09/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Hand of Ted Kennedy

Senator Ted Kennedy died last night and his death brings meaning to the mourner's cliché, "he will be missed." Senator Kennedy will be missed because even though he was a man of privilege he fought for the powerless. As a man of wealth he fought for workers. As a man with power he fought for the disenfranchised.

The Senator holds a special place in Latino history because he was aware of our unique American experience and instead of fearing us he embraced us. Instead of using his family's path through Ellis Island as a bludgeon against new Latino immigrants, Senator Kennedy saw Ellis Island as America itself. Senator Kennedy saw the Statue of Liberty not just a token of America's past generosity but as a towering symbol of America's future.

Years ago I had two close encounters with Senator Kennedy. Once, while advocating for the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act re-authorization, Kennedy attended a meeting with a group of the bill's supporters and the Republican co-sponsor. Kennedy's introduction of the original bill years earlier had given a safe harbor for advocates of a group of people that at the time where being scapegoated and hatefully targeted by many on the right for induction into "quarantine camps".

At the beginning of the meeting Kennedy was asked to say a few words. Kennedy said he did not want to take from the back and forth between the Republican sponsor and the group so he only had "one or two things to say." And then from what seemed like a deep cave held within his chest came a gently howling wind of almost poetic reasons that the US Senate and the American people had to embrace people with AIDS and continue what had become one of the most contentious battles of the time. Then Kennedy stopped and simply said "That is really all I had to say." And the room chuckled out loud at the simple ending to his spontaneously eloquent, passionate, and poignant remarks.

When I lived part time in DC I had an apartment just a couple of blocks from the Hart Senate building. Around the corner from my apartment and across from the Hart building there was a church that held mass every day. On a few occasions, while not traditionally religious, I would go there to pray. One day I walked in as mass started, I sat down. I closed my eyes as my thoughts focused on what ever I thought was troubling me at the time and I felt someone sit beside me. "Why" I asked myself "is anyone sitting next to me in a church this size with so many empty pews?" After a few minutes the priest asked for us to give each other our hand in brotherhood. I opened my eyes and was faced with the enormous hand of Ted Kennedy, who had sat down next to me. Odd as it was that I was staring at the claw of the Lion of the Senate, strange as it was that he had chosen to sit next to me in an almost empty church, it seemed as if the extension of his hand in brotherhood was one of the most sincere that I was ever offered in such a setting or in any setting.

But not only was the hand sincere but here, in my face, was the very hand that had been offered to farm workers, and had been offered to people with AIDS. Here was the hand that was offered to people with disabilities, and workers looking for fairness. Here was the hand that had been offered as a welcome to immigrants and as a hand up to women athletes. In my grasp was a hand that tragically buried a president and a young presidential candidate, and had heroically saved countless lives in dozens of ways. As I shook that hand I was so dumbstruck that I was unable to respond to his words, "Peace be with you." Since then I often hoped he hadn't taken my muted surprise as some type of rejection. I often wonder if the Senator understood that in life most of us, unlike him, unfortunately hold back our words during our personal brushes with history.

Senator Ted Kennedy believed every wrong, no matter how small or how great, must be corrected. So now I will take my blogger's prerogative to say what I should have said years ago: Senator Kennedy, peace be with you.

Mario Solis-Marich can be heard on Am760 in Denver and at Monday through Friday from 4 PM to 7 PM MT.