Books: What Remains

what remains.JPGCarole is from a working class family outside of Manhattan. Through hard work and tenacity she worked her way up the ladder at ABC from the age of nineteen when she was hired to duplicate video tapes or something like that. She eventually got into producing, and many of her documentaries won awards.

It was while working at ABC that she met her husband, Anthony Radziwill, who is John Kennedy’s cousin on his mother’s side. When John began dating Carolyn Bessett, she and Carol became friends. Best friends, eventually. Carolyn was her closest confidante as she waded through years of cancer treatments and operations, often accompanying them on their hospital trips to lend support and good humor.

What Remains is not marketed as a Kennedy story, and I never got the sense she was name dropping or taking advantage of the friendship to promote her book – though I did notice she begins the book by describing the events of the Kennedy airplane crash before flashing back to her childhood memories. But honestly, it comes off more as a great hook than a cheap ploy. Anyway, we get no Kennedy fluff – just the parts of them that describe her closeness with Carolyn and John’s closeness with Anthony – they were best friends, and in the telling she respects their privacy.

I first heard about the book several years ago while on the treadmill at the gym – there was an excerpt of it in Oprah’s magazine that absolutely captivated me. It was this passage that grabbed me, and the reason I eventually came to read the whole thing:

There is an imperceptible shift of a life in the moment of time between the event and the knowing. After the thing has happened, but before someone has said it.

It’s the moment before you pick up the phone and something is announced. They’re not here yet and I was just wondering, are they there? With you? When the thing is still yours to lose. It’s not real until you say it out loud. This is what it feels like, the click between one life and another. This is the blink of time between the way things are, and then never the same again. Like changing the channel on a television. It’s this way – click – and now it’s this. This, and then this. Fate. Fortune.

She was reading Anna Karenina when the plane went down. She was reading quietly and sipping wine. Occasionally she would pause from her reading and gaze out the window at the water, not knowing her friend’s life was ending as she crashed into that same body of water.

You never know when something is going to happen to change your life, You expect it to arrive with fanfare, like a wedding or a birth, but instead it comes in the most ordinary of circumstances.

Carole’s husband, Anthony Radziwill, fought against cancer for five years – almost the length of their entire relationship. She describes how it swallowed them up, how it consumed their lives even though Anthony seemed in denial for most of the ordeal, how she hated it and at times wanted out.

For the last year, in particular, Carole prepared herself for his death. Even wished for it, at times, when he came close but pulled through. Not because she was cruel, but because she was overwhelmed, and losing hope, and not sure she could continue keeping up the pace.

One summer in 1999, as Anthony’s strength was leaving him and his ribs poked through his skin – the summer John Kennedy began writing the eulogy for his cousin’s funeral – death came suddenly and out of nowhere. A plane crashed into the ocean – John and Carolyn Kennedy’s plane.

I tried to imagine it: Bryan sick, dying, years of treatments, hope, and hope lost. Surrounded by friends who hold me up, who listen, who make us laugh, who rescue us from thinking about dying. Then, the friends are suddenly gone. All the support, the shoulders for crying, the hands for wiping tears: gone. I can’t imagine the isolation she felt after that.

Her husband, Anthony, died three weeks later.

For all the influence and resources the Family had for cutting edge treatments, for hundreds of flights to a D.C. hospital, for countless vacations to islands I’ve never heard of where they pretended they didn’t have cancer – for all their privilege and power – they still had to experience what every person, what every family experiences, when someone is terminally ill. Each of them still fell into a particular role, whether deny-er, fixer, soother, problem solver, rescuer.

In the end, no amount of money or family influence could save Anthony from cancer or John from crashing.

What Remains is well-written and descriptive of grief both planned for and taken by surprise. I highly recommend it.

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