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Kennedy Did His Life's Work Until the End

By Ann Gerhart and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Several weeks ago, Vicki Kennedy sent an e-mail to the extended Kennedy family -- relatives, friends, colleagues -- with one of her regular updates on her husband. We're doing fine, she wrote. "He's a miracle man."

By that time, Edward M. Kennedy was in serious decline. The cancer he had battled for more than a year had gained the upper hand. The drugs he was using to fight off the disease were taking an enormous toll on his body. Many days were bad. He was having trouble speaking, though on occasion friends could hear his voice in the background when his wife was on the phone.

Toward the end, Vicki Kennedy kept up a steady stream of reports to the Kennedy network. He's fighting, she would say. He's the most determined man I know. On his better days, if there was a bit of a breeze, he went sailing.

This indomitable spirit gave many of the couple's intimates hope that the senator would manage one more visit to the White House, to have President Obama place the Medal of Freedom around his neck on Aug. 12. Instead, his daughter, Kara, accepted the honor in his place.

Her father had used up his strength the night before, to put on a crisp white shirt and a tie, comb his gray hair and travel to the family's private gathering in Hyannis Port, Mass., for his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

"Ted, he's having his own struggles right now," his nephew Bobby Kennedy Jr. acknowledged after Shriver's death. "But he's doing well. He's sailing. I saw him out on the boat yesterday. He's going sailing every day. He's keeping up with his work."

Ted Kennedy was the only one of the remarkable Kennedy brothers who lived to earn the indignities and frailty of old age, with its opportunities for wisdom and suffering. In wrapping up nearly 90 hours of interviews with the senator shortly before his diagnosis, oral historian James S. Young of the University of Virginia discovered a reflective man whose credo in his work was: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." If that pragmatic idea helped Kennedy struggle back from numerous personal failings, it also enabled him to wring a quality of life from his final 15 months, friends said, and move toward a good death.

In those months, Kennedy was determined to carry on as long as he could with his last projects. His memoir, "True Compass," which will be published Sept. 14, was just one that occupied him. He partnered with Bob Shrum, his longtime wordsmith, to make a last, deeply personal plea for his life's work, health-care reform. In a Newsweek essay, published July 27, Kennedy gave an unadorned assessment: He had a malignant brain tumor, surgeons had removed part of it, he had undergone "proton-beam radiation," but he knew he would not be cured.

When his longtime friend Chris Dodd, a senator from Connecticut, came twice for dinner in Hyannis Port, they talked health care. When the president called from Rome in July, after hand-delivering a letter from Kennedy to the pope, they talked health care. Kennedy wrote that he kept pushing to ensure that "when there is a cure for the disease I now have, no American who needs it will be denied it."

When he was healthier, he would pick up the phone and call old friends. Bill Carrick, who worked for Kennedy in the 1980s, remembered his last call with the senator, several months ago. Kennedy talked about the memoir he was laboring to finish. "He was very upbeat," Carrick said.

Even as his cancer moved deeper into his brain, he maintained his interest and involvement in the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, a living testament to the work of his brother, the former president.

Kennedy prided himself on his near-perfect record of attendance at the institute's board meetings. In April, he was preparing to go to a meeting when swine flu began to spread. His doctors concluded it wasn't safe for him to be there, so he participated by telephone.

"He called in and said, 'This still counts. I'm at this meeting,' " recalled Heather Campion, a fellow board member and friend of the Kennedy family.

Campion said Kennedy was blessed in the final months of his life by the love, comfort and protection afforded by his wife, Vicki. "If you were going to pick a person to manage a crisis, it would be Vicki," she said. "She's someone you absolutely want by your side marshaling all the resources, keeping in touch with everyone -- and there were a lot of people to keep in touch with."

Vicki Kennedy orchestrated the comings and goings at the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port. She prepared dinners, invited guests, managed the phone calls and kept up the stream of e-mail reports on her husband's condition. Last winter, she arranged for the acquisition of a new dog, named Captain Courageous -- Cappy for short.

She saw to it that Kennedy was able to continue sailing as long as his body could take it, and those who knew him best said his hours on the water were restorative, bringing out the best in his personality. When it became difficult for him to get on the boat at its usual mooring, the craft was moved to a more private location.

Kennedy spent much of the year on Cape Cod but was in Florida during the winter. Shrum went sailing with him there, and to the senator's amusement he barely managed to make it from the dinghy to the sailboat with an unorthodox series of steps that nearly landed him in the water. "Kennedy spent the next 24 hours laughing, talking about the Shrum spread," the longtime adviser and speechwriter said.

The pace at the family compound -- often the scene of lively gatherings, with children running around, guests filling the swimming pool, and rounds of activities and conversations -- slowed after Kennedy became ill. One friend recalled a quiet evening spent with the senator last winter on the cape, calling it "much more controlled and peaceful."

In his final days, his grandchildren were held back from his bedside, said one intimate, to protect the memory they would carry forward.

But his children were there often, and the final weeks were "a very joyous time, because we have had so much more time than any of the doctors had predicted," said son Patrick Kennedy, a congressman from Rhode Island.

"It's been a chance for us to bond and be together and share a special time together that we would never have had together had he been taken from us," Patrick Kennedy said in an interview with the Associated Press a few weeks ago. "And that's a big gift. [It] let us have the chance to tell him how much we love him. And him to be there to hear it."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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