It’s easy to pick Sargent Shriver out of a picture. The rule of thumb is this: if ninety-nine people look solemn and there is only one person smiling, that person is inevitably Sargent Shriver. And if those people in the picture could come alive for, say, ten minutes, you could come back and find ninety-nine more people smiling. So what does he know that the others don’t? He knew how to embrace the joy of life. In short, he was contagious.
What a gift.
Mark Shriver’s moving book, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, is a deeply personal, sensitively written, immensely loving testimonial to his father. Sure, Sargent Shriver was known for getting things done: from being the driving force behind the creation of The Peace Corps to founding the Job Corps, VISTA, Upward Bound, and the architect of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. He then went on to being the American Ambassador to France and ran, unsuccessfully, for U.S. Vice President (“I always wanted to be private and anonymous,” he once quipped. “That’s why in 1972 I ran with George McGovern.”) As devoted as he was to all of these vital social programs, all of them took a back seat in importance when it came to his family.
It started with his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whom he courted for seven years before they were married. And he continued courting her until the day she died. One time, in their later years, while sitting at the dining room table Sarge looked adoringly at his wife and said, “Look at those wrinkles on your mother’s face. Have you ever seen a more beautiful woman in your life?”
And that love was also heaped upon his children as well. Every night he hand-wrote a generous note to each of his five children telling they how proud he was of them (calling each one “numero uno”) and how much he and their mother loved each of them. Imparting neither guilt nor negative judgment, he was accepting and ego boosting. He loved for what could be accomplished and accepted everything as God’s plan.
That was the secret to his success as a husband, a parent, a public servant, a friend. Sargent Shriver walked with God. An exceedingly devout man who went to Mass every morning of his life, he was a man who lived by three tenents: faith, hope and love. He was an easy father to love, but a tough parent to emulate.
In 1992, Mark noticed that his dad was forgetting things. Not a big deal at first – Mark’s wife’s name at their engagement party. Well, he figured, anyone can forget a name. Mark’s initial reaction was to repeat the pattern of millions of family members of Alzheimer’s victims: denial and repression. And that can work for years. Until it doesn’t. By late 2000, the erratic behavior, the forgetting, the wandering had begun to pose a real problem. Mark knew that he had to have his father tested.
“Alzheimer’s,” Dr. McHugh told the Mark gently. The family didn’t understand the complexities of the disease. They did, however know the endgame. And the survival rate: zero.
In 2004, Sargent Shriver was one of the first well-known persons to announce that he had Alzheimer’s. It was very brave and very rare. Even now, victims of the disease and their families don’t want to admit they have the disease.
A particularly poignant moment in the book is when, during one of Sarge’s rare lucid moments, Mark asks, “Dad, you know you are losing your mind. How does that make you feel? How are you doing with that?”
“I’m doing the best I can with what God has given me,” he responds.
This is who Sargent Shriver is: a deeply devout, optimistic, good man. And the reader respects him for being that person. Sargent Shriver has a clear through line in life. His compassion, his devotion and his optimism never wavered. He didn’t have to die to meet God because God walked with him.
My only argument with this book is that Mark Shriver rarely cuts himself some slack. He feels as though he wasn’t there enough for his dad. The truth is that he and his brother, Timmy, were the only kids who lived close to their parents. My husband and I co-chaired The National Alzheimer’s Gala for nine years. Sarge came to at least five of them and always with Mark. He never turned us down. He and his dad showed up for this event – even if it was just to have him waive and joyously smile. They both showed up for life. To my mind, Mark Shriver’s book should be titled Two Good Men.
I invite all of you to hear Mark Shriver discuss his book on a special edition of USAgainstAlzheimer’s FREE “Alzheimer’s Talks” teleconference series on Wednesday, July 25 at 2:30 pm EST. RSVP to join us! http://www.usagainstalzheimersnetwork.org/alzheimers-talks/
Image courtesy Macmillan USA; Photo by Elizabeth Kuhner, Jacket Design by Rick Pracher.