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.

Barbara and Kenneth Edelin
Barbara and Kenneth Edelin Courtesy of the Edelin family

Something there is about the death of a friend or colleague close to your own age that makes you contemplate your own mortality. It happened to me several years ago when my good friend Ed Bradley passed, and it seems to be happening more frequently now as I am fully ensconced in my 70s. 

On a slightly chilly Sarasota, Fla., morning this past weekend, my husband, Ronald, and I headed to a deeply frigid Boston to join friends, colleagues and family in memorializing the most recent of our friends to pass: Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin, who had left us a few weeks before at age 74 after what seemed like a very brief illness and a determined will to live. 

I often smile as I find myself imitating my late grandmother, who turned first to the obituary page when she opened the morning paper. I never knew until now why she did that. And I am not totally sure why I do—except, almost on a weekly basis, I find people I knew or knew about, who are a few years younger or a few years older than I am.

People like Julius Chambers, once head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; the poet Amiri Baraka; and John Dotson Jr., who was one of the few black leaders in the newspaper industry. Like Ken Edelin, he died of a rare, aggressive cancer. And there are many more who, when I read of their passing, cause me to confront my own mortality—although for now, with the exception of a few arthritic joints, my health is good. 

But it is a time of life when I look at the “things” I’ve accumulated—including a closetful of shoes that would make Imelda Marcos jealous—and I find myself thinking about getting my house in order so that my survivors won’t have too big a burden once I’m gone. Even my husband, a great physical specimen who is obsessive about his weight and otherwise diligent about his health, wondered aloud as we were driving somewhere recently why it seemed to him that more men were passing and leaving behind women who suddenly had to manage alone. Women like our dear friend Barbara Edelin, who was steadfast in her support of her husband of 36 years through each debilitating state of his health and who, along with him, planned the service to which we were now flying.

So as I sat in the chapel waiting for the service to begin, I thought about the things I had begun to think about—silly things like what would become of my closetful of shoes, but more seriously, how I should live what days I have left that will leave something for which to be remembered. 

But before I could go there again, the service began, and for the next two hours, elevating, as well as instructive, reflections came from friends who knew Edelin in all of his incarnations.

Deval Patrick, the boyish-looking governor of Massachusetts, was the first to give reflections. He remembered a man who was subjected to what he called “a nasty prosecution” in 1975 over a late-term abortion that he performed on a 17-year-old that eventually led to an acquittal and a landmark ruling on reproductive rights—and Edelin’s designation as a hero of the women’s movement.

Giving a brief summary of Edelin’s pioneering career, the governor recalled that Edelin was the first black chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital, the chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Boston University School of Medicine, gynecologist in chief at Boston University Hospital, a dean at Boston University, a crusader against health disparities when we had few, a mentor for a generation of health care professionals who learned from his work and his example. The governor went on to speak of a man with a “twinkle in his eye, as if he was anticipating, or even hoping for, some mischief, and that warm, almost shy smile. Ken was a loving man—as a husband, father, grandfather, friend … and leader.”