Kennedy lived his dream until the very last journey

It was on the sunny spring day of Tuesday, May 20, 2008, that I emerged from a medicated drowsiness in a Boston hospital bed and looked up into the face of a doctor who explained to me in a sombre way that I was about to die, and that I had best begin getting my affairs in order and preparing my friends and family for the end.

As I lay in that hospital bed, my friends and neighbours on Cape Cod were just then getting their boats ready for the summer cruises and races. 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.

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 tumour 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 centre of my life and happiness for most of my 76 years.

Suddenly I felt disoriented. I moved toward the door leading to the porch, where several 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 harbour. "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.

A biopsy the following Monday confirmed that I had a brain tumour - malignant glioma in my left parietal lobe. My wife 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.

The second was the way the message was delivered. Frankly, it made me furious. I am a realist, and I have heard bad news in my life. I don't expect or need to be treated with kid gloves. But I do believe in hope. And I believe that approaching adversity with a positive attitude at least gives you a chance for success.

Approaching it with a defeatist attitude predestines the outcome: defeat. And a defeatist's attitude is just not in my DNA.

Anyway, I'd heard this brand of doomspeak before. As hard as it was to hear the news about my own illness, it was nothing compared to the body blows I'd suffered when two of my children had been diagnosed with particularly lethal forms of cancer.

When Teddy jnr, then 12, discovered the lump below his knee that turned out to be bone cancer back in 1973, our doctors warned us that very few people survived this form of the disease. We were determined that Teddy would be an exception. His leg had to be amputated and he endured two years of the most painful, taxing medication and therapy.

But as I write this, Teddy is a happily married 47-year old businessman and lawyer, and the father of two beautiful children.

And then in 2002 my daughter Kara was diagnosed with "inoperable" lung cancer. She faced slim odds of survival, the doctor told us. As with Teddy, the family refused to accept this prognosis.

Today, nearly seven years later, Kara is a healthy, vibrant, active mother of two who is flourishing.

And so, fortified with experience and our faith, Vicki and I began to develop a plan of action. "Let's just take it one step at a time," we told one another.

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.

In consultation with a team of doctors we decided on a plan for surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. 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.

Being able to speak at the Democratic convention in August, as I had done at so many conventions past, became my mission and stayed in the forefront of my mind during my radiation and chemotherapy treatments that summer. We flew to Denver on Sunday, August 24, the day before the convention opened, in a chartered jet.

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.

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 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.

We were not vigilant enough.

A nurse gave me more pain medication when no one was looking. 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.

The convention's opening gavel was scheduled for 6pm. 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.

I didn't sleep long. We would have to leave for the centre no later than 6.30 if we had any hope of being on time. I can handle this, I kept telling myself. I can handle this.

My wife walked with me out onstage and to the podium, held my face, and kissed me. And then she went to sit with the rest of our family.

I could feel myself start to settle down.

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."

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."

As I grappled with the dire implications of my illness, I realised 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.


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