In her husband’s eyes, Margaret Korda was unstoppable and as beautiful as she was inscrutable. A former model, she loved the outdoors and was an outstanding horsewoman who won five national championships. At 79, she was still robust and “virtually unscathed” by the drags of aging, riding twice a day.
Then on one spring day in April 2016, Margaret did something for the first time in her riding life: She dropped her horsewhip. A seemingly small infraction, one that husband Michael Korda tried to dismiss as aging’s inevitable “succession of mild retreats from things that had once been easy.” But as he made her a drink before dinner, she turned to him and said, “I think something serious is wrong with me.”
That dropped whip, they soon knew, was an early sign of the brain tumors that would end her life a year later.
Passing: A Memoir of Love and Death is marketed by the publisher as Michael Korda’s “unflinching love song” about his wife of 40 years “and her battle with cancer.” In this instance, “battle” is more than a cancer cliché. We quickly understand Margaret to be a strong and willful woman, accustomed to being in control of her life and having her way. As her illness progressed, however, these traits that her husband had so admired in her — each of them had left marriages to be together — exacerbated his pain and complicated his ability as her caregiver. In unsparing prose, Korda, a successful author and former editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, does not excuse this about her, nor does he condemn her for it. He wanted to do for her all that he could for as long as he could, until he no longer had it in him. He never casts himself as a hero, but in his devotion, he was herculean.
By the end of the book, Margaret remains an enigma to readers and, to some extent, to her husband. He tries, with limited success, to give us glimpses of her inner life. After Margaret’s initial diagnosis, she shredded stacks of personal photos, including those of her first husband (Korda was her third). She didn’t say why, and Korda didn’t ask, noting that her first marriage ended abruptly after just a year and “was something of a mystery.”
She had “a towering trust in prescriptions,” depending on numerous drugs for depression and anxiety, but harbored a lifelong distrust of doctors. Again, a mystery to Korda. “Whatever childhood trauma had made her fear visiting a doctor, I never knew.” One gets the impression of a guarded woman, even with those closest to her. If this ever bothered Korda, he keeps it to himself.
Margaret had always loved sunbathing. When she discovered a patch on her cheek, she covered it with makeup rather than rush to a doctor. Korda finally persuaded a friend to intervene, with a directness even she could hear: Get it checked now. As Korda states repeatedly, she waited too long. By the time she had the melanoma removed, the cancer was already insidiously metastasizing; five years later it returned with immutable rage. Her brain tumors were removed and soon returned. They were removed again, and returned to her brain, and invaded her lungs.
His “invulnerable” wife was fading away.
“The list of things that suddenly became difficult for Margaret grew frighteningly long: doing up her bra, flossing her teeth, using a spoon, making tea, putting on her makeup, fastening a necklace, writing out a shopping list, taking her watch off. It seemed as if every hour brought her face-to-face with something ordinary she could no longer do. I did my best to help, but my fingers were often clumsy, which made her ever more irritated not to be able to do these simple, everyday things.”
Increasingly, in recounting his story of worrying and hovering, he becomes the voice for so many caregivers, and the inherent isolation and loneliness, the second-guessing that remains long after death.
He is often hard on himself. When he reads the doctor’s notes about how Margaret is “taking smaller steps,” Korda chastises himself for not having noticed. “I ought to be paying closer attention,” I told myself. At age 84, he becomes hypersensitive to any criticism from his wife. “She had often complained that I did not listen to her, or more precisely, that I did not hear what I didn’t want to hear. ... On reflection, I had to admit that she was right. Whatever else I did, I would have to start listening, we were not people with large families, there were just the two of us, we had nobody to fall back on except ourselves.”
Anyone who has ever cared for a loved one at the end of life will identify with Korda’s escalating feelings of despair and uselessness as he tries to save his wife from a disease with no rescue. His book, and his life, illustrate the essential truth that no matter our circumstances, we will one day die. His unsparing account nudges us to reconsider life’s trivial grievances until we do.
— Connie Schultz/The Washington Post