The Death of a Friend Inspires Reflections on Mortality

At a memorial service for famed gynecologist Dr. Kenneth Edelin, his friends remember a life well lived and an example of what to leave behind.

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Each speaker—from the president of Planned Parenthood to the NAACP LDF executives who spoke of Edelin’s commitment to the board—inspired with words that grabbed at the heart and the mind.

And there was a little bit of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” with words that had as much meaning, in a different way, as they had when Gaye himself sang, “Brother, brother, brother. There’s far too many of you dying.” Hmm, I thought, as I swayed in my seat to the music.

There was Dr. Robert Rusher, a Kaiser Permanente pulmonary physician and Boston University School of Medicine alum, who stood in the pulpit wearing his white doctor’s coat and a red tie because Dr. Ken Edelin had insisted that the interns always keep their red ties on.

Dr. Edgar—aka Eddie—Mandeville, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Harlem Hospital, spoke of Edelin’s courage in the face of the illness that finally took his life. “We all saw it on display during the trial,” he said, referring to the abortion case of 1975. “Last year,” he went on, “Ken underwent a pelvic exenteration, which, without being specific, is one of the most devastating surgical procedures we offer. It robs one of great chunks not only of your anatomy but of your personhood. Most of our medical colleagues who I told of Ken’s decision stated that they would have thrown in the towel, but Ken never blinked or whined.”

Deborah C. Jackson, president of Cambridge College and a longtime friend of the family, spoke also of how “Ken did not go gently into that good night.”  Several of Edelin's 8 grandchildren stood in the pulpit as 16 year old Kendall read a letter she wrote to God, asking why He took her grandfather, but ending with the uplifting “I’ll see you later.”

It was Jeh Charles Johnson, the secretary of homeland security and Edelin's nephew, who spoke of the impetus for Edelin’s decision to become a doctor when “he helplessly watched his mother die when he was 12 years old.” And these, Edelin’s own words in his powerful book, Broken Justice:

She was only 46. Through the loneliness of being a motherless child, shuttled from relative to relative through the turmoil of adolescence and rebellion, I became all the more determined to be a doctor—a woman’s doctor—to save lives and perhaps spare some other woman’s son the anguish I had to go through.

And finally, the Rev. Liz Walker delivered the eulogy. The former television anchor spoke movingly about the support she got from Edelin, her obstetrician, 20-something years ago when she was being publicly vilified for being public, pregnant and unwed. Dr. Edelin, she said, gave her the inspiration and support to face the criticism without shame.

In her softly soaring voice, she went on to tell the hushed and crowded chapel at Boston University, “He probed the most profound depths of life [and] he confronted his own mortality, something few of us are able to do.” She concluded with a few words about the many ways people used power, but also of the proper way Edelin used his, saying, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

But the most powerful words of all came from Edelin himself—not the caring crusader, healer and teacher, but a poet, whose prescient words in the poem “The Labyrinth of Life,” written a year before he transitioned, adorned the last page of the memorial program: