But they learned.
When they met in the small town of Lancaster, S.C., she was home from college where she was a chemical engineering major. He was in training for his job with the Duracell battery company as an accountant. There weren’t many folks there in their age and stage.
“Neither of us fit in. Anyone who hadn’t been there at least four generations was considered a visitor,” he joked.
They met at a pool party and fell in love. It was easy.
“She was pretty, smart, liked music and a lot of the same things I liked,” he said.
Ten months later they got engaged with a bright future ahead. Their world began to change, however, in 1987, just four years after they married. Renee, then an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
According to nationalmssociety.org, MS is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms can range from numbness in the limbs to paralysis and loss of vision. Victims do not die of MS, but of complications related to it. There is no known cure.
The disease has been in the public eye for some time, gaining renewed attention when someone famous like comedian Richard Prior, actress Teri Garr or talk show host Montel Williams share their diagnosis. Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, has been living with it for many years.
Unlike many with the disease who have periods of remission, Renee’s type of MS is progressive, which means it steadily gets worse. She had to retire on disability from her position with the EPA right before their son, Patrick, was born. He has never known a life without a mother with MS.
The three of them have learned to live with the disease, but there have been many struggles.
“Living with someone with a chronic disease is difficult,” he said. “It’s like you have it, too. You find out who your friends are really fast.”
But Kennedy added that it’s not all suffering and sadness. He explained that MS has helped him see what is really important in life. For example, climbing the corporate ladder and getting the latest gadgets lost their appeal when all he really wanted was a good day.
What’s a “good day?”
“When there is no crisis,” he said. “When things work right, when there is no infection or accident. I’ve learned to become more flexible. Things can feel out of control, but you learn you really aren’t.”
Kennedy also found a way to help fund research to find a cure for his wife’s disease. He took to the streets.
Eighteen years and many races later, Kennedy has faithfully peddled in the Bike MS – Sam’s Club Ride (formerly known as the MS150), an 86-mile, two-day event that draws up to 3,000 cyclists in North Texas alone. Similar rides are held in San Antonio and Houston.
Kennedy’s personal efforts have added anywhere from $1,000-$3,000 to the research coffers each year. The 2012 ride, held the first weekend in May, raised a total of nearly $1.5 million.
“I used to be a runner mostly, but then I got into riding. Back then (when he first started cycling) I was really fast. Now, it’s just surviving!” he smiled.
This quiet, unassuming man has had to face the formidable bike challenge with additional health issues of his own. Eight years ago he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and osteoporosis. In fact, his leg snapped while he was trying to help his wife into the tub. Patrick, then three, had to call 911.
Today, life for the Kennedys is shifting to a new season. Patrick just turned 16 on May 31. He is finishing his sophomore year at Woodrow Wilson, plays guitar and piano, and runs on the track team. His dad says he is mature for his age and has learned to be self-sufficient.
Renee’s condition has declined considerably, causing Bob to make the difficult decision to seek help from specialized care at Manchester Place near Casa Linda. He admires the way she has handled her long journey with determination and perseverance.
And, he encourages other caregivers to give themselves permission to take care of themselves.
“You have to take a break or you’ll go crazy,” he said. “If people offer to help, take it! You’ll be a better caregiver for them and maintain well-being for yourself.”
Kennedy nourishes his love of music and need for rejuvenation by taking voice lessons and singing as a tenor with the Dallas Symphony Chorus. Until then, he faithfully looks after Renee, turning “I do” into “I still do.”