As the sub-title of my memoir suggests, one of the major themes I have been writing about in this blog has been the need to move beyond trauma. In that spirit, I am choosing to write a personal tribute to the life of Senator Ted Kennedy.
I don’t expect you’ll find me saying anything that others haven’t already said. However, I hope that my particular perspective will add to your belief about the human spirit and the potential in each of us to grow and change and make a difference, no matter what curve balls we’ve been thrown.
When I was graduating from college in ’63, John F. Kennedy was the heart throb of most of the girls on campus. It wasn’t just because of his good looks but because of his charisma. He made us feel protected and encouraged. He made it easy for us to want to join him to make America the very best America the world had ever known. We could even accept the fact that he was married to Jacquie, because she personified the sort of elegance and charm most of us could only dream about.
That Kennedy’s family was enormously wealthy or even that his father was known to carry personal and political baggage that some of us found to be offensive didn’t matter as much as it might have. JFK had already impressed us. Then, too, there was the rest of the Kennedy clan – all those brothers and sisters – each of whom seemed equally committed to using their wealth to improve the quality of life for those less fortunate than themselves. They defended the impoverished, the mentally or physically disabled (as was one of their siblings), and any American who was treated as a second-class citizen.
But the honeymoon for us was short-lived! First we mourned his tragic death, then the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy … and within what then seemed the blink of an eye we had to survive the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent resignation. Whatever innocence those in my generation may have had was then totally stolen from us. We no longer lived in the America promised to us by our Camelot-loving leader!
Then, with the backdrop of all those tragedies, yet another Kennedy came to the fore and threw his hat into the ring. Ted Kennedy, the youngest of the Kennedy boys (and the one many thought was least likely to succeed) took the stage.
He wasn’t Jack or Bobbie, though. He hadn’t succeeded academically at Harvard as they had. His personal life replete with questionable behavior was surely made painfully public, placing him under humiliating scrutiny. For many years his life suffered close examination and was judged as few others in the public arena. Yet, in the end, the man triumphed. The question I find worthy of addressing is WHY? How was he able to cope with the tragic deaths of so many family members, the divorce of his wife of more than twenty years, the tragedy of two of his three children being diagnosed with cancer and a third suffering from bi-polar disorder?
Who among us could cope with such challenges and still continue to remain in the public spotlight, a Senator of the United States who, until his dying day, fought for the rights of all Americans. As I see it, Ted Kennedy had several gifts, but most importantly – especially when compared to his brothers – he was blessed with the gift of TIME. Time that afforded him the wisdom that comes when a civilized person recognizes the brevity of life and accepts the responsibility to be his best person – whether or not his past errors were made public or kept private – so that his children and their children will one day know that he lived life as best he could and did whatever was in his power to enrich and protect the lives of others.
And his best was admirable! Most recently, he championed the need for health care reform. He found his voice and didn’t allow Republicans or Democrats to silence him. He fought a good fight, a brave battle. Whether it was his faith, his fate or both, those who paid tribute to him this weekend did so from all over the world and from both sides of the political spectrum.
As one of his sons so admirably put it: he did not wish his father to be idealized in death. His father was not a perfect man and he knew it. But, he also knew that he did whatever he could to make a difference. He felt he owed it to all who came before him as well as to future generations to enact laws that would make us a more civilized nation. He felt this to be true more so than ever before, since ours is a time when optimism is at a premium and voices of reason and courage are desperately needed.
In the end, he has shown us the power of the human spirit to grow, to move through and beyond trauma. He has demonstrated the courage that can be found even in the darkest of days. He has challenged us all – not just men and women of wealth and privilege – but decent people everywhere who believe in democracy and equal rights to get in the ring and do the fighting in whatever way we are able to do so effectively. We cannot afford to leave it to others to do the work.