however hard we fight against its implications, it is there and can be said to be mercifully there, when one broods on some of the alternatives. There are millions alive today who, while not hoping for death (to do that is contra naturam, a defiance of biological impulses), must, at moments, subconsciously wish that it had come some time before the suffering set in.

The theological idea that life should be continued for as long as possible derives from the conviction that life is an act of divine grace, not to be rejected. The four great religions frown on suicide. But two movements are loose in modern times that undermine that conviction. The first is the general secularization, which preaches simply that euthanasia is perfectly OK if that's what you want.

The second qualifier is the extraordinary success of the science of longevity. Dr. Sherwin Nuland in his seminal book on how we die, accosts the problem. He begins by telling us that it is a temperamental given that if someone stricken by an accident or an ill turn in health submits to the care of young doctors, they will do everything in their power to keep the patient alive: This is a primal professional instinct. And Dr. Nuland himself, against his strategic judgment later in life, struggled to keep a doomed brother alive, and acquiesced in the mores of life preservation.

Well, Mrs. Graham is no longer there, to govern, to befriend, to enjoy and be enjoyed. But perhaps the mourners will reflect, at her funeral on Monday at the National Cathedral, on what many, including her gifted daughter Lally Weymouth, should permit themselves to think, even if they cannot say it, which is: That was, really, a wonderful way to go.