A Family Gathers to Say Farewell to Ted Kennedy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stephan Savoia / AP

A flag flies at half-staff in honor of Ted Kennedy at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.

Simon Sousa, shell-shocked and bleary eyed, stood on a grassy corner near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. He clutched an 8-by-10-in. framed and signed photo of himself with Ted Kennedy, a memento from when Kennedy helped the Brazilian house cleaner get a green card two years ago. He has planted a few tiny American flags and says he may drive to Boston for the funeral on Aug. 29. "I do not understand. He seemed O.K. yesterday morning," says Sousa, 40, who has cleaned Kennedy's home here every two weeks for the past six years. "I was so surprised to hear he passed. Just yesterday I heard him walking and talking on the second floor" of the vacation home the Kennedy family has owned since the 1920s.

This is where Kennedy spent much of his time after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor 15 months ago. He died surrounded by his wife, children and other family members, who bid him loving and tearful goodbyes, according to the Rev. Patrick Tarrant, who was with the family at the time. Since his death, relatives have taken turns sitting vigil by his body as the Kennedy clan — all 23 nieces and nephews, his wife Vicki of 17 years and his three children — gather for his wake and funeral. It is the second time in two weeks the clan has descended on Hyannis Port; earlier this month, Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver was laid to rest here.

All day long vans crammed with flower arrangements streamed past the TV cameras that spanned two blocks, even though the family specifically asked that well-wishers donate money to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in lieu of flowers. The institute houses an extensive collection of Kennedy's papers — almost all handwritten — and is dedicated to educating Senators, staff and the general public about the role and importance of the Senate, where Kennedy served 46 years.

Though his lifelong goal had been to achieve universal health care, Kennedy's illness prevented him from spearheading the most recent round of negotiations. But he was the man behind the curtain, working from his sickbed to boost higher-education funding, weighing in on nominations that passed through his committee — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — and above all, helping shape health-care-reform strategy. "All of these things weren't accidental," said Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a close Kennedy friend, as he left the compound on Wednesday. "Ted Kennedy's strategy and his design and his purposeful effort [were] to continue to serve. From the moment he got sick, he was not worried about himself; he was worried about, How do I continue to do this job and represent the people of Massachusetts?"

In his final days, Kennedy was often seen on his porch talking on the phone, sometimes passionately, or even sailing with friends and colleagues on his 50-ft. blue-hulled schooner, the Mya. The day of his death was a perfect day for sailing, sunny and blustery with a few white caps on the bay that the compound overlooks. Flags around the tiny Cape Cod town were at half-staff. On Aug. 27 Kennedy's body will be taken by motorcade to a maple-paneled room at his brother's presidential library in Dorchester for a wake. The body will be open to public viewing on Aug. 27 and 28 at the John F. Kennedy Library's Smith Center, which has a stunning view of Boston's skyline. On the night of Aug. 28, the family will hold a private celebration of the man who the family, in a statement, called "the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives." Vice President Joe Biden, among others, is expected to speak. On Aug. 29 another motorcade will bear Kennedy across Boston to the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the Mission Hill section of Boston. It was in this church, commonly known as Mission Church, that Kennedy prayed daily for his daughter Kara when she was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. There, Kennedy's funeral will be held for an invitation-only crowd of 1,450. President Barack Obama is expected to interrupt his Martha's Vineyard vacation to speak. Kennedy's body will then be flown to Washington, where he will be laid to rest next to his brothers John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy in a private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

For now, friends and neighbors are leaving flowers at a small, impromptu shrine at the edge of the Kennedy property. "Things will change a lot," says James Quinn, 34, a general contractor whose family has lived across the street from the Kennedys for more than 60 years. "I saw him a few times the last few months, throwing the ball for Splash, his dog, or out and about. But sightings were getting rarer and rarer. I hope he's in a better place. He gave his whole life to politics. He just seemed to work for the people up to his last day. He was the last of Camelot."