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 somber
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
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
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.
Life seemed especially good at that moment. The sixteen years of
my marriage to Vicki had been good ones. Her acute understanding
and love of me had made her my indispensable partner in my life. We
shared countless joyful hours aboard my antique wooden schooner
Mya, including nights of sailing along the coast, guided by the
stars. Vicki had given me such a sense of stability and
tranquillity that I had almost begun to think of life in those
terms --- stable and tranquil. But never boring. Certainly not with
this funny, passionate, fiercely loyal, and loving woman.
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.
On May 16 I took part in a ceremony at a favorite historic site
of mine, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, where I
joined Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank and others to cut the
ribbon at the Corson Maritime Learning Center. Barney and I had
secured appropriations for repairs and other improvements to the
building after it was damaged in a 1997 fire. I felt especially
good that day, and threw away my prepared remarks to speak from my
heart about my love for New Bedford, and the sea, and for the
connection to our history that the park represented. Vicki told me
afterward that Barbara Souliotis, our dear friend and the longtime
chief of staff of my Boston office, who was sitting beside her,
turned and whispered, “He’s really on today!” I
certainly felt “on.” Change was in the air. And
tomorrow, Vicki and I would enjoy our first sail of the year.
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 learned later that I’d been discovered almost at once by
Judy Campbell, our household assistant. Judy called out for Vicki,
who was still in the sunroom, waiting for me to return. When Vicki
saw me, she ran to my side and instructed Judy to call 911, and
then my physician in Boston, Dr. Larry Ronan. As she waited for the
local rescue team to arrive, Vicki wedged herself into the chair
beside me and cradled my head. I was not aware of it then, but she
held me tenderly, kissing my cheek and patting me and whispering,
“You’re going to be okay.”
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
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
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 doom speak 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 Jr., then twelve, 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 forty-seven-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. We were told that every doctor we
would consult would say the same thing, and I recall saying,
“Fine. I just want to hear every one of them say it.”
But when I brought together a group of experts in the kind of
cancer Kara had, they didn’t all say the same thing. She did
have an operation and aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. My
wife, or I, or both of us, accompanied her to her chemotherapy
treatments. I prayed for Kara, as I had for Teddy Jr., and
frequently attended daily mass. Kara responded to my exhortations
to have faith in herself. Today, nearly seven years later as I
write this, Kara is a healthy, vibrant, active mother of two who is
flourishing. And so, fortified with experience and our faith, Vicki
and I decided once again to fight. I would live on for as long as I
could. And in electing to live on, I would offer myself as an
example to those struggling with the unacceptable news that there
is no hope.
Vicki and I began to develop a plan of action.
“Let’s just take it one step at a time,” we told
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
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.
I welcomed the doctors who had assembled from around the country
to advise us. “I want to thank you all for coming,” I
told them. “I want to approach this in a way that makes
sense. I want to be prudently aggressive. And I want this process
to be helpful to others. If I can show that there is hope for me,
perhaps I can give hope to all those who face this kind of disease.
I want to do that. I want to give people hope.” By the end of
the meeting, we had decided on a plan for surgery, followed by
chemotherapy and radiation. Unlike some cancers, mine would be
treated like a chronic disease, requiring continued treatment after
the initial phase that Vicki referred to as “shock and
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
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, as Vicki and I made the round trip by car
from Hyannis Port to Boston five days a week for six weeks. The
timetable was in our favor: radiation would end in July, and
we’d been told that I could expect to regain much of my
energy after that. The convention was to be at the end of August.
It made for an ideal goal. I have always been a person who
schedules his time, and I always try to be on time. Having
open-ended free time makes me restless. I suppose you could say
that preparing for the convention was also part of my recuperation
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!
I soon began work on my convention speech, asking my longtime
friend and old speechwriter Bob Shrum to come talk to Vicki and me.
I knew essentially what I wanted to say at the outset, and Bob and
Vicki and I have a synergistic way of working together.
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
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.
Now doctors from all over Denver had begun to descend on my
room, Larrys and non-Larrys alike. A neurologist arrived, and a
urologist, and several other -ologists. I welcomed them all, of
course; but Vicki’s preoccupation (and mine) was not
diagnosis, it was the danger of overmedication and overpowering
sleep well past my schedule for appearing at the Pepsi Center.
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
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.
I didn’t sleep long. We would have to leave for the center
no later than 6:30 if we had any hope of being on time. I had not
had the chance to rehearse my remarks on the teleprompter and had
not seen the text in two days. Nor would I again until I spoke it.
We showered and dressed at the hospital. Someone was combing my
hair as the aides stared at their wristwatches; someone else was
wrapping my hand in an Ace bandage, to conceal the intravenous line
still implanted there.
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
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.
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
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
“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.
Excerpted from TRUE COMPASS: A Memoir © Copyright 2011 by
Edward M. Kennedy. Reprinted with permission by Twelve. All rights
True Compass: A Memoir