The Death of a Friend Inspires Reflections on Mortality

Barbara and Kenneth Edelin
Courtesy of the Edelin family
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.”


But in his closing line, the governor set a tone and a theme that was to be repeated by those who followed, summarizing the essential core of a life well lived, saying of Edelin: “He was a man of justice, importantly—not because he had set out on a crusade, but because justice is what love looks like out in the open.”

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:

Remember what you learned each day,
Use those things to find your way.
Exercise your hard won choice,
Give your inner self a voice
Walk through the dawn, run through the night.
Don’t be paralyzed by fright.
The journey’s course will set you free,
This journey is your life, you see.
Now I’m at my journey’s end.
There is one gift to give again.


By the end of the service, I was no longer thinking about my own mortality but Ken’s, which left me and so many others with a challenge and a road map to navigate this mortal life.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co.

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