10/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My One and Only Kennedy Funeral

I was not born or raised during Camelot. I wasn't but a twinkle in my father's eye in November 1963. And I was not yet two years old when John F. Kennedy's younger brother, Robert, the torch bearer, was murdered in Los Angeles. So, like tens of millions of other Americans of a certain age, old enough to care but too young to have experienced in any sentient way the shocking events of that time, I have just lived through in real time my first, official, nearly-week-long mourning for a Kennedy.

Having watched countless hours of videotape of the other two Kennedy assassinations and funerals, I felt this past week a longing and an emptiness beyond that which fairly measures the accomplishments of the life (and the death) of Edward M. Kennedy. It's as if his absence now from the world makes the absence of his fallen brothers even more pronounced. And that those of us who missed the assassinations of the 1960s, the sudden death and encompassing sorrow, missed a part of America that is gone forever. Like September 10, 2001.

Watching the pomp and the passion of the week's poignant events, tinged with so many echoes of 1963 and 1968, reminded me of questions I had not asked myself in decades. What was it really like to live in this country on the day Robert Kennedy's funeral train passed by those Little Leaguers and thousands of others standing beside those railroad tracks between New York and Washington? What was it really like to live in Manhattan in on November 25 1963, a day during which legendary New York Times correspondent Johnny Apple described the city as "a vast church"?

I spent an entire day in November 1988 --the 25th anniversary of the death of President Kennedy --holed up in a tiny apartment in Boston watching the six-hour NBC video of that network's coverage of the assassination. That year, I also devoured the book Robert Kennedy In His Own Words, a sad and eerie compilation of the speeches of the slain candidate. At the time, 21 years ago, Edward Kennedy was not the redeemed legend he has now become. Back then, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, he was often a joke. No one is laughing now.

Until now, there was always one more Kennedy. President Kennedy wasn't even in the ground before America starting talking about Bobby in the White House. And Bobby was barely buried when we started talking about Teddy picking up the standard.

But now, for the first time since 1953, there is no Kennedy in the United States Senate. And now, for the first time ever, the country buried a Kennedy brother who had grown old and sick and whose death was anticipated and prepared for in all respects.

We remember the older Kennedy brothers not just for what they were but for what we hoped they would become. We will remember the younger Kennedy brother not for what he could have been but for what he was. It was enough. His back-breaking work for personal redemption alone, never mind the legislative accomplishments, may be his most lasting legacy. The lesson was a simple one: never, ever give up because if you last long enough things can come around.

Things may eventually come around. But that doesn't mean you can go back in time. Looking for echoes and the empathy of a past I was too young to know, I felt sadness this week but the absence of shock; grief but the absence of anger; prayer but the absence of the Devil. Maybe that's the way it is supposed to be when old men, even famous old men, die. Maybe September 11, 2001, the seminal single day of my own age, changed forever how we are supposed to look at life and death and the end of familiar narratives and false securities.

And I'll never again get another chance. There will be no more Kennedy funerals on this scale -- at least not in my lifetime. They are all gone now, the glamorous ones with that rare Trifecta -- fame, riches, and high office. And no one from the family's "younger" generation (those Kennedys roughly my own age), or the generation even younger than that, seems ready or particularly eager to seek to break through into national wonder.

Of course I don't blame them. They owe nothing to anyone. They've done their part and now I've done my part, too, having been fated by timing to pick up the Kennedy family narrative only after its darkest days. I grieved for the only Kennedy brother I had ever known, mourned in a way I reckon matched his life's work, and endure in the humble knowledge that, in the end, the depth of what I felt wasn't remotely close to what my parents had known, in their own time, when they had grieved for their own fallen Kennedys.