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Lessons You Leave - 9/21/2009

On Tuesday, August 25, 2009, Senator Edward M. Kennedy died of a brain tumor at his home in Hyannisport, MA.  For the next four days, newspapers, tv, reporters, political commentators and friends of the Senator eulogized his life.  They described him as an elder statesman; a man who still knew how to get things done in Washington; a man who had made his mistakes, but who had lived to atone for them; a loving husband, devoted father and uncle; a man of the sea; an accomplished artist and historian.  Most of all, a man of the people, who stood up for the little guy and never forgot that everyone, no matter their religion, creed or ethnic background, lives in and shares the same world and deserves respect for who they are.   

No one’s words touched my heart more than those of his son, Edward Kennedy Jr.  After he eulogized his father during the services, there was hardly a dry eye in the sanctuary.  He gave another perspective to the man, which I’d like to briefly touch on.  He spoke of a father who was tough and demanding, but always involved, compassionate and supportive.  He related a story that most tugged at my heart.  It occurred after he lost his leg to cancer and first received his prosthesis.  It was snowing and their home, which was perched on a hill, had a long, steep driveway leading to the road.  His father went to the garage, got out a Red Rider sled and said, “Teddy, would you like to go down the hill on this sled with me?”  Teddy, Jr. said, “I was scared, but I agreed, until I tried to walk on the slippery ice and nearly lost my balance.  Then I said, ‘I can’t do it.  I could never walk back up the driveway.’” His father said, “Teddy, you can do anything you want, because we’ll do it together, even if it takes us all day.”  So, they went down the hill and Senator Kennedy stood behind his son, put his arms around his waist and they slowly, arduously climbed that hill together.  Ted, Jr. said that was only one of the many lessons he learned from his father.  Some others were that you can make your losses your gains; if you’re not as smart or talented as others, you can work harder and make up the difference; and that life will always deal you surprises - some good, some bad - and that you must learn to live with all of them.  

When he finished, I was awed.  I sat in front of the tv, oblivious to anything that followed, because he had struck home, reminding me that all of us have to give thanks for the life we have.  One day, we will have to give up that life.  We have no choice in that matter.  But we do have a say with regard to what lessons we leave our children.  

When you’ve lived as long as I have, you go to a lot of funerals.  At some, I’ve heard ministers, priests and rabbis describe the deceased and wondered who they were talking about.   Their words, on too many occasions, in no way accurately depicted the person or the legacy they left behind.  Instead, they extolled the virtues of a person who didn’t deserve it, emphasized the loss that everyone would feel, (which wasn’t necessarily true) and spoke about the goodness of a person they obviously didn’t know.  In every instance, their words were politically correct and in keeping with the notion that you don’t defame those who are deceased.  I have little argument with regard to that.  However, after listening to Ted Kennedy, Jr., I realized how concerned I am regarding what thoughts, feelings, emotions and words those I love, who matter to me, will think or feel after I’m gone.  When I’m truly honest with myself, I already know the answer.  I know how I behaved, how compassionate, understanding, supportive, encouraging and loving I’ve been.  I’m not speaking of how much I indulged, bought or gave, materially, to them.  I’m speaking about what came from my heart.  How much bitterness, anger, control, manipulation or dishonesty I partook of.  How reluctant I was to set limits and boundaries because I didn’t want to hurt them, or risk them not loving me.  How indulgent I was, because I wanted to make their life easier than mine was.  I’m speaking about how much I didn’t say that might have crippled them, emotionally, by not helping them to face reality, by not giving tough love and/or by forcing them to leave the nest and go out on their own and develop their own lives.  

It isn’t that human beings consciously set out to hurt others, we just don’t do enough to consciously help them.  Sometimes because of our own weaknesses and sometimes because of our fears.  But, whatever the reason, I’d have you come to one realization.  If  you  are reading this article and it touches you, angers you, or hits a raw spot, it may mean that down deep inside, you realize there are things you could have done better or differently to enhance the legacy you will leave in this world.  The wonderfully positive aspect of this is that it’s not too late.  Because you recognize that there’s more you can still do, feel and share with those you love, to create the memories and lessons you’d like to leave when you’re gone.

Teddy Kennedy Jr’’s words hit home for me.  They said, “Ed, say more, feel more and share more.  Take the time to live the legacy you’d like to leave.”  It also said that what I’ve done in the past isn’t totally to my satisfaction, and selfishly, to make my feelings about me more positive, I personally have to do more.  It’s not a question of what other people say or feel.  Similarly, each of you know whether you’ve lived up to the goals you have.  And if you don’t know, now is a perfect  time to open your eyes, because it’s the high holy days, a time that specifically provides an opportunity to start again.  How do you go about that?  Ask yourself, “What do I value?  What do I care about?  What lessons do I want people to learn from my life? “ Then live up to the legacy you want to leave behind.

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