Biographies & Memoirs


The Living Rose


The nineties were a happy time for me, years in which my love for Vicki and my Senate work deepened. Yet it was also a time of loss. I've already described the devastation I felt when Steve Smith died, but we also mourned the passing of four other loves who captivated us and so many others.

On May 19, 1994, dear Jackie--Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis--died of cancer, heartbreakingly young at sixty-four.

Jackie and I were always friends, always close. We enjoyed each other's company. I adored John Jr. and Caroline, and she loved and supported my relationship with them.

She always indulged me. I think that if Katie Lynch's Butter Crunch were still on the market, Jackie would have kept me supplied with it. I remember the summer that Vicki and I were reading David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman. I hadn't met David then (we have since become good friends), but I wanted to. I knew he and his wife, Rosalie, lived on the Vineyard, so I asked Jackie if she would invite them to dinner. She did. That's the kind of thing she would do, and she always made me feel that she was doing it joyfully. We all loved the evening, but I don't think anyone had more fun than Jackie.

In composing the eulogy that I offered at the funeral mass for her at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York four days later, I found myself replicating Jackie's own approach to beautiful things and profound ideas--with simple, unadorned truth:

"She was always there for our family in her special way. She was a blessing to us and to the nation--and a lesson to the world on how to do things right, how to be a mother, how to appreciate history, how to be courageous. No one else looked like her, spoke like her, wrote like her, or was so original in the way she did things. No one we knew ever had a better sense of self.

"... No one ever gave more meaning to the title of 'First Lady.' The nation's capital city looks as it does because of her. She saved Lafayette Square and Pennsylvania Avenue. The National Cultural Center was her cause before it was the Kennedy Center. Jackie brought the greatest artists to the White House, and brought the arts to the center of national attention. Today, in large part because of her inspiration and vision, the arts are an abiding part of national policy."

I concluded, "She graced our history. And for those of us who knew and loved her--she graced our lives."

My mother's death on January 22, 1995, at home in Hyannis Port came as an even more heartbreaking blow than I could have anticipated. I felt that the legs had been knocked out from under me. She was eulogized and buried at St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church in Boston's North End, where she had been baptized 104 years earlier, a little more than half the life span of the nation itself. Bernard Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston, celebrated the Mass of Resurrection.

It was not as though I hadn't understood for some time that this was going to happen. Mother had grown enfeebled (in body, but not in spirit) from a series of strokes even before she turned one hundred, and I had visited her at the Cape house nearly every weekend for years. During one of those visits, I pulled a tennis racket out of its cover and started to head out to the court for a few games with someone. Mother was watching me from across the room in her wheelchair. "Are you sure that is yours, Teddy?" she called out. "I've been looking all around the house for mine."

Nor was it that I disbelieved the words in my own eulogy at St. Stephen's: "Mother knew this day was coming, but she did not dread it. She accepted and even welcomed it, not as a leaving, but as a returning. She has gone to God. She is home. And at this moment she is happily presiding at a heavenly table with both of her Joes, with Jack and Kathleen, with Bobby and David." I fervently believed those words at the moment, and I believe them now.

On December 31, 1997, Vicki and I were ringing in the new year by having a quiet dinner at the Washington home of our dear friends Jean and Tim Hanan. Tim and I had gone to law school together and he continued to be among my closest lifelong friends. We received a call that night that my thirty-nine-year-old nephew Michael Kennedy had died in a skiing accident. He was with his three children and some of his siblings on a ski vacation in Aspen, Colorado, when he crashed into a tree.

I had become especially close to Michael during my 1994 campaign, and his death was almost incomprehensible to me. So young, so vital, so bright and talented. Michael was also the best athlete in the entire family, hands down. He could ski like the wind, and so the idea that he was taken from us in a skiing accident just added to my disbelief.

I worried about Ethel. She had already buried Bobby and then young David, whom Bobby had worried about before he was killed. And now Michael, who looked so much like Bobby. I remember being in the car with Michael in the mid-1980s or so, at dusk. The way the shadows fell, Michael's face was in the half-light, and for a few seconds it seemed as if I were looking at Bobby as he was when he was a young man. The resemblance was almost eerie. But Bobby was gone. And now Michael.

July 17, 1999, a Saturday, was marked on the calendar as a day of high celebration for the Kennedy clan. My wonderful niece Rory, an awardwinning documentary filmmaker and social activist, and the youngest of Bobby and Ethel's eleven children, was to marry the writer and editor Mark Bailey in Hyannis Port. On the evening of July 16, John Kennedy Jr., Rory's cousin and my nephew, took off in his small single-engine airplane from Fairfield, New Jersey, en route to the wedding. With him were his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Carolyn's sister Lauren Bessette. John, who had been flying for about a year, had planned to drop Lauren off at Martha's Vineyard and then fly the short hop to Hyannis.

Before the plane reached Martha's Vineyard, it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, and all three young lives were lost. John was thirty-eight, Carolyn thirty-three, and Lauren thirty-four.

I spoke at John's funeral at the Church of St. Thomas More in Manhattan six days later. "From the first day of his life," I said, "John seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family. He had a legacy, and he learned to treasure it. He was part of a legend, and he learned to live with it."

A lot of people have wondered whether John ultimately would have sought public office. I think he might have, and that he would have excelled. John was really ahead of his time in understanding the link between pop culture and politics. He understood that there were different ways to get information to young people, and that the old ways wouldn't work. His easy way with people was already legendary, as was his gift for using language and images to get his message across.

Over the rest of that summer and into the autumn, I distilled my thoughts about my nephew, the meaning of his short life, the meaning of life, the weight of bereavement, and the obligations of the bereaved. On October 6, I shared those thoughts at a Senate prayer breakfast.

This was unusual for me for two reasons. I rarely speak in public on personal matters. It's something my generation was taught not to do.

I also was speaking in a quiet voice, which in itself is a challenge to me. My Republican Senate colleague John Chafee once told me I was "wrong at the top of my lungs." But I wanted to speak in a quiet voice because the louder our voices become, the more we grow strangers to each other and ourselves.

Here's what I told them:

"You know that my family and I have experienced our share of tragedy. We have tried to face that pain, when it has come, with a steadfast religious faith. It has not been a loud and boisterous faith, but it has been a faith of patience, pathos, endurance, and grace.

"I will not try to tell you that that faith has never, at least temporarily, been shaken. When my brother Joe died in World War II, my father sat on the porch in Hyannis Port night after night, looking out to the sea, while listening to classical music. I was young then and I thought he did that because he liked classical music. But of course, I know now that he did it to cope with his grief and to find solace. I know now that in the midst of the hurt, he was searching for God.

"Even my mother, who was the most devout and persistent believer I have ever known, experienced--only once to my knowledge but experienced nonetheless--a moment of what the Christian theologian Soren Kierkegaard called 'fear and trembling,' a moment of despair when, after her third son died, she cried out, 'But how could they have taken the father of ten children?' And what she meant, though she couldn't bring herself to say it aloud, was, 'How could God?'

"Every single one of us, if we are awake to the brokenness of the world and of our lives, wonders at some point, 'How could you allow this, O God? I believe, but help me in my unbelief!' And these questions, this wonder, this pain and this pleading know no bounds of faith--for the simple, hard fact is that God plays no favorites; that we all suffer; that we all die; that, at one time or another, we all shake our fists at God; and that, if we are lucky, we all come home to God in the end. Thomas Carlyle said, 'I had a lifelong quarrel with God, but we made up in the end.'

"The hardest thing for any human being to understand is that God loves even those who take what is most precious from us. The most awesome thing about God is the width of His embrace. I think that in the end my mother understood that too, for she never allowed her grief to cloud her joy, never allowed that moment of despair to impede a lifetime of laughter.

"When I sit at a family gathering, with literally dozens of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews surrounding me, tears come to my eyes. I marvel at their talents, their articulateness, their devotion to justice, and their grace. I am reminded once again that family shapes us all, and that to be held in the arms of a loving family redeems even the most numbing pain.

"Relationships like that don't even require words. At the end of my mother's life, when she could no longer speak, the smallest children in the family used to love to spend time with her, exactly because there was no expectation that they would have to talk to her, as they did with other adults. We who sometimes drown in words could afford to learn that sometimes the deepest relationships are built without them."

What binds us together across our differences in religion or politics or economic theory is that when each one of us is cut, our blood flows red. Mine does and yours does too. Those who would try to appropriate God or family or country for their own narrow ends, who believe that religious faith is the property of one particular ideology, forget the width of God's embrace, the healing power of a family's arms, and the generosity of this country's vision. God, family, and nation belong to us all.

And they belong to us all because of all that we share as human beings--the wonder that we experience when we look at the night sky; the gratitude that we know when we feel the heat of the sun; the sense of humor in the face of the unbearable and the persistence of suffering. And one thing more: the capacity to reach across our differences to offer a hand of healing.

In 1958 my father wrote a letter to a friend whose son had died. Fourteen years earlier, my oldest brother Joe had been killed in World War II. Ten years earlier, my oldest sister Kathleen had been killed in an airplane crash in Europe. My father wrote to his grieving friend: "There are no words to dispel your feelings at this time, and there is no time that will ever dispel them. Nor is it any easier the second time than it was the first. And yet, I cannot share your grief, because no one could share mine. When one of your children goes out of your life, you think of what he might have done with a few more years, and you wonder what you are going to do with the rest of yours. Then one day, because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself a part of it again, trying to accomplish something--something that he did not have time enough to do. And, perhaps, that is the reason for it all. I hope so."

I wish that life were simpler. I wish that loved ones didn't have to die too young. I wish that tragedy never haunted a single soul. But to wish all that is to ask for an end to our humanity. God, family, and country sustain us all.

Legend has it that in the ancient world, a poetry contest was held each year. The third-place winner received a rose made out of silver. The second-place winner received a rose made out of gold. But the first-place winner received a real rose, a beautiful living rose that soon wilted, dried up, and died. I ask you, is there a single one among us who would not choose the living rose?

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