A Death in the Family, Not Our Own

September 1, 2009 § 3 Comments

Observations on the Death of Edward M. Kennedy

My eyes are tired from crying. They feel tight around the edges, and gritty. I don’t know why I’ve been crying, really. I didn’t know the man. I’m sure I voted for him a time or two. But since Wednesday afternoon I’ve curled in my velvet armchair with a tissue in one hand and a cup of tea or a bit of toast in the other and I have watched television and I have wept.

My husband woke me early on Wednesday morning, touching my shoulder. He’s been downstairs to make coffee, watch the morning news. “Hi.”


“Senator Kennedy died,” he says quietly, setting a coffee mug on the table next to the bed.

“Oh no,” I mumble, still sleepy, trying to process. That’s right, he’d been ill. Cancer. Some pundits speculated that he might make it back to the hill for the health care vote. No wonder the President wanted to see a vote on the bill before the recess.  “I guess he didn’t have as much time as they thought,” I say to my husband.

Drifting back to sleep, I dream about my father. In the dream, I am sitting with him and with his wife and we are looking at a calendar for this October.  I am trying to work out a time to visit with them again before October comes, and I am asking if Dad will have enough time, if there will still be time then. When I wake up, the coffee is cold. My father has been dead for more than three years, from cancer.

We’d thought there would be a bit more time. I’d said goodbye to Dad just before Christmas, we’d rushed back to Montana so that our 11-year-old son could fulfill the obligations of his role in the school play. Why didn’t the school tell us that someone else could have filled in? Why did we even care?  It doesn’t matter now. There were plans to go back before New Year’s, but on the day after Christmas the call came. 

The dream has left me feeling unsteady.  It was the worst of times, in some ways, that parceling out of Saturdays and holidays and the weeks that may or may not be left. Dad had already been robbed of his speech by then, his larynx taken in an aggressive attempt to stave off a more aggressive cancer. It made the difficult discussions nearly impossible. Emails had gone misunderstood, or unanswered, or sent back too quickly in anger.

I am scattered, unable to work, or concentrate. I can’t get comfortable in my Aeron chair, I keep thinking about the 800 miles between here and Massachusetts. I don’t understand why I want to go.  On most television channels, nothing has changed; it is a normal Wednesday afternoon– soaps, Judge Judy, Ellen deGeneres.  But my husband is watching MSNBC, and there they have begun to bang the funeral drum.

In the kind of fortuitous timing that television producers only dream of, Chris Matthews (the host of Hardball, the man who never lets his guests finish a sentence) has just finished a documentary about the Kennedy brothers, and he has been promoting its debut for Thursday.  They’ve moved the first showing up to Wednesday night, and they will air it every night for the rest of the week. I carry the laptop into the living room to watch the talking heads talk about Ted.

I could catch a 3 a.m. train out of Toledo, Ohio that would get me to South Station at 9 p.m., with a return on Sunday that gets me into Toledo at 11 p.m. It’s a three hour drive from here to Toledo. I can catch a flight on Friday, out of Dayton. Do I really want to spend $350, though? I mean, why is it I want to go?  It’s an 800-mile drive, 13 hours no matter how you cut it. When I picture myself driving to Boston, I am not behind the wheel of my Saab, but rather in the driver’s seat of my 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit. The one I bought new in Brookline, Massachusetts 25 years ago.

Boston. My old town, a hodge podge of memories, pieced and crumpled; some things stand in sharp relief, much more is faded from an 18 year absence.  I might have met Ted Kennedy then, or not. Like Duvall Patrick says at the Memorial Service, “I knew him long before I ever met him.”  I worked campaigns for Mike Dukakis and Mel King and Walter Mondale.  I remember meeting John Kerry and Joe Kennedy. Perhaps I just saw him at a distance. It doesn’t matter.  He belonged to Massachusetts and Massachusetts belonged to him. His death is like that of a distant family member; we grieve regardless.

And there is that other thing, that Kennedy thing. Seeing those patrician faces drawn in sorrow, to hear their strong voices crack and tremble excavates memories, milestones of a childhood in turbulence.  I was not quite two when President Kennedy’s life came to an abrupt close. A Friday, around lunchtime, in Murray Kentucky. My father would have been teaching. Perhaps my mother had put me down for a nap. Though I think I have no memory of the assassination, I’m certain that memory resides within me: my parents bowed with sadness, that sense of order shattered forever.

The June morning after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy I jumped out of bed, six years old, braids flying, ready for another summer day and found the house silent, my parents stunned and weeping, the world turned topsy-turvy once again.

The melody of this death is different, but similar. He is the only brother to have lived anything like a natural life expectancy; a man who must have expected at any time that he might be gunned down by some lunatic. He’d cheated death twice before, in a plane crash that left his aide and the pilot dead; he was pulled from the wreckage with a broken back and negligible pulse.  And again in the notorious car crash that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, he was left physically unscathed. When they review his length of life, they compare and we remember, and we grieve again.

Now we are spying on his great barn of a house in Hyannisport. They tell us that last week Teddy was rolled down to his schooner, the Mya, in a wheelchair, and that, somehow miraculously shielded from the press, he was taken for one last sail.  We watch one young grandson (Teddy III, as it turns out) pull faces at the camera crews as he flops and flounces around the driveway, killing time. He’s 11. His hair is to his shoulders. Another grandson, young Max, a year older, comes out in a Navy blazer, khaki shorts and flip-flops. No wonder the world is going to hell in a handbasket, even the Kennedys can’t get their children to cooperate.

The casket comes to the hearse borne by the honor guard, who move precisely in that strange shuffling half-step that looks like they might break out into a Busby Berkeley routine at any minute, though of course they never do.  The family flows out from the house, cascading down the steps and out across the lawn. They stand together for a moment, in a brittle silence as the casket eases into the hearse, and then disperse again, like a spilled drink spreading out across the floor. A couple of the men pat the flank of the funeral coach as they pass by, the way you might pat the neck of a willing horse.

We watch the journey from Hyannisport to the Library, as people line the roads and the overpasses and stop their cars and getting out to stand as the hearse passes by. We watch thousands fill the sidewalk to the presidential library, waiting. They mop their brows in the August heat. I am glad that I decided not to drive out, putting pragmatism over sentiment: my father would have been proud. Later, we watch ordinary men and women, those constituents that Kennedy long championed, file past the flag-draped casket. A few dip in reverence, or make the sign of the cross, hand flashing brow to chest, shoulder to shoulder. Others simply stand and stare.  

Friday is punctuated with real life interspersed with television commentary. I don’t have much to say, though my husband is more and more responding to the unending parade of stories with remarks like “That’s so sad,” or “I had no idea he did that, wasn’t that wonderful.”  The rants of talk radio hosts outrage him. I am just too tired to feel rage, and besides, why would they change their stripes now? Occasionally I help him sort out one of the Kennedy clan from another. Joe. Carolyn. Rory. Patrick.

That evening we tune in to the Memorial Service at the Presidential Library, which MSNBC brings us without commercial interruption. I laugh long and hard at the stories told by John Culver, a former Senator from Iowa who had been Ted’s longtime friend and classmate at Harvard. His account of crewing (fifty years ago) for Kennedy on the Victura (now berthed outside the Library) could have been out of an old Shelley Berman routine. As someone who has been dragged out in heavy weather to sail with someone who promised there was “nothing to it,” I understood his tale very well.  As the stories unfold across the evening, the people who love Ted Kennedy breathe life back into the memory of the man.

We hear about how Kennedy loved to paint, and sing. The “history trips” on which he shepherded his children and his nieces and nephews, escaping from the last one (a camp out) and seeking refuge in the Ritz. We hear of his never-ending concern for the common man, his generosity, his astounding memory for names and faces, and his larger than life gestures. Duvall Patrick tells a story of inviting Senator and Mrs. Kennedy to dinner at their house in the Berkshires. By the time the event rolls around, the Senator has added six or seven more dinner guests, including musicians from nearby Tanglewood, amidst Mrs. Kennedy’s aghast apologies. There’s a familiar bell in that story.

We weep along with Orrin Hatch, and note the catch in Joe Biden’s voice when he talks about the comfort Kennedy brought him after the deaths of Biden’s wife and young daughter in a car accident. We argue gently about what race is Brian Stokes Mitchell. (Black, as it turns out.)  He is there to sing “The Impossible Dream,” but his rendition is so perfect that it doesn’t stir me the way I expected. Perhaps if Willie Nelson had sung it instead.  At the end I sing back to them an occasional snatched phrase of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”  The broadcast ends, but the song goes on.

I knew another man who lived like this, larger than life. A man who loved to paint and sing, one alternately adored and despised by those who knew him. The kind of man who invited people to someone else’s dinner party. My mother married him; he became my stepfather who was not quite my father, just as my father became somewhat not my father either. A British physician, he also sailed an enormous schooner (the 62 foot Charlotte Jean, as compared to Kennedy’s 50 foot Mya).

He made me believe I could do anything and he instilled in me a great deal of confidence. That is, when I wasn’t wishing I could crawl under some rug to escape his booming enthusiasm, his demanding standards and all the eyes upon us. He too had never-ending concern for the common man, often treating patients without charging them, should they not be able to pay. He took in the stray, the wounded, the faint at heart and he gave them jobs, a place to sleep (sometimes in the guest room, and if that was full, on the sofa) he challenged them and encouraged them, rode them hard at times to make them better.

The stories about him still are legion. How he drove through the worst snowstorm in 20 years to deliver a baby. How if you admired something he’d give it to you. The way he’d hand off twenty dollar bills to panhandlers in the street. I heard echoes of those stories in the Kennedy library. I know what a man like those men are like, and it makes for wonderful tales, but it’s also a very hard way to live, in the shadow of the Lion. And yet, I would not have been what I am today without him.

He took his leave over ten years ago, his heart exploding in his chest, dead before his body reached the floor, roaring out of this world and into the next. A scientist will tell you that energy is never destroyed, that it is merely transformed into some other sort of energy. His energy was prodigious and it spilled over into more than a year’s worth of strangely comforting if somewhat disturbing array of phenomena. He left quickly, but he did not go gently.

No wonder I weep now.

On the fourth day the cameras train their gaze on the familiar face of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The basilica where Kennedy is venerated is a block down the street from the house of an old friend. When you walked down the hill from his house, towards the college we both attended, it was as if we were walking to the church. Once we reached Tremont, we’d turn and continue down the hill. Online now, he complains bitterly about his freedoms being curtailed due the funeral. He is reminded that the entire government sits in the basilica on this rainy Saturday, all three branches. His inconvenience is a minor thing in light of that. He wonders aloud how the Kopechne family must feel about all this.

Around the corner, on St. Alphonsus, some jerk had come careening through a stop sign and wrecked my little Volkswagen. That was more than twenty years ago. Both my father and stepfather were very much alive then, would be with us another decade, longer. Ted Kennedy too. I didn’t realize how rich I was, back then, afforded the luxuries of sweet time.

Seeing the Bushes and the Carters and the Clintons and the Obamas gathered together in the pews, the rarest of fraternities, drives home again the way in which so many people felt connected to Edward Kennedy, and serves to underscore how they were the closest we ever had to a royal family.  There’s not another political family where we can name most of the siblings and who they married and how each one died and can name at least some of their children, and their accomplishments and their failures. It seems that Al Gore must not have cared much for Uncle Teddy; his absence among the pols is conspicuous.

The boys are deft at eulogizing their father; Teddy Jr. polished enough to set the pundits speculating that perhaps he could carry the Kennedy torch, even though it is Patrick who has a reasonable career in the political spectrum. It was the pundits that thought the older brothers were the brighter lights back when it was Jack and Bobby and Ted, too.  Grandson Teddy (III) is courting the press now that he intends to follow in Grandpa’s footsteps, he says. When, in the line of cousins, he steps forward to speak, he parrots his grandfather’s 1980 concession speech  “the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”  Without the thunder, it’s only words.

When we return to the television late in the afternoon, the body of the Senator has not yet arrived at the Capitol steps. As has been the case from the beginning, the schedule is awry.  Senator Robert Byrd, age 91, sits on the curb in his wheelchair, wiping his eyes, holding a small American flag.

Many of the Hill staffers have gathered here, for more than an hour in the muggy August afternoon. They are quiet and orderly, standing patiently as if for an enormous group portrait. On the Washington mall, more people wait. Along the boulevards of the District, they wait, along the bridge over the Potomac, in the Lincoln Memorial, lining the path to Arlington, they wait.

When at last the family does arrive, utterly exhausted, finally crumpling from the weight of their sadness and the endless duties of public mourning, the crowds erupt in a brilliant show of admiration. The only “off” note comes here in the form of an officious and awkward Congressional chaplain, who takes Vickie Reggie Kennedy firmly by the elbow and steers her away from the people she has come to meet so that she can stand at attention while he makes his fussy speech. As the motorcade drives away through the streets of Washington, people call out–  “Thank you!”  “We love you!”

At Arlington, the sun is beginning to set, just as it was for the burials of the two brothers. Cardinal Terrence McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, gently leads the last rites in the deepening gloam of evening. The images on the television become grainy and dim, until finally the cameramen give up and focus instead on the bugler playing taps, outlined in the light from Arlington House; lingering on the vibrant dance of the eternal flame.

Teddy’s granddaughter steps up to speak. Kiley Kennedy, just 15, begins, catches herself in a sob, and cries out “I can’t say anything!” But she pulls herself together and goes on to recount the happy hours spent sitting with her grandfather early on summer mornings on the porch of the Hyannisport house. But she is cloaked in darkness now; we can’t see her, even if we can hear the anguish in her voice.

When it is all over, I turn off the television before yet another replay of a Kennedy documentary. Enough is enough. I am exhausted, as if I too had waited in the line, as if I had sat in the pew under the soaring arches of Our Lady, as if I had stood on the steps of Congress waiting through the afternoon.

I carry my cup of tea outside and sit on the patio in the dark, looking up at the stars. I miss my father. I miss my stepfather.  Even though I won’t feel Ted Kennedy’s absence, I will miss his guiding hand and heart in the senate. I keep thinking about how the funeral ran late at every turn, and I wonder if that was perhaps by design. Surely it is more secure not to stick close to a well-publicized itinerary?

Most importantly, though, it gave the family an opportunity for a private ending to a very public life. In the end, in the dark they make their peace and say goodbye. They reclaim their own, and we release him.


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