The text on my phone read, "Eleanor Mondale, 51, dies." It had to mean someone else. When was that last phone call, when she told me she felt "really good"?
Eleanor was someone I loved, and knew for decades. I have learned what it means to be stricken with grief. I was stricken as the Google search yielded line after line, carrying the same message. Of all the words streaming around my brain, the only one I could speak was "no."
"You can't ask why," she once said, but that was all I could ask. The sadness was so heavy. Thoughts turned to anger: Why didn't I try harder to visit? She'd invited me so many times. There was always something in the way -- work, kids, divorce, marriage, surgeries (mine, hers). Why didn't I call more often? Where did six years go? Where did she go?
In the days since, I've been fixated on trying to remember every single moment with her. I've gone online to CaringBridge and was stunned to learn how bad it was for her these past two years. And I felt compelled to write and correct assumptions, wrong impressions and oversimplifications of who this girl, this amazing woman, was.
I read about her being a "wild child" and gossip magnet. Junk writing. She was a good, good person. She made mistakes, as we all do, but she was a family girl, a fair person and a hard worker.
I've been going through boxes of pictures, shoeboxes full of letters from her. Pictures of her with my first baby girl at the Chicago Zoo. Her emails are long gone, but her handwritten letters from Kenya, from Chicago, from New York, from L.A. -- I've been reading them over and over.
We met in the summer of 1976. I was working at American University's off-campus housing office and took a call from her mother, Joan Mondale, who had a basement room to rent in their Cleveland Park home. She introduced me to Eleanor, the complete opposite of me: She was tall, blonde, broad-shouldered, with the longest legs I'd ever seen. When she took me up to see her room, I was fascinated by the rows of ribbons she'd won in dressage. Her horse was her passion. Her dog, a collie named Bonnie, seemed to follow her everywhere. Eleanor was magnetic but had no real awareness of that.
I've been reading articles about her these days and some of them make me angry. Yes, she was a high-energy young woman who at one point in her life loved to go out to bars and dance. But I don't think she ever rode her horse on the grounds of the vice president's mansion. I only saw her on that horse up at the barn in Potomac. She wasn't a disrespectful person.
Even though I was three years older, I perceived her as the more mature one. She seemed to have it so together, and when she didn't she went to her mother. She could talk with her parents! They adored her and she adored them. She was crazy about her brothers too. You got the sense that it was really all for one and one for all. My family background was very different -- volatile, dramatic -- but she found good in it and helped me to see good too. She would introduce me to her friends: "This is my friend Kim. She used to dance ballet! She was a model! Isn't she gorgeous? Her mom was a Broadway star! Her dad was on Broadway too! He was with the Ballet ROOOOS." Sometimes I'd have to jab my elbow into her ribs or she'd go on and on.
Once, her parents were throwing a party at the vice president's mansion and Andy Warhol was there. I hadn't planned to stay, but she wanted me to. I hadn't anything appropriate to wear so she lent me a dress. She would not let me slink away. She introduced me to everyone. "This is my friend Kim. She was a model ... she danced ballet in New York," and so on, and so on.
Many years later, for my 40th birthday, she flew into D.C. armed with two surprises for me. She knew I'd always wanted a Yorkshire terrier, and she knew I admired President Clinton. She arrived with a small puppy in her arms and a request for my Social Security number. She called me later that night, after we'd had dinner together, to say she'd arranged a meeting with him in the Oval Office.
The first thing out of her mouth to the president was something like, "This is my friend Kim. You should ask her about ballet. She knows what she's talking about!" I was mortified, but honored.
She made sure that the White House photographer took a picture of us together. I've torn my house upside down trying to find the one with the three of us. But the only one I can find is the one she insisted would be without her in it, just me and President Clinton. That is the kind of person she was.
I only knew the generous Eleanor. The encouraging Eleanor. The loving Eleanor. I can only speak to what I know about her, and what I know is that she was genuine. She was direct. Fearless.
I hadn't learned how to drive yet, and she was driving us up to see her horse in Potomac. All of a sudden she pulled over and made me get behind the wheel. "OK, drive it," she said. She told me what to do, and then, after I'd jerked us to a stop about a hundred times, she said, as lovingly as possible, "OK, that will be enough now." I laughed so hard I cried.
I'm crying now. I loved her so much. We saw each other through three marriages, bad relationships and good ones. Eleanor always made me feel important and worth loving. She always pointed out my good qualities, especially when I'd forgotten I had any.
The world was better with Eleanor in it, and that's all there is to it.
Kim Kokich is program adviser in the Master of Science in Organization Development program at American University in Washington, D.C. She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.