Monday, August 31, 2009

Touching History

It was mid-afternoon. We had driven 5 hours from our home to Boston to be part of the throng that had made the pilgrimage to the John F. Kennedy library to pay last respects to Senator Ted Kennedy. We arrived around 2:30 pm, to find out that they had cut the line at noon. We were disappointed, but hung out anyway, looking at the flowers and gifts left there, chatting with others who had been through or had actually been there the previous day and had come back. We hoped to get a glimpse of the Kennedy family members. We saw a few remaining people being let in, and my wife wandered over to ask if there was any way we could get in.

And so we were allowed in.

The Kennedy family had been gracious throughout, keeping the library open till 2 am that morning to accommodate as many as they could from the day before. And here, now, approaching the time when they were to close down to prepare for the service at the library that evening, to be attended by the family and dignitaries, they accommodated one last request from some ordinary citizens. At that moment, something I had always heard but never known about the Kennedy clan was realized -- they really did care about everyone, and wanted no one to be left out if they could help it.

It was very quiet. The casket lay on its pedestal, the flag draped over it so crisp and vibrant in color, as to be unreal. At the the four corners, stood 4 members of the military honor guard, like wax statues standing there, in their silent guardianship. I was struck by a young woman in her Navy whites, boots laced up so precisely, a rifle, butt to the ground, next to her, almost like a museum display in her own right. It was hard to take it all in, what with the solemnity of the surroundings, the intensity of the scene, and fighting my own emotions, trying so very hard not to burst into tears.

Some members of the family sat before coffin; I believe I saw Ted Jr. there, but my attention was immediately snapped up by Kiki Kennedy, who was there at the velvet rope surrounding the coffin, shaking hands and chatting with my wife. Despite the gravity of the moment, she had a smile on her face, spoke to my wife as if she were an old friend, fawned a little over my daughter, and my stepsons. As I reached the spot, I took her hand, and found that my normal ability with words failed me. I'm not even sure what I said, but she thanked me and my family for coming, and her tone was so reassuring, that I felt a small wave of relief.

And then, just before the exit of the rotunda, stood Patrick, Ted Kennedy's youngest son and a Congressman in his own right. You could tell, for the family resemblance breeds true, and even with the passage of time the features that mark him as part of the clan stood out. Again, he chatted with my wife, and talked to my daughter so very forthrightly; we had dressed her in a shirt we had bought in Washington, D.C., which had a small American flag and the words "Future President" on it. It was my attempt at homage, for Ted Kennedy had fought for the rights of women amongst the many groups whose causes he championed, and what father doesn't believe his daughter won't be President, in this day and age?

My 4-year-old daughter stood there and looked up at him, with one of her beautiful smiles, and he beamed at her, and asked her "Could I be your Vice President? Just for an hour...", to which my daughter responded with the New England brevity she inherited from me, and said simply, "Sure." His face had a broad smile, and he shook hands with all of us vigorously. Again, words failed me, and I could only stammer out "Our condolences," though in my mind, I had so much more praise to heap on his father. He looked me in the eye and told me I had a beautiful family, and it took just about every bit of reserve I could muster not to cry. Here was a man before me, who I am sure would have liked to do the same, but showed remarkable self control, and to honor him, so would I.

The next day, I would watch Senator Kennedy's funeral service, hear the stirring words spoken by so many, and cry the tears I could not the day before. Whenever Patrick Kennedy appeared on the screen, I could not help but contrast the friendly out-going man I had met, with the now somber mourner I saw before me. At once, it was if the doors had closed, and the cloak of good will and honest appreciation could finally be shrugged off, and the import of the moment taken up and placed once more upon his shoulders. I only hoped that each hand he had taken during the previous two days had imparted to him some measure of strength, from each person who had so loved his father.

To listen to his voice, firm, strident, at times playful and emotional, coming as it did after his brother's impassioned remembrance, was so touching that, for a moment, it was if I could feel his life as he had felt it. It was a dam bursting, swallowing me up in a torrent of grief. I knew, if only for an instant, his loss. It was a feeling that surpassed the sorrow that washed over me after 9/11, for that was a shock, a terrible hour of destruction, and a long, slow aftermath. This was the weight of decades, a swirling river of devastation and loss, a boy, become a man, suddenly a boy again, trying to cope with the idea that the father he loved and respected, was gone.

All that day, every time I saw his face, etched by time, pain, and sorrow, I could feel the ache myself. Though our world's are light-years apart, we became connected, if only for a brief instant, in our grief -- his far, far greater than mine. Strangely, that is a gift, a gift that no doubt his father taught him, perhaps unconsciously, to give. For no matter how far apart people may be in this society, we are stripped of the trappings of our lives by things like death and devastation, by standing amidst poverty, or watching the suffering of others. In the end, we are human, and we must reach out a hand, to touch another, to bring them up from their sorrow, or bring them down to see a world they did not know of. In the end, we must share who we are with the world, and do our part to help others. And so Patrick Kennedy helped me, and perhaps, in a small way, I helped him.

That is the legacy that Senator Edward Kennedy leaves behind.

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