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10,000 Days With Catherine O’Neill

Posted on Jan 2, 2013
Tambako the Jaguar (CC-BY-ND)

By Richard Reeves

When I saw my friend Avery Corman, the novelist, for the first time after his wife, Judy, died eight years ago, I was, of course, at a loss for words. I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: "How’s your work going?"

Kind of stupid.

Avery said: "My work’s fine. I know how to work. What I don’t know is how to live without Judy Corman."

They had been married for 37 years. I had been married to Catherine O’Neill for 33 years when she died on the day after Christmas and I don’t know how I am going to live without her. I’m not sure I’ve made a decision without her or made any decisions at all after the day we married in August of 1979. I once wrote that marrying her was like joining the Navy: I saw the world.

A day in the life.

We were both from New York, we spoke the same dialect, and moved back from Los Angeles in 1981 when RCA offered her a job as public affairs director. Her office at Rockefeller Center had a great view, about from Connecticut to Virginia, but she hated the job. She quit and went to Columbia’s School of International Affairs for a doctorate. She already had a master’s degree from Howard in social work.

As she was finishing up at Columbia—she didn’t hand in her thesis because Columbia would have charged her for another semester after she had finished her course work—she came home one night and said she had a great idea: We should move to Pakistan.

I went nuts. I had a syndicated column, my work was in American politics, and I was not about to go to South Asia while she saved the world, or at least tried to, in refugee camps.

"OK," she said. "I brought it up too soon."

The next time we talked about it, at our house in Islamabad, she was already working with Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet war in that cursed country. Somehow I kept the column going and wrote a book called "Passage to Peshawar." We made many friends there, but things were getting tricky as Catherine helped set up women’s medical stations, which were really places where women could talk to each other. Usually, then and now, women lived behind walls and burqas, seeing only relatives—literally and deliberately cut off from the world.

Another day.

I was in Los Angeles, part of a dog and pony show as a correspondent for the new (1984-85) season of the wonderful and surviving "Frontline" series on PBS. We had a day off before the next stop, Washington, and I decided to stay in LA and see friends. Every one of them was scheduling themselves around children, babies, schools, homework, soccer games. I saw them all and then wrote a column saying this is what life is really about.

When I got back to New York, Catherine said: "So you want to have another child?" The thought had never entered my mind; we each had two children already. Fiona O’Neill Reeves was born on Dec. 20, 1984, to the absolute astonishment of her siblings. We had decided that if mother and child were healthy, we would sell our apartment and move to Paris, where both of us had always wanted to live. On Feb. 26, 1985 (super dollar days, if you’re old enough to remember), we moved to 95 Rue de Rennes between the Boulevard Saint-Germain and Boulevard Montparnasse.

We brought 12 bags and a baby, then one of our sons decided to come. Of many great ones, those were the best days of our lives. I scored a big book advance for "President Kennedy: Profile of Power" and Catherine became public affairs director of The International Herald Tribune on the year of its 100th anniversary. We toured all of the 21 countries where the paper then published.

And there were almost 10,000 other days. I treasure each one, but I’ll be damned if I know how I’m going to live without Catherine O’Neill.



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