It feels as if we have been bombarded these past few weeks with news of celebrities who have died, all of them too soon: Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, John Hughes, and others too. Each made a mark on our society and culture in ways more and less significant, and each left behind fans and admirers who have felt their deaths as a personal loss.
For me, the death of Eunice Kennedy Shriver this week outweighs them all. As one of her grandchildren said recently, she never ran for office, but she changed the world. How true!
To be sure, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was born into a life of privilege and entitlement. Her storied family was blessed with great wealth and influence, and few American families have occupied as exalted a place in the American consciousness as the Kennedys. Had she chosen to live her life as a “lady who lunches,” far removed from those less fortunate than she, it would hardly have been a shock.
But the reality of Mrs. Shriver’s life was entirely opposite of what one might have expected.
The traumatic and violent losses that she endured would justifiably have embittered even those with strong consitutions. Two brothers assassinated, all kinds of family dysfunction on all sides (though her own marriage was solid)… Eunice Shriver had more on her plate than most people.
But it was the sad story of her sister Rosemary that was to define Shriver’s life of service.
Even today, it’s hard to know exactly what was wrong with Rosemary.
The family referred to her as “different,” but whether that meant that she was developmentally disabled, bipolar, or something else entirely is not clear. What is known is that, in her early twenties, her parents had doctors perform a frontal lobotomy on her in an experimental treatment to “cure” her. She never recovered, and until her death remained mentally compromised and disabled.
It was Rosemary’s experience that motivated her sister Eunice to develop the Special Olympics, which is such a well-known institution by now as to obviate the need for elaboration. More than any other single program geared to people with special needs, the Special Olympics not only provided developmentally challenged men and women with a platform for meaningful competition and excellence. Obviously, that in and of itself would have more than justified its existence. But just as importantly, the Special Olympics helped Americans and, indeed, citizens of the world, understand that each and every person- regardless of mental capacity- is endowed with, and deserving of, a life of dignity, and the capacity to strive for and achieve meaning and success.
I don’t know how you measure something like that, how you quantify a contribution to our society that truly makes America a better place. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan, and that was surely the right gesture for the right person (as opposed to Mary Robinson being so honored this year by President Obama).
This much I’m sure of. Her death impoverishes our culture and society far more than the other “celebrity” deaths we’ve been hearing about ad nauseum lately. As an American citizen and as a rabbi, I pray that her soul be at peace.