Gathering to Pay Last Respects

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The program of the memorial service for US Senator Edward Kennedy, dubbed a "celebration of life."

Tropical Storm Danny was bearing down on New England as Boston got ready to lay her favorite son to rest; so President Obama cut his vacation short and flew in Friday night, so that nothing could keep him from Saturday morning's mass for Senator Edward Kennedy. In Washington, busloads of Senators lined up at dawn at the Capitol to proceed to Andrews Air Force base and then fly north. Presidents Clinton, Carter and Bush 43, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen were all expected as well; security was everywhere, the airspace over the city restricted, the bomb squad vans deployed, thousands of Boston cops, state troopers, secret service agents on call.

Stoicism is less a faith or a mood than a muscle, the strength to hold it together when you're falling apart. The Kennedy family has had a lot of practice at this; and for once, they had had time to prepare. Teddy was the only one of the Kennedy boys who got to make a funeral plan, to imagine what would be sung, what would be read. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, would preside, with six others priests participating, including Boston College Chancellor The Rev. J. Donald Monan, and the Rev. Mark R. Hession, pastor of Our Lady of Victory parish in Centerville. Cellist Yo Yo Ma would perform the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite number 6; Tenor Placido Domingo would since Cesar Franck's "Panis Angelicus": "The bread of angels becomes the bread of man..."

His brother Jack's funeral played out with 210 world leaders in attendance; brother Bobby's was all about family, with eight of the children taking part, handing out communion. For Ted's funeral, the service would embrace the youngest of the clan, just as he had once been the youngest: Kennedy's four grandchildren, and the youngest grandchild of each of his siblings, were to read from his speeches. "Every single one of my brothers and sisters needed a father, and we gained one through Uncle Teddy," said his nephew Joseph Kennedy at a memorial service the night before. "We just needed someone to hang on to, and Teddy was always there to hang on to. He had such a big heart, and he shared that heart with all of us."

The service was to be held in a church that had already heard a great many of the senator's prayers. The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, known as the Mission Church, is one of the biggest in Boston, though by no means the fanciest. This is the church where people come for healing; it was known for so many miracles it was called "the Home of Wonders," the Boston Globe explained, its chapel flanked by bouquets of crutches and braces that mark the healings. When Kennedy's daughter Kara was being treated for lung cancer at the Dana- Farber Cancer Institute nearby, he came regularly to pray.

Now the country's first black president was coming to honor its great champion for the poor, in a church that tells the story of the city over the years. It anchors a neighborhood once known for crime and drugs and violence, now a fizzing mix of college kids and old Irish and new immigrants and young families and stores that offer "Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Asian, Spanish, and American Groceries." In the days before, many thousands had come to pay their respects.

There is much in the Congress and the country the Senator leaves behind that is in need of healing. Remembering his mission and message, his determination to overcome his own wounds, his unwillingness to see opponents as enemies, was itself a kind of balm. Even in death, the Senator understood that a symbol is as good a place to start as any.