I don't have anything profound to offer about what happened on this day five decades ago, when I was a seventeen-year-old away from home for the first time, at college. But I want to remember now, without pain but with solemnity, how I felt then...
Fifty years ago today, on an indecently bright and cold and sunny afternoon, I was about to leave my freshman English lit. class at St. Bonaventure when a fellow freshman, Jack Garner, came into the room and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. We all reacted with disbelief, except our professor, Leo Keenan, who grimly strode off to the journalism office and the AP ticker.
We huddled around, uncertain, not really believing until we saw our prof's reaction. Then the other girls and I ran back to our dorm---seeing the flag already being lowered to half staff on the campus flagpole, but not believing, desperately denying---to turn the single rec-room TV on and see Walter Cronkite, blinking away tears, announcing that the President was dead. We all collapsed in tears ourselves, stunned, and for the next four days basically were glued to the tube and walked around like zombies otherwise.
I couldn't stand being around anyone, and walked up the hill behind the dorm to a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes that was there, set in a little wooded hollow. Nobody else came there but one of the younger nuns who looked after us, and we didn't speak to each other, just sat there for a long time in the chilly afternoon as the sun went down behind the hills across the valley, wrapped in our own thoughts under the last leaves still on the trees.
All classes were immediately canceled, of course, and a lot of the students with cars instantly took off for D.C. to be there to pay respects at the lying in state in the Capitol rotunda if they could, and for the funeral and procession. The rest of us didn't stop crying or watching the nonstop TV coverage all weekend---I can still hear the shocked intake of breath from all of us at the sight of Mrs. Kennedy, wearing that godawful suit, emerging from the plane later that night.
On Saturday, as nothing public was happening, it was all repetition and old footage on TV; commercial programming was canceled, and there was a lot of symphonic music heard: the funeral march from "Eroica" was pressed into heavy-duty rotation, and the funeral music for Queen Mary, which just about killed me, both of them.
On Sunday, there was the procession to the Capitol for the lying in state, and the first time we'd seen Mrs. Kennedy since Friday. I have no words: she looked like Persephone unveiled, and seeing the kids was like a punch to the solar plexus, especially Caroline in the rotunda, slipping her hand under the flag to touch the casket.
On Monday, the day of the funeral, there was a Solemn High Requiem Mass on campus, timed early, to be over by the time the one in D.C. began, so that we could pay our own respects in proper Catholic fashion and also then be able to watch the obsequies taking place in Washington.
It was again a cold, bright morning, and I remember walking to campus (our dorm was across the road) in my dressy black coat and gloves and lace mantilla, along with the other girls dressed much the same. The whole school was crowded into the gym: guys and friars downstairs, girls and nuns upstairs on the running track balcony. The male choir of priests and seminarians sang the Dies Irae, the first time I'd ever heard it sung; there was a procession with candles and incense, all the celebrants in black vestments; total silence except for the prayer responses. I was just about out of my body: one of the most splendid and deeply profound spiritual experiences of my life.
Then we went back to the dorm to watch the Mass and funeral procession on TV. I still see Mrs. Kennedy's queenly bearing, and still hear those muffled drums in my head, and still hear the moan as we all crumpled to see little John-John salute the casket coming out of the cathedral. We sat there crowded in the rec room, on the floor or on chairs we'd brought in from our rooms, until everything was done and the screen showing Arlington went blank.
After that, I really don't remember. I went to my room and wrote some things, but we were all too staggered and too full of grief and shock to do anything. We were kids, and for most of us this was our first experience with loss, made worse because most of us had idolized the family so.
It was a profound national moment, all the more so because it was so nationally shared. That's really all I have to say about it; I don't have any big eloquent words, no words apart from these. But I wanted you to hear them, and to maybe share words of your own, and to offer prayers and thoughts as you feel the need. And though I know he no longer needs it, may his journey thrive.