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Passing: A Memoir of Love and Death


Passing: A Memoir of Love and Death

It’s a sad reality that memoirs about encounters with cancer are part of a burgeoning literary genre, but it’s not often the case that their authors bring to their creation the literary pedigree of a Michael Korda. For many years the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Korda also has produced a bookshelf worth of memoirs, histories and other assorted works. In PASSING, the account of his wife Margaret’s battle with brain cancer, he applies that considerable talent to tell a story about life and death that’s informative, moving and wise.

Until Margaret Korda’s diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor in April 2016 --- most likely a metastasis from a malignant melanoma she long delayed treating before its removal in 2011 --- she and Michael had led what most would consider charmed lives. Both born in Britain, they lived on a farm outside Poughkeepsie, NY, where they raised horses Margaret rode in the demanding equestrian discipline of combined training, in which she achieved national prominence. When Margaret’s symptoms become serious enough to require medical attention, Michael --- himself a survivor of prostate cancer and malignant melanoma --- is quick to note the irony that she was “that rare person of seventy-eight who was 100 percent physically fit except for the tumor that was trying to kill her.”

But even after the first of two brain surgeries, when her tumor is successfully removed and she’s able to resume some semblance of her former life --- riding her favorite horse and driving a car --- Korda is careful not to offer any moments of false hope. Despite the initial absence of a terminal diagnosis, the sense that Margaret is living under a death sentence is clear. When her cancer comes raging back barely seven months after her first surgery, it’s understood there will be no last-minute reprieve.

"PASSING is a sad story, but it’s also a knowing and tender tribute to the love that endures after a long and devoted relationship has reached its inevitable end."

The story of how Margaret secured the doctor who performed both of her brain surgeries and managed her treatment almost defies belief. Shortly after her tumor was diagnosed, Michael had been scheduled to speak at a local book club dinner. Both he and the organizer of the event, Dr. Alain C. J. de Lotbinière, a neurosurgeon, had attended the same Swiss boarding school. When Michael, immersed with Margaret in considering treatment options, calls de Lotbinière to cancel his appearance, the doctor offers to review Margaret’s case, and she decides to follow his recommendation of immediate surgery at his hand, rather than a biopsy recommended by her first physician.

That relative good fortune in dire circumstances epitomizes the Kordas’ encounter with the healthcare system over the year of Margaret’s treatment. Unlike too many Americans for whom serious illness leads to financial ruin, once Korda submitted his Medicare number and his secondary insurance, there were “no complications, no anguished telephone calls, no disputes about what was covered and what was not, no red tape or fuss.”

When it comes to charting his own difficult emotional journey as Margaret’s caregiver, Michael doesn’t hold back. In one vivid scene at the rehabilitation hospital where Margaret goes following her first brain surgery, he describes his meltdown when he could not persuade the staff to intervene with a noisy roommate. Admittedly distressed that his concern for Margaret had turned him into an “angry, combustible, unreasonable pain in the ass,” his tirade did at least produce a transfer to a private room. After that, he writes, “I was treated by the entire staff as if I were a hand grenade with the pin pulled.” But with no significant exceptions, the physicians and other healthcare professionals involved in Margaret’s care are portrayed as unfailingly skilled, devoted and, above all, compassionate.

Korda likewise spares no details of Margaret’s last days, revealing how painfully hard dying can be even when his wife, in hospice care by this time, had the benefit of attentive caregivers. “More than anything it is the loneliness of dying that frightens those approaching death as much as death itself,” he observes. Korda’s son from his previous marriage is the founder of a controversial organization promoting euthanasia, and though he briefly considers that option in Margaret’s final weeks, he rejects it on both moral and practical grounds.

For all his candor in describing Margaret’s rapid decline, there’s a certain British reserve in the information Michael parcels out in the book’s few glimpses of their pre-cancer lives. From his account, their childless marriage was one of deep mutual affection, marked by shared rituals that included daily afternoon tea and working together to change the bed linens every week. One wry story is the account of how a pair of riding boots almost short-circuited the couple’s first lovemaking. Both horse riders, they had met on a bridle path in New York’s Central Park in 1972, while married to others, their initial encounter sparking an affair that ended in a marriage that lasted 38 years.

Despite the tragedy of Margaret Korda’s final year, her husband looks back without recrimination or regret on decisions like the one she made not to pursue more aggressive treatment. “One can torment oneself endlessly about what we might have done,” he concludes, “but ultimately the person who has the cancer has to decide if and when to surrender, and do it knowingly, without guilt or blame.” PASSING is a sad story, but it’s also a knowing and tender tribute to the love that endures after a long and devoted relationship has reached its inevitable end.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 25, 2019

Passing: A Memoir of Love and Death
by Michael Korda

  • Publication Date: October 8, 2019
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 1631494643
  • ISBN-13: 9781631494642