Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Teddy Taught Me

I have been consumed by the celebration of the life of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. And I am inspired in a way I did not expect.

I admit I'm a bit of a Kennedy fan. I still in diapers when President Kennedy was shot but I remember when Senator Bobby Kennedy was killed.

As a child, I was taken by the tragic tale of three brothers lost in one family. I didn't then know about Kathleen, a sister killed in a plane crash in 1948. I wrote an essay about JFK in grade 12.

I, like many women of my generation, had a crush on John John. He was handsome and seemed to live a very unKennedy way. He biked and roller bladed through Manhattan. His taking the bar exam three times made him human. I loved that he started his own political/pop culture magazine. It seemed so right, kind of out-of-the-box Kennedy. I expected one day he would be a Senator like his father, perhaps even run for the top chair in the Oval Office.

Ted Kennedy was elected to his brother's vacant senate seat the year I was born. He was probably my least favourite Kennedy. I read the biography of Joan Bennett Kennedy, his first wife a couple decades ago. I can't entirely recall how the book treated Ted -- it dealt largely with Joan's lifelong battle with alcoholism. I do recall that being married to a Kennedy was burdensome.

I listened to the many powerful speakers last Friday night at the Irish wake in the JFK Library in Boston. I listen to the eulogies given by his sons Teddy Jr. and Patrick and by President Obama at the Basilica. And I watched the HBO Special Teddy, In His Own Words.

I certainly could have been inspired by the way Teddy became the lion of the Senate and authored some 300 bills, many championing civil rights or making the lives of millions of Americans easier (his politics certainly align with my own). He was true to his beliefs over almost 5 decades in the Senate.

I could have been inspired at the way Ted persevered after so much tragedy. He lost four siblings in the primes of their lives. He suffered with severe lifelong pain after he broke his back in a plane crash in 1964. Two of his children had cancers with grim prognoses and the third suffered from severe asthma and had a benign tumour on his spine at age 20. He could have lived a quiet and self-indulgent life on Cape Cod, sailing in regattas, playing football and perhaps fulfilling his public service obligations by running a family foundation or two.

I could have been inspired by his ability to come back. After a certain death of his celebrity and any serious political ambitions with Chappaquiddick, he came back to challenge President Carter, albeit unsuccessfully, for the Democratic nomination in 1980. A public divorce in 1982 was followed by a decade of public intoxication and was capped off with a night of carousing with his nephew after which his nephew was charged, and later acquitted, of rape. He went on to marry his second wife, Vicki and enjoyed, by his own account and others, a wonderful and loving marriage and a rejuvenated vigour in the Senate.

But what struck me from the stories and tributes was how he lived his life. Despite the tragedy and personal debacles, he embraced life.

He loved to sail, to sing and to paint and he did these things enthusiastically, whenever he could. He was known to gather friends and family for a night of singing show tunes. Even after his devastating diagnoses of brain cancer, Ted insisted on skippering a ship in the Cape Cod to Nantucket regatta. He painted, especially landscapes, and shared his art with friends and acquaintances.

He was a superb friend, by all accounts, and was the first to call and lend support in the face of a tragedy, death or crisis. He invited his friends to enjoy his passions with him.

He was an involved father to his children. Caring for them in health crises, sharing with them his love of history and inspiring them to never give up and to be all that they could be.

He stepped into the shoes of his two older brothers and cared for their 13 children and more than fulfilled his responsibilities. He brought history alive to all the Kennedy children and attended graduations, first communions and sporting events. He did this enthusiastically.

I have a lot to learn from Teddy: to live life with purpose, to do the things that bring me joy, to live up to responsibilities enthusiastically and to honour friends and family.

Now, I just have to figure out how to apply that to keeping the laundry under control, keeping the kitchen table uncluttered, neither of which I expect Teddy had to worry about.

RIP Teddy.

1 comment:

Ellie said...

Beautifully written! His life is certainly a story of perserverence and redemption, which I admire. I respect how he overcame personal failings and shortcomings, and created an enduring legacy. His funeral was really moving - particularly his sons' eulogies. He was a complex man, for sure, but had a good heart and a drive to improve the world.