He died on a soft summer night, at home in Hyannis Port, a few days after a storm, the edge of another hurricane, ripped the waters of Nantucket Sound, turning the sky an angry gray. But now, on the day after he died, the air was clear and there was only the heat of the August sun beating down on the boat, the Mya, that Ted Kennedy so often took to sea, seeking comfort from the past and refuge from the illness now ravaging his system.
Some months before he died, he sat on the porch of the big, white clapboard house he shared with his wife, Vicki, his dogs, and his memories; the Hyannis Port house both a home and a museum containing the story of seven decades in the life of one man and a single country.
“When you’re out on the ocean,” I asked. “Do you ever see your brothers?”
“Sure, all the time, all the time,” he answered, his voice a whisper. “There’s not a day I don’t think of them. This is where we all grew up.”
And this is where it came to an end, the long dynastic thread woven through world wars, politics, scandal, and redemption. At 77, Edward Moore Kennedy was a man who learned to live with his flaws, his failures, and a prematurely ordained future that never was and, after 1969, could never be.
He was the most Irish of four brothers, had the loudest laugh and the biggest voice. He was familiar with pain, emotional and physical. He was sentimental, given to song, poetry, and painting. His own hand-painted watercolors adorn the walls his house.
He suffered greatly from self-inflicted wounds—Chappaquiddick, an affinity for alcohol, the weight of constant expectation that he would, could, might rise eventually take the White House. But disruptions caused by the hand of two gunmen in two American cities altered him forever, detoured him from the family dream, pushed him to live without a calendar, measuring his days and hours by the whim of a fate he knew he could never truly control.
He became, Kennedy did, a religious man, often attending early Mass with his wife at Our Lady of Victory in Centreville on Cape Cod, knowing that his Catholic faith was rooted in forgiveness.
It is easy to consider how Ted Kennedy might have approached the Lord: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been—What?—Three weeks? Three years? Three decades?—since my last Confession.”
And his penance, if you will, was to serve as a surrogate for three dead brothers and the cargo of lost and wounded children left in the wake of war and assassination; to lose and immerse himself in the freedom of being a legislator rather than be shackled by a myth or become a political vessel for others driven by dreams of dynasty.
He carried his Cross through all the decades, carried it with honor and nobility. He heard every slur, each slander, lost his only quest for the Oval Office and emerged from defeat with a deeper knowledge of who he was and what was meant to be: a life lived in the United States Senate, to negotiate, deal, and fight for laws that simply changed how we lived.
Now the house by the sea, a place once filled with high hopes and even higher ambition, is quiet. And last night’s dusk arrived with a brutal truth: This man who came through the fire of life, scarred but whole, is silent forever, while the fog of memory, seven decades deep, becomes legend on the summer wind.
This article also appears in Thursday’s New York Daily News.
Mike Barnicle has been a newspaper—remember them?—columnist for 35 years. He is a contributing commentator on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. For more visit mikebarnicle.com