Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | January 20, 2011

a repost from last year: TV, Tears, and the State of the Union

A friend asked me if I remembered where I was on this day last year. It took a moment to realize the significance of the date, January 20, 2009. Of course, Inauguration Day. How could I forget? I remember exactly where I was, don’t you?

A little background:

After many months of vague discomforts, debilitating fatigue, and increasingly worrisome symptoms, my husband Jeff was in the hospital on the afternoon of on May 20, 2008. I was with him. We were in a day surgery cubicle that contained little besides a gurney and a television. Anyone who has spent any time in the emergency room or day surgery unit is far too familiar with CNN’s endless loop of news flashes, repeated every twenty minutes for as long as you can stand it and beyond. Jeff and I were idly watching tv and leafing through magazines while waiting for the doctor. The shocking, terrible news of Ted Kennedy’s brain cancer diagnosis came on the television. The bulletin was then repeated many, many times that afternoon as we waited for the CT scan that would, it turned out later that evening, finally diagnose Jeff’s illness as stage IV, metastasized, incurable cancer. Jeff and Teddy were diagnosed with terminal cancer on the same day.

Several months later, on August 25, 2008, Jeff and I were lying on our bed, propped up by pillows, watching the Democratic convention on television. For Jeff at that time, the chemotherapy was working; he had energy, felt well, and was engaged in the world. Always a political animal, he had kept close track of the summer’s events. There had been rumors swirling about Kennedy: he wouldn’t appear, he would be brought onto the stage on a stretcher, he would be there but was unable to speak, he was secretly in a hospital in Colorado, he was in a coma. Anticipation mounted. His niece Caroline Kennedy came to the stage and introduced him; the crowd roared their approval and rose as one to their feet. I suppose it is a cliche to say there was not a dry eye in the house. Ted Kennedy strode forcefully onstage, thick mane of white hair a shining beacon. He delivered a powerful, rousing speech in his strong booming voice, as he had done so many times before. He heartily endorsed, some say handed the torch to, the young Barack Obama. Kennedy’s familiar, confident, robust voice rang through the packed convention hall as he vowed to be on hand in the Senate chamber when Obama was sworn in as president the following January. I had a terrible shiver of foreshadowing, and very much wished he had not said that. I felt it was Tempting Fate. Kennedy did not use the stool that stood beside him on the dais, and he shook plenty of hands as he made his way offstage accompanied by another standing ovation. As the wife of a man with cancer, I observed him carefully for signs of fatigue or weakness, and saw none.

Anna, watching the convention speech with us, was confused. “Why are you guys crying? Aren’t you happy?”

Barack Obama won the presidential election on November 4, 2008. That night Anna, a few months shy of voting age, said in a dazed voice “Nobody I wanted has ever won before.”

On January 20, 2009, tears flowed again as Jeff and I watched on television the pomp and circumstance of that most momentous inauguration. Kennedy was in attendance, looking distinguished and dashing in a hat and long coat, in the frigid January air of Washington D.C. When the inauguration ceremony was over and Jeff needed to rest, I drove with the dog to a favorite place for a long walk in the slanting light of the January afternoon. Afterward, turning the ignition key to bring the car back to life also brought up the radio, and the announcement that our beloved Teddy had lost consciousness at the inaugural luncheon and had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Oh no, I mourned, tears coming yet again. Teddy Kennedy and Jeff had both been in treatment for many months, and the treatment can be as burdensome as the illness. Why did he have to make that vow? I feared the worst, of course. My husband was dozing on the couch with the tv still murmuring in the background when I arrived home and burst hysterically into the room with the news of Teddy’s collapse. “He just overdid it today,” was Jeff’s calm response, so typical of him in all things. “He’ll be fine.”

And of course it turned out that Kennedy was fine, in the overall scheme of things, in the way one could possibly be fine while living with incurable cancer. Both Jeff and Kennedy had goals yet to realize.

Months passed, as they are wont to do. Jeff Flanagan’s cancer ended his life on July 17, 2009. Ted Kennedy lived another thirty nine days past that before cancer claimed him on August 25, 2009. Teddy died one year to the day after that incredible display of strength disguised as a speech at the convention. I was actually happy that Teddy lived longer than Jeff – Kennedy’s death would have been a harsh blow to my dear one.

So that’s where I was on January 20, 2009.

We all have a finite lifetime and a finite number of things we can accomplish. It’s just that some times we can see this more clearly than others.

Now, on January 20, 2010, I guess it’s time to turn on the tv and watch our President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address.

“The work begins anew. The hope rises again. The dream lives on.”

We are all doing the best we can.


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