A Kennedy Moment
My mother told me this story about John F. Kennedy when I mentioned that I had seen him once in the back of his Lincoln convertible, radiant and god-like, a man as a man should be. I was nine in 1960 and had been taken to join the crowd along the access ramp of the Pennsylvania Turnpike by a neighboring Catholic family hoping for a good look at possibly the first fellow Catholic to occupy The White House.
“Well, it's a wonder he got there,” she said.
“How so?” I asked.
“He came to the hospital when I was on duty before he headed for the turnpike. He wasn’t a well man.”
She never talked about the hospital when she was still an active nurse, but that was decades past. She was an old woman now, and we would sit up talking whenever I came for a visit, she smoking and me drinking. Sometimes we’d do this past midnight, long after my father had headed for bed. Often we’d laugh so hard that he’d cry out for us to keep it down, but just as often the mysteries of life didn't strike us as so funny, and these were the things that interested us most. Why were we so united by our fascination with remembering everything that had happened to our family, much of it calamitous? I suppose it was our way of fighting back against time, having another go at it, proving that our grip was still strong despite the pain of holding on. Kennedy, in his day-to-day life, bizarrely sexual, cosseted, charmed and yet oppressive, turned out to be just as defiant as the two of us, a shriveled little woman in her eighties and a man in his thirties who worked too hard and drank too much, both eager to squeeze just one more ounce of meaning out of days and years and decades that had seemed too long when they were unfolding and too vanished when they were past.
She was on floor duty when word spread that Kennedy was going to visit the hospital and say hello to patients and staff. There had been no planning for this hospital visit, so it had an awkward, bumbling quality. Nurses hurried to give patients their pills, hide the bedpans, and get in place. My mother was stationed on the fifth floor. She doubted Kennedy would work his way that far. But that’s where he immediately headed after visiting the first floor and walked directly toward her standing by the doorway of an empty room. His smile, she saw, was an act. His face was swollen with the effects of the cortisone shots he took for his Addison’s disease. His gait was tentative and weary. But he kept smiling and exchanging greetings as he approached her at the far end of the corridor, accompanied by the chief of the medical staff, Dr. Jenkins, whom my mother referred to with the Dickensian nickname Jenks, and his own personal doctor, whose name my mother never learned.
Kennedy wasn’t any god, she said, contradicting my account, and he didn’t radiate compelling energy. She thought he belonged in a wheelchair. Why he was wincing her way? She only had one patient too sick to visit, another who already had hied himself up to the nurses’ desk to greet JFK, and that empty room.
I interrupted her at this point to say, “I can't believe you never told me this one.”
She said, “I was taught not to talk about patients. Then he became president on top of that.”
“You're saying he was a patient?”
“I don’t know what else I would call him.”
My mother went on, saying Jenks introduced Kennedy to her, then JKF, Jenks, Kennedy’s doctor, and my mother went into the empty room, leaving Kennedy’s aides outside.
My mother said, “He couldn’t take off his coat. His doctor had to help him. Jenks told me to bring him a glass of water. Then he took some pills from his doctor—they looked like amphetamines, the ones they call greenies—and his doctor helped him get on the bed.”
For several moments Kennedy lay there, corpse-like. Only his face moved. He grimaced as his spine and hips sank through the pain that standing on his feet had caused him. He kept his eyes closed a good long while, struggling with himself.
Jenks and my mother stood by the window, deferring to Kennedy’s doctor who was hovering at the bedside.
Finally Kennedy’s doctor and Jenks left the room and passed word to the press that this wasn’t a medical visit—the candidate was just resting.
He wasn’t just resting. He was wrestling with the Angel of Pain. On leaving, Jenks had whispered to my mother, “Let us know.”
My mother took a seat on a chair at the foot of Kennedy’s bed. His fingers quivered a little bit. At one point he began to perspire. She loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar and gave him another sip of water.
“Did you think this man wasn’t well enough to be president?” I asked.
“God save us, I thought. He looked dead even when he was alive. The effort and medications were killing him. I didn’t see how he could possibly leave the hospital that day, but that was for him and his doctor to decide.”
She watched his drug-swollen face gradually regain its color as the amphetamines began perking him up.
“It’s really in hospital rooms where we’re most human,” she said to me.
“Human because our frailty is most obvious there?”
“It’s more that people let their guard down. The sicker you are, the more you’re alone with the truth of who you are.”
“And what a good nurse does is not intrude?”
“It runs people down if they have to put on a show for a nurse. It runs the nurse down, too. Private duty with just one patient can be harder than floor work, believe me.”
“And there’s Kennedy, suddenly your private patient.”
“I had never met anyone that famous in my life. I thought, Brother, how could this be worth it?”
My mother remembered looking intensely at her Timex watch. She found the monotonous second hand more agreeable than JFK’s increasingly revived face, blooming with artificial life. What was more real, the man or the drugs?
By the time we talked, Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, too, Teddy Kennedy had abandoned Mary Jo Kopechne in the waters of Chappaquiddick, and both of us had read all the Kennedy books. People fascinated us. We read history and biography and even more fiction. I think our interest in fiction had to do with the way it steals into the solitude of things, the hospital rooms, as my mother put it, where being alone is being yourself.
Kennedy opened his eyes, and she found him looking at her. She said she thought at first that she had done something to irritate him because his expression was unfriendly.
I said, “He may have resented the fact that he’d been exposed this way.”
“Or he hated nurses and doctors and hospitals. I read once that he said he’d rather die than live with the pain he went through.”
“By then he’d spent years in hospitals and sickbeds.”
“I couldn’t have done anything to offend him, though,” my mother said, questioning herself again so many years later. “I hadn't moved for five minutes.”
“But there you were, another nurse, his jailer in a sense.”
“I think he knew he would never survive. Somehow being president would cost him his life.”
“Jenks told you to let him know. When did you decide Kennedy was fit to reappear?”
“At first I was too stunned by Kennedy's look to do anything, but then I thought, This has nothing to do with me. His anger or resentment or bitterness wasn’t my fault, and it had to fade for him to keep going.”
“So did it fade?”
“He turned his head and looked out the window at the sycamores. I suppose he was getting control of himself. Finally, he seemed to realize he couldn’t keep lying there, and if he was bitter about it, he swallowed it. That’s when I went out for the doctors, and they came in and helped him on with his coat and knotted his tie, and he walked down the hallway as if nothing had happened.”
“Did he say thank you or goodbye?”
“Not a word.”
My mother lit another cigarette. I sipped my bourbon. Sometimes, like Kennedy, we didn’t say a word, either.