BOSTON — The loss of a parent shakes most people to the core.
For Mark Shriver — son of the late Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps and orchestrated President Johnson’s War on Poverty — the loss of his father unlocked a new journey for himself.
In his new book “A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver,” Mark Shriver writes about the loss and his discoveries about how his father was able to live so fully.
The book begins with Mark Shriver reading a letter his father had written years ago — that was only meant to be read after his death. Mark Shriver joins Morning Edition to discuss.
Mark Shriver: I wrote down thoughts about what made him a great father, and not just his achievements on a global or national stage, but more importantly how I felt about him as a human being. And it did knock me back. I get so consumed in trying to build my career, trying to build a family, trying to be a good friend, that I just forgot about what was going on and how to be a good man.
Bob Oakes: How difficult was it for you to write a book about a person who was very much quite larger than life, but especially since it would be a book about your dad?
What I really wanted to do was to find out why after he died and in the months afterwards — so many people said he was a good man — to figure out what made him good, joyful in everything he did — not just in the creation of the Peace Corps and Head Start, legal services to the poor, his work with my mother in spreading Special Olympics all around the world.
In a way you have struggled with your father’s legacy — or resume, I guess we’d say it — because he left such big shoes to fill? At one point you write, “His example haunted me. I wanted to believe like he did, love like he did, but I felt I was falling short of the mark.”
He set a great example, so I struggle with that every day. I’m not overwhelmed with it anymore. I know I can’t replicate what he’s doing, but I’m enjoying the struggle.
I don’t have his patience, I don’t have his unconditional love. There are things I’m still learning from my dad and I’m 48 years old and he’s been dead for a year and a half.
Let’s talk about his fight at the end of life with Alzheimer’s. You write very candidly about the frustrations and the heartbreaks of caring for your dad through that period of time. I’d like you to read a section of the book that kind of gets to the struggle that you had to go through.
This was set when I was in the Maryland House of Delegates and Dad came down and got confused that night about who the speaker of the House was.
I just stood there, I shook my head and clenched my fists and thought, why are you getting old just as I’m getting my political career going? You’re going to miss out on so many of the important events in my life, my kids, my career, and I need your sage advice and you can’t give it to me.
I turned back to the statehouse and felt at once angry, sad and confused. I wanted to say to him, your faith was always so strong and convincing that it rubbed off on me, it carried me along. But now I’m losing faith in you, and I don’t know what to do. A part of me blamed Dad. I wanted to ask, don’t you know you’re breaking my heart?
It’s hard to realize or accept at times that your father, your friend, your mentor, your spiritual guide was leaving you.
It’s brutal. They’re breaking your heart and you have to deal with it day in and day out because Alzheimer’s just peels your loved one away from you day by day. I think the only thing you can do in it is look for those moments of insight and love or else it just decimates you. It is a brutal disease. And as country, we don’t do enough as far as in investing in finding a cure. The amount of money the federal government spends trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s is wholly inadequate. It’s really an outrage.
What then do you feel is the most important lesson that you’ve taken from your dad?
I think the most important one is his faith. I think everything else is built off of that foundation. He went to Mass every day. He got on his knees. He asked for help and then he very quietly went out and did those acts of hope that his faith demanded. And that’s a powerful thing and it’s a powerful thing for a kid to see.
- Mark Shriver, author and son of R. Sargent Shriver
- WBUR Series: Fade To Darkness: The Age Of Alzheimer’s