Those of us who are members of that enormous, sad club — the club of people who have lost loved ones to cancer — will find much that resonates in Michael Korda’s new book.
Written in plain, straightforward prose, “Passing” is the memoir of a man who stuffs himself with facts and information about brain tumors and cancer in hopes that knowledge will help him get through the anguish of watching his beautiful wife die. But there is no antidote to anguish.
The word “beautiful” is important here. Beauty was one of Margaret Korda’s defining characteristics, one of the things that she valued most about herself. Her beauty was something that might have, in some way, contributed to her demise. Tall, lithe and blond, Margaret — a former model — discovered a small, irregular spot on her face and was pretty sure she knew what it was; her husband had recently undergone treatment for malignant melanoma, treatment that left a divot in his skull.
But what if surgery left a divot in Margaret’s lovely, high-cheekboned face? She chose to cover the spot with makeup and put it out of her mind. For years. By the time she could no longer ignore it, the cancer had metastasized to her brain, and this is where the deeply sad story of “Passing” begins.
The brain tumor is diagnosed, surgery is scheduled, and Margaret’s life is divided — as she had known it would be, as she had delayed as long as possible — into two halves: before diagnosis, and after.
We all know about the agony of surgery, radiation, recovery, hope, recurrence, despair. But in Korda’s careful, unsentimental prose, we can see reflections of our own loved ones: In my case, my sister, also a beauty, who died of breast cancer, and my father, who died of a brain tumor.
As Margaret’s illness progressed, she chose willful ignorance. She refused a full-body scan to find out where else in her body tumors lay. She did not want to know exactly what the cancer was going to do. She did not want chemotherapy. She preferred to live every moment that she could, ignoring her disease. Did this hasten her death? Almost certainly. Did this help her avoid a more prolonged and painful death? Maybe. Was it the right call? Only she could say.
Michael, on the other hand, devours everything he can find — handouts and pamphlets from the doctors; books, magazine articles and everything Google will tell him. But all of that information cannot keep his wife alive and, indeed, it often fills him with despair, knowing acutely what was coming but keeping that knowledge from Margaret.
There is only one place for this story to lead, but Korda’s book keeps you reading because of the graceful, understated way he conveys his anguish, his love and his admiration for his spirited wife, winner of national equestrian titles for show jumping, a world traveler, a woman who could “bring a room full of people to awed silence simply by sweeping in wearing white silk pants from Jax, skintight from the waist to the knees, belled below, and a black silk blouse without a bra.”
As Korda recalls this dramatic entrance, Margaret is bedridden, mostly bald, on morphine, unable to speak or open her lips to accept her medication.
This juxtaposition of the vibrant person that his wife once was and the shell she became is the universal story of aging and death. “Passing” is a moving book. Those of us who have lived through such loss might not learn a lot from it, but we will recognize in Korda a sympathetic and eloquent member of the cancer club.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. 612-673-7302. @StribBooks
Passing: A Memoir of Love and Death
By: Michael Korda.
Publisher: Liveright, 239 pages, $24.95.