Bill Whalen

This generation’s challenge is to turn the tide on disease and illness

Ann and Matt Eaves, with their son William Lawton Eaves, who took his first breath 20 weeks to the day before Christmas Eve.
Ann and Matt Eaves, with their son William Lawton Eaves, who took his first breath 20 weeks to the day before Christmas Eve.

Last year at this time, I wrote about subtraction – my family’s first Christmas without our father.

This year, it’s all about addition – my grandnephew, William Lawton Eaves, who took his first breath 20 weeks to the day before Christmas Eve.

I’m fascinated by the little man. In part, it’s because we share the same first and middle names (thank you, Ann and Matt Eaves, for honoring the two William Whalens in your life).

We two William Lawtons also share a historical quirk: his and my first Christmases coincided with presidential transitions.

For me, it was 1960, John F. Kennedy and a New Frontier that promised youth, vigor and newfound national resolve.

For Lawton, it’s an unnamed era whose consequences are anyone’s guess. By the time my grandnephew is an adolescent, much less an adult, I hope the nation will have extricated itself from this cycle of virulence and vitriol.

Lawton (that’s what his parents call him) doesn’t know it, but life already has given him one enormous break. He has an extraordinary mom and dad. A bevy of adoring aunts, uncles and grandparents will mentor and nurture him. As a son of South Carolina’s Low Country, he will grow up in a world of natural beauty and bountiful harvest.

But it’s a fragile existence.

William Lawton Eaves was born into a world of medical wonderment. Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, not so much. Born almost exactly 53 years to the day before my grandnephew, the last of John F. Kennedy’s children died two days after his birth from respiratory distress syndrome, as did roughly 25,000 babies that year.

Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. Doctors can save preemies as young as 23 and 24 weeks with the use of surfactant and ventilators and advanced technology known as continuous positive air pressure. Lawton, if he had been born with RSD, God forbid, would have a 95 percent chance of survival.

So technology is on my grandnephew’s side.

But time is not.

William Lawton Eaves’ life expectancy is a good decade more than that of a child born in Kennedy’s New Frontier. However, for the first time since 1993, that expectancy is in decline. Cancer, heart disease and diabetes are getting away with murder.

Just as JFK rallied the nation in the 1960s to reach for the stars, this generation’s challenge is to turn the tide on disease and illness – not medicating and delaying the inevitable, but outright cures.

These words aren’t meant to cast a pall over anyone’s celebration. It’s a reminder that the greatest gift for our children doesn’t come gift-wrapped or stuffed inside a stocking. Rather, it’s a commitment to helping all children from all walks of life realize long, healthy and rewarding existences – physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Merry Christmas, sweet Lawton – the first, I pray, of many spent with your loving family.

Fondly and admiringly yours,

“Great-Uncle B”

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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