The Pain of an Anniversary, June 5, 1968

The Pain of an Anniversary, June 5, 1968

Juan Romero working to cradle RFK’S head.

Do we think about time passing when we are engulfed in it? Not always, that’s why sometimes we look at today’s date and say Wow, time flies.

But time can drag too, especially when we are in pain or lonely or awaiting some legal or medical decision that will profoundly affect our lives. If your experience of time is whizzing by, it might be a sign that things are going smoothly for you.

Why Anniversary and PTSD 

But time can drag if a person is in pain, if a person dreads the anniversary of an event. The very word anniversary comes from the Latin anniversārius meaning: recurring yearly. For Juan Romero in the photo above, the calendar’s movement toward the month of June hung over his head every year, a dark and debilitating cloud. A memory associated with June had affected the flow of time for Romero, reopening a wound in his psyche that often hindered his day to day living. Here’s the story.

Where Were You June 5, 1968?

Most of you reading Boomer Highway will remember what you were doing on November 22, 1963. And for the same reason, many of you will remember what was happening in your life on June 5, 1968. I was a junior at Mundelein College, studying for final exams. I probably heard the news on the radio early on the 6th, after staying up all night to study. Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, like his brother John, as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just given a rousing speech after winning the California presidential primary.

For Juan Romero, a seventeen-year-old who worked in the kitchen of the hotel carrying trays for room service, that June day has for years been a day of pain, regret and guilt. The above iconic photo, taken by Boris Yaro of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Eppridge of Life Magazine, captures the horror of the moment. Kennedy was walking through the kitchen to get to his car, only to be felled by an assassin’s bullet. And that is Juan Romero, kneeling at RFK’s head in the photo.

“I wanted to protect his head from the cold concrete,” Romero told Steve Lopez for the affecting article that appeared in the LA TIMES. (Lopez has been in touch with Romero over the years.) Romero also told the reporter that he went to school the next day with Kennedy’s blood under his fingernails, refusing to wash it away.

Anxiety, Guilt and A Handshake from RFK

After that day, whenever June would come around, so would the memory of RFK’s death, a memory that stunted some of Romero’s choices, because his ability to move into the future had been damaged, a cloud of guilt pushing its way into his life. Why?

Romero relates that earlier that week, he had delivered a tray to RFK’s door: “He made me feel like a human being. He didn’t look at my color, he didn’t look at my position…and like I tell everybody, he shook my hand, I didn’t ask him.”

But the handshake is the reason that guilt plagued Romero for many years, because that June 5th night when RFK walked through the hotel kitchen, he paused to shake Romero’s hand again. And that gesture of Kennedy’s has keep Romero awake many nights, wondering if that brief pause had not occurred if Kennedy would have been spared the assassin’s bullet.

Claudia Zwiener Helps Romero

Though many like Lopez have tried to help Romero, it was Claudia Zwiener, a special-needs child therapist, who finally helped him accept and deal with his guilt. She made him see by looking at the photos of that awful night, that Romero hadn’t fled the scene but had remained, extended his humanity to the dying man. He was finally able to get this by studying the photos: “I saw a person in need and another person trying to help him.”

Romero has taken a life-lesson from this terrible loss, “that no matter how much hope you have, it can be taken away in a second.”

A Rosary and RFK’s Words

Now 65, Romero is at peace with the events of that night, though it took him 47 years to get to that place. Yes, he will always remember Kennedy, but it is easier now for him to relate all the details of that personal connection. That night he had rosary beads in his pocket and he pushed them into Kennedy’s hands as the man lay mortally wounded. He also insists that Kennedy spoke.

Romero told Lopez: “First he (Kennedy) asked, ‘Is everybody OK?’ and I told him, ‘Yes, everybody’s OK.’ And then he turned away from me and said, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’ ”

Romero also relates that during that brief interchange, one of Kennedy’s eyes blinked and his leg twitched. Photos of that event show Romero next to RFK, but everyone else was at some distance. Zwiener helped Romero see value in himself once again. She knew that when the anniversary of that day came every year, so would the sorrow associated with it return, like experiencing the trauma all over again. When simple objects such as a photograph, or events such as a birthday party, bring traumatic memories to mind, people often try to bar the unwanted experience from their minds so as to proceed with life, with varying degrees of success. We now call this post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Seeking Peace

Personal connections like these are the experience of many of us. And it doesn’t have to occur with a prominent person—reaching out to help someone in a trauma, a crisis, a stop in the free-flow of our lives and time—they stay with us. Peace only comes with reconciling why we were there and what role we played. Guilt doesn’t change the pain, but if you are harboring some unrest that plagues you like it did Romero, you need to speak to someone, to find a way to forgive yourself or at the very least inject some logic into what happened. When a dreaded anniversary comes around, being able to accept it with peace and a feeling of calm will help you and those you love. Life can be difficult enough without the searing and debilitating pain of memories.

For more on this story go here. To learn more about PTSD go here.

Photos from the LA TIMES

 The Pain of an Anniversary, June 5, 1968Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning.









8 thoughts on “The Pain of an Anniversary, June 5, 1968

  1. What an insightful and poignant post Beth. I suffer from extreme guilt over a decision in my life that was made almost twenty years ago and caused my family members terrible harm. It was my decision but it affected them to the depths of their soul as well as mine. I have spent many years moving past this decision and the pain it caused the people most dear to me, my family.

    I cannot erase the past or what my decision did to hurt others in my life. I cannot undo what happened but I did not ever mean to cause them sorrow. When I was 23 years old and getting married to someone that would almost destroy my relationship with my family, I did not think about how that marriage could harm my family members.

    My life was altered drastically by that marriage, I suffered in ways that cause me to sink into a deep depression if I think about them too deeply. I suffered mentally and physically and I know my life today, as good as it is, was damaged in countless ways by that marriage.

    I try not to dwell on it. I’ve talked it out with therapists and I have tried to rectify some of what happened. Truthfully, it will never be totally forgiven. That marriage will always carry a weight within my heart for the pain it caused those around me. However, I have moved on, I have some wonderful parts of my life now and I do have a wonderfully close and loving relationship with my family. I’ve tried to explain to them how much they mean to me and grateful I am to be part of their lives again.

    Thank you for reminding me that life does move on and it is okay to forgive yourself.

    • Dear Natalie, YES YES, forgive yourself. I don’t know if the marriage you speak of is your current marriage, but if it is, you have Grace from that union and she is a total gift.

      Sometimes we have to GET OVER our mistakes–and forgiveness is absolutely necessary whether it’s to forgive yourself or someone else.

      I am imagining that your family forgave you long ago. Soooo, forgive yourself. Beth

      • No it isn’t my current marriage. I was lucky enough to have Grace with a man who is much more giving and warm than my previous husband.
        I often think there is no way that my family could ever forgive what happened. They were hurt so badly. I believe they moved past it but true forgiveness… I’m not sure that would ever happen. But thank you so much for your kind words, for your thoughts and insight.
        Grace is such a gift, I thank the heavens above for her every day! And whatever life has brought me, she is the sunshine that keeps it bright!

  2. Your post moved me to tears, Beth.

    I am reminded how we can impact others in such simple ways without realizing it.

    Thank you for writing this. I will be sharing it!

    • I am so glad that my post touched you, Corinne. Losing both Kennedys was a blow to this country that I don’t think we have recovered from yet. Politics aside, we all have to help one another. We have to reach out and be grateful. I wish I could hug Mr. Romero.

  3. This post has great impact on all of us who lived through those horrible moments, when our heroes were taken from us for no apparent reason. I remember seeing this image of Juan Romero, but this is the first time I have heard his story. The fact that Robert Kennedy shook his hand days before, only reinforces my emotions about JFK’s brother, and what he might have been able to do for our country. I am glad that Juan has come to a place of peace about this memory, but I salute him for his kindness, and courage in the face of chaos when he kept his focus on Bobby while everybody else was losing theirs. We can all learn from him……Bill

    • Thanks, Bill. Our country lost so much when we lost RFK. We went on to have Richard Nixon! But we are a strong nation and so we shoulder on, hoping that we can help everyone in this country. Romero is a hero in my eyes. Beth

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