The pictures showing Senator Ted Kennedy surrounded by his family in a Boston hospital catapulted me back eight years to a hospital in Michigan. Thankfully, there were no cameras around when my 75-year-old father, a lifelong smoker, learned that he had Stage IV lung cancer, a terminal diagnosis.
On that spring day, my mother, sister and I sat next to Dad’s hospital bed, numb with sadness, trying to absorb what the doctors, who formed a ring of white coats around us, were saying. I can’t imagine being in the glare of the media spotlight at such a time.
In the photos released Tuesday Kennedy and his loved ones are smiling, putting up a brave front. I can’t know, of course, what went on in the senator’s hospital room during his stay but I have a pretty good idea.
Hearing a doctor tell your father he has life-threatening cancer feels like a punch in the gut. Once you hear “cancer” everything else goes soft, as if someone has hit the mute button. Ordinary time is suspended. A blur of tests and treatment plans begins. Life as you know it ends, even as you try to act like everything will be okay.
It’s natural to put on a brave face, to rally for your loved one. You desperately want to reassure him when you see fear in his eyes. For most of us, this is a painful private exercise.
The news of Senator Kennedy’s brain cancer set off an immediate outpouring of concern and support. Kennedy’s Senate colleagues, visibly shaken, made statements on camera. Senator Byrd wept at the front of the Senate chamber. Over and over, almost without exception, Kennedy’s friends and colleagues said, “If anyone can beat this, Ted can.” They called him the consummate fighter, a man of tremendous stamina, the last lion of the Senate.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the television was on in Senator Kennedy’s hospital room. Was he watching? And if he was, what was it like to hear these expressions of sadness? Was it helpful to hear his reputation as a fierce fighter invoked again and again?
The sad truth is this battle will be exponentially tougher than any Kennedy has fought. Much harder than the health care reform and other issues he’s championed tirelessly throughout his career. Brain cancer is in an entirely different league. Like lung cancer, it doesn’t care how good a fighter you are, and it certainly isn’t impressed by the past battles you’ve won.
My dad, a World War II veteran, turned 19 on the front lines and somehow survived the Battle of the Bulge (aka Battle of the Ardennes) while watching many of his fellow soldiers die. He spent months in military hospitals, first in England, then in Missouri, where doctors wired his jaw back together and removed shrapnel from his face and back. When he recovered, the GI bill paid for his law school degree.
He was a fighter, with little patience for whiners. When his tumors returned after his first round of chemo, his oncologist asked him if he was up for another round. Dad didn’t hesitate. “Hell yes!” he barked. Throughout his treatment, up until the week before he died, he went to his law office almost every day.
Ted Kennedy has emerged the survivor in his tragedy-wracked family. His oldest brother, Joe Jr., was killed in World War II just four months before my dad was wounded. Teddy Kennedy was 12 years old and had no inkling that years later he would watch his other brothers die, their murders captured on camera.
Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect the media spotlight to disappear from this latest Kennedy tragedy. As a journalist, I should know better.
But I worry that all the talk about “Kennedy the fierce fighter” - while undoubtedly well-meaning - could become one more burden for the senator. The last thing he needs now is to feel pressure to pull out a victory.
Yesterday, when Senator Kennedy left the hospital, the cameras were rolling and again, Kennedy put on a brave front, waving and smiling. His two dogs were waiting outside the hospital, an image I found especially poignant.
Cancer patients often say their diagnosis neatly and cruelly divides their world into two halves: life before cancer and life after cancer. Kennedy had just returned from walking his dogs on Saturday when he had the seizure that led to his cancer diagnosis. Yesterday, his pets wagged their tails as the senator returned home to life after cancer.
As he drove away, reporters yelled “Good luck, senator, good luck!”
Maybe the well wishes are exactly what Kennedy needs to hear right now. And maybe he also needs his privacy. What do you think?
Filed under: Sen. Ted Kennedy
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