EXCERPT: Ted Kennedy's 'True Compass'

It took just four minutes for the first responder to arrive. He was a Hyannis police officer who told Vicki, "I was 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.

I came out of sedation in the late afternoon. It took me a while to realize where I was; I had no memory of anything after sitting down in my dining room in Hyannis Port. It soon became clear I was in a hospital room, and I was happy to see Vicki's large hazel eyes studying me with obvious love and anxiety. The immediate cause of my collapse had been a generalized seizure brought on by the deeper affliction. Every muscle in my body had contracted severely, and I was in extreme pain.

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.

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