Kate Spade’s Death Makes the End-of-Year School Craziness Seem Sane

I couldn’t stop searching about her online. I felt like a psychopath, jumping from one site to another, even playing newsreel clips, hunched over my laptop while sitting cross-legged on the couch in my jammies, all four kids asleep, trying to find out more. Why had Kate Spade killed herself? Why?!

After a couple hours of me intermittently reading my husband the random kernels of information I’d find, he was finally like, “Okay, honey, I think it’s enough with the Kate Spade articles. You’re not going to be able to sleep.” It wasn’t until I unearthed the regional newspaper piece with her (estranged?) sister’s comments about her (perhaps fictional?) drinking issues and bipolar disorder that I sighed deeply and shut the laptop. That was it. Manic depressive. Mentally ill. I could go to sleep.

Translation: I didn’t have that. It couldn’t happen to me. Right?

I didn’t know Kate Spade. I’ve never even met her. But she lived just a few blocks up the street from me on the Upper East Side of New York City. I can practically see her building from mine. I could hear the sirens this week as her body was horrifyingly wheeled out from her green awning onto Park Avenue. I got stuck in stand-still traffic trying to take my daughter to gymnastics because Madison Avenue was frozen, cars, paparazzi, fans, police swarming the entire neighborhood. Her daughter apparently went to my kids’ preschool.

Our paths must have criss-crossed a zillion times. We must have gone to the same pharmacy, the same local shops and restaurants. We must have tread on those same few cement slabs daily, our footsteps meshing under the thunder of traffic. Sometimes the Upper East Side seems like the smallest village there is. I can’t walk out of my front door without running into someone I know. I usually find that comforting, as if I still live on a college campus or something. To hear about the loss of an icon, let alone someone in my own little, tiny world, was bone-chilling.

More than that, it was because she was a mom, like me. That she left her daughter a note making sure she didn’t blame herself. So she was a concerned, doting mom, not some maniac with no sense of feeling. No, it was someone who must have reached the brink of despair and couldn’t find her way back.

My deepest fear, aside from something happening to my kids, is something happening to me, meaning that I wouldn’t be able to be there for them. An anxious soul by nature, I think about this more often than I care to admit. I imagine my kids at my funeral (am I the only one who does this?) and am practically in tears watching them weep in my mind’s eye wishing I could be there but knowing that God has taken me away. It’s the ultimate feeling of helplessness. Abandoning my kids against my will. I believe that’s what happened here as well. Kate Spade was likely just as sick mentally as a girlfriend of mine who passed away from ovarian cancer last year was physically. There are different ways to fight.

I lost a very close girlfriend to suicide about 15 years ago. Kate Spade’s apartment is only two blocks away from where my friend’s childhood home was, both on the southwest corners of Park. (Hmm, perhaps I should move further away.) I tried everything to help my friend back then. I found her doctors, visited her at multiple inpatient facilities before she started running away from them, worked with her other close friends to help. Stayed in close touch with her mom. I still do.

I know what it’s like to love someone, to do everything you can and then watch them slip away regardless. I know what it’s like to see someone you love hurt themselves, repeatedly, to feel like you love them more than they love themselves, to not be able to protect them from their own demons.

Not only was Kate Spade a neighbor and a fellow mom in my little community, but she was one of my favorite designers. Like many women my age, I grew up obsessed with her bags. Of course I had one. I remember finding her store on Newbury Street in Boston on a trip there with my mother and gasping with happiness: a Kate Spade store! As her brand has grown up, so have I. I started out with that rectangular, squishy soft tote with the black handles. Now I have many of her more structured leather purses. They’re the only bags I ever buy myself. Most days of the week, I’m carrying one. And I’m often wearing something from her clothing line too. (Yes, I know she sold the brand, but still.)

I remember one fancy navy dress that I bought in the Kate Spade store in Palm Beach. My grandmother was sitting outside the dressing room and smiled when she saw me in it: “Well, isn’t that lovely on you, pussy cat,” she’d said.

My daughter loved the store too and we’d pop upstairs to the kids’ floor after school sometimes. Her fancy hot pink headband from there is still her favorite. In fact, we went there a couple weeks ago and were beyond disappointed to find out they weren’t selling girls’ stuff anymore.

As I’ve gone through the motions of end-of-school-year craziness, inputting my data into Google Sheets for a pre-sleepaway camp playdate, buying teacher gifts, attending school concerts, going to after-school award ceremonies, trying to figure out what to do with a year’s worth of art projects and school work suddenly dumped by my desk (four times), I’ve been consumed by her death. And the deaths of Bonnie and Ben Krupinski in a plane crash last weekend in East Hampton, a beloved couple I’d known for almost a decade. And today Anthony Bourdain killing himself, his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, front and center here on my bookshelf. What’s next?

Somehow, though, these bone-chilling losses, the shock of them, so jarring even though they happened to people I didn’t even know at all or very well, have made what’s usually a whirlwind of chaos into more of a “slo-mo” video of an Alice’s tea cup ride. I have a heightened awareness of everything going on. I’m seeing details I would normally miss, appreciating moments of joy like watching my daughter “move on” to Middle School today, her beaming smile truly lighting up my soul. I’ve stopped more, just to be. Stopped to play another round of gin with my older son before bed. Stopped to bake cupcakes with my little guy, canceling an unimportant-in-the-long-run kids’ event to do it. Stopped to look closely at my older daughter’s yearbook with her on the floor, our legs criss-cross-applesauce. Stopped to do play dough with daughter and even make her a replica of our house plant per her request. Stopped to spend 45 minutes on the phone with my husband. These deaths, so haunting, make me feel my life more, the weight of it.

Who knows what was really going on with Kate Spade. I’ll keep researching online but ultimately, no one will be able to tell me what went through her mind after her daughter went to school and she wrote those notes and tied a red scarf to her door. Just like no one could tell me why my close friend did it either. All I know is that sometimes it takes a big whopping jolt like this to make me look at myself more closely. I see myself in my Kate Spade dress, holding my Kate Spade purse, and have to assess how much I’m letting my own issues get to me. I analyze what I could be doing better to make sure I can stay here for my four kids as long as possible, mentally and physically.

I’m not ready yet (Tory Burch is standing in for the time being), but soon, I’m going to pick up my favorite Kate Spade bags again and wear them proudly just as I now look fondly at old pictures of my girlfriend. I’m going to bring my navy little purse with the gold zipper to my son’s “moving up” day next week as a reminder of all that we have, all that we’ve lost, and how to appreciate every moment with our kids, before things get in the way.

Because one day, inevitably, we will all be separated from our kids. And I think that’s why this particular suicide has shot to the core of so many people, especially so many women. It’s not just that we love her clothes and bags and have been emulating someone we didn’t know was mentally ill. It’s that it makes us wonder how sick you have to be, how rough a time you have to be going through to pull the plug. Could it be us next?

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Zibby Owens

Creator and host of award-winning podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. CEO. Author. Mom of 4.