A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, (part the second), Mark Shriver

EDIT: For all my audiobook fans out there, I have a special treat. Macmillan Audio has provided me with a sample of A Good Man, as read by the author. I hope you enjoy this preview. It’s from one of my favorite moments in the book.

The first half of this book is sheer joy. Mark Shriver’s recollections about his father as both a man and as a force for peace, justice and equality are soaked in love. His respect and awe of his father, his struggle to try to become even close to as good a man, his frustrations with himself for constantly falling short of the example set for him – they are both familiar and heartbreaking.

The second half of the book is even more moving. It deals with Sarge Shriver’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, of how he approached the disease with the grace, faith, and love he had exhibited his entire life, and how it was his son who fell apart watching this terrible illness rob him of a great man and father. In a moment of clarity during the middle years of his father’s decline, when the author was struggling with anger, guilt, and grief on an hourly basis, he asked Sarge how he was handling losing his mind. His father responded, “I’m doing the best I can with what God gave me,” and these were the words that returned to Shriver often in the years that followed.

At times, I feel like I’m part of the first generation to watch my parents handle the complicated care of their own parents, although I can’t imagine that’s really true. Certainly, life expectancy is longer now, and better medical care means people are able to live for longer than they have in the past, so maybe, even if this situation isn’t really new, it’s at least different. A few years ago, I worked with two authors on a book dealing with the issues around aging parentsIt was a project I pushed hard to do because at that time, my parents, both only children, were deep in the throes of handling all the care for my grandparents, two of whom had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

On September 11, 2001, on my second day of college, my parents hadn’t even heard about the terrorists attacks when I called them from my dorm in Boston; they were busy dealing with an unexpected and terrible complication in the lives of my father’s parents. I remember that phone call vividly still – how alone I felt, how heartbroken I was for my parents, for my country – the devastation in my family was immense, yet there was no room to talk about it because the world was falling down around us. I remember the fear and anger wedging themselves into my heart in the weeks that followed, and I didn’t really understand why.

In March of 2002, my father’s father died after a relatively peaceful decline. I’m sure it wasn’t peaceful for my parents, but compared to the rage my mother’s father felt in the following five years, my grandpa Clyde’s gentle loss to his old memories seemed like a blessing. I never once went to see him in the assisted living facility where he had moved that fall, and I arrived home from spring break hours before he died. I never got to see him or say goodbye. To this day, I regret the young, selfish actions that kept me from being there for him and for my parents. It is something I can never take back or change, but which, over the last ten years, I have tried to remedy by writing letters to my other grandparents and coming to see them as often as I can.

In reading Shriver’s account of his own struggles, I found myself crying again and again thinking of how difficult and beautiful these years have been for my own parents. They have never once shirked their duty, rarely taken vacations, repeated over and over that the challenges they have faced are part of what it means to be a part of a family. Nevertheless, like Shriver, I am more often angry than sympathetic, especially when visiting with the parents of my friends and seeing how different their lives have been. My parents had one week of (relative) peace between the day I left home and the day they fully took charge of their parents’ care, and it gives me a pain I can’t describe that they have been so compassionate yet suffered so much.

A year ago, almost ten years exactly after my grandparents were all moved into assisted living, my mother’s mother, one of the true good women of the world, passed away. Due to scheduling and flight prices, we chose to hold her memorial service three weeks after her death. This was hard on my parents, and especially my mother, who wanted to say goodbye, I think because, as a minister, a part of her knew that she couldn’t even begin to plumb the depths of her sorrow until she’d done that.

I didn’t want that though. I wanted the time, and I came a week earlier than my husband so that I could help my mother plan the service. I had been preparing for months; I had put a poem aside, and a hymn I wanted to be sung. My grandmother had been so influential in raising me, and in our family, I don’t believe there is any blood relationship so cherished as that between my mother and grandmother. I didn’t want my grandmother to have the kind of services my grandfathers had – not that they were bad, but they were so brief, and for such remarkable men! They weren’t enough for me, and I have been saying goodbye to them in my own ways many times since then.

I wanted my grandmother’s memorial to celebrate not just her (and trust me, she was a person to be celebrated and missed) but my parents too. For a decade, they had given of themselves completely, and even if they were too tired and sad to realize that they deserved it, I knew. I knew my brother, in his intensely private way, needed it too. Sitting next to him at the service, I felt his grief and mine overlapping. I don’t think I remember, ever in my life, the two of us crying together, but such was the power of one wonderful person. The memory of her life was enough to reach out and bring us just that much closer to each other.

This was the experience that I believe Mark Shriver had on the day of his own father’s funeral. That experience opened something up that allowed him to see his father, not just through his own eyes, but through the eyes of all the people Sarge Shriver had touched. He was able to lay down, at least for a moment, the burdens that come with the disease, with the loss, with the overwhelming and exhausting grief in order to celebrate the man himself, and the effect of such a person on his own imperfect heart.

Mark Shriver does not have a website, but information about him can be found online.

5 thoughts on “A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, (part the second), Mark Shriver

  1. I was waiting to see what you thought of the second half before commenting… I completely agree with you: I was surprisingly moved by this book. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Something less thoughtful perhaps? I found myself purposely reading more slowly towards the end in order to take in my own feelings about my grandparents and my parents. Your posts captured the reading experience of this book so well.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one to be surprised by how thoughtful this book was! I’m not sure what impression Mark Shriver gives off that made me I think the book would be colder than it was – maybe it’s a politician’s off-putting attitude – but it was really a lovely read.

      1. Yes, perhaps it’s because we had a pre-conceived notion of the author. I think initially I also mistook the simplicity of the style for superficiality – I’m almost embarrassed to admit.

        It’s odd because I’m usually drawn to simple style. But, fortunately, I was quickly enamored with the book and obviously there was something that drew me to the book in the first place!

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