|just before the assassination, picture from here|
I've been interested in Jackie Kennedy for a long time. I remember when I was about twelve years old and my aunt Peggy took me shopping. I tried on a pair of sunglasses at the Gap--big, dark sunglasses with round, navy blue frames that hid my face. She looked at me modeling them and told me I looked "Very Jackie O."
I took this as a huge compliment, and was delighted when she bought them for me. I'm sure that my dorky twelve-year-old self was totally channeling this level of style and sophistication:
|picture from here|
Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage.
Then she had a baby girl who was stillborn. They named her Arabella. There isn't a lot written about this part of Jackie's life, and I imagine she did a lot of suffering in silence.
Caroline was born the following year, just as John F. Kennedy's political career was really ramping up.
Jackie was pregnant with John Jr. during JFK's presidential campaign in 1960--in fact, she gave birth to him in November of that year. I can only imagine how complicated it would feel to be pregnant and in the public spotlight, with all of the mixed emotions that come with a pregnancy after loss (even after having another healthy baby--it's not like the fear goes away, right?).
|Jackie with baby John - image from here|
It was three years later, in August of 1963, that she had another baby, a little boy named Patrick, who lived just two days. He couldn't breathe properly when he was born, and died from respiratory distress. (August was also the month that Arabella was born--a terrible coincidence).
By the time she was thirty-four years old, Jackie Kennedy had given birth to four children and buried two of them.
(And can I just say how much it must have stung to watch Ethel Kennedy popping out kid after kid? Ethel and Bobby Kennedy had ELEVEN kids. I'm just saying... it couldn't have been easy to be her sister-in-law.)
I knew most of this stuff about Jackie before I listened to the audiobook. I knew that she'd lost Arabella and Patrick, and I'd already admired her for the grace and poise and dignity that she exuded in the midst of these tragedies.
What I didn't realize was that she lost her husband three short months after her youngest child died.
I didn't know that after burying Patrick in August, she accompanied JFK to Dallas in November to help him campaign. That parade in November of 1963 was her first public appearance after the death of her youngest child.
I remember what three months out was like. I remember how raw and fragile and vulnerable I felt. I remember how I could hold myself together to teach class for two hours, and once I was alone in my car after class, all the tears I'd been holding back would come rushing out and I'd lean on the steering wheel, in the parking garage on campus, and sob. David and I were still surviving on take-out food and frozen pizza because once we were both home from work, all we wanted to do was sit on the couch and hold on to each other. It was still so incredibly hard to get through the day and I felt like a zombie so much of the time.
Would I have wanted to go out on the campaign trail and smile for pictures with my presidential husband? People, even NOW I hold back from events that would require me to socialize with strangers. But Jackie was three months fresh into her grief when she went to Dallas with her husband and watched helplessly as the back of his head got shot off.
In the days after Eliza's death (and even now), my greatest fear was losing someone else I loved. She had felt so certain to me--a living, moving, kicking baby in my belly, sure to be bundled in a blanket and passed around to friends a family in just a few weeks' time. And then, suddenly, with no warning, she was gone. If my entire life could change so quickly--and so horribly--in the span of a single sentence: "I'm sorry, we can't find a heartbeat," then what was to stop it from continuing to fall apart?
Everything suddenly felt shaky and uncertain. If Eliza could die for no reason, when I'd been trying to take such good care of her, what was to stop everyone else I loved from dying also? If my sleeping dogs weren't snoring, I'd check to make sure they were still breathing because it seemed just as likely that they wouldn't be. Why wouldn't I lose my (healthy, active, young) daughter one day and my (healthy, active, young) husband the next? Strokes and blood clots and heart attacks and car accidents, these suddenly all seemed so frighteningly possible--likely, even--that I could scarcely breathe if I thought about it, and I sighed with relief every time David walked in the door. Exhausted, broken-hearted, but still intact. I could still hold on to him.
The book I listened to detailed the blood and the gore of the shooting (which may have been therapeutic for the secret service agents, who got no counseling or personal leave after the assassination). The secret service agent assigned to Jackie ran unbelievably fast to make it from his position on the running board of the agents' car to the presidential limo. He leaped to the ground and started running when the first shot was fired, and got to the car just after the third (and fatal) shot was fired. It took all of seven seconds. He flung himself up onto the trunk and held on desperately as the driver of the limo sped up to get away from the square. Meanwhile, Jackie was clutching her husband, covered in blood, pieces of his brain in her hands. The secret service agent managed to climb his way into the backseat, throwing himself on top of the president and the first lady as the limo careened toward the hospital.
It was an absolute horror. It makes phrases like "worst nightmare" feel trite and ridiculous. To be so freshly grieving the death of your baby, and then sit next to your husband when the back of his head explodes from the rifle shot of a madman... How do you ever recover from that? How do you find it in you to go on?
I have to tell you, I don't know where Jackie Kennedy got to strength to survive the death of two children AND the trauma of witnessing her husband's murder. But I would bet that she has no idea where she got that strength either. None of us think we can live through such unimaginable horror until--holy shit--it's our life and we can't NOT live through it.
|© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus from here|
So today I remember Jack Kennedy, whom I think was a great president (as well as a handsome man). It's a travesty that our nation lost him as a leader, and it's a tragedy that his children lost their father, that his wife lost her husband.
Today I also remember his wife, who endured so much on this date in history, who must have felt herself pushed beyond the breaking point, and who managed to hold herself together through it all.
|image from here|