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Jewish World Review June 26, 2001 / 5 Tamuz 5761

Linda Bowles

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He will not let her "go gentle into that good night" -- FOR 13 long years, Mort Kondracke has watched his beloved wife, Milly, be slowly ravaged by a deadly, incurable disease. He wrote a book about it. It is called "Saving Milly -- Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease."

Mort Kondracke is a familiar face to those who follow politics. For years he was a regular panelist on the popular "The McLaughlin Group." He is currently co-host of Fox News Channel's political show "The Beltway Boys," and is executive editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

On Oct. 7, 1967, Mort and Milly married. It was an unlikely union between a staid, ambitious journalist and a Mexican-Jewish firebrand from the wrong side of Chicago. They loved with abandon, fought with passion and raised two daughters. Theirs is a no-matter-what, we-will-see-it-through-together, until-death-do-we-part marriage.

Kondracke tells the story of Milly's disease with excruciating honesty. She is no longer able to speak or walk. If she falls, which is often, she cannot catch herself. If she drops a book, she cannot pick it up. Swallowing is a huge problem; food and even water often go down her windpipe, choking her. Mort has become an expert at using the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge food caught in her throat.

Several wonderful women care for Milly while Mort is at work, and they help part time on the weekends. The rest of the time, Mort is Milly's caretaker. He bathes her, washes her hair, brushes her teeth, carries her to the bathroom, changes her disposal underwear, dresses her and feeds her. He is also her husband: he kisses her and hugs her often. He tells her every day and every night that he loves her. He calls her his Sweet Pea. He tells her she is his Peachy Pie.

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They both know that one day not too far away, she will not be able to swallow. Her survival will require a tube to be surgically implanted in her stomach. They have the option to refuse the tube, permitting Milly to slowly die of starvation. She has already said she wants to die, that her life has become unbearable. But she wavers in that respect, and Mort is unsure of his own resolve and courage. These two magnificent human beings are moving inexorably toward the dread certainty of death.

He prays for her many times a day. He often asks G-d to tell him what to do, and the answer is always the same: "Save Milly." Acting on that, Mort spends every spare moment working to increase medical funding for Parkinson's disease. He found out quickly that getting money for medical research is as "dog-eat-dog as any other kind of politics." The money goes to the best and the loudest lobbyist.

The story of Mort and Milly Kondracke is a particular version of all of our stories. Sooner or later, in one way or another, we all face the reality of the inevitable outcome of life: its end. It is not something we willingly face or think about. It is forced upon us, because death, one's own and others', is a part of the human experience.

We are all programmed to die; there is a "sunset clause" in our DNA. G-d designed us to perish. We may die from some disease, accident or assault. Escaping that, we simply grind down and wear out. Our life's journey in this world has a destination certain, and there is nothing we can do about it.

It scares us to look too far and too long into the unknown; it scares us to look beyond the span of our lives, to think about what we were before we were born and what we shall be after we die. We focus on the here and now, earth-bound, restricting our vision to what we can comprehend and manage.

Jaded philosophers and intellectuals agree with Russian novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov that "our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

Both Jews and Christians reject this sophistic fatalism. We understand that the full meaning of their lives is to be worked out, fulfilled and understood, not in the span of a lifetime but in the perspective of eternity. There is a grander plan that transcends birth and death. The body cannot be saved; the soul can.

It is clear that Mort Kondracke will fight all the way, without pause or rest, to "save" his beloved Milly. He will not let her "go gentle into that good night."

Not yet.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate