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Russert Family Tragedy

By Susan Estrich   |   Wednesday, 18 Jun 2008 08:28 AM

In the outpouring of tributes and anecdotes about the passing of Tim Russert, one item caught my eye. It was a note that recalled that this was the second tragedy in a matter of months for the Russert family: It was less than three months ago that Tim's sister Betty lost her husband, William Buckenroth; he was 61. Meanwhile, their father, Tim Russert senior or "Big Russ," continues to live in Buffalo.

I can't help but think how crazy it is to lose your 61-year-old husband and then your 58-year-old brother, while your father survives them both. What sense does that make?

No sense.

Children are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around.

When someone as young and full of life as Tim dies, we all struggle to make sense of it. I read numerous posts about his medical situation, about his being overweight and even diabetic, about the plaque in his arteries and the size of his heart. We search for ways to prove that what happened to him somehow made sense in view of his condition, not ours, explanations that will allow us to create a safe distance between ourselves and the prospect of sudden death.

But it doesn't work. There is no sense. Tim Russert was the king of the hill until he wasn't. He was the luckiest guy in town until his luck ran out. Luck shouldn't count for so much, but it does.

Washington is full of guys with cholesterol plaque in their arteries and too much fat in their middles who don't keel over and die at work at the age of 58. Many of them aren't nearly as good, nearly as generous, nearly as hardworking or honorable as Tim Russert was.

My father died of a heart attack at 54, shortly before I graduated from law school and moved to Washington. When I got there, I couldn't help but look around and see a town full of people in no better shape than my slightly overweight, workaholic dad, people who got up and went to work every day and kept doing what they were doing, while my father was not so lucky.

At the time, it made me angry and sad. It seemed wrong somehow. My father was a better man than so many of them. Why did his heart give way, while theirs kept beating?

You wouldn't know it from all the tributes that sing his praises without reservation, but Washington is full of people who envied Tim Russert's successes and begrudged him his triumphs. Schadenfreude is at least as common in Washington as it is in Hollywood, and the business of political journalism is full of people who think they deserve more than they have, or that others deserve less.

No one is ever so celebrated in life as they are in death. None of us ever notices how much luck matters until it runs out.

I don't know Tim's sister Betty, but my heart goes out to her, along with the other members of the Russert family. Too much loss. Lousy luck. No sense.

As for the rest of us, the question is whether we will learn anything from their loss. I don't mean the lessons about good cardiac health, about exercise and arteries and taking and keeping weight off, although those are certainly important. I mean about being as generous in life as we are in death, about recognizing the good luck we have when we have it and being grateful for it so that we do not feel ambushed by misfortune when luck runs out.

No one is jealous of Tim anymore. Isn't that always true? So why be jealous in the first instance? Why not just be grateful for what we have? It is the only sense there is to be made of such a loss.

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