YOUR WEEKLY REEDER: The essence of life

Jul 18, 2006 at 7:35 pm

One thing we know for sure about the Third District candidates for U.S. Congress is that both are devoted family people. So last week, when Democratic challenger John Yarmuth extended his sympathy to Republican incumbent Anne Northup upon the shocking death of her son Joshua, it was more than a pro forma statement.

You know Yarmuth, you know it came from the heart. Two summers later, when his son Aaron was leaving for college, John wrote one of his most memorable columns. In the wake of the Northup family’s loss, some of his thoughts resonate hauntingly.

“I think of the parents who have lost children forever,” Yarmuth said, “and I realize how lucky we are to have him at all. We can still hear his voice, his laugh. He will just be away. Not gone. He will come home ...”

The Northup family can still hear Joshua’s voice and laugh, but only in their memory. His father, Woody, found him dead last week in his Crescent Hill apartment, victim of a severe heart ailment that had gone undiagnosed. He was 30, the third eldest of the six Northup children.

By all accounts, Joshua was a joy to be around. Adopted at the age of two months just before Christmas, he was brought out of a giant Christmas stocking when he was introduced to his new family.

From that time on, as older brother David told The Courier-Journal, “He was just one of those people that you knew he was a blessing to have in your life.”

In 1994, when Joshua left home to enroll at St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, Ind., Anne and Woody surely felt more or less as John and Kathy Yarmuth did when they left Aaron at college before his freshman year.

“From now on,” John wrote, “I can no longer be there with him; I can only be there for him. For me, as for most parents, this is a crushing blow.” But like Aaron, Joshua thrived in college. In the spring of 1995, he studied in Tanzania, where he also was a volunteer in a leprosy colony. Back in Louisville after graduation, he was a volunteer for Wesley House Community Services.

“He touched a lot of people,” said brother David. The obits said Joshua was interested in history and current events, which means he probably talked with his mother about her views and votes in Congress in much the same way that Yarmuth talked to Aaron before deciding to run for office earlier this year.

The bond between father and son was intensified in the summer of 2000, when Aaron was involved in a serious car accident. As Yarmuth wrote at that time, “We’ve all heard it a thousand times before — how life can change in a second, how suddenly every seemingly critical issue in your life becomes trivial. The clichés have become real for us. When your child is hurt, the world instantly shrinks to the size of a bed.”

Or, even worse, the size of a coffin. Little in life is sadder than a parent losing a child, and there’s far too much of it happening in the world today. In every corner of the nation, parents are grieving over the deaths of sons and daughters to war in Iraq, to senseless and random acts of violence in our inner cities, to the terrible scourge of drugs.

And to natural causes, which some believe is another way of saying “God’s will.” As surely as Joshua’s death will change his mom as a person, so will it alter the nature of each candidate’s campaign. Or, at least, it should. Rest assured, the issues will be debated with vigor and passion. Both Northup and Yarmuth believe firmly in their vastly different views of what America is and what it should be.

But on a personal level, both candidates will be — or should be — reluctant to let their consultants talk them into going nasty or mean-spirited in their ads.

As parents, you see, Northup and Yarmuth are kindred spirits. Admirably, both have succeeded better than most at the delicate balancing act between career and family, between public life and private. Now, together, they have a unique opportunity to make their families and friends proud by elevating the tone and spirit of political debate in the commonwealth.

To the Northup family, we at LEO can only express our heartfelt sympathy by offering something John Yarmuth wrote for us last year. “Parenthood is not a phase of life,” he said. “It is the essence of life.” Amen.

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