I lived in Massachusetts for a while, but that was in the college and post-college years, when I wasn’t paying attention to–well, to much of anything, actually. Because I never thought of Teddy Kennedy as “my” senator in those years–and because I’ve never been one of those people who pays much attention to the whole Kennedy legend thing, the fact that I start to cry every time I read about Teddy in in the paper totally surprises me.
A facebook friend, who lives in Massachusetts, eulogized Kennedy quite beautifully in her status update: she said she owes Kennedy the Cape Cod National Seashore, the paid leave she got when she gave birth to her two children, and the ongoing dignity of her marriage (to another woman). Seems to me to sum it up quite neatly: the environment, the family, the individual. Her post also made me cry; I seem to have an inexhaustible pool of tears these days.
Truth be told, I suppose my tears weren’t entirely for Teddy. The thought of losing a parent has been hovering dangerously close this summer, as my mother got ready for her heart surgery earlier this month. She came through her operation with the proverbial flying colors and is already home–but the memory of how she looked when she woke up in ICU after the operation reminds me of her mortality–and how completely unprepared I am for her to shuffle off the coil. The quality of care she received at the Cleveland Clinic stunned us all–in ICU each nurse tends to only two patients; every cardiac patient moves to a private room after ICU; every cardiac patient is attended by a veritable squad of doctors, nurses, therapists, and god knows who else. I suppose that Kennedy, in the months after his diagnosis, received care as good as that and probably better…which of course raises the question of what would happen to the rest of us, if, god forbid, we are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
We all hope, don’t we, that the phrase “life-threatening illness” never enters our lives, that it stays confined to news reports and melodrama; that we never sit staring at the table wondering how this happened to us. One moment, you know, you’re going along all Teddy K., bipartisan and feisty, and the next moment whap, brain tumor; whap, you’re in a wheelchair; whap, you’re in a flag-covered coffin in the Kennedy Library. Whap whap whap.
Friends of my mother’s are reeling right now from their own whap: their wonderful daughter-in-law, A., was just diagnosed with what Teddy Kennedy died from. He had a level 4 cancer, hers is level 3. She’s 51, happily married, and has two children, 14 and 12. Whap, whap, whap.
I know, of course, that evil sadistic horrible people get cancers and die but somehow, I never hear about them (perhaps the transformative power of death or near-death–I’m sure that the Kopechne family has a darker picture of Teddy than the current golden-hued portrait playing in the news). I think about A., and her family–who, luckily, have great insurance and lots of resources, all of which will be brought to bear on her illness. Or another friend, whose father has just been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia…
Where do we find hope, in the midst of being buffeted by fate into the stone walls of disease and despair? The papers say that Kennedy surrounded himself with family, singing, religion; my mother, in the hospital, talked about her “magical band of allies”–her group of friends and family whose love, she claims, allowed her to make such a speedy recovery. (The phrase comes from a guided meditation CD she listened to in the week before her surgery.) And perhaps A. will defy augury and live for years–certainly anyone even peripherally touched by A.’s story is invoking all manner of magic and faith on her behalf.
In a collection of essays called The Woman at the Washington Zoo, the journalist Marjorie Williams writes about her own diagnosis of liver cancer, at the age of 43. Her doctor tells her she’s been “struck by lightning,” and gives her only a few months to live. Williams writes with heart-breaking eloquence about leaving behind her life–including her two young children–but she also talks about the “supple blessing of hope” that sustains her through her first cycles of chemotherapy. Williams does defy augury: she dies at almost 48, instead of 43. Her book seems to me the literary equivalent of Dickinson’s description: hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.
So if a woman diagnosed with liver cancer can find hope, who am I to cry reading Teddy Kennedy’s obit over my morning coffee? I think it’s because of A.: I hear the whap of fate, smacking someone who should be much further back in death’s line and I realize, with bone-deep certainty, how unready I am to say good-bye to anyone in my “magical band of allies.” Nope, thanks, rather not, not a good time for me, sorry, come back again in like sixty years.
I’m crying for Teddy Kennedy but I think, really, I’m crying because it’s when confronted with death that we realize how much we love.