Monday, June 4, 2012

Review of Mark Shriver's Book on His Father Sarg Shriver

Eulogies often happen before we can fully appreciate what we have lost.  Mark Shriver's eulogy pretty much sums up a lot about his dad, Sarg. It can be read in last month's May 27 Parade Magazine Article.

Nonetheless Mark needed to rediscover his father and has done an outstanding job of fleshing out a wonderful man in the almost year and a half since Sargent Shriver's death due to Alzheimer's. An advanced reader's copy of this book was mailed to me by the publisher, Henry Holt and Company with permission to quote from the manuscript. Officially the book is released to the public tomorrow June 5th.

Note that sister Marie Shriver also produced The Alzheimer's Project, a four part HBO video project and a film for which she earned two Emmy Awards and an Academy of Television Arts and Sciences award. Maria's book for children is also reviewed here. Mark Shriver also deserves awards for this book because in his heart-felt reflections as he discovers his father's "insistent joy, powerful faith, generous spirit, and hopeful view of life." (p. 7) What outstanding tributes to their father!

Mark's mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics and Sarg Shriver the Peace Corps. While there is much Kennedy trivia, mystique and accomplishments that can be noted in the book, and Mark does say in the Acknowledgments that his publishing-savvy cousin Caroline Kennedy "taught him the ropes" for this book, I want to zero in on how faith here is passed from generation to generation, and how Sargent Shriver dealt with his own Alzheimer's.

Mark writes that Sarg went to Mass every day, even when he was in other countries. Furthermore, Sarg's faith wasn't just a ritualistic habit. Mark writes:
Dad was a radical, a hell-raiser who based his revolutionary public service on very orthodox instruction manuals: the Scriptures, his faith's creeds and prayers, and the life of Jesus Christ. . . . Dad lived out applied religion. He applied his faith's ethics every day to everything he did. His paradox--his radical orthodoxy--allowed him to conform to the requirements of a life in public service. (p. 128)
Despite admitting his own insecurities and early anger, Mark comes to terms with faith, hope and love reflecting on his father's death and faith.
I liked to think about faith, hope and love at church and talk about these ideas with my kids. But apart from a few minor struggles, I never needed them as if life depended on them. . . . It is ironic that so often the first time we have to use them for real--our parents' principles and examples and tools--comes when they themselves age, suffer, and die. My capacity for faith, hope, and love wasn't truly battle tested like his--until the day we learned what he would die from, and the ways in which he was going to suffer in the years leading up to his death. (p. 130)
Sarg was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in early 2000 and was put on the drug Aricept. Eventually Mark, the fourth of five siblings, was in charge. He handled finances, medical care and "each small step in his decline became another devastation for me" (p. 5). Early on in the disease he became angry with his father's obsession with turning on every light in the house. I can relate to obsessions (different ones) that my husband has. Yet Mark realized:
There could still be periods of happiness especially if I accepted Dad in the moment and didn't compare him to his old self or worry about the future. (p. 169)
Yesterday we were late for church. We were stopped by a train and Mark's words came to me. It didn't matter when the train would pass, when the end of Alzheimer's would come, but what mattered was now, the moment. My worship playlist on my iPod came through the speaker: Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, morning by morning new mercies I see. I worshipped with those words.  The moment of the endless train in front of me became transformed.

In 2003 Mark's brother Timothy approached his father about resigning from his job as Chairman of the Board for the Special Olympics. Sarg graciously resigned and continued showing his same values and care for others.
Even as he struggled with his memory and his mind faltered, he was, at his core, the same human being, breaking his mirror so as not to focus on himself, hopeful about humanity and the years ahead despite knowing the trials that lay ahead for him personally, and loving everyone, especially those society had shunned the most. A constant other-centeredness. He never lost it. (p. 174)
Sarg loved his wife in over 50 years. He once said to Mark, "Nowadays, everyone wants to change what God has given them  Look at those wrinkles on your mother's face. Have you ever seen a more beautiful woman in your life?" I cherish also the love that is given to me by my husband. Loving feelings of the Alzheimer's loved one continues even if memories don't.

Perhaps the most interesting dialogue between son and father came when Mark said to his father , "You are losing your mind. You know that. How does that make you feel? How are you doing with that?" Sarg replied:
I'm doing the best I can with what God has given me. (p. 190)
Mark was totally in awe of how his father let God be in control and asked for God's guidance every day of his life. This is where his father's joy came from.
Dad didn't harbor anger toward anyone, including those who may well have shortchanged his career, because he realized that he wasn't in control and neither were they. His faith was real and personal, and it freed him from anger and sadness and filled him with hope and love.(p. 191)
After Eunice died and the big house had to be sold, the term "caregiver" came into Mark's vocabulary. He discovered instead he had to be a "love giver". Lovegiver is now my new term. There really is a difference. I will reflect more on that difference in another post on this blog.

Thank you, Mark Shriver, for bearing your soul and all you have learned in the end. You don't have to be in control, a Kennedy, a Shriver, a politician, but in your book about your father, you have discovered your own new happiness.


  1. What an excellent book review. I look forward now to reading this book when it comes out.

    I love the term 'lovegiver' much better than caregiver.

    Hugs and prayers to you!