Constance Bacon was walking home from the gym in a driving rain Monday, when she spotted a woman lying on the sidewalk on Beacon Street in the Back Bay, raindrops soaking her black pants and long wool overcoat. When Bacon called an ambulance, she said she had no idea it was Joan Bennett Kennedy, a member of one of America's best-known political families.
Kennedy, 68, had apparently tumbled, injuring her shoulder and leaving a gash on her head. When Bacon found her about 5 p.m., Kennedy could not pull herself up from the sidewalk. So Bacon, 35, an artist who lives in the neighborhood, held an umbrella over her head while they waited for an ambulance to arrive.
Yesterday, Kennedy's son, US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, announced he will not run for the Senate next year, and an aide said he will return to probate court to renew legal guardianship of his mother, which he and his siblings assumed last year. Kennedy, 37, rushed to be with his mother at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Joan Kennedy's friends said yesterday that the incident was an unfortunate setback for a woman dedicated to her favorite charities, notably in the arts.
She has previously described herself as a recovering alcoholic, and last spring her recurring bouts with the disease forced her three children -- Patrick Kennedy, Edward Kennedy Jr., and Kara Kennedy Allen -- to take legal control of her day-to-day affairs.
Patrick Kennedy, a sixth-term Democrat, did not mention the incident in his announcement yesterday, when he said he would not challenge Senator Lincoln Chaffee, a Republican, in 2006. Kennedy said he believed he could best serve Rhode Island by retaining his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, where he delivers money for state projects.
Kennedy's chief of staff, Sean Richardson, said the congressman made his decision not to run for Senate last weekend, before his mother's accident. But friends and associates said his mother's troubles might also have been a factor.
''The ongoing situation that is occurring with his mother has really taken a personal toll on Patrick," said Anthony Marcella, Patrick Kennedy's former chief of staff and a friend. ''It has been personally very painful to him. Not only seeing her suffer from this terrible illness, but to do it in such a public way is really tearing him apart."
Patrick Kennedy will return soon to probate court on Cape Cod to renew the legal guardianship of his mother, said Richardson.
Kennedy has said he made the arrangement to make sure his mother receives treatment for alcoholism. ''Obviously, he's going to do everything that he needs to do for his mother," Richardson said.
Patrick Kennedy slept at Mass. General Tuesday night. His mother was ''lucid and cracking jokes," said David Nunes, a family friend. ''Patrick is assuming a leadership role in this, because his brothers and sisters have families of their own. Helping his mother is his major family goal right now."
''It's a tragedy," said Ann Gund, Joan Kennedy's friend for 25 years. ''She's just such a wonderful person. . . . We've seen her over the years just battle with this problem. It is just an insidious disease."
Joan Kennedy accompanied US Senator Edward M. Kennedy on his rise in politics. They met in 1957, when she was a student at Manhattanville College and he was studying law. They married in 1958, and they divorced in 1982.
Friends said she had gone for stretches without alcohol, but found the addiction tough to conquer. Joan Kennedy called her friend Stephanie Warburg on Tuesday from the hospital, to tell her that she would not be able to attend a dinner they had planned last night, because she is having shoulder surgery.
''All of us who know her in Boston know what a gentle and gracious and wonderful person she is," Warburg said. ''This is a part of her life that is very difficult, . . . but it's only a part of what Joan is about."
It is unclear how Kennedy ended up on the sidewalk, a few blocks from her home on Beacon Street. Bacon said she had no indication that Kennedy had been drinking. At first, Kennedy tried to wave off help, Bacon said, though a cut on her head was visible. ''She said she was OK, but she didn't look OK," Bacon said.
Other passersby offered help before paramedics arrived about five minutes later, Bacon said. She did not learn whom she had aided until a television news crew showed up on her doorstep yesterday, she said.
Patrick Kennedy expressed gratitude yesterday. ''I would also like to thank everyone for their outpouring of support for my mother," he said in a statement.
Senator Kennedy said after an event in Boston yesterday that he was thankful his children are tending to their mother: ''They're very loyal and work with her. And that's enormously reassuring. I'm very proud of them."
Suzanne Smalley and Christopher Rowland of the Globe staff contributed to this report.