My friend Margie threw a marvellous party last week at her flat overlooking London's swanky Manchester Square. The high-decibel, high-caloric blow-out followed the funeral service and cremation marking her death. The event occurred after she'd waged one of those remarkable bouts with cancer you often hear about. It's the celebration she had spent her final and cruelly painful weeks planning down to the last detail, while never complaining about her irreversible situation.
One difference between Margie's valorous fight and others' battles is that for the past two years she chronicled it on a blog she called "Cancer Curmudgeon". The document - running to one hundred entries - is an amazing piece of literature about which many readers already know and revere and many more ought to know.
So a few words about Marjorie Lucy Walker, a Philadelphia born-and-raised American who settled in London 30 years ago. Not precisely the sort of Henry James heroine whose combined beauty and non-European naiveté made her the cynosure of all eyes when she entered a room, Margie was more the opposite. A somewhat reformed hippie whose marriage to a similar male type had failed and left her with a young son, Margie was a sweet-faced, running-to-slightly-plump woman with a voice so soft that friends regularly asked if she'd mind repeating what she'd just said.
When what she'd just said was finally audible or relatively audible, you'd realize it was something informed or amusing or perceptive or just downright astonishing or a blend of all of the above. She'd be informative on, among other subjects, art, music, theater, food, cooking, politics and psychology. Her 1991 book on rearing children, Your Child's Development From Birth Through Adolescence, written with Richard Landsdown, is highly regarded.
Yet, that was only the tip of the exceedingly melted iceberg that was Margie's personality. Generous through and through with her self and with her inheritance, she was at her happiest surrounded by friends at dinners and lunches and brunches she gave or at meals in good restaurants where she rarely allowed anyone else to pick up the check. (Her father was a successful Pennsylvania developer who worried that his daughter wasn't turning out as he'd like.) At the convivial send-off celebration, one friend talked about receiving through the mail several years ago an unasked-for sum of money to see her through temporarily difficult times. The grateful chum went on to emphasize that the gesture was typical of Margie's never asking for anything in return - or even having such a thought cross her mind.
I knew Margie for thirty years and saw her on my frequent London visits there and on hers to the States. We went to galleries and the theater constantly, my reciprocity for her hospitality usually being the press seats I came by. Those gestures were, of course, chicken feed compared to Margie's, which included lodging at the five-story house she owned just off Fitzroy Square (Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw had lived only several doors north) and the subsequent two flats she occupied. That Margie was sometimes forgetful about keys resulted in my once being locked out of the Conway Street house in the middle of the night is of little consequence.
It may be, however, that of all the time I spent with Margie - and the innumerable great friends whom I met thanks to her - the most magical were the three lunches I had with her in the month before she died. She'd become house-ridden, dependent more than ever on friends' visits. By that point, Margie's cancer - which after her mastectomies, never attacked her vital organs - had spread to her thyroid, vocal cords and, most dramatically, to her skin. She was sedated around clock with Morphine or Oxycontin. (I never ascertained which she was on.) But she was lucid, an astonishing form of lucidity that made me feel as if I were in the presence of a friend, yes, but also learning from a benevolent visionary, a Western hemisphere guru.
She spoke about death with courage and without the least hint of sentimentality. She shied away from no aspect of her impending demise, acknowledging that she had moments when she was frightened but moments when she wasn't. She insisted she wanted to devote her final "Cancer Curmudgeon" blog to the subject of denying death, a stance with which she had no sympathy. She admitted she'd considered an assisted suicide but had learned there can often be complications during such events that she didn't want to risk.
During our meals she reiterated that she'd never lost her appetite. That was an understatement. Sharing food with her was part of the immense and undeniably consoling pleasure. She mocked herself for soiling the t-shirts she wore because the dressings on her constantly suppurating wounds meant clothes were constantly under stress.
In a column recognizing Margie's exemplary life, the only way to end it is with her words. In the last piece she wrote, completed July 1, 2011, only seven days before her death, she says--and her voice is loud and clear:
"I know this will be a tough blog for people to read, but I think it's important for you to know the truth. Maybe this is the war on cancer people talk about, more hopeless than the Afghanistan war, no exit strategy. It's impossible to believe--. you can't believe in your own death. The idea of your own death is very difficult to get your head around, I can tell you. It's tough to live through, and it's tough to think about and write about, and at the end of the day it's very scary; but it's even tougher on your friends and family and those around you every day."