In Praise of a Friend Dying Young: Jen McCann Black

by Mo Guernon
June 4, 2019

She was petite. Yet her stature touched the sky.

Jen McCann-Black was blessed with virtues that elude most of us: dignity, magnanimity, kindness, resilience, integrity, and courage. She was, among other things, a devoted wife, an adoring mother, a loving daughter and sister, a loyal friend, and a cherished teacher. Jen was a strong and determined woman who confronted life’s challenges, including her cruel illness, with awe-inspiring equanimity.

I last saw Jen towards the end of her seemingly endless captivity at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. As I stepped into the room, I was warmly welcomed by a bedridden young woman who was a shocking shadow of herself; she was in constant discomfort and fatigued by the relentless disease that ravaged her body. Yet she welcomed the visit.

She began our conversation by asking about my family — her selflessness once again readily evident. Throughout our hour together, there was not even a fleeting hint of self-pity, complaint, or rage at the injustice of her fate. Cancer could not weaken her spirit.

In response to my hesitant inquiries about how she felt, she responded in a measured tone. When I reacted enthusiastically to the news of her approaching release, she freely admitted her anxiety about returning home because of the complications it would cause her caregivers. Her eyes, though, seemed to suggest that she knew Pawtucket would be her final destination before reaching her eternal home.

It is common for friends and family, encountering the imminent demise of a loved one, to offer awkward or inadequate words of encouragement even when a miracle cure is beyond the imagination. That’s what I did. “Put on some weight and get stronger,” I urged Jen. “You will beat this,” I insisted.

I said it with a smile that I mysteriously mustered at a moment when I was about to lose my composure. I had an overwhelming desire to lend her at least a modicum of hope. Her countenance, though, seemed to convey that she knew better.

People typically don’t know how to speak honestly with the dying. I am one of them. My feelings, when she told me she needed to nap, were of unfathomable heartache for her, Matt, Michael, and her parents for whom I repeatedly prayed since her grim diagnosis. I reached for her right hand and held it tenderly in both of mind. “I’ll see you again when you get home,” I said in farewell. She smiled faintly. My instinct, however, told me this was our final parting. And it was.

Jen always gave of herself selflessly to the suffering and the least among us. In doing so she inspired us all.

If anyone deserved longevity and the very best that life has to offer, it was Jen. And because of that, none of us can ever make sense of the tragedy that befell her.  Attempting to do so inevitably leads to a dead end. All we can be certain of is that the world we inhabit is inscrutable and often unjust.

Jen’s emotional anguish at being robbed of her future was undoubtedly her constant companion, tempered somewhat by daily reminders of the love of her family and friends. The very thought of being deprived of the joy of seeing Michael grow up and her distress at the possibility of not being remembered by him had to be the source of unimaginable agony.

Emerson, upon the untimely death of his friend Thoreau at age 45, wrote a fond tribute to the nobility of his neighbor’s short life. And on those rare occasions, like this one, when a truly extraordinary individual I have known and loved has passed on to the other side, my mind always returns to this particular passage that undeniably holds true for Jen. I have, therefore, taken the liberty of substituting her name in the passage. This is the modified excerpt from Emerson’s elegy that might provide us with a sliver of solace in this, our own moment of intense grief:

“There is a flower known to botanists, one of the same genus with our summer plant called “Life-Everlasting”… which grows on the most inaccessible cliffs of the Tyrolese mountains, where…the traveler, tempted by its beauty, and by her love…climbs the cliffs to gather, and is sometimes found dead at the foot, with the flower in her hand. It is called …by the Swiss Edelweiss, which signifies Noble Purity. Jen seemed to me living in the hope to gather this plant, which belonged to her of right…But she, at least, is content. Her soul was made for the noblest society; she had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, she will find a home.”

A rare malicious cancer burrowed into a heart that was too pure for this flawed world. Yet Jen suffered stoically, with dignity and courage. The lives of those of us who were privileged to know Jen were touched by an angel. And all of our lives – family, friends, colleagues, and students — are richer because of her.

As we now bid Jen our final heart-wrenching farewell, we should try to take consolation that her memory will survive for all of our tomorrows and that she will live on in Michael. As he grows, we will see Jen in his features, his smile, his personality, his goodness, and his indomitable spirit.

Then we will remember Jen in the full bloom of her life, and those memories will get us through for the remainder of our own days.

All Those Years Ago


All Those Years Ago

by Mo Guernon

Four decades is a very long time, and yet there are bygone occasions so fragrant that their aroma transcends time as if they were flowers in perpetual bloom. August 26, 1978, was one of those rare instances.

On that day, as recorded in the pages of history as well as imprinted in the minds of those who witnessed it, an obscure little Italian priest enchanted the world by becoming Pope John Paul I. His 33-day pontificate was one of the shortest in the Catholic Church’s 2,000 year old history. Yet that was all the time Pope Albino Luciani needed to model the face of unconditional love that transfixed the world.

His radiant smile enthralled humanity, including those of other faiths and even those of no faith whatsoever.  Patti Smith, an edgy American punk rock star of that time who once had written, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” in her poem, “Oath”, was astoundingly passionate about the new pope. In her album “Wave”, which Smith dedicated to Luciani, she chanted uncharacteristically,

“Oh, Albino
Wave thou art high
Goodbye, goodbye sir, goodbye papa.”

Other lesser known individuals, like Regina Kummer, author of the notable Italian book, Albino Luciani: A Life for the Church, converted to Catholicism because of the pope’s inspiration. And many who were lapsed Catholics fervently returned to their faith as a result of John Paul I’s exemplary life and influential teachings.

There has been no other pope quite like him.

The first John Paul swiftly transformed lives through his enlightening example and his soothing words. During his brief papacy, the world glimpsed a common man of uncommon rectitude.

“Blessed are the meek,” wrote Matthew in the Gospels. Meekness is synonymous with humility; it denotes gentleness as well as fortitude to endure tribulations with patience and forgiveness. To be sure, “Papa” Luciani cultivated and captured this virtue. Indeed, his episcopal motto itself was “Humilitas”. When Saint John XXIII once wrote wisely, “…in the Gospel Jesus teaches us to be gentle and humble; naturally, this is not the same thing as being weak…” he could have had Albino Luciani in mind.

Though John Paul I was meek, he was not weak as evidenced by the daring decisions he made during his tenure as bishop, archbishop, and pope. The soft spoken man was bold in shattering tradition when he believed it served the best interests of the Church.

“I am the little one of once upon a time, I am the one who comes from the fields, I am pure and simple dust; on this dust the Lord has written the episcopal dignity of the illustrious Diocese of Vittorio Veneto,” he proclaimed upon becoming bishop. From the very beginning of his ecclesiastical leadership until the very end, he eschewed the trappings of status and power, even repeatedly referring to himself as “a little man accustomed to silence.”

Throughout his 21 years as a bishop in Vittorio Veneto, Venice, and Rome, he continued living an ascetic life, consuming meager meals, riding in a clunker of a car, and, as patriarch and cardinal, often dressing as an ordinary priest. To the poor he would empty his own pockets, and for the sick in the hospitals he habitually visited, he surreptitiously tucked money under patients’ pillows as he uttered words of encouragement.

Luciani’s love of the poor and downtrodden is legendary. His personal secretary, Monsignor Mario Senigaglia, in 1983 poignantly recalled an incident which illustrates how Luciani, as Patriarch of Venice, served the least among us:

“Within a few days of his arrival in Venice, leaving the study, Luciani noticed the great tide of people…that had filled the waiting rooms. He asked me, ‘Who are they?’ ‘They are the poor…’ He wanted to go and greet them…about sixty or seventy in number. For each he had a smile and a word. Then he said, ‘Remember, the Patriarch’s door is always open. Ask don Mario, and what I can do for you, I will always do it with pleasure.’ ‘Excellence – I mumbled – you will ruin me: they will not leave me in peace.’ He smiled, saying, ‘Somebody will help us.’ The poor…drunkards, released prisoners, women who walked the streets, clients of the nocturnal asylums, and beggars…were his friends. For many of them we found houses and work…”

Not long after arriving in Venice, he stunned and exasperated many of the faithful by selling various diocesan treasures, including a pectoral cross of great value, so that he could contribute to a sanitarium for handicapped children on behalf of the Church.

As pope, Luciani never forgot who he was or where he had come from — a poor, tiny, isolated village surrounded and dwarfed by the Dolomite Mountains. That remembrance was evident in his every word and his every action. He was a servant of servants, the embodiment of the Good News of the gospel. And because of that he imbued the world with wonder and love.

That summer of Blessed Pope John Paul I’s pontificate had all too short a date. Yet forty years following his election on August 26, 1978, his memory and his example live on, inspiring us to live according to what Lincoln once designated “the better angels of our nature.” It is a fitting date to remember and celebrate.

Mo Guernon of Rhode Island, a free-lance writer and consultant at Quest Writing Solutions, is completing a biography of John Paul I. He is a founding member of the Pope John Paul Society based in New York City.


A Shred of History

by Mo Guernon

Image result for jfk assassinationImage result for jfk assassinationImage result for jfk assassinationImage result for jfk bloody limousineRelated imageImage result for auto traffic in dealey plaza elm street dallas today

It took me more than half a century to get there: a destination that beckoned as well as repelled.

Inspired by President Kennedy in my youth and devastated by his untimely death, I had repeatedly and meticulously scrutinized innumerable photos and videos of the site and the dreadful historically-altering act that had transpired there, yet I was stunned when inspecting it in person. Pictures and film profoundly distort its size. The lens alters dimensions that only the eye can capture with precision. Contrary to common perception, therefore, the ignoble Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, is far from an expansive location. It is in fact a compact setting with its collection of all-too-familiar structures and landmarks clustered in astonishingly close proximity. In truth it is startlingly small, just like the man who made it infamous.

This is where the course of American history was derailed for all time in six sickening seconds in the fall of 1963. It is the home of a gruesome event forever etched in the minds and hearts of those old enough to have suffered through it. It was there that a young, charismatic president’s life was brutally extinguished. Consequently, it is where a nation forever lost its innocence and its idealism. Given the endless chain of political and policy calamities that ensued John Kennedy’s slaughter and that continue unabated today, it is not unreasonable to expect that historians might yet pinpoint 12:30 p.m. Central Time on November 22, 1963, as the precise moment when American civilization began its own inexorable death spiral.

Ever since that dreadful episode nearly 55 years ago, countless vehicles have cruised down the triple lane thoroughfare where the carnage took place as if it were nothing more than an ordinary street. The wheels are still rolling. Daily. Hourly. By the minute. It leaves visitors to feel that the ignominious deed committed here is history snubbed or trivialized.

In the center lane crude white X’s designate where the two shots struck their prominent target. The first indicates where a bullet, approximately the diameter of a pencil and traveling at 1,900 feet per second, penetrated pulsating flesh, puncturing the victim’s upper back and throat; the other where a second metal projectile shattered the President’s skull, splattering the pavement and those in close proximity with presidential blood and brain matter and cranial fragments.

The rudimentary X’s are unseemly indicators of the enormity of the deed that happened on that swathe of asphalt. In a sense, these makeshift markers are metaphorical band aids, impossibly attempting to sanitize the gore that stained those spots and seeped into the psyche of millions of Americans who continue to mourn decades after the hideous crime claimed its victim and made victims of us all who lived through it. The sudden explosion of a president’s skull simultaneously shattered the fragile illusion that America had evolved into a highly civilized nation, incapable of such barbaric acts.

The distressing reality is that not only do thousands of tires repeatedly defile the vestiges of the bloodbath each day, but, when traffic momentarily abates, some visitors who perhaps know the tale of anguish only through superficial history lessons or through Oliver Stone’s fictional film, stand on or near the markers to be photographed, some of them grinning. Desecration mars this destination of secular pilgrims many of whose hearts still bear scars from the ghastly tragedy that occurred there on a sunlit November day so long ago but which remains evocatively fresh in the memory of those who endured it.

Dealey Plaza and, in particular, the road that bisects the grassy areas where spectators witnessed the horror are sacred ground, though they are not treated as such. Decency would dictate that since the assassination, Elm Street should forever have been a road not taken. Yet the short segment where hellish violence rocked the world has never been sealed off from traffic.

Today, the lonely unadorned plaque standing as a solitary sentinel of history on the grassy knoll merely relates the dry facts of the assassination without a hint of the magnitude of the human sacrifice and the country’s incalculable loss on that fateful day.

Incredibly, most of the nondescript square brick building from which the horror emanated is still used by the government. One wonders how employees can work in that nauseating structure without being persistently haunted by its vile historic significance. The Texas School Book Depository Building’s name has been changed to the Dallas County Administration Building, perhaps in a token — but utterly futile attempt — to decontaminate it of its ignominious past. Its continued occupation as an annex of county government is simply obscene. Also disgraceful are the shameless hawkers, pretending to be experts on the butchery that happened there. They prowl the structure’s immediate vicinity and assail unwary visitors in their eagerness to profit from the tragedy by peddling glossy magazines that tarnish the truth and tease voyeurs of violence with gruesome pictures of the abominable act.

The window from which the horror originated remains half opened as it was on that fateful Friday. From the across the street, it too looks small. So does the rifle barrel that rested on its sill ready to act out the devil’s will.

The grassy knoll, the abandoned railroad tracks behind it, and the triple underpass that once promised swift safety for the occupants of the presidential limousine are all nestled together, unexceptional now except to the curious who gather there to relive the fatal six seconds, to imagine what it must have been like to be eyewitnesses to the most momentous murder of the Twentieth Century.

Dealey Plaza is where cynicism triumphed over hope. Where the weak and irrational conquered the heroic and wise.

In one sense it was no surprise that the grotesque deed happened here: a city that was home to a bevy of right-wing political extremists. A city in which one of its newspapers published a vulgar full-page ad with John Kennedy’s picture above a bold headline of hateful words, “Wanted for Treason.”

In fairness, there was another side to Dallas, though. Enormous, enthralled crowds greeted the President and First Lady at Lovefield Airport and all along the motorcade route until the long topless limousine made its slow, cautious turn onto Elm Street, the last leg of the parade, where eager onlookers thinned out. The unexpected outpouring of cheering locals prompted Nellie Connally, the governor’s wife sitting in the limousine’s jump seat, to remark just moments before the lethal shot was fired, “You sure can’t say the people of Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President.” That seemed true even though Kennedy had garnered barely more than a third of the Dallas vote three years before.

On the sixth floor of the book depository building from which the assassin carried out his malevolent scheme, there is now a museum that provides facts intended to counter the relentless spewing of farfetched conspiracy theories while prominently exhibiting jolting assassination artifacts. It’s a disturbing juxtaposition: Lee Harvey Oswald and John Fitzgerald Kennedy – loser and leader — in close, repulsive proximity. Yet the two are necessarily inseparable here – as they are in history itself — if the complete and accurate narrative of events is to be told and understood and remembered.

The reconstructed sniper’s nest in the sixth floor museum is suitably cramped. A perfect lair in which a pathetic coward could hide while shooting his unsuspecting prey in the back. Plexiglas encloses the corner now, textbook boxes carefully re-positioned as they were when they concealed the assassin. Visitors can still peer down onto Elm Street from a nearby window or from the floor above for a view of what the slayer saw as he peered through his scope.

Because of the confined area of the plaza, it seems as if the assassin had a relatively easy shot, especially for a Marine marksman even though Oswald used a crude mail-order rifle. The scope, of course, magnified the head of his target, and the limousine crawled at eleven miles per hour, inching almost to a stop as it made the sharp turn onto Elm Street and then again as the first shot shattered the silence that surprised the Secret Service man driving the car. The presidential vehicle was ever so close; 63 yards for the first hit, only 81 yards for the shot that killed Kennedy.

The interior of the sixth floor is fittingly dingy and depressing, featuring exposed brick walls and roughhewn bare beams and dim, naked hanging light bulbs; window sills riddled with desperate words etched with pocket knives by poorly paid, unskilled laborers, likely bored or depressed while conducting their mindless, repetitive work. The ugly, rickety freight elevator contributes to the gloomy atmosphere that suffocated employees’ dreams of a better life. This place was a dead end, literally and figuratively.
From here a dishonorably discharged misfit marine slaughtered a decorated naval war hero. In the constricted confines of Dealey Plaza, the ghosts of the vulgar and the distinguished endure side by side in perpetuity.

After the assassination, journalist Mary McGrory lamented, “We’ll never laugh again,” and Kennedy aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan notably replied, “Mary, we will laugh again. It’s just that we will never be young again.”

John Kennedy made Americans feel big, capable of achieving greatness, even of accomplishing the impossible. His soaring eloquence inspired, appealing to the better angels of our nature, as is evident in an excerpt from the speech he was scheduled to deliver at the nearby Dallas Trade Mart: “Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live.”

For those of us who vividly remember the nightmare of Kennedy’s brutal slaying, whatever age we were at the time, we truly would never be young again. We were plunged into enduring cynicism and robbed of our hope for a future unsurpassed in the bleak history of mankind.

Oswald, the wretched life-long nobody, blasted his way into the history books. It was a moment when pessimism trumped idealism. This was the assassin’s lasting legacy to our country.

It all happened at Dealey Plaza. A very small place.

Mo Guernon is a free-lance writer and writing consultant with Quest Writing Solutions of Rhode Island.

The 50th Anniversary of JFK’s Assassination

Inspiration and Devastation

A Tribute to President John F. Kennedy

by Mo Guernon


I was eleven years old when JFK was brutally taken from us so unexpectedly that his death shattered us emotionally as individuals and as a nation. For me, the pain has never completely abated; the psychic wound has never completely healed. All these decades later, the tears still swell whenever I view footage of the President, most especially that poignant moment, when about to depart Ireland, he bid farewell to the land of his ancestors by reciting haunting lines from a poem, concluding with the words, “Well, I’m going to come back to see Old Shannon’s face again.” Dreadful destiny, beyond the poor power of man to halt, as we are reminded in the Greek tragedies of old, robbed the President of fulfilling his fond wish.

In the intervening years, JFK’s words and deeds have lived on in my memory and in my soul. As a father, I have repeatedly shared with my children the enduring power of his eloquence and his lofty ideals. From his stirring Inaugural Address to his sobering response to the Cuban Missile Crisis; from his inspiring speech about America’s bold commitment to explore the wonders of space, to his urgent moral call for action on civil rights; and from his  clarion call on behalf of freedom at the Berlin wall to his hopeful speech at American University that reminded humanity of our “most common basic link…that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

As a journalist, I have quoted President Kennedy’s words frequently. As a teacher, I have sought to instill in my students the idealism embodied by the President: the quest for excellence in all endeavors, regardless of the difficulties; the necessity of dedicating ourselves to causes bigger than ourselves; the imperative of sacrificing for the common good of our country. 

John F. Kennedy will forever be a beacon of hope for peoples of all nations who aspire to the amelioration of suffering, the relentless pursuit of world peace, and the noble cultivation of what is the very best of the human spirit.

That, I believe, is JFK’s enduring legacy. As Ted Sorenson so aptly concluded in his book Kennedy, “All of us are better for having lived in the days of Kennedy.”

This was originally posted on November 22, 2013

JFK’s Prophetic Final Speech

by Mo Guernon

See the source image


On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy was scheduled to deliver remarks to an audience gathered at the Dallas, Texas Trade Mart. Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated minutes before he was to make that speech. As a result, the document has been consigned to the dustbins of history, despite its visionary insights. The text includes startling portents of what is actually transpiring in contemporary American politics.

JFK’s dire warnings require solemn contemplation by all American patriots regardless of party loyalty or ideology, especially now when our country is politically polarized, when much of our electorate is abysmally uninformed about vital national issues and readily susceptible to the alluring but treacherous promises of cynical demagogues.

Time is our paramount adversary, for our fundamental rights – indeed our very survival as a free society — is in imminent jeopardy both from our foreign foes as well as from a host of pernicious domestic enemies.

Ponder the chilling excerpts below from President Kennedy’s undelivered speech that foretold the inevitable demise of a society in which rampant gullibility, apathy, cynicism, intolerance, recklessness, and self-indulgence prevail. We are there. The ultimate question we must resolve before it is too late is, “Whither the future, America?”

           “This link between leadership and learning is not only essential at the community level. It is even more indispensable in world affairs. Ignorance and misinformation can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country’s security. In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.

            “There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility.

“… other voices are heard in the land–voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality…doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice…that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. 

“We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will “talk sense to the American people.” But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.

“… the status of our strength and our security…clearly calls for the most responsible qualities of leadership and the most enlightened products of scholarship. For this Nation’s strength and security are not easily or cheaply obtained, nor are they quickly and simply explained. 

“Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.

“… in today’s world, freedom can be lost without a shot being fired, by ballots as well as bullets. The success of our leadership is dependent upon respect for our mission in the world…on a clearer recognition of the virtues of freedom as well as the evils of tyranny.

“Finally, it should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live.

“We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”