Charlie took five bottles in a row yesterday. It was an accomplishment far more exciting to me than him getting accepted at Harvard or winning the Nobel Prize. The irony was that the doctors had just decreased the number of bottles he needed to take by mouth during the day because he he’d been having trouble and seemed to be getting too exhausted as he navigated the complicated process of breathing, sucking, and swallowing. The minute he wasn’t “assigned” a specific number of bottles, he seemed to really get it and take more than before. That so reminds me of aspects in both Kendall and myself—rebelling against authority and then rising to the challenge the second people stop telling us what we have to do.
Charlie now weighs 6 lbs. 3 oz. which I find absolutely miraculous when I remember his wizened, fragile body that was once barely over a pound. His size is no longer an issue at all in terms of his departure from the NICU. A baby from our bay went home yesterday who was way smaller than Charlie. But before he leaves our son needs to be on total bottle feeds and, of course, he needs to recover from the shunt surgery that is scheduled for tomorrow. The surgery will cause a delay in his feeding progress and will also create a temporary respiratory setback since he’ll be intubated yet again. But despite the challenging and largely unknown journey that still lies ahead (including far beyond the NICU) I can’t help but get giddy with excitement at every step forward Charlie takes. We can really see his personality now and it’s such a sweet one. He seems to have a way of interacting with people that I know will serve him well in his life regardless of any other disabilities he may have.
This whole experience has been radically changing my perspectives on achievement, intelligence, and success. I was sad to hear that Eunice Kennedy Shriver died this morning. Despite growing up in a family that seemed to place an incredibly high value on traditional interpretations of intellect, Eunice and her husband worked tirelessly most of their lives for others, people with mental and physical challenges and those in dire social and economic circumstances.
Eunice was always my favorite of President Kennedy’s sisters. I met her once when she visited the Kennedy-owned Merchandise Mart where my mother worked for many years. (In later years my mom’s boss was Chris Kennedy, Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s eighth child.) When Eunice arrived that day I remember that she asked the doorman to pay for her taxi fare because she never carried any cash. I don’t think any Kennedys did. Decades earlier, her husband Sargent Shriver was the General Manager of the Merchandise Mart. One summer in the 1970s when I was working as a mail boy at the Mart, I found a pile of dusty boxes in a back corner of an old storeroom that were filled with items from Shriver’s former office. There were original photographs of President Kennedy at Mart functions and a series of Time magazine covers from the 1950s that were each autographed by the person on the cover (ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Groucho Marx to Albert Einstein). I looked in vain for Eunice’s wedding dress which was rumored to be lost somewhere in the bowels of the Merchandise Mart but I never found it.
I so admired how the Shrivers (like the Kennedys) were so committed to public service, but a 2005 Oprah interview with Eunice and Maria Shriver made me doubtful that I could have ever lived up to the pressures of being in that family. I’m sure it wasn’t the intention but by the end of the show I felt like the biggest slackard on the planet. Imagine growing up with the man who started the Peace Corps and Head Start and the woman who founded the Special Olympics. At the nightly dinner table the Shrivers talked about how to make the world a better place. Their guests would always have to answer Sargent Shriver’s favorite question: “What are you going to do to make a difference in the world?” What were we talking about at my family’s dinner table? The “I Love Lucy” rerun we were watching?
All around their house the Shrivers hung pictures of starving children in Africa, kids with disabilities, and children living in institutions so that they could discuss how their work was affecting people’s lives and brainstorm what else they could do to make an impact. Every Thursday night Eunice would plop down a piggy bank in the center of the dining room table and serve her large brood cereal for dinner so they could donate what they would have spent on food that night to the poor. Although they were richer than Midas, they tried to focus on ideas rather than possessions. Go, Shrivers!
I’m surprised those kids didn’t crumble under the weight of such high ideals and expectations. Maybe some of them did. Even Oprah said that when she first used to go to dinner at the Shrivers’ house she would hide in the closet when she heard Sargent questioning their guests about how they were going to change the world. On a visit to her parents before the interview, Maria said her father asked her what she was working on. “I’m promoting my book that was just published,” she replied. “No, that’s in the past, what are you going to do next?” Oy, Sargent, can the woman please have a few weeks to rest on her laurels? I’m still trying to rest on the laurels of my sixth grade science fair project!
Some of the Shrivers’ claims defied credulity. Maria and Eunice told Oprah that they had never, ever, had a single fight. Is that even possible (or desirable)? Eunice said how important it is for family members to eat dinner together every night. I agree with that but she then said, “when I was growing up, I never saw my father go out to dinner in a restaurant once in our whole life.” Um, Eunice, forgive me, but does Gloria Swanson’s dressing room count as a restaurant if the butler serves them caviar and champagne in candlelight?
Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s death marks the end of an era. Only two of JFK’s eight siblings survive, Ted Kennedy, who is battling cancer, and Jean Kennedy Smith, who founded Very Special Arts, a wonderful organization that promotes the artistic talents of children with mental and physical disabilities.
During these past months I’ve often thought of all of the loss the Kennedy family has suffered through the years. While I don’t subscribe to the traditional Kennedy stoicism when it comes to grief, I admire the way they all carried on with their lives after their seemingly endless spate of tragedies. On Sunday we went to the beautiful but heart-wrenching memorial for Lily Burk, Leah’s classmate who was murdered a few weeks ago. There were over 500 people present and I was stunned and moved by the courage and strength showed by Lily’s family and friends as they spoke about this amazing young woman. Her death was so senseless and it is maddening to try to imagine why the world and the people who loved her should be deprived of all she had to offer. A feeling I’m sure is quite familiar in the Kennedy family.
The Kennedys and Shrivers are far from perfect even though they are frequently idealized (especially by me). They are flawed human beings like everyone else, but I still hope I am able to impart some of the families’ best values to Leah and Charlie without putting pressure on them to achieve “big” things. They may never be elected to public office, start a nonprofit organization, or travel to Third World countries, but there’s no big or small when it comes to thinking about others and standing up for what you believe is right.