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.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

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 horsewhip, 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 cliche. 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, while emphasizing what he viewed as her chameleon-like talents to please whomever was in the room or in the forefront of her life. “She had a remarkable ability for becoming what other people wanted her to be while remaining herself at the core,” he writes, offering as an example how she accommodated her second husband, photographer Burt Glinn. “It was not a process, or something she studied, and certainly Burt was no Pygmalion; Margaret simply seemed to know how to take wing and fly effortlessly from one incarnation to the next.” This is not a flattering portrait of the woman or the man celebrating her. One longs to know how she felt about this. 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.”

What he celebrates as her endearing quirks may be perceived by some as tiresome. “The first thing Margaret asked at any place we went was where she could plug in her hair dryer – over the years I had filled a black leather zip bag with an assortment of adapters for every imaginable electric outlet and voltage in the world, two-prong, three-prong, you name it, it was an essential part of her travel kit. Margaret’s hair dryer had blown fuses and caused blackouts in hotels, motels, and safari camps on every continent.”

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.

Korda’s matter-of-fact description of her sudden and dramatic deterioration leaves no doubt as to why, as he confides to the reader – but not to anyone on his email updates to friends. His “invulnerable” wife was fading away.

She could no longer use the fingers on her right hand to type emails or text messages, he writes. “It was as if she had been cut off overnight from the world, at just the point when she most needed support.

“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.”

But even he had his limits. They had no shower, and an hour-long bath left them both exhausted. The ordeal “made me begin to question my respect for Margaret’s strong feeling that she didn’t need or want a nurse living in the house.”

Korda wades into policy. He is grateful for Medicare, repeatedly. He praises medical staff, in various roles and places, as consistently kind and attentive, and he is keenly aware that not every American family has access to the spalike conditions of their neurosurgeon’s practice. “I could not help reflecting that there was a real and important statement being made here – there is no reason to treat those who have cancer as if they are army recruits in institutionalized settings that are only one step above a prison.”

A tic in Korda’s writing: He refers repeatedly to his privileged childhood, which comes off as unconscious boasting. Several times early in the book he mentions his boarding school, Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, where he learned “in several languages” to be a man of his word. Neurosurgeon Alain de Lotbiniere, a fellow alumnus of Le Rosey, answers his phone in a voice “with no more than the slightest suggestion that he was, at the very least, trilingual, but then so are most people who have gone to a boarding school in Switzerland.” When he first meets Lotbiniere, “I could not help noticing that he wore a well-cut suit rather than a white doctor’s coat, and narrow, elegant, beautiful polished shoes, looking every inch like what an old Roseen should be.” My concern is that this snobbery could put off readers who might benefit from Korda’s wisdom but conclude they have little in common with him. I urge such readers to stick with him, because quite the opposite ends up being true.

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 Scultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist in Cleveland. Her novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” will be published in June.


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