We’ve buried two American heroes: Aretha Franklin and John McCain. both captured the imagination and affection of the American people; they both survived extreme mistreatment and suffering. In the end, they survived, realized their mettle and charged into life, sometimes in imperfect ways.

McCain’s is a storybook kind of heroism. Born into a distinguished military family, he barely measured up at the Naval Academy, and graduated close to the bottom of a 500-member class. But he was no screw-up. He volunteered for Vietnam, and was piloting a plane when he was shot down and put in a prison camp.

He suffered 5½ years of torture, broken bones that never healed properly, and isolation. He was offered release because of his family status but turned it down and refused to leave his fellow POWs behind.

I never thought much about him, as I rarely think much about conservative Republicans. I thought his choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate was bone-headed, but I took notice when he defended Obama against a woman on the campaign trail in 2008 who questioned Obama’s ethnicity.

Then in the last two years as almost all elected Republicans have caved to Trump’s crass disrespect for the Constitution and other human beings, McCain challenged Trump whenever he could, and became the party’s voice of sanity. I read his latest book, The Restless Wave, and really learned a lot, particularly about America’s role in foreign policy.

I wonder if you have to suffer in order to be considered a hero, or if overcoming that suffering is part of what makes a hero. Certainly they both suffered greatly.

Aretha’s voice was and will always be a national treasure. The night she died, I was reading a book, having a glass of wine and listening to classical music on WFMT when they ended the hour with Aretha filling in for Luciano Pavarotti on “Nessun Dorma,” which she performed in place of the ill Pavarotti. Chills and tears. As I write this, I’m trying to get my Alexa to download both versions.

I had no idea her childhood was so awful. It’s clear to me as I’ve read about her life, it’s a miracle she survived and was able to lift us up with her voice and charisma. But who lifted her up?

She survived and thrived, but she was a used and abused child. She had a baby at the age of 12 when she should have been perfecting her Double Dutch moves (God, I loved Double Dutch). She had a second baby at the age of 14.

The tragedy is that there is no such thing as consensual sex at the age of 12 or 14; it’s called rape. Clearly, nobody was watching out for her. No one was held responsible. Her mother had left the family, apparently after the father’s abuse. Aretha was in her famous preacher-father’s custody and he didn’t protect her. He does, however, get credit for starting and advancing her career. Just yuck.

She survived and thrived, but it’s not surprising that she was often a cranky diva, insisted in being paid in cash for her concerts, and carried her purse onstage.

I marvel at her gift, her grit and her strength. And that once-in-a-lifetime voice. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Aretha.

A word about the funerals. They were beautiful, inspiring, touching and too damn long. Aretha’s lasted all day and McCain’s was over three hours. Did people know in advance? I didn’t see anybody handing out water or people with their own water bottles, let alone snacks and lunch. Speaking of water, did the invitations recommend Depends? I won’t name names, but I was “feeling the pain” for some of the speakers in my age group.

Join the discussion on social media!

Mary Kay O'Grady

Mary Kay O'Grady is a former high school English teacher and later owned her own public relations business, The O'Grady Group. She has lived in Oak Park for almost fifteen years. She is currently the chairperson...