Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts on Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Thoughts on Senator Edward M. Kennedy by my parents Edward T. and Louise F. Conley, members of the Greatest Generation as recorded by Kathleen Conley Norbut, DSC member.

I learned about the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy from a retired gentleman at sunrise who was enjoying his daily coffee at the N. Kingstown, RI, Dunkin Donuts. “Did you hear that Senator Kennedy died?” he asked me without introduction. “It’s in the Globe; they’re the only paper to carry it.” I had not heard and we chatted about the end of an era.

I did the first thing that came to mind as I started to process the impact of the loss of Senator Kennedy to the Commonwealth and called my father from our family vacation spot at the Rhode Island beaches to talk to him about the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. My father is a resident of the Chelsea Soldiers Home, he turned 84 years old in July and is a WW II Marine Veteran who served in the Pacific Theatre, including battle on Iwo Jima. When his home care became overwhelming last year due to his multiple health issues and his safety was at risk, I contacted state Senator Stephen M. Brewer (D-Barre) to guide our family with an application to the Soldier’s Home. My mother who is also frail and elderly, had finally surrendered her Irish pride and admitted that she could no longer care for him.

Senator Brewer met with me on a summer afternoon at a picnic table about a year ago in Wales, Mass in between his many engagements of the day. I told him about my father and mother and he listened with great attention and respect. He offered some direction for me to pursue and stated that he would contact some people on my father’s behalf, including my parent's state Senator Patricia Jehlen (D-Medford). Within a couple of days, Senator Jehlen’s office contacted me and offered further direction for our family. Then, to my great surprise Senator Kennedy’s office contacted me to assist in our application on behalf of my father. I was astounded. They knew about my father and wanted to help. Tears in my eyes, I recall being simultaneously grateful, honored and justified that these public servants and their staff would reach out to our family, an average working middle class family, to help us in our time of need. We were scared and vulnerable fearing the costs of long term care, wondering if my parents would have to sell the house they built, had raised six children and lived in for almost 60 years. Even with daily home health aides we had not being able to sustain adequate care for my father’s multiple health issues.

Senator Kennedy’s brain cancer had been announced prior to his extension of assistance to my family. How typical, and how amazing to have the Senator and his staff thinking and working for us when they were vulnerable too. With the assistance of these honorable public servants, my father has a place to live where he is cared for in a government health care system.

My father talked about Senator Kennedy and his slain brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He stated that Senator Kennedy, had a, “rough and tragic start” (to his career) and my father was not shy about discussing the tragedy at Chappaquiddick. As a Senator, “Ted was always thinking about the people of Massachusetts and working for better conditions for us.” My father described what it has been like to be a lifelong Massachusetts resident of Irish descent and observe the Kennedy family dynasty. “I have lived to see the Kennedy era from start to finish,” he stated, “they had their struggles like the rest of us, yet they kept moving forward.” Civil rights, decent wages and safe conditions for blue collar workers, good public education for his children and health care are the products of the Senator’s work that my father has received.

My mother who is 81 years old and still works part-time at the Irish Cottage in Burlington, MA began with this when I called her, “I left you a message, I have no one to talk to about this!” Most of her close friends have passed away. We talk about politics continuously and we share a very strong commitment to the values, the long and proud tradition of the Democratic party of advocating for social justice, working for policies that promote the public health, and fighting to protect citizens from exploitation and oppression.

My mother talked about her memories of going to Wednesday night Novenas at Mission Church with “the girls” after work in the late 1940’s. “It’s just what we did on a Wednesday night”. As a Catholic of mixed Irish and English heritage, seeing the Kennedy family rise to prominence in national politics was as groundbreaking to her as seeing an African American rise to the office of the President. Her mother was welcomed to this country with, "No Irish Need Apply" signs in shop windows. She was struck by the fact that Senator Kennedy had visited the Basilica throughout his daughter Kara’s struggle with cancer.

One day when working at the Irish Cottage, a young mother walked in to buy a Cross for her daughter, to have and to hold during her father's absence. She talked about her husband having to return to a second tour of duty in Iraq and worried that the equipment was inadequate. Shortly after that encounter, my mother described learning about Senator Kennedy’s push to provide safe personal armor and vehicles for soldiers. His commitment to military members, their families and veterans was often over-shadowed by the magnitude of his work on education and health care.

His legacy is irrefutable regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum. We lost a lion in the Senate and there is no one of his caliber to fill the void. Indeed that could be said of the Kennedy brothers, including Joe who was killed in WWII, and the rest of the Greatest Generation.

Rest in Peace.