How do we acknowledge the death of someone who made a career of inflicting harm?
Perhaps I should start with a story.
I first met Michael J. Fox in 2006, not long after Rush Limbaugh had mocked his involuntary movements caused by Parkinson’s disease. Michael was in Ohio for a rally in support of stem cell research that could save countless lives.
This is how I described our encounter in a book about my husband’s Senate campaign:
“It is heartbreaking to watch this gracious, talented actor and father of four struggle to perform the simplest of tasks – like sitting still, for example, or completing a sentence. He has made it clear, time and again, that he does not expect to live long enough to benefit from the research he is championing – and yet there he was, sitting onstage with Sherrod along with a number of other people afflicted with diseases that stem cell research might cure.
“I got a healthy dose of humility from Michael J. Fox that day. Sherrod and I sat on either side of Michael, watching as a sixth-grade boy with Type 1 diabetes gave a speech. He was going on a bit, and I smiled nervously at Sherrod. I was worried that all of this waiting would tire Michael.
“Michael leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘You know, it is going to make him feel so good to get his whole story out.’ He smiled at me, and I was appropriately reprimanded. When it was Michael’s turn at the microphone, he turned to the boy and said, ‘At any age, you feel the need to tell your story, and I consider you an inspiration.’”
This was my first thought after I heard that Rush Limbaugh had died on Wednesday. Lucky me.
Limbaugh died of lung cancer at age 70. The response on social media was the predictable ricochet of emotions. Many on the right tried to cast him as a fallen god; many on the left celebrated his demise. This is the world he created.
I kept trying to figure out how to publicly acknowledge Limbaugh’s death in a way that didn’t make me feel worse about myself in the typing. In the end, I posted the ultimate cop-out:
“This is one of those days when I know I’m still my mother’s daughter because no matter how many ways I try to type my response to the news I feel her gentle hand on my arm as she says, ‘But who does this help?’”
Some misinterpreted my words as a scolding or a recycling of the admonishment to never speak ill of the dead. This was not my intention. This was an act of self-preservation. I wanted to keep my soul intact.
On his show, Limbaugh had called me “brain-dead” and “blitheringly ignorant,” and once speculated that I lacked “an IQ of three figures.” Every time he mentioned me, his mob heard the same message: “Go get her.” My inbox would fill with mountains of hate mail.
This was nothing compared to his attacks on other women, the LGBTQ community, racial minorities – anyone who didn’t fit his idea of a patriot, which demanded loyalty only to him.
Now the video of Limbaugh jeering at Michael J. Fox and accusing him of faking his symptoms is making the rounds again. You may have seen it in some of the coverage. I don’t know how this makes him feel, but I can encourage you to listen to what he has to say.
Last November, Fox released his fourth book: “No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality.” It is a meditation on aging, told by a man whose body betrayed him long ago. After 40 years in public life, he is “straddling the void.”
“I’m probably the only person who has been featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and AARP in the same year,” he writes. “I’m living the life of a retired person, a decade too soon. My world is contracting, not expanding. In terms of the space-time continuum, I’m closer to my exit than to my entrance point.”
“When I visit the past now, it is for wisdom and experience, not for regret or shame. I don’t attempt to erase it, only to accept it. Whatever my physical circumstances are today, I will deal with them and remain present. If I fall, I will rise up.”
Repeatedly, he insists, “With gratitude, optimism becomes sustainable.”
Not one word about the rabid, millionaire talk-show host who held him up to scorn and ridicule.
Moving forward, I hope to follow his lead.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.