Via my Twitter pal LaurieInQueens has generously offered to cross-post her tribute to “Uncle Teddy” here at TPC. Thank you for doing such a beautiful job, Laurie. (I added the video.)
It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we lost Senator Ted Kennedy, affectionately known to most Democrats as “Uncle Teddy.” I remember that dark day—not entirely unexpected, but still dreaded and not quite believable—as if it was, well, 10 minutes ago.
On the glorious occasion of President Obama’s inauguration, while we were all giddily enjoying the festivities (on TV… but that’s another story for another day, Congressman Weiner), word came down that someone had collapsed and was being taken away by ambulance. Fear, dread and grief gripped my heart when I heard it was Teddy. God, not now. Not today. Just seeing him show up that day, frail as he seemed, had filled me with even more joy and hope than the inauguration itself. I was terrified, I was sick, I broke down in a shaking heap of great, gulping sobs. And there was prayer. Lots of prayer.
Then word started spreading that Sen. Byrd had collapsed as well (as it turned out, from worry over Ted). Good God, what was happening? And why today? I watched in fear and grief, praying that both of these men, who had survived so much and become close friends against all practical odds, would make it through this day. This beautiful, wonderful, historic day that each had taken quite different paths to cherishing.
They both pulled through. But it was clear that Ted was not long for this world. It was also clear that because of the callous selfishness of politically-motivated obstructionism, he would not live to see his lifelong dream of healthcare for all—as a right, not a privilege—become a reality.
As morbid as it sounds, from then on, the first thing I’d do when I woke up was check the headlines to make sure he was still alive. And, perhaps equally morbid, I kept a stash of Amtrak rewards points reserved for rushing to… wherever, to pay my respects whenever the time came. On the night of August 25, 2009, I went to bed early, a very rare occurrence for me. When I awoke the next morning, I did my usual news check-in to make sure he was still with us. But he wasn’t. Uncle Teddy was gone. Shortly before midnight, he’d passed away. I was devastated. And angry. “Why did God have to do this NOW?” I emailed my mother. “Does He not know how much we NEED Teddy right now? And do NOT tell me He needed him more… He has taken more than enough Kennedys before their time, thank you very much. Heaven is already crowded with them. And I’m sure there’s universal healthcare up there already.” I was not, I’m afraid, even remotely rational.
Over the next few days, an obviously distraught Vicki and the Kennedy family—kind and giving as always—not only made the entire schedule of events public, but embraced and included the public. They took turns on the receiving lines, greeting and thanking the countless thousands who came to pay their respects. I decided I would go to DC on the day Teddy was brought there to be buried at Arlington Cemetery. I’d just been there a few weeks before, and two months before that (visiting Bobby Kennedy’s resting place clears my head and sets me straight when I need some perspective) and had spent some time sitting on the steps of the Russell Senate Building, where Teddy had his office. I sat there hoping against hope that he would one day return. But he wouldn’t, and I was on my way to DC again. The next time I saw that building, the flag flying over it would be at half-staff.
We waited in the blazing sun for the cortege to arrive from Boston to the Capitol. Friends, colleagues, staff, and some family members assembled there on the Capitol steps, also awaiting Ted’s final trip to the place in which he’d spent most of his life, working tirelessly for the American people. Seeing a grieving Sen. Byrd, slumped silently in his wheelchair, was more than I could bear. And the sky above looked like, well, God. When the procession left, the family made sure to drive slowly, windows open, to acknowledge all of us, and as the cortege made its way to his final resting place at Arlington, I realized that if I followed, I’d never see anything, as the burial was private. I walked back to my hotel, and watched the burial on TV.
The next morning, I was one of the first people to visit his grave (which is identical to Bobby’s… a simple white marble marker and white cross), and the floral arrangement with the sash reading “The People’s Senator” made me weep all over again. Then I laughed, thinking, “if I know Teddy, he’s up there bragging to Bobby and Jack about the size of the crowds. And Bobby is reminding him of the funeral train, which Teddy has the good grace to concede.” And I was glad I’d come to pay my respects, and to say goodbye to someone who devoted his life to trying to make mine better. A few months later, I was surprised—although I probably shouldn’t have been—to find in my mailbox a fancy envelope with “Hyannis Port, Massachusetts” as the return address. And in it was an engraved card reading “The family of Senator Edward Moore Kennedy greatly appreciates your kind expression of sympathy.” That’s the Kennedys for you. In my profound grief, I hadn’t even remembered sending a formal expression of sympathy. But they remembered. Because that’s just who they are.
We miss you, Uncle Teddy. It’s been a rough year without you here to kick some necessary a$$. But the idea of you up there—no doubt laughing, singing, drinking and generally carrying on—makes us smile. See you on the other side.