Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Today is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

just before the assassination, picture from here
I fill up the empty time of my commute by listening to audio books (because I am a gianormous nerd) and one of the books I listened to recently was The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine.  To be honest, I was not enamored with the prose.  It used a lot of stale phrases and got kind of repetitive, and the purpose of the book was essentially to explain (and defend) the actions of the secret service agents that day in Dallas, and to squelch the possibility of a conspiracy theory.  But the story?  Well, that was pretty fascinating.

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
Lately, as you might suppose, I've become more interested in Jackie for other reasons.  Mostly because of the tragedies she endured.

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
It was Jackie's idea to put the eternal flame on JFK's grave at Arlington Cemetery.  It was also Jackie's idea to have her two babies transferred from the Kennedy family plot to be buried next to their father.  A lot of heartbreak on that hill in Arlington, and Jackie Kennedy seems to have shouldered more than her fair share of it.

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
I realize now there were probably a lot of tears behind those famous Jackie O sunglasses, more tears than most of us will have to cry in a lifetime, but there was a remarkable woman there, too.  She might have started as my fashion inspiration, but Jackie Kennedy means something very different to me now.  While I doubt that she (or anyone) would ever have chosen to be admired for the way she endured such sadness, I'm grateful to her for demonstrating that it can be done.  And I'm so sorry that she had to do it.


  1. Wow. Beautiful post. I had no idea the depth of the tragedy in Jackie's life, that I would ever find I have something in common with her. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I had no idea! It gives me faith in the strength we possess as woman.

  3. Lifelong Kennedyphile here. : ) (Although I may not deserve the title -- I totally forgot that today was Nov. 22nd.) In addition to the stillbirth of Arabella & the neonatal death of Patrick, Jackie's first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. I too can't imagine what it would have been like to have Ethel as a sister-in-law. Joan Kennedy (Ted's wife) also had several miscarriages.

    I can remember thinking when JFK Jr. was killed about 10 years ago that it was probably a blessing his mother did not have to endure that too.

    Here's a post I wrote about Jackie awhile back:


  4. I found all this out about Jacqueline after Sam died and it made me admire her strength and grace. How she managed to get out of bed - well, like you said, she didn't have much of a choice.

  5. Amazing post, Brooke. I am amazed by the strength and courage Jackie O (and all the blms I know) possess.

    much love,

  6. (Please ignore my error in tense usage in that comment. Working on little brain power, thank you Little Tyrant.)


  7. What an incredible and tragic story. I had no idea. You write it so beautifully too.

    I am regularly inspired by people of that generation. They did some truly amazing things. I just hope we can show half of the integrity, strength, and resolve they did.

  8. i had no clue about what Jackie O had endured. it takes my breath away to think about going through all of that in one lifetime. and i'm also sorry that she had to.

  9. Wonderful and enlightening post. Thank you!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this! I really didn't know much of this. An amazing woman indeed...3 months out, wow. A lifetime of sadness, I think you are really onto something with why she always wore those glasses.

    I'm a nut now. I worry about everyone I love, because we know how fast things are taken away and no amount of "fairness" is calculated into the situation. I put my hand on Brian's back while he is sleeping if I can't hear him breathing, if my call goes to voicemail and I don't hear back within an hour (from anyone) I start to panic. It's all the unimaginable and yet we can imagine it :(

  11. One must not let oneself be overwhelmed by sadness- Jackie

    I always think of this because it is so much more easy and natural to get completely overwhelmed by it, and if anyone had an excuse to, it was her... so much harder to fight through it.

    What a beautiful post!

  12. I ate this post up. I also love Jackie O. I recently watched the documentary on her and learned so much I didn't already know from my readings.

    Although I connected her stillbirth and child loss, I never connected that to her husband's political campaign and public-eye. She was judged by many for her decision to be very private-- it's no wonder she was private! After 3 losses, who wouldn't be? She wasn't crazy, just bereaved and dealing with something that people in her era were judged and shunned for. I can guarantee she was not allowed to see her stillborn daughter. Guarantee. And then to experience infant loss and a husband while maintaining her public profile as first lady and mothering their two living children?

    Lord, that woman deserves more credit. The public cannot easily see her grief, however. It's a shame, really.

  13. In addition, all the adultery. I wouldn't say he was any kind of a saint. She had loss after loss and had to deal with a cheating husband whom she loved...

    I also second what another person said above about being glad she passed before her son died in that plane crash. It seems like too much. But of course, she didn't have a choice and neither do we. :/

  14. Well SHIT...I went to work today and broke down crying in my office for the first time since I have returned to work. I came home and this is the first post I read. Yep it made me cry. I didn't know ANY of that and it really really changed how I think of J Kennedy. I loved this post so much I read it to my husband. Thank you so much for this really interesting tragic information. Just goes to show, you never can tell the struggles that someone is facing just by looking at them. I really understand that feeling of life being so fragile. I am constantly worried that one of my family members will die. The lens in which I look at the world is shaded in death. It is hard to see things without this filter because it is my reality. Thank you for this post.

  15. Beautiful post Brooke.. sometimes I wonder how any of carry on, and then at rare times I wonder how on earth we possibly could NOT carry on...
    love and light...

  16. I knew about the stillbirth, but not about the infant death. Oh my. And I had no idea that was so close to the shooting. Good god I have no idea how that amazing woman went on. As someone else said, I'm glad she was not around when JFK Jr died.
    Beautiful post and what gorgeous photos. The one of her in mourning almost broke me.

  17. Wow, thank you for this post! Like others, I had no idea about all of her losses and it makes me want to learn more about her. Definitely in the first few months I was SURE my husband or I were going to die also. It just seemed possible--his heart could just STOP. I still ocassionally wake up and roll over to make sure his heart is still beating. What a great, insightful post!

  18. Thanks for sharing this. I knew about her past, but I didn't know her stillborn daugher's name and am glad I now do - Arabella - what a pretty little name. After losing Cale it was REALLY hard for me to see my husband off for his fourth deployment. Only he came home a month later when his brother was killed, and went back a month later when I was pregnant with Finn. Needless to say I was a nervous wreck. I worry when he drives to the grocery store - Afghanistan is a whole other beast I hope to not have to deal with for a long, long time - or ever again!

  19. So thanks to this post, and my amazing ability to do anything but work, while at work, I discovered two things that made me happy - on good ole wikepedia, under Jackie Kennedy's profile - there is a section that lists "Children" and Arabella is listed. I love that she is included. The other thing I noticed is under the pager for Patrick it includes Arabella as one of his siblings - not just John Jr. and Caroline.

    Just thought I'd share - I thought it was nice to see their stillborn baby acknowledged in those little ways.

  20. That name, Arabella, is so beautiful.

    Such a sad life to have lived. I can't begin to imagine (much like non-blms can't begin to believe), living through the loss of two fullterm babies, a still birth, witnessing the murder of her husband, all the infidelity... Wow.

    Puts this woman's life into a completely different light for me.

  21. I knew about her pregnancy losses, but had no idea she lost Patrick three months before Jack was assassinated. My God. To have survived all that--gives me new respect for her.

    And I'm with you--I've been terrified of losing someone else ever since Ben died. That, I'm afraid, doesn't go away.

  22. I knew none of this. What a stunning post.

  23. Oh that is absolutely heart wrenching. I knew the sequence of events but not how closely they occurred together in time. How horrendous.

  24. Wow. I had no idea. I was drawn to her before, but so much more now. I'm almost exactly three months out from losing my little girl now, I can't imagine losing my husband. And certainly not after other losses, and in the means that she lost her husband. It boggles the mind, what a strong woman. What an inspiration. Thank you for sharing that story.

  25. Here from Mel's 400th Roundup. Amazing post! Thank you for writing it.

  26. Beautiful post. I'm reading her book now. Tragic.

  27. Grrr....I hate Blogger! It is giving me fits, but I keep trying to comment. Thank you for this post. I had no idea about Jackie's losses, prior to losing her husband. I have to constantly remind myself that I am but one generation removed from having no options for dealing with infertility. Jackie is a classic example of the silent suffering endured by our mothers and grandmothers. Thank you for sharing, this is a post that will stick with me.