FOR PATRICK, THE LOSS OF HIS SISTER has only reinforced his decision to reinvent his life with Amy, on a new seashore. Life is short. Love and family are what matters. You find them wherever and however you can, and cling to them. “At the end of my dad’s life,” Patrick says, “it wasn’t his legacy or the laws he passed that kept him company when he was sitting at the end of the porch, looking out over the ocean. It was his kids. And that was seared into me.”
He tears up easily when talking about his father. One afternoon we sit in the near-empty Pirate’s Den, a cozy restaurant a block from the north end of Brigantine, where the windswept streets give way to two miles of sand.
For most of Ted Kennedy’s life, he didn’t understand his son’s need to speak publicly about his depression and addiction. “I grew up in a real ‘snap out of it’ family,” Patrick says. “You pull yourself up by the bootstraps and don’t do anything shameful. I got the message early on: You don’t want it to be ‘Oh, we need to take care of Patrick’ the way people said about my mom, ‘Oh, we need to take care of Joan.’ If I needed help, it wasn’t that I needed help, but that it was a public-relations crisis.”
It was only when Patrick’s work in Congress to support mental health parity began to gain traction that his dad, he says, “got it.” Ted had “a political awakening that I was onto something really big politically in my own right, and he started looking at me differently.” That’s why the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, the last legislation Patrick and his dad accomplished together in Washington, is so important to him. It’s also why he is now becoming so vocal about how few of the protections the bill guaranteed have actually been put into place, because of health insurance politics.
He says he has no interest in ever returning to elected office, though some in New Jersey wish he would. “If he wants to be in politics, he’ll be a force wherever he is,” says Rob Andrews. “But I think he is finding a new definition of success in his life.”
As he gains more distance from his father’s life and death, it’s the nonpolitical things that stay with Patrick Kennedy. The only major possession he has with him in New Jersey is hidden under a tarp. It’s a metallic green 1972 Pontiac GTO convertible with a white top, which he bought during his wedding reception. In the early ’70s, California Senator John Tunney and Ted Kennedy, best friends, bought twin GTOs; Teddy’s was blue and is long gone, but Tunney gave his to his son, Mark, who told Patrick he could no longer drive such a car and was going to sell it on Craigslist. Patrick immediately offered to buy it.
When it’s warm out—and sometimes even when it’s not—he likes to drive it around, alone or with Amy. It reminds him of his dad, and his early life in Cape Cod, when Ted’s GTO was always parked in the front driveway and he would jump into it and drive away. It’s also perfect for Patrick’s new persona—a Jersey muscle car, like something out of a Springsteen song. “When I drive it around,” he laughs, “people don’t care it’s me. They look at the car, yell, ‘All right!,’ and give me the big thumbs-up.”