IN RETROSPECT, we were amazed that our paths had never crossed, As we combed through her diaries of Washington, Marvella Bayh and I often laughed at the quirks of circumstance that sent her to a reception early, and off again before I'd arrive, or have her regret an invitation for the evening I'd accepted, or vice versa. Chance, perhaps, had it that we would not meet until September 1977, for lunch at Le Bagatelle. A publisher was interested in her life story; I had been recommended as a writer.
I came to her fresh, knowing little about her except that she'd had a mastectomy, and her senator husband had dropped out of a presidential race to be with her. I accepted the invitation to lunch out of politeness (and curiosity), not really eager to do another collaboration. Writing a book with another person is a very intense experience, one that for me required caring deeply about the subject matter.
I was early, which is uncharacteristic, and she was late, also uncharacteristic. She rushed into the restaurant, breathless, apologizing, couldn't find a parking place, elegant in a blue Ultra-Suede Mollie Parnis suit, very carefully styled blond hair in place. She soon was talking about an Oklahoma dirt farm, no electricity and outhouses and kerosene lamps and one wood-burning stove -- growing up on the edges of poverty. "Can you imagine how lucky I am, somebody my age, to have actually experienced what it was like to have lived in America in the last century?" she said.
She talked on, about her frontier heritage, about the hard-scrabble toughness, and the adventure, of her grandmother's life and her parents' and her own. She told about her own early successes, an over-achiever winning acclaim in a still-new society, about how family and friends encouraged her. "Oklahoma children were taught, "I can go as far as I want to in life -- and nobody better try to stop me!" she said. It was a uniquely American story, I thought, and one in which she had put all those sturdy frontier qualities to good use.
"I am a survivor," she laughed. "Like Rasputin." She described a near-fatal car wreck, a plane crash, the emotional trauma of an adored father becoming an alcoholic who committed murder and suicide, breast cancer. Something in that frontier upbringing had given her the toughness to withstand life's heavy blows and come out glowing, a vibrant personality warming up to her story. As a writer, I noted that it was a story not without its drama.
And, yes, a love story as well: meeting Birch Bayh in a national speaking contest that she won; marrying at 19, living a near-idyllic life on an Indiana farm, campaigning together for the Senate, winning a David-versus-Goliath race; swept away by Washington, at first, then suffering the strains of political life until the marriage nearly crumbled; finally, after the cancer, a reawakening to a closer, more loving life than before.
Those were just the parameters. There was depth to her story, a woman's intense search for her own identity, sense of purpose and ultimate fulfillment. That was what struck the chords within me, a woman of the same generation.
"I want to tell women that they don't have to have cancer to learn what I had to have cancer to learn," she said, her voice dropping an octave with urgency: "Don't try to live your life through somebody else."
She talked about how her satisfying work with the American Cancer Society had liberated her and enriched her marriage. I was intrigued. Here was a thoughtful, professional woman of the '70's, an All-American girl grown up.
We talked on after everybody else had left the restaurant, about the emergence of woman. "I'm so glad the women's movement came along when it did," she said. "I'd be furious if I were 60 or 65 because it would be a little late to catch on." We discussed hiring policies, equal pay for equal work, the possiblities for the Equal Rights Amendment, etc. Finally, we reached for the bill. We agreed to split it, but one of us had a credit card and the other had cash, and we couldn't figure out how to divide it, or calculate the tip. Liberated women. We were like two "girls" in a Helen Hokinson cartoon, I said. I wish the women's movement had come along when I was 20, Marvella said. I felt her story had substance, as well as social value. This was not a shallow woman. We agreed then and there to proceed.
We set aside blocs of time to work together, not to exceed four hours at a stretch. I had learned that such work, the asking and the telling about one's life, is so intense that more than four hours is wearying, counterproductive. We began our sessions together in her home.
I had never seen anyone so happy. She truly felt she had a reprieve from her death sentence. In 1976, she and her doctors had celebrated the five-year anniversary of her mastectomy, after which there is an 85 percent survival rate. The week after we met, she and her husband celebrated the sixth anniversary.
There was a vitality about her, a savoring of life, that was infectious. It could be an autumn leaf or a new book, a blue-jean weekend at her mountain cabin in Virginia or a dress-up ball, a standing ovation for a speech or a compliment from her dressmaker -- Marvella appreciated the details of life as if they were all equal in weight and etched on a precious stone. She was delighted by the close, mature relationship with her husband. "Marriage between equals is better," she said. At the mention of their son, Evan, then a senior at the University of Indiana, she practically glowed. He had surpassed all hopes for him. More importantly, "Evan is my best friend," she said.
But it was her work, her sense of purpose in doing what she had been trained to do -- speak in public -- to help others, that filled her with unadulterated pleasure.
Every day there were letters from strangers who had heard her speak on the dangers of smoking, or the importance of breast self-examination. Many wrote, "Thank you, Mrs. Bayh, for saving my life." She would hand such a letter to me, shake her head and say, "When you read something like this, it makes you think your own life has been worthwhile."
I interviewed Marvella, a tape recorder placed on a little table between us, as we sat facing each other in the yellow-chintz room she'd set up as an office in her home. Soon we had piled up a mountain of transcripts -- her mile-a-minute speech filled pages very quickly. She spoke, I discovered, in complete sentences, her years of extemporaneous speech training having honed her articulation to a fine skill.
Clearly, her early childhood and her grandmother's stories of staking a claim in Oklahoma Territory held the fondest, most meaningful memories, the excitement of her high-school achievements (the summit, after being elected president of Girls' Nation was being named Band Queen at Enid High) the most deeply gratifying. "Until I went to work for the American Cancer Society, I thought I had 'peaked' in high school," she said ruefully.
Those sessions were fun for her -- poking through old scrapbooks, year books, diaries, photo albums, letters -- compiling a record of the All-American girl in Enid. When she talked about her father's farm, describing with both arms how she drove the big tractor, or recited one of her "readings," she unconsciously lapsed into traces of the Oklahoma accent of her acceptance speech at Girls' Nation.
There were tears, too, as she told about the pain in her life, which by now had become for me more than the component of drama, seen from the professional writer's distance. As her sorrows poured out, and her struggles, there was human agony in her face and voice, more real to me than any amount of writing I could do.
Listening and learning and sharing in our taping sessions, becoming friends, had taken me one step closer to Marvella, but I was still the empathetic professional observer. It was with the opening of the diaries that our relationship changed. Somehow, sharing her diaries with me seemed to be a statement on Marvella's part: "I trust you with my life." I found that trust had a profound effect on me. Rather than an observer, I now felt a part of her life.
Marvella had kept of record of every day of her life since December 1962, when she moved to Washington as a senator's wife. It was a meticulous document of her striving and her growth. And more than just a personal history -- an account of menus, guest lists and and who said what to whom -- the diaries also provided a footnote to recent history, from Washington's bird's-eye view. In the background was Vietnam, escalating in her consciousness, tearing her apart.
For Marvella, the diaries were an outlet, chronicling the frustrations as well as the joys of her life as a political wife. A perpetual student, she looked upon the experience as an education. She never denied for a minute that she was thrilled to set at the right hand of the president, as a 29-year-old newcomer, or listen to dinner debate between Averell Harriman and Walter Lippmann, but her loneliness equaled her pleasure. Her huband, like most, was in his home state more often than in his home, it seemed to her, and her role as a full partner in his professional life had been supplanted by staff. "It took a long time to dawn on me," she said. "They had elected only one senator from Indiana, and his name wasn't Marvella."
The diaries, in her cramped, left-handed script, told of her yearning for a professional life of her own.
In the diaries, I noticed a frequent "wrote speech" -- or "speech was well-received" -- but no reference to the subject matter. I asked for copies of her speeches. Her eyes opened wide. She seemed flattered. In the speeches, the woman was fleshed out, her intellectual growth charted. They showed the heart of her concerns, the way her mind flashed through data to research a subject, and the passion with which she addressed social issues. She was concerned about the underprivileged, about the environment, about care for children, about the quality of life in America. She was concerned about women, especially those women who had devoted their lives to making a home and raising a family, and who happened to be widowed, or deserted, finding themselves with nothing left after devoting their lives to their families. Around the country she spoke to those concerns before and during her passionate crusade against cancer, and she had built a sizeable national constituency.
One day I arrived to find her baking an angel food cake for her housekeeper's husband, who was ill. In the diaries, I noticed that she had spent a great deal of time making previous housekeepers feel comfortable -- taking them sightseeing, driving them to beauty shops or to church, making them feel a part of the family. When I asked her about this, she was quiet for a moment. "My mother was an orphan, who did that kind of work," she explained. "So many people were unkind to her . . ."
She taught me how important are the little gestures of friendship to the cancer patient, or to the bereaved. "too often people hold back because they don't know what to say," she said. "Just let them know that you care. You have no idea how much a sympathetic word can mean."
Marvella spent a lot of her time counseling other cancer patients, who walked this road before," she said.
Cancer struck in my own family while we were working together. Marvella responded as an advisor, as a friend, writing letters, making encouraging phone calls, taking us all under her wing. I understood then how Marvella's friends felt about her.
There was so much else I understood because we were nearly the same age (she graduated from Enid High in 1951; I graduated from Mathiston High in 1952), responding to society's pressures in the same way. My southern background was not too dissimilar to hers of the southwest -- she still thought of herself as Marvella Hern from Enid, Okla. I, too, was on stage at the age of 3, singing, as she was reciting. I, too, had been a teen-age over-achiever. The songs she remembered were the songs I'd sung. In some ways, it was already like putting together the bits and pieces of my own life.
It was Davey Marlin-Jones, in his acting course at the Washington Theatre Club, who taught me that to understand a character in a play, one should walk as that character walks, dress as she dresses, learn her patterns of speech, and listen for the "subtext" in her voice, I unconsciously began to try on parts of Marvella Bayh's identity. Marvella was highly organized; I learned to assemble my materials in folders, priorties in order, before going to work with her. Marvella was up, dressed neatly, wearing makeup, even if she had no plans to leave the house that day; I left my jeans in the drawer for the first time in five years (my last book was written at a farm) and got myself together as if for a business luncheon, even though we were just the two of us, working in her house. She dieted rigorously, every day, keeping a close watch over every morsel that went into her mouth; I began to take off the 25 pounds that had crept on during those last five years. I began to see the world through her eyes.
Marvella never felt that she was gifted; she saw herself as a "hard worker." She made impossible demands on herself (she tried to tone down her perfectionism, but it was an old, hard-to-moderate habit). She was very impatient with people whose performance in completing a task was less than her own. An exacting perfectionist, she saw herself as flawed, always in need of improvement. She felt her biggest flaw was her temper, and she worried incessantly about it erupting quickly. "I could kick myself to the moon and back for some of the things I've said," she told me.
Marvella had many facets. There was about her an impishness, as well as an air of innocence; glamor, as well as a need to kick off her shoes and be a down-to-earth country girl. She was infectiously optimistic. At the age of 45, when we were working together, she was a mature woman, with burning concerns about the plight of women in America. And yet she seemed to be still the All-American girl of her Oklahoma youth.
By February 1978, we had a detailed outline and four chapters completed. And then she went in for her quarterly cancer check. The news was devastating: The cancer had returned and spread. It was inoperable. The doctor told her bluntly she had one good year to live.
There would be a chapter we hadn't intended to write. It was a transforming experience for me, one of pain and transcendence. It included confronting the deepest anxiety, being faced with one's own death. In the way Marvella responded to this news, I saw the stuff from which courage is made.
As she never saw herself as gifted, neither did she see herself as courageous. She was afraid, she had doubts, she was touchingly human. But she continued her life of offering help to other people. Service was nothing new to her, found with the recurrence of cancer; it was what she did.
As she reached out for help when she moved to Washington, she reached out for help now -- and she found it. She drew strength from a new-found religious faith, and she wanted to share it. "I don't want to sound like a religious fanatic," she said. "I can see why people who discover this experience for the first time can find it easy to become fanatic, because it is so beautiful that you want everybody to share it. I would like other people to see what peace has come to my life. It is a gift."
After a particularly harsh session with doctors, I could see her change when she concentrated in prayer. I could see her relax, her voice soften. She was not afraid, or ashamed, to pray for a miracle. In her public statements, she dwelled on the importance of hope. "I have never, ever said that I am dying of cancer. I am living with the knowledge that I have cancer." The faith gave her hope, and the hope fueled her to continue her work. She made a conscious choice; As her energy dwindled, she gave up some of the things she loved most -- visiting with her friends, going out, dancing -- to use her energy for work. She continued to make speeches about cancer, to warn, to exhort, to persuade. She went out to debate Phyllis Schlafly on ERA. She continued work on the book, combing through each chapter as many as four times.
The book became even more important to her. She felt closer to her heritage, remembering her grandmother's stories about living in a sod hut on the prairies, fighting off coyotes and typhoid fever. She wanted to pass that spirited heritage on to Evan, to the rest of us, in the book. And she was concerned for the integrity of the book. r
"I want the book to be completely honest, warts and all, and surely everybody does have warts and all," she told me. "But I would like the reader to realize that I now realize that those were warts. In other words, that I am not just going pell-mell down the same path, but that I look back. I want the readers to be able to identify with me, to feel as if they are walking this road with me hand in hand. That when I am at Camp David, they are at Camp Davidf when I feel rejected, they feel rejected. So that they can get the roller-coaster feeling of my life. So as they get to the last chapters, they can say, 'I don't want to have cancer to learn what she had to have cancer to learn. I have learned that now, through her."
As she became weaker physically, she made fewer speeches, but she would drop everything, including the book, to soothe a suffering person (often as not a stranger) who had called for help or guidance in dealing with this disease.
During those last months, as we worked on the painful last chapter, Marvella, the teacher, taught me: how not to fear cancer, but to fight it. How to question doctors, how to seize life and soar with it, while you have it.
If there's something you want to do, do it," she kept telling me. "Don't put it off. Life is too precious to put your dreams on the back burner." She felt as though part of her life's contribution would be to impart that one thought in this book. She wanted to finish the book, and she did. We had already made our publisher's deadline, March 1. On March 2, I went to Charlottesville, Va., to hear her speak. She was radiant, incandescent. The audience was not aware that she was struggling for breath. At the end of the speech, she quoted from George Bernard Shaw: "Life is no brief candle to me. It is a splendid torch I've got hold of -- just for the moment. And I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before passing it on to future generations."
On March 24, Marvella went over her final additions to the manuscript. There were afterthoughts. We laughed about her perfectionism. "Marvella, you're going to be standing at the end of the presses in October, scribbling in yet another person's name," I teased her. She worried about leaving out anybody who had helped her. She was pleased with the book. She was glad to be finished with the tedium of fine-toothing the manuscript. She was looking forward to promoting the book -- speeches, interviews, television appearances -- those were her forte. Our editor came down from New York to go over those corrections with us, but Marvella wasn't feeling well. She postponed our editorial conference until Thursday, because she wanted to conserve her energy for the American Cancer Society luncheon, where she was scheduled to receive the Hubert H. Humphrey Courage Award. There would be a prior ceremony at the White House. On Tuesday, she called to apologize to us. She'd had her hair done for tomorrow; she'd work with us at the end of the week.
But on Wednesday, March 28, instead of going to the White House, Marvella Bayh was carried to the hospital.
I did not believe that she would die. So caught up in her hope, her prayers with her, I was counting on a miracle. I had lived through all her 46 years in the 18 months we worked together. Somehow, as long as the manuscript was in my hands, she was vital, alive, telling her stories. I had come to love her, this strong yet fragile woman who insisted she was a survivor, as the other people who loved her.
Her closest friend went to the hospital every day. Birch Bayh simply moved into the hospital. He, too, was praying for a miracle. Marvella died on April 24, 1979, one month to the day after she put her last word in the book. She was at peace, secure in her faith in God.
Losing her was more than losing a friend for me. So closely had I come to identify with her, I still have trouble separating myself from Marvella. Her legacy to me was that keen appreciation of the preciousness of life itself, of all the little details of nature, the importance of service to others in satisfying one's own sense of purpose, and the real need for religion -- spiritual support -- in human existance.
Her book, Marvella: A Personal Journey," came out last month, right on schedule, eight years after her mastectomy. And we celebrated the splendid torch of her life.