Sunday, October 02, 2005


“Forced into a corner, I’ll choose truth over hope any day.”
Marjorie Williams

“Neither a romance nor a melodrama; just the truth. Truth was, to the end, the thing she handled best.” So wrote Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehle in the newspaper’s January 17, 2005, obituary for Marjorie Williams. Williams, a Post columnist and contributor to other publications such as Slate and Vanity Fair, died of liver cancer this past January 16th. She was 47 years old.

In its most recent issue, Vanity Fair (October, 2005) runs an excerpt from Williams’ memoir, “A Matter of Life and Death,” which she penned (but never finished) over the course of her three-year illness. Not only does the article treat us to one last helping of sharp, inspired writing; it also reinforces Von Drehle’s characterization of Williams as a staunch—what I like to call blood-letting—truth-teller. Unlike another certain “someone” profiled in this month’s VF—whose claim to fame is her Hilton name and whose pretty cerebral chandelier is, well, lacking a few bulbs—Williams’s writing displays an unmistakable combination of intelligence, wit, grace and translucence. A translucence so glaring you want to squint yet so subtle it lingers like extinguished candle.

I read it two weeks ago, and it still haunts me.

Williams, to again quote Von Drehle, “faced her death open-eyed.” While I find this extremely admirable—and reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s elegant audacity (“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” or “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me”)—I also find Williams' penetrating gaze jarring. She found out at age 43, as the mother of an 8-year-old and 5-year-old, that she had inoperable cancer. It was, she writes, “stage IV(b). There is no V, and there is no (c).” It’s the worst news I can imagine receiving in the prime of one’s life. She was told that she had three to six months to live. Because her tumors had already metastasized, she was not a candidate for surgery. Her only treatment option was chemotherapy, which, fortunately, kept her alive for years rather than months. Throughout her ordeal, Williams recorded her thoughts in a journal. Reading them makes you feel a bit like a voyeur—as if you’re peering through the slit of someone’s curtain, watching them shower. You know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t avert your eyes. The difference, though, is that Williams wrote her memoirs for an audience; she invites us into her inner sanctum—and undresses in front of us. “Don’t look away,” she says. “Now is not the time for politeness. Look. Look.”

So here it is: An intimate account of what it feels like to observe—and live—one’s own dying. Look if you dare…

We have all indulged this curiosity, haven’t we? What would I do if I suddenly found I had a short time to live…What would it be like to sit in a doctor’s office and hear a death sentence? I had entertained those fantasies just like the next person. So when it actually happened, I felt weirdly like an actor in a melodrama.

I live at least two different lives. In the background, usually, is the knowledge that, for all my good fortune so far, I will still die of this disease. This is where I wage the physical fight, which is, to say the least, a deeply unpleasant process. And beyond the concrete challenges of needles and mouth sores and barf basins and barium, it has thrown me on a roller coaster that sometimes clatters up a hill, giving me a more hopeful, more distant view than I’d expected, and at other times plunges faster and farther than I think I can endure. Even when you know the plunge is coming—it’s in the nature of a roller coaster, after all, and you know that you disembark at the bottom and not the top—even then, it comes with some element of fresh despair….I’ve hated roller coasters all my life.

But in the foreground is regular existence: love the kids, buy them new shoes, enjoy their burgeoning wit, get some writing done, plan vacations with [my husband], have coffee with my friends…What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal life as possible, only with more pancakes.

Sometimes I just feel immortal: whatever happens to me now, I’ve earned the knowledge some people never gain, that my span is finite, and I still have the chance to rise, and rise, to life’s generosity. But at other times I feel trapped, cursed by my specific awareness of the guillotine blade poised above my neck. At those times, I resent you—or the seven other people at dinner with me, or my husband, deep in sleep beside me—for the fact that you may never even catch sight of the blade assigned to you.

Sometimes I simply feel horror, that most elementary thing. The irreducible fear, for me, is the fantasy that I will by some mistake be imprisoned in my body after dying. As a child I never enjoyed a minute of any campfire stories of the buried-alive genre. And even without that unwelcome and vivid fear in my mind, I can’t find any way around the horror of being left alone down there in the dark, picked apart by processes about which I’m a little squeamish even when they’re just fertilizing my daylilies. Intellectually, I know it won’t matter to me in the slightest. But my most primal fear is that somehow my consciousness will be carelessly left behind among my remains….But, of course, I am already being killed, by one of nature’s most common blunders. And these blunt fears are easily deconstructed as a form of denial: if I’m stuck alive in my coffin, well, that will in some sense override the final fact of my death, no? I can see these dread-filled fantasies as the wishes they are: that I really can stay in this body I love; that my consciousness really will run on past my death; that I won’t just…die.

Sometimes, early on, death was a great dark lozenge that sat bittersweet on my tongue for hours at a time, and I savored the things I’d avoid forever. I’ll never have to pay taxes, I thought, or go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I won’t have to see my children through the worst parts of adolescence. I won’t have to be human, in fact, with all the error and loss and love and inadequacy that come with the job…I won’t have to get old…It says a lot about the power of denial that I could so automatically seek (and find!) the silver lining that might come with dying of cancer in my 40s. For good or ill, I no longer think that way. The passage of time has brought me the unlikely ability to work, simultaneously, at facing my death and loving my life. Often it is lonely work.

For me, time is the only currency that truly counts anymore…Choose, choose, choose…These forced choices make up one of the biggest losses of sickness. But on the other side of this coin is a gift. I think cancer brings to most people a new freedom to act on the understanding that their time is important…The knowledge that time’s expenditure is important, that it is up to you, is one of the headiest freedoms you will ever feel.

It made me furious anytime someone tried to cheer me up by reciting some unhappy tale of a sister-in-law’s cousin who had liver cancer but now he’s 80 and hasn’t had been troubled by it in 40 years. I wanted to scream, “Don’t you realize how sick I am?” I knew how narcissistic and self-dramatizing this sounded. Still, it enraged me when anyone said, “Aaanh, what do doctors know? They don’t know everything.” I was working so hard to accept my death: I felt abandoned, evaded, when someone insisted that I would live.

[I also felt irritated] at the people who had memorably inappropriate reactions. I can’t count the times I’ve been asked what psychological affliction made me invite this cancer. My favorite New Yorker cartoon, now taped above my desk, shows two ducks talking in a pond. One of them is telling the other: “Maybe you should ask yourself why you’re inviting all this duck hunting into your life right now.”…One woman sent me a card to “congratulate” me on my “cancer journey” and quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that in order to achieve the life you deserved you had to give up the life you had planned. Screw you, I thought. You give up the life you had planned.

[I have always been drawn to] the dark side, sniffing under every rock…[My personality and upbringing] married me for life to the inconvenient argument, the longing to know what was real….Hence, even when my prospects for recovery or remission have looked best, there has always been one face of my being that was turned toward the likelihood of death—keeping in touch with it, convinced that denying it any entry would weaken me in ways I couldn’t afford. Forced into a corner, I’ll choose truth over hope any day.

But it turns out that hope is a more supple blessing than I had imagined. From the start, even as my brain was wrestling with death, my body enacted some innate hope that I have learned is simply part of my being. Chemotherapy would knock me into a passive misery for days. And then—depending on which formula I was taking at the time—a day would come when I would wake up feeling energetic and happy and very much like a normal person. Whether the bad time I had just had lasted five days or five weeks, some inner voice eventually said—and still says—“Never mind. Today is a ravishing day, and I will put on a short skirt and high heels and see how much of the future I can inhale.”

To read a Slate piece on Williams entitled, "Washington's Most Dangerous Profiler," go to


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