A Tribute to Kara Kennedy and Eleanor Mondale

Kara, Joan, Ted and Edward Kennedy, circa 1968

Kara Kennedy, daughter of Senator Ted Kennedy, died last Friday, September 16th at the age of fifty-one of a heart attack. A day later, Eleanor Mondale, daughter of former vice president Walter Mondale, also fifty-one, died of brain cancer.

As a fifty-one-year-old native of Washington D.C. who tangentially knew both these women, their deaths hit uncomfortably close to home. While Eleanor existed only fleetingly at the edge of my social circle, a glamorous blond presence so unlike her somber, mournful-eyed father, Kara was a childhood friend. We both attended the Beauvoir School, a warm, child-friendly K-3 school just steps from the National Cathedral.

My most vivid memory of Kara is the night we were angels in our third grade Christmas play. We wore long, brightly colored robes and halos festooned with gold foil. She was bubbly and full of fun despite the fact that, as angels, our sole responsibility was to look on serenely as Mary and Joseph approached the inn, and occasionally break into celestial song.

If I were a different kind of writer, I might follow this by saying something about Kara and Eleanor being “taken by angels.” In fact, in a statement released by Eleanor’s parents, they wrote: “After her long and gutsy battle with cancer, (Eleanor) went up to heaven last night to be with her angel.” The problem is, I don’t believe in angels — or heaven, or life after death, or bromides about God “taking people home.” I believe that some people have the misfortune to die way too young and that, when it happens, it is sad, awful, and patently unfair.

It also forces those of us left behind to grapple with the crapshoot nature of illness and death. How else to explain the fact that some people are randomly dealt such a rotten hand? In Kara’s case, she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at the age of 42. After having part of her right lung removed and enduring grueling medical treatments, she made a remarkable recovery. But then eight years later, she died of a heart attack after working out at her gym. (Friends have speculated that her heart was damaged by the cancer treatments.)

Eleanor was also hit with a devastating disease at a young age. A seizure on a camping trip in 2005 led to a diagnosis of brain cancer. Radiation and chemotherapy bought her a few more years, but the tumor returned in 2009 and, despite surgery and more medical treatments, she died in hospice care at her home in Minnesota.

Kara’s death especially haunts me. There is something particularly jarring about losing a childhood friend. Because I lost track of her years ago, to me, Kara is still a child, forever running across a sunny schoolyard, or bouncing on a trampoline. The kind of girl who hugged you fiercely and liked to laugh. Of course, I know she grew up, got married, had two children — just as I did — but in my mind, she is still that bright-eyed girl.

I remember making doll clothes with her in art class, and taking ballet with Mme Lateur, an elderly Frenchwoman who kept a bad-tempered Chihuahua tucked in her purse. I remember how agile and athletic Kara was, always the first to reach the end of the blacktop, or the top of the jungle gym. I also remember going to her house and being baffled by the somber, deserted feeling of its well-appointed rooms, so at odds with Kara’s exuberant nature.

Sadly, I lost touch with Kara after we left Beauvoir’s nurturing walls. And it is only in retrospect that I realize how difficult the next few years must have been for her: Chappaquiddick, her brother Edward’s bout with cancer, her mother’s public struggles with alcohol, and her father’s fame and notoriety. Not to mention all the many lost cousins, uncles and aunts, the so-called “Kennedy curse.”

Reading about her over the last few days, I’ve also been struck by how private she was. Unlike many of the members of her family, she chose to stay entirely out of the public sphere. I was glad to hear she had found meaningful work at “Very Special Arts,” an adjunct to the Special Olympics started by her aunt Jean Kennedy Smith, and as a filmmaker. She was also, by all accounts, a devoted mother to her two children, Grace, 17, and Max, 14.

Like most people hitting midlife, I’ve lost a number of friends and acquaintances and I recognize that this is one of the consequences of getting older. But every time it happens, I experience a small frisson of fear, an irrational certainty that death has just taken a step closer to me. There is grief, of course, and a sense of loss. But underneath is always the nagging question: Why them and not me?

In the end it may be madness to try and wrest some deeper meaning from Kara and Eleanor’s deaths, but this is exactly what makes them so difficult to process. Without religion, or angels — except perhaps the ones we played in our polyester robes — I am left to rail at the arbitrariness of nature, the cruel alchemy of genetics and environment that cut their lives short. And so, for them, I rail.

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