Essay April 2007

On the Fairness of Life

Former National Journal and Atlantic editor Michael Kelly died in 2003 while covering the war in Iraq. His mother, Marguerite Kelly, wrote this essay on the fourth anniversary of his death.
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Our son, Michael Kelly, an embedded journalist in Iraq, was having the time of his life until he died under fire on April 3, 2003, on the road to the Baghdad airport. He was buried in Boston, memorialized in Washington and his name has been enshrined in scholarships and prizes, big and small.

The extent of his acclaim surprised us but no surprise was as great as his death. We thought, you see, that our boy—our funny, generous, rambunctious boy—was invincible and maybe he did too. And yet Mike may have tried to do so much, so fast, because somehow he knew that he had no time to waste. Mike once told his wife that he would die in his 40s and he told one of his sisters that he would die, in fact, at 46. And so he did.

By then, Mike had made his mark, definitely and sometimes defiantly, working up from unpaid intern to producer of news for Good Morning America, before starting all over again in print journalism. He reported for The Cincinnati Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The New Republic and The New York Times. He wrote profiles for GQ, Playboy, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. He covered three wars and three presidential campaigns. And, in time, he became editor of The New Republic (until he was fired) and then of National Journal and the Atlantic Monthly and on the side, he wrote a syndicated column for The Washington Post—a column which readers either loved or loathed, depending on their politics.

Although Mike was a player in the big media world, he never stabbed a back or maneuvered an inch to get to the places he got. Instead, he thought it was enough to work hard, to play hard, to be in love with life, passionately and completely, and to be kind to the people who worked with him and for him (if not always so kind to his bosses).

Along the way, Mike—like his daddy—questioned every idea he, or anyone else, ever had, and eventually his politics began to change. The switch from liberal to conservative made a few of his close friends drop him flat, but even they were quick to praise him when he died. Perhaps they realized that Mike wrote what he did because he was a moralist more than anything else. He had to tell the truth as he saw it, no matter what anyone said. Mike wasn’t just my conscience; he was everyone’s conscience.

Most people appreciated him, though, and many loved him, whether they agreed with him or not. My husband and I received a thousand letters from both friends and fans, telling us how Mike had helped them get a job or shape a story or made them laugh the night away, while others praised him for giving them his attention and encouragement. Still others said that he was “a lovely man’; “a decent man’; “a funny man’; “a courtly man’; “a kind man’; “a family man’.

And then there were those who gave him the compliment that would have pleased him most. They said he was “an honest man.” It was as if they had never known anyone who had stood up for what he believed in and for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Kitty Genovese would never have cried and died alone, if Mike had been around.

Another 2,000 letters and emails came in response to a newspaper column I wrote about grief. And I learned to appreciate the kindness of strangers as I never had before. These good people simply wanted us to know that they had lived through the worst—and so could we.

There was the mother whose baby was born still, all those years ago; the 22-year-old who was waiting for the transplant she would probably never get; the woman who had lost her son to schizophrenia and alcohol, rather than to death, and of course, there were those who wrote about the accidents and illnesses and even murders that had taken away dozens of well-loved lives. There are so many ways to lose a child.

And then there were the many friends and strangers who said that our son’s death was unfair. But how could that be?

Michael was racing to Baghdad with the Third Infantry Division because he believed in this war. And he believed in this war because he was in Baghdad during the bombing in 1991 and before. He knew what Saddam Hussein had done to that country. He had seen all those gaudy, golden palaces he had built for himself while Iraqi children went hungry; he had met some of the families whose lives he had wrecked and he knew about the killings he had ordered—the hundreds of thousands of killings.

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