Even a day or two after the start of a new year, we tend to do old-year things. We sum things up, predict the new year, put a stamp on the old year, proclaim achievements, look forward to awards shows.
And we count our losses.
The past year still haunts us, the winners and losers are still with us. We still hear their voices, see their faces, remember their deeds.
In 2018, those we lost, especially those of particular qualities and importance, remain with us in terms of how they reflect on our present political predicament, especially the peculiar loud silence that descended with the federal shutdown. Two deaths haunt us the most because the men involved were actors on the same stage.
The deaths of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, twice a contender for the presidency of the United States, and George H.W. Bush, a former president of great accomplishment who served during remarkably turbulent times, seemed to come one upon the other, as a kind of reminder of what normalcy in historic lives might look like.
It’s hard to say or characterize them as great men of history, although both had a certain authentic size, a kind of majesty and magnetism that seems missing from the art and practice of governance in the United States today.
Their deaths mattered and amounted to a loss to the nation and the nation’s business — McCain’s after a long, painful struggle with cancer, Bush’s in his gentle old age in his 90s, still at the head of a large family in which service to country mattered most, as it did for McCain.
Both their deaths sparked days of public commemorations, climaxing in what amounted to state funerals at the National Cathedral, ceremonies which brought out former leaders, friends and friends of the family, and which many members of we the people watched with rapt attention.
There was a grace to both occasions that was decidedly human, filled with humor and affection, in which the kind of politics practiced throughout the year was both noticeably absent and always sharply present. President Donald Trump had not been invited by the McCain family, but he and the first lady were quiet presences at the funeral for former President Bush, hushed in the rows of former rivals and former presidents, with the large Bush clan on the other side.
These ceremonies, these deaths, these losses, were a reminder and an elegy for old days, greater days. We lost two respected, if not always embraced, American leaders who conducted themselves in their pursuit of ambition’s goals with a self-evident love of country, empathy for people, unchallenged decency and command of honestly held principles.
In their deaths, we saw what was lost, and further evidence existed in the ensuing days of the government shutdown and how the so-called debate over its possible ending — not in sight — was conducted.
Death is always a loss, of course, but it also acts like a broom, stirring up memories and shared joys, achievements left behind to become permanent, as gifts and reminders.
One reminder is that those who directly remember the horrors of World War II is diminishing. We note the death of Simcha Rotem, the last surviving fighter of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto before its destruction. Rotem, 92, who fought in the Israeli War of Independence, died Dec. 22 in Jerusalem.
We noted the death of the last survivor of the ghetto itself, an escapee from the Sobibor, and another escapee, from Auschwitz, as well as an Auschwitz guard, a German U-boat commander and Heinrich Himmler’s daughter.
From the occurrence of loss, we share and remember the gifts left behind, the songs and music composed, the dances created, the words, words, words of poets, historians, essayists, storytellers and playwrights who gave them flesh.
We remember the loss of royalty: R-E-S-P-E-C-T for queen of soul Aretha Franklin.
Here then, let us now praise some famous men and women. For starters: science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, actor Peter Donat, movie star Burt Reynolds, ultimate baseball Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Let us remember composer Galt McDermott, who brought us to the Age of Aquarius in “Hair”; Penny Marshall for being in “Laverne and Shirley” and creating “Big” and “A League of Their Own”; and song stylist Nancy Wilson, she of the haunting, grown-up voice.
Let us salute Stephen Hawking, who knew everything, and be stirred by the words of Israel’s fiction laureate Amos Oz. Let us remember the sophisticated laughs engendered by the plays of Neil Simon and the captivating flow of Paul Taylor’s choreography.
Let us remember Willie McCovey’s staggering home runs for the Giants (San Francisco and New York), the worldly vocal phrasings of French singer Charles Aznavour and the often gritty, often funny and always searingly intelligent novels of Philip Roth.
Let us remember Charles Krauthammer’s principled and difficult-to-argue-with opinions, the shocking passing of Anthony Bourdain, the country music virtuosity of Roy Clark, the cool narratives of William Goldman. Let us remember the master of the Marvel universe Stan Lee and the master poet laureate Donald Hall.
Let us, for a time, remember those who left behind the gifts of their lives.