Saoirse was born in Washington, D.C. but she spent ages four through eight in Ireland. When my younger kids first met her on Cape Cod, she was an adorable, flaxen-haired Irish sprite, with sparkling eyes, peeling laughter, and a thick brogue.
She was not a shy child. She was an outgoing imp with a rebellious nature, an irreverence towards authority and deep commitment to mischief all of which she might have inherited from both Courtney and Paul. Opinionated, she was not afraid to talk back to adults or challenge her cousins. I recall her as a big personality with a loud mouth. Within days of arriving at the Compound she knew all the kids’ names. She bellowed them at the top of her lungs when she required their attention.
Conor pointed out that, because she was an only child, she became a sister or daughter to a hundred Kennedys, Shrivers, and Lawfords. We all considered her our own. She had a knack for friendship that put her at the center of an enormous network of our relatives, and their friends, and their friends. She made herself the axel of a sprawling community. She was like a politician. Everywhere I went people knew Saoirse. Within 48 hours of her death, her cousins had posted more than 2,000 photos of her on a shared album. Some of them expressed surprise at finding her in most of their pictures.
In all of these photos it’s Saoirse’s extraordinary expressiveness that draws your eyes to her face.
Her prehensile features could have made her a silent movie star or mime. Her mouth and eyes are always the widest. Her brows are the most furrowed. Her arms and hands are invariably spread in astonishment, exuberance, or exaltation.
From the beginning she had a kind of endearing recklessness that made her life a series of embarrassing predicaments. At the apex of each of these episodes, she was at the height of her powers.
It was then that all her intensity of expression came into play. “Can you believe this is happening to me?” she would shout in indignant exasperation. And as Summer recalled, we would always give the same answer: “Yes, and it’s all your own fault.” And she then would burst into her infectious laughter.
She never said no to adventures and her existence was a string of escapades. Those photos depict her in far flung pilgrimages, sailing the seven seas, scuba diving off Greece or Galapagos, surfing and cliff jumping in Hawaii, parachuting, playing with kangaroos in the Australian Outback, on a human rights mission to Mexico, campaigning for various Kennedys from Woburn to Waukegan, speaking through a bull horn at an anti-violence rally in Washington, D.C., and skiing.
She did not start skiing early like the other kids, but she caught on quickly, mastered the sport and skied alongside her cousins with respectable speed and abandon.
She put out a bright light. Everybody loved her. She made people feel good. Anyone who is tempted to feel badly that you didn’t do enough for Seersh, put that thought away. She felt loved by everyone in this church. It was all authentic. She was very, very, very easy to love.
Cheryl and I always took Saoirse on our annual family ski trips. Courtney would send us a thank you gift of one of her beautiful paintings. She needn’t have. Saoirse was never a burden. She was a bonus. She found humor in everything and gave us all the gift of laughter — hers and our own. She never joked or laughed at the expense of others but laughed genuinely and endlessly at herself. She would acknowledge her truly pathetic cooking skills with the shouted comment: “Somebody better wife me up!”
She loved music and dance. She was passionate and energetic and knowledgeable about music and wanted to find her profession in the music industry. She would have excelled. She could identify every artist on the radio or television and their backup musicians. She was knowledgeable and thoughtful about both the creative and business aspects and always first to spot the trends. And she would dance at the drop of a hat.
She loved a party and had a gift for turning every one of her hardships and mishaps into entertainment and social opportunities.
As a child, she had a dreadful fear of jellyfish. So Courtney got her a stinger suit and Seersh continued swimming. Then she’d forget the suit and swim anyway with appropriate protest and drama. After she got stung a couple of times, the fear left her and she was always the first in the water. After that, the jellyfish — and all the drama of jellyfish — became the principle goal of swimming. When Thomas Tenney got stung by a jellyfish in the face, Saoirse was the only one willing to give him the cure.
When she got stung by bees on her mouth, she chose not to focus on the pain. Instead, she asked people to notice the fullness and voluptuousness of her swollen lips.
Conor told this story at one of the wakes but I’ll repeat an abbreviated version since I was there. Saoirse got injured skiing on a black diamond beneath one of the lifts. I believe her plan was to pretend she was a poor skier, and out of her depth and perhaps entice a handsome ski instructor to rescue her. She overacted and hit herself in the face with the handle of a ski pole, giving herself a serious concussion. She was blind in one eye but her principle preoccupation was that the blow had somehow stripped out all her eyelashes. Her eyelid was bald. “Uncle Bobby” she asked in panicked desperation, as I drove her to Aspen Hospital, “Will they grow back?”
Let’s just say that a violent stomach flu, then raging through our household, caught up to Saoirse while she was in the MRI machine. She was undeterred by this calamity and only expressed nominal embarrassment to the extent that she could milk the moment for a laugh. I have a photo of her lying on a hospital gurney a few moments after the eruption, wearing a large Medline diaper, chatting up a handsome young ER physician, not a care in the world.
One night she knocked on my door after bedtime. “Uncle Bobby, the dog bit my lip.” She asked: “Does it look like it will be ok?” It took all my self control to hide my alarm at the condition of her mangled face. I sent the kids to find her lip in the kitchen and rushed her to the ER. She laughed through her pain, on the way to the hospital. She never ever complained and she never blamed the dog. I was always so impressed by that. Saoirse never made herself the victim.
By the way, she would have loved this funeral. She would have made it a party. She would love that the entire family came together and talked about her for five days. She would have been proud of Courtney’s eloquent and moving eulogy at the wake. She would have most enjoyed the aspect of Mark Bailey [RFK Jr’s Jewish brother-in-law] somehow getting corralled into coaxing a crowded household of Irish Catholic Kennedys into the cramped living room and leading them in the Lord’s Prayer.
Saoirse was one of the most fearlessly honest people I’ve met and she treasured honesty in others. On her first day at Boston College, Cheryl and I moved her into her dorm room. She passed a girl she had never seen and blurted out “Is your hair dyed?” Taken aback, the girl, answered “yes.” Saoirse told her “It looks beautiful, they did an amazing job.” The two freshmen soon became fast friends. Sometime later the friend confided in her “I thought you were rude when we first met.” Saoirse told her “I just wanted to check if you were honest.” She was shrewd.
When I visited her at a rehab in Salt Lake, she said to me: “Can you believe this is happening to me.” I said “Yes!” and she exploded in peels of laughter. All the kids there adored her. That’s the first time that I saw that not only was she immensely popular but she had made herself a confidante to the most wounded of her peers.
Saint Francis came from Assisi’s most prominent family. His father was an affluent cloth merchant. Francis had wealth and a reputation as a gifted poet, musician, and a war hero. Working in his father’s shop, he gave an expensive bolt of fabric to a beggar whose plight had moved him. His own father sued Francis and the town gathered for the public trial with the bishop acting as the judge. Francis stripped himself naked in front of the towns people and presented his own expensive clothing to his father as repayment for the missing fabric. By the act of mortification and vulnerability, he embraced his own humanity. As the town folk who once admired Francis, jeered, mocked, and laughed at him, Francis declared that he would henceforth be a “fool for God.” That’s how his mission began. Soon he was a saint.
Saoirse had an analogous epiphany. At age 18, she published an eloquent and intensely personal description of her struggle with depression in the Deerfield School newspaper. The piece is so brutally honest that it effectively stripped her naked. What eighteen year old would choose to reveal those raw and embarrassing thoughts to her peers, especially in one of the most competitive adolescent environments in this country?
The essay is exceptional both for its bold honesty and for its insight.
She described her depression as we would talk about a flu or a squall; something that periodically appears unexpectedly to darken her life. She characterized her agonizing discomfort at its arrival and her relief when, just as mysteriously it passed. She had the extraordinary confidence and maturity to experience depression without internalizing it. She understood that her feelings weren’t facts; they were illusions. Seersh separated herself from her illness. Feeling bad did not mean she was a bad person. The article’s most striking feature is her refusal to feel shame or embarrassment about her human condition. She celebrated and embraced every part of herself, including her struggles with depression and recovery. She refused to keep her pain secret, to isolate herself or to become morose. She never reverted to self pity.
Writing that article at Deerfield — reflecting openly and fearlessly about depression and recovery — might have easily made her unpopular. Instead her raw honesty made her a magnet for others.
Saoirse always had an inclination to reach out to the most vulnerable. But now young people began confiding in her their deepest secrets. She became a thoughtful listener and trusted counselor. She never judged, she never gossiped, she never betrayed a friend. She connected to people on the deepest level. She met our broken world and all its troubles with kindness, compassion, understanding, empathy, humor, and courage.
Seersh was a brilliant writer. So many people have told Cheryl and me that they read that article and were moved by it and profited from its truths.
Father Hessian called Saoirse a “wounded healer” because of the way she transformed her own suffering into empathy and comfort for others. Her open struggle with mental health problems also gave her wisdom.
The definition of wisdom is “a knowledge of God’s will.” Saoirse had an acute sense of right and wrong, of what was fair and what was not.
Paul and Courtney — in addition to the extraordinary social skills she got from you, you gave her something more precious and enviable. She had great values, an unerring compass and a heavy moral ballast. Perhaps because Paul suffered such a horrendous injustice, she had a fierce passion for justice, forgiveness, and a gentleness toward the world.
Saoirse took satisfaction helping Indians in Mexico and Aboriginals in Australia. She campaigned for women’s rights, for LGBT rights, and against gun violence. But character is not so much a function of one’s standing on the great political issues but how one treats people in seemingly inconsequential day-to-day interactions. That was her forté.
For her 22nd birthday — instead of throwing a party with her many, many friends — Paul and Saoirse brought five pizzas and took them — as a surprise gift — to the nurses in the Georgetown Hospital maternity ward, where she was born 22 years earlier.
Mariah observed, “She was everything our family and our country are supposed to stand for at their best; empathy, compassion, kindness, welcoming, understanding, energy, and adventurousness.”
Saoirse’s last night was a flight of her characteristic exuberance spent with her dear friend Sinead Donnelly. She finished a 25-page paper for Boston College upon which she had been laboring for a week in my garage and attic and of which she was immensely proud. She announced that she would spend the remainder of the evening in an all-night celebration of that feat. She had dinner with Grandma, watched the presidential debate, went out singing at 10:30 to a karaoke bar, and then dancing at a gender fluid pageant (a drag bar). She came home at 2 a.m. and sang and danced with Sinead in the cottage. They toured Hyannis Port in Grandma Ethel’s golf cart and swam at dawn before watching the sunrise from the beach. She went to bed looking forward to her trip to Los Angeles that day. She already had L.A. dinner dates arranged with Jack Coady and Emily Abrams. It was a perfect night and, as was her habit, she documented much of it on social media.
The two friends went to bed in Douglas’s room. Saoirse woke up with God.
I loved that wonderful poem that Georgia and Noah chose to read at the beginning of this mass. Saoirse’s heart was on the sea. She considered herself a citizen of Ireland and America, but most of all, the borderless, boundless oceans.
All of us recall a sail like the one that poem describes on Glide or Mya or Gyre on a deck overloaded with friends and family, where another sailboat beats beside us for a time and then tacks on a heading that takes her away. At one moment she will drop below the horizon and we will say to each other “she’s gone.”
But she is not really gone, she’s just out of our sight.
She is still sailing with all her freight, her beauty, and her elegance and her speed.
And when she reaches the next port she will find a whole new group of Kennedys and Shrivers and Lawfords and other friends there to greet her with outstretched arms. They will welcome Saoirse, as we all did, when she came to these shores from Ireland at age eight.
This feels like home to all of us but it’s not. We are all visitors here, and for only a short time. And we all have our jobs that we are meant to perform.
The people with the most important jobs are the ones who God sends to make the music and to make us laugh. Also the ones who teach us how to be kind to each other, how to be grateful, how to bear suffering without complaint, and how to be trustworthy friends. The ones who show us paths out of our isolation and darkness, and teach us to embrace and celebrate our humanity.
Sometime after Michael died, I had a conversation with my mom about grief and whether it ever diminishes. She had read in a book that death leaves a hole in us when it takes a loved one away. “The hole never gets any bigger,” she said. “Our job is to grow ourselves bigger around it.”
We do that by deriving inspiration from the people we have lost, to make ourselves bigger and better.
So our task, I think, is to use the inspiration of Saoirse’s memory to make ourselves better people. Saoirse shared with each of us, a piece of herself, a little ray of starlight that we each get to keep. We can use that light to illuminate and enlarge that thin space between our impulses and our actions and we can fill that space with bright thoughts of Saoirse. Hopefully these thoughts might inspire us to make better choices and choose better behavior; whenever we are tempted to gossip or to wallow in self pity, to feel shame at our humanity, to see ourselves as victims, or to laugh at someone else’s expense, to sit in judgment of others, to isolate or to say no to the next adventure, we can use that bright space and Seersh’s inspiration to fortify us to take the higher path.
In building ourselves better, we can build Saoirse a memorial, one that is displayed in the lives and character of the people she touched — those broken, suffering, and turbulent souls with whom she shared her peace and her deep, healing connection. We can pass on the kindness she modeled for us, to the people we now touch and on and on… In this way, we can craft her a monument at once more ephemeral, yet more enduring than stone or alabaster.
She adored you Paul and Courtney. We thank you for sharing her so generously with us.
If anybody ever wondered whether God loves the Kennedys the proof is that he gave us Saoirse, this brilliant beam of light and laughter. Now, it’s time for us to cease being sad at her passing and to practice being grateful that we had her for 22 amazing years.