"Millicent Martinez was a poor inner-city Chicago kid who grew up to be a dynamo," wrote Morton Kondracke of his wife in "Saving Milly: Love, Politics and Parkinson's Disease," a powerful, brutally frank and wonderfully redemptive book published three years ago.
"I wanted to marry an heiress from the Ivy League," Mort went on, "but she was irresistible.... Eventually I realized that, wherever I went in life, I would regret it the whole way if she were not with me."
Mort and Milly were married for 37 years, "and, thanks to that," wrote Mort, "I've lived a love story."
Then, on July 22, Millicent Kondracke, a psychotherapist who in 1987 began to recognize she had symptoms of what was diagnosed as a particularly virulent form of Parkinson's Disease, died at her home in Washington. She was 64.
Let me get personal. I first met Milly in 1981, shortly after I became publisher of The New Republic, where Mort was a senior editor. Our families' lives intertwined. Our daughters (two each) were friends who went to the same schools. Mort and I played golf and squash together, and our wives had long talks -- especially about the girls and how to keep them on the straight and narrow. I worked with Mort, both at TNR and at Roll Call, where I lured him to become executive editor.
Since last year, Mort, who is also an analyst and host on Fox News, has been a TechCentralStation contributor. We were proud to publish his superb two-part series in November 2003 that was highly critical of Republicans for their "assault on basic medical research" and "surrender [of] core free-market principles with their support of drug reimportation legislation." Like so much of what he has written in recent years, these pieces reflected Mort's personal experience -- watching his wife slowly die of remorseless, incurable disease.
But this is a time to remember the life of an amazing woman -- the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Mexican father who was a labor organizer. As the Washington Post's obituary recounted, "Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and left the family when she was three years old; her father suffered a stroke when she was 8, was deported as a communist when she was 10 and died of a heart attack a few days after arriving in Mexico. Mrs. Kondracke and her sister were raised by a family friend, a Mexican-American activist who had six children of her own."
But she overcame. Milly graduated from Roosevelt University in Chicago and came to Washington in 1968 to work on Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. She eventually earned a master's degree in social work from Catholic University and became a therapist.
Mort writes in his book about how Milly suspected she was ill when she had trouble writing the letter "K" on a check. I remember having dinner at the Kondrackes' house in Chevy Chase the evening after she was diagnosed with Parkinson's.
By then, I had known Milly for six or seven years. I had been struck immediately by how different Milly was from practically everyone else I knew in Washington. She was completely honest. Blunt. She didn't have a devious bone in her body. And she really cared about her friends' happiness.
In recent years, it was natural for those friends to wish for death to end her pain. There was no miracle at hand. She would continue to endure misery, a mind trapped inside an inert body. In Mort's book, he quotes her as writing four years ago, "I can't talk or walk. I don't want to live like this. Never to eat a hot dog or a hamburger or a salad or be able to talk is intolerable.... I do not want to live this way, but I am afraid to die."
Mort himself wrote in his book of how the disease transformed him "from resentful assistant to dedicated partner.... I am terrified of losing her."
The loss of Milly provides no deliverance, only sadness.
"Until she was 47," wrote Mort, "Milly was the master of her surroundings, the kind of woman whose will no bureaucrat, lazy tradesman or alcoholic husband could resist." Her diagnosis "shattered her confidence, but it did not stop her from fighting."
Yes. When I asked one of her best friends to describe Milly, she said, "She fought and fought... she never stopped fighting; she spoke truth to power. She did not go quietly. Even when she couldn't talk, she tried to talk and made enough noise to be heard. You knew what she felt, even if you just saw it in the flash of her eyes."
Both Milly and Mort were hugely effective lobbyists for increased funding for research into Parkinson's disease and for support of stem-cell research. Milly won the Morris K. Udall Award for Public Service from the Parkinson's Action Network (PAN), the group whose annual dinner Mort chairs, and an advocacy award was created in Milly's honor in 2002.
"Getting Parkinson's just broke her heart, and then it was broken over and over again. She was a strong-willed person with this fiery love of life, and it just robbed her, inch by inch. It was an awful thing to watch, and she just hated it," said Joan Samuelson, president of PAN.
We at TCS are making a contribution to PAN (www.parkinsonsaction.org) in Milly's memory. We wish we could do more. Milly was one terrific person, and so is Mort. Read his book, and you'll see. It will sadden and inspire you, and enrich your life.
To Mort and to Mort and Milly's daughters, Alex and Andrea, go our deepest sympathy.
A memorial service for Milly will be held Tuesday, Aug. 3, at St. Columba's Episcopal Church, 4201 Albermarle St., N.W., Washington. The burial, at Rock Creek Cemetery, is private.