The Killilea Family: Where Are They Now?

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I first read With Love from Karen years ago when I was home sick with pneumonia. When I was well enough to go to the library, I checked out the author's first book, Karen, and basically read the story of the Killilea family in reverse.

To summarize, Karen was born (in 1940) three months premature and wasn't expected to survive. She spent her first nine months in what would now be called a neo-natal intensive care unit, and when she finally went home her parents noticed that something was amiss with their daughter. Her limbs seemed unusually stiff, she never rolled over in her crib, nor did she make an effort to reach for the toys offered to her. Several years went by before they were able to get a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy, and even more time elapsed before they found a specialist who could treat Karen. Marie worked tirelessly to find and unite other parents of CP children and eventually helped to found the Cerebral Palsy Association.

Over the years, I'd occasionally re-read WLFK and wonder whatever happened to Karen and her family. I checked out the title at Amazon.com and found that there were lots of other Karen readers out there who were wondering the same thing. I sensed a research project, and spent many hours online and in the library. I found out that there was still much tragedy ahead for the Killilea family.

karen-fire-little-red-house.jpgA large part of WLFK focused on the love story between Gloria (Karen's eldest sister) and Russ, who had to wait seven long years (due to Russ' annulment of a previous union and the couple's desire to marry in the Catholic church) before Pope Pius XII gave them permission to be married. The births of their first two children, Mary deLourdes and Evelyn Ann, were mentioned in the book, as was a very detailed description of the "Little Red House" in Yorktown where Glo and Russ lived. Sadly, that charming house built in the 1700s and described in minute detail by Marie ("everything was dry and there was that sweet odor of time that only really old houses have") turned out to be deadly; one late night in 1968 a faulty wire in the kitchen ignited a fire that quickly spread throughout the ancient wooden frame of the house. Gloria was able to rescue her two sons, but Mary and Evelyn were trapped on the third floor, along with their cousin Michelle Smiley (daughter of Little Marie), and the three children perished in the blaze.

Glo and Russ were married for just over 40 years and died within three months of one another in 2001/02. They are survived by their two sons. Little Marie divorced Ronald Smiley and eventually remarried. Rory is married and lives in Seattle. Kristin married her high school sweetheart, Simon Viltz, and lives in Illinois. Karen lives on her own in a specially equipped apartment and works as a secretary at a Catholic Retreat. Big Marie died in 1991 of respiratory failure (she'd previously battled two bouts of lung cancer), and her beloved husband, Jimmy, who was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, passed away two years later.

So that's the follow-up story behind one of my favorite books. What are your favorite "based on a true story" or biographical books? Do you have a particular story that you once read and have occasionally wondered "I wonder whatever happened to"¦.?" This is your opportunity to send the mental_floss staff on a research mission and perhaps enlighten many other readers who have similarly wondered in silence.

October 1, 2008 - 10:15am
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