Two Poems about Wearing Ethel Kennedy’s Bathing Suit


Once upon a time I was loaned Ethel Kennedy’s swimsuit and set to float in a pool for the day – an attempt to provide some comfort by my dear boss to me as my mind and body began to learn about some new, and potentially boulder laden, paths we were now set to walk down. I’ve tried to write poems about this experience before and haven’t felt like they captured what I wanted to fully express. Today, I wrote a sestina on the topic, which I’m sharing below. I’m also sharing an earlier attempt at a poem I made on this experience, which underscored for me the importance of never underestimating the power of even what may seem to be the smallest acts of kindness. They save people every day, and no one even knows.

In Ethel Kennedy’s Bathing Suit

Held in the cradling arms of this water,
those fissures inside, those wounds
that can only be healed
through unequal measures of modern medicine and love,
are first addressed by wearing the bathing suit of Ethel Kennedy.
Yet another benevolent act for tally in your family’s legacy.

Why is responsibility for both the collective and the individual your legacy?
Was it the cascade of baptismal water
that washed over the forehead of each of Kennedy
that attuned you so acutely to our wounds?
There is always this pulse of righteous passion and love
as you extend your hands to those and that which need to be healed.

Some days it has been our country, but today it was me who needed to be healed.
When you saw my body bent and broken, you did not shirk your legacy.
You loaded me in the car, Ethel’s swimsuit, and ultimately into a pool of love.
Then you sat there all the blue afternoon, watching me float in that cool water,
both of us wondering if mine were actual or imagined wounds.
No stranger to pain yourself, you did not turn from me. Not the way of a Kennedy.

The gift and saddle of growing up a Kennedy
required unimaginable sacrifices. How can all the hurt be healed,
and the nearly unbearable wounds
that have been inflicted as your legacy
be eroded away by the water
of time and power of very public and private love?

But despite all that you’ve sacrificed personally, you continue to freely give love.
First the death of your uncle, then your own father, Robert Kennedy,
leaving you adrift, swirling in the threatening flow of rapid water,
why did you not become indifferent to those who need to be healed?
How could you find the strengthen to continue the legacy
and not simply limp away to attend to your own wounds?

And when the MRI results came back and showed my wounds
were not imagined after all, I saw your actions of kindness and love,
as no longer just your family’s legacy
alone. Although I am no Kennedy,
you’ve shown me the recompense of touching those who need to be healed
and how that load can be made bearable when distributed through the water.

To carry the legacy of a Kennedy
is to both sustain and relieve wounds through love.
You’ve healed bodies, souls, and country, moved by tears and holy water.

© Julie Ayers
September 2011

Wearing Ethel Kennedy’s Swimming Suit

In the pool
she floats
wearing Ethel Kennedy’s swimming suit

Buoyed by the kindness
of her boss
who has brought her here
to this house
this pool
Ethel’s swimming suit

Inside her
a war has recently begun
Her own immune system
turned traitor
the myelin sheath
which protects her
brain and spinal column

Her feet don’t want to step lightly anymore
Her hands too weak to open the desk drawer or
push the keys on the computer keyboard

Today at the office, she had felt nearly defeated

So this sunny day
blue sky
cool water
loaned swim suit
cushioned float
are given to her
by Kathleen
like a present

The gift a reminder
a lighthouse beckoning her back
to negotiate peace
and find a new way to live
in harmony with this interloper

© Julie Ayers
June 2010


About Julie Ayers

Seasoned apocaloptimist, keen admirer of well-placed words, fierce mama bear of extra special children, black belt hugger, and advocate for a fashion rebellion which elevates the most human of hearts to socially acceptable outerwear.

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