Monday, April 13, 2009

Chapter 6: Margaret

I remember exactly when I learned that Margaret was sick. On Saturday, January 12, 2008, I went to see a concert with my girlfriends and their husbands. The show consisted of a variety of bands revisiting Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at Royal Albert Hall in London, in which he played electric instead of acoustic guitar. It was held in the atrium at the Winter Garden, across the street from the World Trade Center. The room was very full and seating was limited, so after awhile we all claimed seats on a set of steps behind the crowd. My friend Cathy was seated behind me, and as we listened to the hippie music she told me rather matter-of-factly that our friend and sorority sister Margaret had a cancerous brain tumor.

I asked the initial questions anyone would ask when presented with that news: Is it operable? (No) Is she doing chemo and radiation? (Yes) What is her prognosis? (I don’t know) Cathy didn’t know much more than that, as she’d only heard a few details from another sister of ours over lunch one day. I knew Margaret to be a pretty private person, so I didn’t really feel comfortable asking her or anyone else for more information.

For some reason, the news really shook me. For Margaret to be sick, of all people, was just unfathomable. She was my age, a vegan and an athlete who did triathlons, for crying out loud! How does someone like that get sick? Add to that the fact that someone that intelligent should get a tumor in their brain of all places just seemed cruel. She and I were not the closest friends in college, but she had earned my respect. A quiet girl, she always struck me as the kind of person who made good choices in her life. Her brother, one year her senior, lived in my dorm, and we did a group project together in a class one semester. His demeanor was very much like his sister’s, and he also gained my respect for his kindness and intelligence. The fact that he had to go through this made the situation even more difficult.

For the next couple months I dealt with the news without knowing any further details. I knew Margaret had to be fighting this with everything she had. In college, Margaret was the type of girl who, if you dared her to do something, could not say no. I remembered one time someone dared her to hold her breath for two minutes. Two minutes later, despite a purple face and an involuntarily shaking leg, she won that bet. In my head, I dared her to beat this tumor. That had to work, right?

Our sorority pledge class had planned a reunion in Boston at the end of April, and I was excited to catch up with everyone and eager to see Margaret. We gathered for dinner on the night of the reunion, and as we settled into the large table, someone suggested we seat Margaret in the middle. She had been intubated during a biopsy, and the tube caused scarring of the vocal chords, causing her voice to be reduced to a whisper.

Seeing Margaret for the first time in years was a bit of a shock. She was always a thin girl, what with all her running and biking, but she definitely seemed frail. Her cheeks were a little puffy from the chemo, which made her look healthier than she actually was. Her appetite was definitely strong. She and I ordered the same pasta dish, and she finished hers while I only managed about half. Our group’s conversation at dinner was light, and included a few of the girls’ significant others, including Margaret’s. Her boyfriend, named Igor, was another MIT graduate who I’d never met before. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him much that night, but learned that they had been together about four years and were living together in Cambridge which made me really happy for Margaret.

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~ Out to dinner: Margaret, me, Evelyn ~

After dinner we retired to the hotel everyone was staying at to have a “fireside.” This is the AXO term for when everyone sits in a circle and takes turns giving updates on their lives. When Margaret’s turn came, she started off by saying something like “Well, I guess I’ll talk about the elephant in the room,” to which some of the girls protested. They wanted to hear her good news, about the man in her life. So she filled us in on Igor, and then talked about her job, which she was on leave from at the time I think, and the races the she was running that spring. (Yes, she was still running races!) But she never got back to talking about her illness.

As we were leaving, I felt I had to say something to her. The elephant was still sitting in that hotel room. My words were “I just wanted to let you know that you being sick really pisses me off,” to which she responded “Yeah, it pisses me off too.” And then she started to cry. As I hugged her, I was shocked that this strong woman would cry, and of course felt badly that I was the one who brought her to tears. We shared a cab from the hotel because I was headed out to meet a friend near Margaret’s apartment. On the way we talked more about non-cancer topics and I was happy to have had a few minutes alone with her.

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~ Margaret and I right before I made her cry :( ~

During the rest of the weekend I gingerly asked some of the girls who were closer to her for more information. I learned that in true Margaret fashion she was seeking the best treatment at the best hospitals. The tumor was not shrinking, but not growing either. I also learned that she had started a blog, which was a bit of a surprise to me, and I joined so I could follow her progress.

Through the blog updates, I learned about her day-to-day life as well as her medical treatments. She approached her illness with unfailing optimism and humor because the alternative seemed pointless. For example, she nicknamed her tumor “Larry” after an episode of one of her favorite cartoons, Pinky and the Brain, in which when asked what the two mice will do that night, the Brain says, “Try to take over the world... without Larry!” That was Margaret’s plan too, but first she had to get rid of Larry. She would also write parodies of songs replacing the words with ones about battling cancer. There is the saying “as serious as cancer,” but Margaret showed that a few moments of not taking it so seriously could provide a completely new outlook.

Over the course of the summer, I read about Margaret’s symptoms as she had course after course of Chemo, trying any and every combination of drugs the doctors could think of. Her brother researched homeopathic remedies, and she supplemented the drugs with herbal medicines. Her vision grew blurry and it grew more and more difficult for her to swallow and walk, but it was uncertain if the symptoms were due to the drugs or the tumor, so there was still room for optimism. Margaret tried to stay as active as she could, and developed her own regiment of physical therapy in her apartment. She wrote on her blog “we figure it's better to keep me fighting like this than to just give up and stop walking altogether. If I stop, then I've given up, and I can't do that, no matter how hard it gets.” Despite her worsening condition, she remained optimistic and posted that her goal was to run the half-marathon in Philadelphia in September 2009 on the Tug McGraw team. The foundation raises money for brain tumor research and was founded in honor of Tim McGraw's father, an athlete who died of a brain tumor, so it seemed apropos. Margaret’s best friend, one of my sorority sisters, suggested that we start training as a pledge class and run with her the next year as a surprise, as sure as she was that she would be be there. Many people agreed, including me.

At the end of July, Margaret received the devastating news that the tumor was in fact growing. The next day she found out that Professor Randy Pausch (of “The Last Lecture” fame) had passed away. She had found him inspiring, and by sharing the link on her blog I was then inspired not only by the professor, but Margaret’s shared positive outlook. By August, Margaret wasn’t posting much to her blog and the posts that did come made me really sad. Her tone had changed, and while she still professed optimism, it was clear that the reality of her situation was very grave. On August 18 she wrote, “I'm not doing so well. But I'm surviving, and I think that's all I can do right now.” One week later, there was a new post to the blog, but this time it came from her boyfriend Igor.

He wrote about a setback Margaret had faced while at Duke University Medical Center that had landed her in the ICU. She had developed difficulty breathing and was put on a breathing tube. As her breathing improved, she began yet another course of Chemo. Slowly over the course of the next month, with her brother and boyfriend by her side, her condition began to improve.

Hearing that she was hospitalized was a bit of a wake-up call for my friends and me. We felt so helpless, and in my case felt like I just needed to do something. I emailed Margaret’s brother and Igor asking if they thought she would like an individual from the Tug McGraw foundation to run the New York City Marathon in her honor that fall. I was a bit flummoxed when the guys declined, but understood that she wanted to keep her life somewhat private. In fact even in writing this, I wonder if I am revealing too much.

Shortly thereafter, overnight, her condition worsened. She had developed an infection, which over the next few weeks was followed by a seizure, a blot clot in her leg, sepsis, tumor growth and pneumonia. She kept bouncing back and remained alert and responsive through most of it, astounding the doctors. But on October 26th Igor posted that Margaret was fading, and was no longer very responsive. Two days later he announced that she had been pronounced brain-dead. And yet, in his words, “in her infinite generosity, Margaret had wanted to be an organ donor. Sometime tomorrow they may take a part of her to help someone else, and I hope that person will someday appreciate how remarkable the original owner really was. That someone who's undergone so much chemotherapy is still a candidate for organ donation is a further testament to Margaret's resiliency.”

By the time the announcement came, I was somewhat expecting it. The news had been mostly bad for such a long time that despite Margaret’s optimism, I had begun to give up hope. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was deeply affected by her passing. She was my age, so healthy, and then fought so hard. I decided to go to her funeral in Pennsylvania, with many of my other sorority sisters.

I am blessed, I guess, to not have had death in my life much. All of my relatives who have passed away were past retirement age, and had lived long happy lives. When I was very young my father’s stepmother died, but I barely remember her aside from riding in her lap in her wheelchair. I also remember riding (in a limo, I think) with some family members and being upset that I could not go with them to her funeral. When I was a few years older my great-grandmother died right before Christmas, and only my mom flew down to North Carolina for her services. A few years after that, my Grandfather’s new wife’s stepmother died, and I attended her memorial service.

Then my Grampa passed away after a long battle with cancer. I had the chance to visit him in Florida, so had the chance to say good-bye. Only his wife and children were present to scatter his ashes in the ocean. Last year my mom’s uncle Fred passed away, which came as a great shock. I was really upset by it, but was unable to fly home to Chicago for his funeral. So the only service I had ever attended was for the one person to whom I was probably the least close.

As for my peers passing away though, the only one I knew closely was a high school classmate. Katie was a senior and the captain of my tennis team when I was a freshman. She always wore a huge smile on her face and had very pretty, intense, deep-set eyes. She came back to our school the year after she graduated to tell us she had cancer. The school held a memorial for her when she passed away, but I don’t remember going to it. I had always admired her for her good-natured attitude, and hearing of her death saddened me. Maybe it was true, only the good die young, I thought.

So I think that it was that I have been so insulated from death that Margaret’s hit me so hard. Couple that with the fact that she had so much to live for and was such an inspiration in her battle and it’s even more understandable. I wanted to go to the funeral to have some closure for myself by saying good-bye, as well as support her brother, Igor and my sorority sisters who were her best friends. Death, after all, is hardest on the living.

The wake was a really sad but lovely affair. Igor (I think) had put together a collection of photos of Margaret and had the slideshow playing on electronic picture frames throughout the funeral homes. Looking at those photos gave all the guests something to talk about in that awkward moment. We reminisced and laughed about the good times we’d had.

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~ My favorite picture from the slide show: Jen and Margaret in costume for a skit in college ~

After the ice was broken, we decided it was time to go through the receiving line and view the body. Given the fact that I had never been to a proper funeral before, perhaps it goes without saying that I’d also never seen a dead body before. I knew that she would not look like herself, but to me Margaret looked like a tiny china doll. On her finger was the ring Igor had given to her when he proposed to her in the hospital at Duke in her final months.

After a moment’s reflection, we moved on to greet Margaret’s relatives. Her parents were so appreciative that so many of the AXOs had come. I had never met them before, but they and other family members engaged us in brief conversations. I think maybe seeing Margaret’s friends was like having a piece of Margaret back. Greeting Margaret’s brother and Igor was one of the most difficult things I had to do. I wasn’t really prepared for that moment. Did the occasion call for a hug or a handshake? Would the words “I am sorry for your loss” suffice? The next few minutes were a blur and I can only imagine what sort of expression I was wearing. My sorority sisters and I left the wake shortly thereafter, and gathered for dinner to remember Margaret and catch up on each other’s lives since our reunion in April.

The next day was the funeral. It was a Catholic service, and Margaret’s brother and mother gave eulogies. Margaret’s brother’s was so extraordinarily touching. It was written as only an MIT alum would write a speech – in the form of a list. He described six ways in which she managed to cram a full, fun, “first class” life into her twenty-nine short years. I am going to paraphrase his eulogy here to be more general, because I think living by these six rules would improve anybody’s life.
  1. Make the most out of the talents God gave you
  2. Live a balanced life
  3. Use your life experiences to develop your own code of values
  4. Cherish your relationships
  5. Challenge yourself and strive for excellence
  6. Never take yourself too seriously
Seeing all the mourners and hearing Margaret’s brother’s words made me really take stock in my own life. My divorce had been finalized four days before Margaret’s death and I was feeling extraordinarily alone. Sitting in the church that day, I wondered, if I were to fall ill now, who in my life would put everything on hold to stay by my bedside for months? Who would travel across the country to say good-bye? If I were to die tomorrow, what sorts of words would people use to describe my life? And if I lived by Margaret’s mantras, would I find a happiness that was so absent at that time? These questions continue to plague me and I hope to use that list to inspire me this year as I seek to make my life better.

There was a memorial service in Boston, and the room was packed with college friends and colleagues. In leading up to the service, I wondered if there was a sorority ritual for the passing of a sister. I knew the one for engagements, marriages and babies, but what do you do when someone dies? I contacted the AXO national headquarters, and the woman there suggested reading “The Symphony of Alpha Chi Omega.” It was familiar to me, and upon re-reading it, I really thought its words described how Margaret lived her life. The memorial turned out not to be the place for a reading such as this, but it brought me a bit of inspiration to further bolster the eulogy list.

The Symphony Of Alpha Chi Omega

To see beauty even in the common things of life,
to shed the light of love and friendship round me;
to keep my life in tune with the world that I shall make no discords in the harmony of life;
to strike on the lyre of the universe only the notes of happiness, of joy, of peace;
to appreciate all that is noble in another, be her badge what it may;
and to let my lyre send forth the chords of love, unselfishness, sincerity.
This is to be my symphony.
- Celia McClure


Margaret touched many people’s lives, and I hope she knew how inspirational she was. On what would have been her thirtieth birthday, an announcement was made that a memorial fund had been set up in her name at MIT. When it reaches its minimum endowment, it will provide an annual scholarship for female student-athletes. Additionally, Igor and one of my sorority sisters, Jane, are running the Boston Marathon next weekend in Margaret’s honor to support the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, respectively. If you are interested in donating to any of these causes, click on the links above. While her goal of being there may no longer be acheivable, my pledge class and I still plan to run the half-marathon in Philadelphia this fall in Margaret’s memory. Her spirit will be there with us, I am sure, keeping the wind to our backs as we run. (It is for these fund-raising purposes that I have used everyone's real names in this piece. I apologize in advance if any of this is not okay, please just let me know)

Bob Dylan, whose songs were being played as I found out the news about Margaret, sang:

When you're sad and when you're lonely and you haven't got a friend

Just remember that death is not the end

Oh the tree of life is growing

Where the spirit never dies
And the bright light of salvation
Shines in dark and empty skies
When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men
Just remember that death is not the end

Margaret’s spirit will never die, and her death is not an end.

3 comments:

Sandra said...

I'm at a Best Buy, waiting for the "Geek Squad" to finish looking at the item I want to return. I'm not sure how long it's gonna take them but I'm not optimistic. There are computers I can amuse myself with in the meantime, but they won't connect to web-based email, so I can't play e-mail. A bit to my surprise, it let me look at blogs, and it appears the only way I can communicate with the world outside of Best Buy is by commenting on blogs. So my comment, which I imagine you will not approve since it's a basically worthless statement, but my comment on thsi blog is to say Margaret would hate you forever if you don't run in the half-marathon!So for Margaret's sake, be a man and make this half a marathon happen. I was a good boy and I ran for 25 minutes this chilly April morn. Now I will go back and check in on my new Geek Squad friends.

emmablue said...

I am so teary eyed right now.

Thank you for sharing this.

A book you may enjoy is called 'Grace and Grit' by Treya and Ken Wilber.

Susan said...

I miss Margaret too. :-( She was a special person and we are all better for having known her.

SueDey