Excerpt from True Compass: A Memoir
As I lay in that hospital bed, my friends and neighbors on Cape Cod were just then getting their boats ready for the summer cruises and races. I intended to be among them, as usual. The Boston Red Sox were a good bet to defend their world championship. There was a presidential primary campaign in progress. My Senate colleagues were pushing forward on our legislative agenda. I had work to do.
No. As much as I respect the medical profession, my demise did not fit into my plans.
I was hardly "in denial" that I faced a grave and shocking threat to my life. The first symptoms of what would prove to be a malignant brain tumor had struck me three days earlier. They’d descended on me as I padded toward the kitchen of the Hyannis Port house that has been the center of my life and happiness for most of my seventy-six years. I was intent on nothing more than taking Sunny and Splash, my much-loved Portuguese water dogs, for their morning walk. My wife, Vicki, and I had just been chatting and having our morning coffee in the sunroom.
Vicki and I had enjoyed an especially exhilarating winter and early spring. On January 27, thrilled and inspired by Barack Obama and the hope he embodied, I took the podium at American University in Washington to endorse his quest for the presidency. The best hopes of the past and present converged around me. My niece Caroline Kennedy stood at my back, alongside my own son Patrick and the candidate himself. The crowd roared its approval for my message. And I felt myself lifted—with a renewed optimism for my country, and by the unexpected notes of an old bugle, calling me once again to the campaign trail. Other years, other hustings, other adventures swept out of the past. "It is time again for a new generation of leadership," I declared to the cheering crowd in front of us, as another voice echoed down the corridors of my memory: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . .
I felt joyous and exuberant through the inevitable exhaustion of the Democratic primary campaign, as I had felt in Wyoming and West Virginia in 1960 for Jack, and in Indiana and California in 1968 for Bobby. "No one said we couldn’t have a little fun!" I shouted to a Latino crowd in San Antonio before belting out "Ay Jalisco No Te Rajes" in my version of Spanish. I had so much fun that I sang it again in Laredo. By mid-May, Obama had won the crucial North Carolina primary and had taken the lead in committed delegates. Some commentators were declaring the race already over. I certainly intended to keep on campaigning for him through the late spring and summer, but there was time to steal away for a few sails on Nantucket Sound.
But that next morning, everything changed.
I had just meandered through the living room and had come within two steps of the grand piano that my mother, Rose, used to play for the family more than half a century ago as we gathered for dinner. Sometimes Jack, young and thin in his customary rumpled pullover, would stand at about the spot where I passed just then, and sing a solo to Mother's accompaniment.
Suddenly I felt disoriented. I moved toward the door leading to the porch, where several spacious chairs face the lovely prospect that I’ve known since childhood: a view to Nantucket Sound and the several masted boats at anchor in the nearby harbor. "Well," I told myself, "I'll just go outside and get some fresh air."
I didn’t make it outside. Everything seemed hazy. I walked past the front door and into the dining room, where I lowered myself into a chair. That's the last thing I remember until I awoke in the hospital.
I took just four minutes for the first responder to arrive. He was a Hyannis police officer who told Vicki, " Iwas an army medic," to which my wife blurted, "Oh, thank God! Come in!" The paramedics arrived about half a minute later. No one knew how to diagnose me. They suspected a stroke. They prepared me for transportation—this took some time—and took me to the Cape Cod Hospital, where I was deeply sedated while they performed initial tests. Vicki was in constant contact with my doctors in Boston, who were in turn in contact with the Cape Cod team. The Boston doctors dispatched a medevac helicopter to transport me to Massachusetts General Hospital. In fairly short order, I was airlifted to the hospital in Boston. Vicki, meanwhile, continued to focus on the necessary tasks. Sitting in the car while I was being readied, before we even left home, she phoned as many members of our combined families as she could reach. "The second I called 911," she explained to me later, "I knew that this was going to be on the news, and I didn’t want everyone close to us to find out that way." To every family member who asked Vicki, "Should we come?" she replied, "Yes. Yes. You’ve got to come." Then, as the chopper hurtled through the air on its half-hour flight to the hospital, Vicki hitched a ride there with the Hyannis fire chief, Harold Brunelle, who is a good friend of ours. She continued calling family members all the way to Boston.
The children poured into the room that evening. I savored their embraces, and we ordered in chowder from Legal Seafood and watched the Red Sox game on TV.
A biopsy the following Monday confirmed that I had a brain tumor—a malignant glioma in my left parietal lobe. Vicki and I privately were told that the prognosis was bleak—a few months at most.
I respect the seriousness of death—I’ve had many occasions to meditate on its intrusions. But I wasn’t willing to accept the doctor's prognosis for two reasons.
The first was my own obstinate will to carry on in the face of adversity, one of the many habits of discipline that my father instilled in me and all of my brothers and sisters. We were taught never to give up, never to passively accept fate, but to exhaust every last ounce of will and hope in the face of any challenge. This was almost certainly the teaching that led our eldest brother, Joe Jr., to volunteer for a highly dangerous flying assignment near the end of World War II, one that in fact cost him his life. It fueled Jack's determination to stay alive as he floated in the Pacific after his patrol torpedo boat was rammed and sunk by the Japanese. And I am convinced that it accounted for the life force and cheerful resolve of our beloved sister Rosemary, who pursued laughter, games, travel, and social affairs well after it became clear that nature had placed severe limits on her intellectual capacity.
The first step was to sail. Sailing, for me, has always been a metaphor for life. But on Wednesday, May 22, the day I left Massachusetts General, as Vicki, the dogs, and I stepped aboard Mya, docked and waiting for us at the pier in Hyannis Port, our sail was more than a metaphor: it was an affirmation of life. Mya cut smartly through the sparkling waters of Nantucket Sound under a brisk wind—the same waters on which Jack had taught me to sail more than sixty-five years earlier. Everything seemed back to normal, except for the crowd of cameramen and reporters who awaited us onshore.
The culminating event of my hiatus on the Cape was the annual Figawi regatta on Memorial Day. In this spectacular season-opening race, some three thousand sailors in two-hundred-odd boats of all sizes compete in various divisions in a race from Hyannis to Nantucket and then, two days later, back again. Vicki and I, Teddy Jr. and his wife, Kiki, and our usual crew of good friends had won our division on the race back from Nantucket to Hyannis the previous year. I’d itched for the chance to defend my title, even after the symptoms struck; but my wise first mate was understandably hesitant. But when the weather report predicted clear skies and a strong southwest breeze for the almost due north race course back from Nantucket to Hyannis—perfect conditions for a schooner like Mya—Vicki smiled at me and said, "Let's do it." It was a glorious day. For the sake of the historical record, I will note that Mya finished second, with a crew that included Vicki, daughter Caroline, daughter-in-law Kiki, sons Teddy Jr. and Patrick, and our old friend Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
While we were sailing and digesting the news, we had asked our dear friend Dr. Larry Horowitz to line up a team of doctors to consult with us. Larry Horowitz is a Yale Medical School graduate and my former chief of staff, who had also served as staff director of my Senate subcommittee on health in the late 1970s. Larry immediately tapped into his vast network of contacts, and began feeding us advice on doctors as well as state-of-the-art medical centers. He brought them all together for a meeting in Boston.
We headed to Duke Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, for surgery a couple of days later. Vicki recalls that I was on the phone nearly the entire trip, asking my Senate colleagues on the committee I chaired to help shepherd through some particular pieces of legislation that were important to me. I asked Barbara Mikulski, the able senior senator from Maryland, to take the lead on the higher education bill. To Chris Dodd I turned over the work on mental health parity. I conferred with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on some of the issues that we were working on with the House. I didn’t want to leave unfinished work on the table. My personal affairs were in order, and I suffered neither dread nor anxiety. I intended to beat this thing for as long as I could. But it didn’t hurt to have all my bases covered, just in case.
The surgery accomplished everything the doctors had hoped. And as Vicki and I headed happily home to Hyannis Port a week later, we began planning our steps toward a secret goal that she and I had agreed upon the very day we committed to the surgery: if everything went as expected, we would travel to the Democratic National Convention in Denver and I would address the delegates.
And so I embarked on a summer of rehabilitation, sailing, and planning to rejoin my fellow Democrats at the moment of their great celebration. I sailed nearly every day. Teddy Jr. delighted me by setting up his office in Jack’s old house, nearly next door to us, and moving in along with Kiki and their children, Kiley and Teddy III. Kara and her two children, Grace and Max, also spent most of the summer on the Cape. Patrick was there a lot, as much as the congressional schedule allowed. Curran Raclin, Vicki's son and my stepson whom I had helped raise since he was nine, was working in Boston and often just drove down for dinner. Caroline Raclin, the newly minted Wesleyan graduate, was a frequent visitor. My sister Jean even rented a house in Hyannis Port for a while. And of course Eunice and Ethel and lots of nieces and nephews were already there. I decided that I was finally going to indulge my passion for Four Seas, the legendary ice cream that is freshly made on Cape Cod only in the summer. I may be the only patient in the history of Massachusetts General who went through both chemotherapy and radiation and gained weight!
As the summer lengthened, I felt my strength returning, just as the doctors had predicted. Still, there was no medical guarantee that I'd be able to follow through on my hope. We decided to keep this project a secret, but of course speculation eventually mounted that I might attend the convention.
We flew to Denver on Sunday, August 24, the day before the convention opened, in a chartered jet. With us were my internist Larry Ronan and some close friends and family members. Inside the private apartment in Denver that we had rented, my aides and I began a run-through of my speech on a teleprompter. After a minute or two I held up my hand. "You know, I really don’t feel well," I said. I felt a sharp pain in my side and we didn’t know what it was. I was taken to a hospital, where I was surrounded by three doctors, all of them, coincidentally, named Larry, which would have been funny if I hadn't been in so much pain.
Unbelievably, after making it through brain surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy and meeting my goal of being ready and able to address the delegates in Denver, I had been struck, out of the blue and for the first time in my life, with a kidney stone. As the doctors prepared to administer a very powerful pain medication, my wife, who is usually unflappable in a crisis, burst into tears. "If you give him pain medicine, then you will have made the decision for him about speaking tonight. You can’t take away his ability to make this decision for himself. He’s worked too hard for this night." After doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation on how long the medication would stay in my bloodstream, the doctors assured her that it would be out of my system in time for me to speak, though, as they later told us, they did not think I would be feeling up to speaking in any event.
We were not vigilant enough. A nurse gave me more pain medication when no one was looking. The doctor had not yet changed the orders in the chart to reflect our private conversations. Vicki, shall we say, remonstrated with her. Yet there it was, the sleep-inducing drug, coursing anew through my system. How long before it would lift?
"What do you think?" I asked Vicki drowsily.
"You can just go out and wave," she replied. "Just go out there with the family and wave."
But I had not come all the way to Denver just to wave.
We worked on a compromise: Shrum cut my prepared remarks down to about four lines, in case my deep drowsiness persisted. Then, assuming the best—which by now was not as good as I'd hoped—he cut the original in half. That would be the version I would give if I was strong and awake enough to speak at any length at all.
The convention's opening gavel was scheduled for 6 p.m. At around 4:30, I awoke and told Vicki, "I probably ought to get up now and see if I can walk and not fall flat on my face." I made it from my bed to the end of the room. "I think I’ll go back to sleep now," I said.
Larry Horowitz was on the phone with the Pepsi Center. They needed to know which version of the speech if any to put in the teleprompter. I said the original one that I had rehearsed at the Cape, but Vicki and Larry persuaded me that Shrum's abbreviated version was probably a better idea.
"Let’s go," I said. The three Larrys—Ronan, Horowitz, and Larry Allen, a wonderful young doctor we had met when I had surgery at Duke who had coincidentally moved to Denver—escorted us to a waiting van. Vicki and I sat in the middle seats, between the driver and the doctors. We sped off toward a convention hall I'd never been in, and a stage whose contours I did not know, to give a version of a speech that I had never seen. Even the full speech had become the stuff of distant memory.
I can handle this, I kept telling myself. I can handle this.
My niece Caroline Kennedy gave a beautiful and heartwarming introduction. After a spectacular film produced by Mark Herzog and Ken Burns, we heard the announcer’s voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, Senator Edward Kennedy." This was it. Showtime.
And so on Monday evening, August 25, 2008, I fulfilled my personal dream that would never die. "It is so wonderful to be here," I declared to the cheering delegates. "Nothing, nothing was going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight."
I acknowledged the friends and family members in the hall: the people who had stood with me through the successes and setbacks, the victories and defeats, over the decades. I then made a vow that I would be on the floor of the United States Senate in January 2009 to continue the cause of my life—affordable health care as a fundamental right.
"There is a new wave of change all around us, and if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination—not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation."
As I approached my conclusion, the final phrases of my speech demanded a high note—a bugle call. They were a conjoining of John F. Kennedy’s words and my own. I took a breath and gathered my strength, as Jack's words and mine converged:
"And this November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans.
"And so with Barack Obama—for you and for me, for our country and for our cause—the work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on."
It is that passing of the torch and that living dream that have inspired me to write this memoir. For several years, long before the prospects for my longevity had abruptly come into question, I had been building an archive of my memories, both personal and political, through an oral history project at the University of Virginia. I also had more than fifty years of personal notes and diaries that I kept. I'd supposed that they would be useful in an account of my life.
As I grappled with the dire implications of my illness, I realized that my own life has always been inseparable from that of my family. When I sit at the front porch of our Cape house, in the sunshine and sea-freshened air, I think of them often: my parents and my brothers and sisters, all departed now save for Jean and myself. And each alive and vibrant in my memory. I remember how each of us, distinct and autonomous from one another though we were, melded wholeheartedly into a family, a self-contained universe of love and deepest truths that could not be comprehended by the outside world.
My story is their story, and theirs is mine. And so it shall be in these pages.