Anecdotes

Tim Shriver provides exclusive excerpts from his book Fully Alive.

About Rosemary Kennedy

Early years

As she reached school age, her disability made her unable to keep pace with her siblings. Her parents, like millions of others whose children are different, struggled to find support. Rosemary attended the same schools as her siblings until she was 11. By then she had fallen so far behind that her parents sent her away to an experimental boarding school in Pennsylvania, which was designed for the education of the “feeble-minded.”

How her parents pretended she was no different than the others

In fact, they tried to hide Rosemary’s condition not only from the public but from their own close friends, and even from Rosemary herself. There would have been people in their social circles who might have whispered about “bad blood” in the family had the fact become known. They also believed that Rosemary would be happier if kept unaware of how different she was. In practice, the strict code of silence led Rosemary to become confused and frustrated when she could not keep up.

Still, she consistently wrestled with dark moods and impulse control, and her parents became increasingly anxious about her future. Fierce and impatient when frustrated, she began to act out again. She was often angry and sometimes violent. “She was upset easily and unpredictable,” wrote my grandmother. “Some of these upsets became tantrums, during which she broke things or hit out at people. Since she was quite strong, her blows were hard.” At the time, yet another new possibility for “fixing” Rosemary was gaining adherents: the lobotomy.

…My grandfather must have emphasized Rosemary’s rages and rebellious wanderings when he consulted with [her doctor]. To the end of her life, my grandmother would maintain that this assessment was correct: “A neurological disturbance or disease of some sort seemingly had overtaken her, and it was becoming progressively worse.” My grandfather chose to listen to the advice of experts. He scheduled a lobotomy for Rosemary— without telling my grandmother or any of his other children.

The outcome, in Rosemary’s case, was devastating….After a few weeks, it became apparent that she had been robbed of her speech and of significant cognitive capacity.

On Rosemary’s influence on her family, early on

At some level, they must have realized that in their sister Rosemary, they had received something far greater than they had ever been asked to give: a person whose love they didn’t have to earn. With Rosemary, they needed only to give love in order to receive it back.

And throughout her life

…In the midst of an enormously competitive and political family system, Rosemary Kennedy lived a full life to the age of eighty-six without ever giving a speech, writing a book, holding a job, or garnering the praise of the mighty.

Despite failing to meet any of the expectations that were imposed on the rest of us, she belonged . . . Her presence changed everything.

After RFK Assassination, Rafer Johnson Sees Hope Reborn

Rafer Johnson, Olympic superstar and among the greatest supporters of the first Special Olympics Games in 1968

For years after meeting Robert Kennedy, Rafer Johnson was on call to him, traveling with him, visiting him and his family, joining his mission to change the politics of the nation. And then, just five weeks before the first Special Olympics, Rafer was with Bobby Kennedy when he lost his life in Los Angeles. Along with NFL great Roosevelt Grier, Johnson held on to the gun that killed my uncle until the police came to take it.

The experience devastated him. “I got lost. I went home and built a seven-foot-high wall around my house. I didn’t come out. I couldn’t come out. I didn’t have anything to live for.”

But he did answer the phone one day to hear an invitation…”Would you come to Chicago?” my mother asked. Amazingly, despite the horrific situation surrounding her brother’s death, she had decided to proceed with the games.

What Rafer saw at those first Games caught his attention—and changed everything.

“Everywhere you turned, you saw an experience no one had ever seen before. No one had seen these people. No one had ever seen their exhilaration. It was so simple, but it was so amazing.”

In his words, “I looked at the athletes, and I knew what it was like for them. I knew how it felt when someone slapped me on the back for the first time. The athletes had these smiles that I will never be able to describe. And when I went to congratulate them, I got a bear hug instead of a handshake.”

“Something came from inside me. I just wanted to say over and over again: thank you.”

On Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s Work on Behalf of People with Intellectual Disabilities

As ‘consultant’ to the ground-breaking President’s Panel on Mental Retardation:

Years later, I asked her why she’d never wanted to be an official member, why she chose instead to remain an unofficial “consultant.” Why, I often wondered, had she exercised her zeal and determination in such forceful way and yet been reluctant to be named the leader?

“I knew that this work had to be Jack’s if it was to be successful,” she said. “He was the president and I never for a minute doubted that he made all the difference. And I always wanted this to be taken seriously by the country and never wanted people to see me and think this was just about our family.” She was looking for results, not credit, and her political judgment was as sharp as her determination. “The way to make things happen in Washington was for people to see this as an issue important to Jack. It had to be an important issue, not a family issue.”

I’m sure she was right in many ways. I’m sure she was right to think that the fight for rights and dignity should not be seen as one family’s fight but rather as a nation’s fight. And I guess she was right about another message: “I never wanted people to think that what President Kennedy was doing was about Rosemary. Then they would have dismissed it as being a personal matter. It wasn’t. It was about the outrageous neglect. It was about the outrage.”

Inventing Camp Shriver

At the very same time my mother was working in the halls of power, she was also inaugurating Camp Shriver back at home in Rockville, Maryland…

Like every effective revolutionary, she was also an observer, an experimenter, a risk-taker. In 1962, there was little consensus in the fields of science or public policy as to what, exactly, people with intellectual disabilities could do. Could they function in society outside of institutions? Could they form friendships, play sports, fall in love, hold jobs? No one knew for sure, because so few alternatives had been tested.

One of Camp Shriver’s primary purposes was to serve as a testing ground, an informal scientific exploration of whether kids with intellectual disabilities could play sports and games and, if so, whether they would benefit from doing so.

"He caught our hearts off guard..."

...When Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland, took her seat at this first-ever MATP event at the World Games in Dublin, she was greeted by a huge ovation from the more than 1,500 fans filling every seat behind her. She was popular in the warmest way; the people of Ireland loved her. Just after we sat down, the announcer blared, “Next up, Donal Page from County Galway. Will you join me in welcoming Donal to the stage, where he will perform the ‘grasp and release.’”

From behind the stage, a young woman came pushing Donal in his wheelchair to the center of the riser. I could see that Donal had only the most limited control of his arms and that his body was slightly contorted in the chair. But I also couldn’t help noticing the face of the woman pushing him, her broad smile, her glittering eyes as she looked out to the crowd. She was Donal’s coach. She positioned Donal in his wheelchair in front of a small table, and she came around the front to set up a small beanbag. Once she secured the chair and the bag, she leaned over to speak to him in his ear—last- minute instructions and encouragement. Donal’s challenge was to reach over, pick up the beanbag, lift it, and move it to the other side of the table. She placed her hands on his shoulders, then down on the bag as if to capture his attention and make sure he understood. With that, she stepped off the riser and headed toward the back of the stage from where she’d come. But she paused midway and turned to watch Donal perform from a safe distance.

“Start,” barked the announcer, and Donal began his task. I was close enough to Donal to see his eyes, and I could see him scan the crowd with a slight hint of a smile. His gaze moved around the hall. It was as if he was taking the whole of the place into himself; as if he was saying that he wouldn’t connect with that beanbag until he’d first connected with the people around him. The crowd was quiet.

He’d lived his whole life learning how to communicate without words or motions, and he was doing that right there on that stage. There were no words and only the slightest of movements. But he was gathering us, taking us in, collecting the energy in the room for the task ahead. After a minute or so, without the slightest hint of Donal’s picking up the beanbag— a minute that seemed like an hour— he turned his head downward to the task at hand and, to my relief, started to focus on completing his assignment. Silence has an uncomfortable power in a room of thousands, and while I practiced it in prayer, I was ready for it to end in the arena. And Donal, it appeared, was ready to do what he had come to do. As his hand started toward the bag, one fan in the crowd shouted an unmistakable cheer—“Come on now! Let’s see it!”—and a rustle of encouragement moved through the room.

If I had been apprehensive about the MATP event before it began, I forgot all about it. The moments of silence had brought my full attention to Donal. And with my attention, I felt a bond emerge between him and the crowd of which I was a part, and I was all in, focused completely on pulling for him to pick up that bag. Donal was now leaning into the challenge, but even though he tried and tried to move his hand to pick up that beanbag, he just couldn’t do it. Another minute went by but his body simply wouldn’t cooperate. All of us assembled could tell he was giving it his effort, but there was no movement in his arm, no grasping in his fingers. Try as he might, the level of difficulty was just too high. Thousands of people were watching him and we were frozen in disappointment and empathy. He just couldn’t do it.

But after another minute or so, Donal’s hand moved. His father remembers thinking, “If they just give him time, he can do it. I was remembering all those doctors who gave up on him and told me he was blind and deaf and could never do a thing. They didn’t give him time. I was just hoping that the crowd would give him time, ’cause sure I knew he could do it.” Time— that’s what passed, second by second, and into several minutes with only the slightest movement of his arm. But the crowd stayed with him, and after the arm moved, a few fans started to applaud and a few more shouts came from the bleachers: “There you go, lad! Now grab it!”

And so slowly, deliberately, and with a level of effort I’d never seen before and never seen since, Donal Page pushed his arm to grasp that beanbag, and the crowd exploded in cheers. It had taken him almost ten full minutes to get his arm and his hand lowered onto that bag, but the place reacted like these were World Cup finals and the home team had just scored a goal. Applause turned to stomping, shouts turned to enthusiastic howls, and whistles rang out from the crowd. Donal looked up— just a glance— and continued on his task. Donal Page took eighteen minutes to complete his MATP demonstration of the beanbag lift. Alone on the stage, in front of the president of his country and thousands of fans, Donal Page did what almost no one believed he could do: lift a beanbag and move it about twenty inches from one side of a table to the next. He did it with a combination of effort and focus that left us all in tears. We were all standing for the last five minutes or so, cheering, shouting, clapping, yelling, laughing, crying, and crying some more...

When the family arrived home after nightfall, a final surprise greeted them: the town square was full. News had spread of the great achievements in Dublin. Donal was lowered off the bus with his medal around his neck, and the square filled with cheers. “That’s a day we’ll never forget. There was Donal in the middle of the town and the lights flashing and him and his medal and everyone congratulating him and telling him, ‘Well done,’ and Mary and me— well, we felt a light in our son that we’d never felt before. He’s a good lad and we always knew it. But there he was, and this was his day, and God, he was glorious.”

Over the course of those two weeks in Ireland, the Special Olympics athletes amazed crowds again and again. There were so many moments of athletic greatness we couldn’t keep track. But in my mind, none of those moments outshone Donal’s.

That was Donal’s gift to me and Donal’s gift to his family and to his village of Portumna and to the great nation of Ireland. He caught our hearts off guard, and with his grit and his fearless effort, he blew them open.