For how he lived the final chapter of his life, Ted Kennedy earned my grudging admiration. Unlike JFK and RFK, for whom death came in a heartbeat, Ted Kennedy had 15 months of intensely focused, deliberated living after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He was thus able to organize and orchestrate his final days. At age 77, Kennedy continued to work, sail and enjoy his friends and family, even as his strength ebbed. He was determined that his would be a “good ending” and by all accounts it was.
Not so fortunate was the brother of a close friend, who died yesterday of metastatic melanoma that was ferociously aggressive. A little over a week ago he was on vacation with his family, but was rushed home early when it was clear his health was spiraling downward. His cancer recurred earlier this summer, and his death comes as a shock because of its suddenness and his relative youth. He barely had time to say his good-bys.
One of the quirks of being a cancer survivor is that I take special notice of people who are diagnosed with cancer or who die of it. I watch for the details, and notice the choices people make. In my case, I’m especially alert to those touched by melanoma. I have two friends who have been through treatment similar to mine, and I know several people well for whom cancer is or was a present danger. One—a 30-something guy—appears to have beat breast cancer. You read that right; cancer can be downright bizarre in its manifestations.
Few of us lead epic lives like Ted Kennedy. He was no hero of mine, but I respect how he lived his final months. Based on what I’ve read, he knew his cancer was likely to be fatal. He didn’t deny that his life was coming to a close. He raced to complete his legislative work and his memoirs, even while pursing what he called “prudently aggressive” treatment for his cancer. He was determined to get things done, but he was also aware of his limitations. He took time for soul work: to laugh, to sing and to pray with his priest.
There are no courses on how to walk through the shadow of death. We can learn from the example of others, however, and then be prepared to improvise. Dying well is at least partly the luck of the draw. Few of us have the chance, in our final days, to enjoy our morning coffee on the front porch of a 10-bedroom home on Cape Cod overlooking Nantucket Sound. But rich or poor, in good health or bad, we can all pause and reflect on our lives and marshal our resources to where they’ll do the most good. Ted Kennedy showed us how. That’s the legacy for which I’ll remember him.