The Divine Miss MM
Ellen Pearlman: 71, married, 2 children, writer and editor
Best friend of 40 years: Madeleine Moger, married, 1 child, prop and wardrobe stylist, died ... committed suicide as her health sharply deteriorated from thymoma, an incurable cancer, and myasthenia gravis in 2003 at age 58
“Madeleine knew me better perhaps than I knew myself. She gave me unconditional love, asking nothing from me in return, and I returned it in kind.”
How did you meet?
I first met Madeleine in 1963 when we were both dating our future husbands. I don’t recall the very first time I saw her, but I do remember spending a lot of time together as a foursome during our college years. Her first husband Scott and my husband Jonathan were best friends. We went to movies, to the diner afterwards for scrambled eggs or burgers or on drives to the beach. Jonathan and I married a year before they did and so many evenings ended at our small apartment on East 26th Street in Brooklyn.
What was the friendship like?
When we were young mothers we spent many a long afternoon together with our kids. They played; we talked. They ate; we talked. They slept; we talked. On rainy afternoons, when our patience for being indoors ran out, we’d run a bath and let the three of them frolic together. Her son Andrew was one-and-a-half years younger than my daughter Leslie and one-and-a-half years older than my son Matthew.
After a few years of being stay-at-home moms, Madeleine and I both returned to full-time careers. We had both been elementary school teachers before our kids were born, but sought new occupations. She ultimately became a stylist, gathering props and wardrobes for the commercials produced at Ampersand, the company owned by Elbert Budin, the innovative tabletop director who famously made an orange appear to fly through water. I became a researcher at Institutional Investor, a financial publishing company and later a writer and then editor at CMP Media, a technology-focused entrepreneurial media company. Madeleine and I discussed our jobs, our bosses, and what it was like juggling our family lives and our careers. In the 1970s and 1980s we didn’t have many female role models to help us out.
When Madeleine and Scott were first married we would see them regularly, hanging out at our homes in Brooklyn, at their weekend house in the Hamptons or on winter vacations together to the Caribbean. When I think of the fun-filled times of my early married days, Madeleine and Scott are often at the center of them. After Madeleine and Scott separated in the mid-70s, Jonathan and I missed our foursome and I missed Madeleine as her life took on a different focus. She was interested in dating and being a single woman. I felt a distance between us for the first time. It’s not as if she totally disappeared, but I just saw less of her for about a year and didn’t feel quite as connected.
That changed again after she met and then married Bob. We got back into the rhythm of things again, talking, shopping and hanging out. Jonathan and Bob became friends and best golf buddies. Bob was charming and fun loving and always ready for a good time. This gave Madeleine and I yet another connection — living with men who had similar charming and, at times, irritating traits. We could both rant on about our men not being as responsible as we’d like, getting it off our chests while whiling away the afternoon together.
I also have wonderful memories of shopping with Madeleine. As a stylist, she had impeccable taste and an incredible eye. I loved to watch her on the hunt for the ideal piece, whether for work or for personal use. She could go through a sales rack and pull out the absolutely best item that would look fabulous on you. I could go through the same rack and find nothing or select yet another black top or black pair of pants. Whenever I needed anything special I’d shop for it with her.
The culmination of this searching for perfection came when we went shopping for my daughter Leslie’s wedding dress. I was easy to please, but not Madeleine. With her critical eye she had Leslie turn this way and that as we went from store to store, each location had been carefully researched by her beforehand. Finally, she gave the nod and we knew that Leslie had the dress that was just right for her and her garden wedding. Unfortunately, when it came time to find a dress for me a few months later, Madeleine was gravely ill. So I sadly shopped for that by myself. I had little patience for this hunt and finally had something made, but because Madeleine wasn’t there to guide me, I made an awful choice. A year after Leslie’s wedding I threw the dress out — it held the painful memory of Madeleine’s illness in its very seams.
The most important part of our friendship was our deep connection. Madeleine was always ready to listen to anything that was on my mind. I did the same for her. Even when I didn’t know what was on my mind, she would flush it out with gentle questions. Her advice was wise, but not overpowering. She was never judgmental. She didn’t try to solve my problems, but instead helped me figure out what I was really thinking and feeling, even when I wasn’t sure of it myself. She always seemed to understand where I was coming from and where I needed to go.
We talked for hours on end. On a Saturday in the summer we could spend two hours on the phone in the morning, followed by our getting together for lunch and an afternoon of lolling about the pool at her place. We never stopped chatting. I can’t begin to remember what we talked about, but by the end of a day with her I felt satisfied and happy. Madeleine knew me better perhaps than I knew myself. She gave me unconditional love, asking nothing from me in return, and I returned it in kind.
My husband was equally interested in my well-being, but was not as good at listening without feeling a need to solve my problems. And let’s face it, when I was talking to Madeleine, some of the time it was about my husband. I needed a way to vent and she was the perfect person to do it with. What’s more, she was able to separate what I had said about Jonathan from her ability to be friends with him too. If I was angry with him, it didn’t turn her away from him. That was especially important since I loved and valued the relationships we had as couples.
Describe how the friendship ended.
I found out that Madeline was sick in 1996, shortly after my son’s wedding. She had been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and thymoma, cancer of the thymus gland. My son Matthew was getting married to Catherine on October 12 in Chicago. At the last minute Madeleine told me she and Bob could not attend since Bob was having trouble with his hand, which was badly swollen from arthritis. At the time I was hurt that they weren’t going to be there. I couldn’t really understand why Bob’s hand problem would prohibit his flying to Chicago. But it turned out the real problem was Madeleine’s serious health problems. She hadn’t wanted to burden me with the news before Matt’s wedding, so like the sensitive friend she was, she lied and kept it to herself. It was only after I returned that I heard the truth — she had a slow growing, but incurable cancer that in all likelihood would kill her within the next 5 to 6 years. The myasthenia was a neuromuscular disorder that frequently accompanies a diagnosis of thymoma. In her case, it caused weakness in her muscles that six years later led to severe breathing problems that required her to be hospitalized in the ICU at Mt. Sinai for close to four months.
Her illness moved our friendship to a heightened place. Now she had to lean on me more than I leaned on her. During the six years of her illness, I did everything I could to help her. I went to doctors with her, took notes and typed them up. I researched her illness and brought her information that she could use to help understand her condition. I gave her a computer so she could have a connection to the outside world through email when she was too sick to go out. I sent her flowers, brought her gifts and visited her regularly whenever she was hospitalized. After the first round of chemo was over, and after she got some of her strength back, I took her to Rancho La Puerta, a renowned spa in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico, for a week of pampering. Later when the thymoma returned, we went to Indiana for a meeting with her thymoma specialist and to Manhattan for another meeting with her local thymoma doctor. I was trying to help her decide whether or not she would agree to a new round of brutal chemo treatments in the hope of slowing down the cancer cells. Ultimately, she took a less aggressive chemo route, not wanting to slash and burn her body again. For a few years she seemed okay, but then the cancer cells started to grow again and she had a myasthenic crisis in 2002 that sent her on a downward spiral that lasted eight months.
When the myasthenia struck hard, she was put on a respirator at Mt Sinai and couldn’t talk to anyone. She communicated by writing notes when her hands were strong enough to hold a pencil. She spent months in one curtained off ICU area attended to by some of the most caring nurses I have ever seen. It was hard to see her so incapacitated and see the suffering of everyone around her who loved her. I did my best to communicate with her when she was up to it. When she wasn’t I’d massage her temples, hands or feet, anything to let her know I was there. I brought photos to tape to her walls, so she wouldn’t have to stare at bare walls all day long.
The best times during her last hospitalization were when she had physical breakthroughs, surprising her team of doctors with her strength and fortitude. She actually made it out of ICU and into rehab where they were able to wean her from the breathing tube that had kept her alive. After five months she finally made it home. She was even able to attend my daughter Leslie’s wedding at the end of September 2002, but she was never really well after that. Her bones were weakened from all the drug treatments she had been on for years and the doctors were concerned that her spinal column would collapse. They wanted to insert a metal rod to hold it together, a difficult procedure that would lead to an agonizing recuperation. She didn’t want to do that. She also needed to go back on chemo at some point since the thymoma was still a threat.
She made the decision to have the surgery, or so we thought. I was to take her to the doctor for her final checkup prior to surgery. I had to go to Boston on business for the night and the plan was I would return the next day to take her to the doctor. That night, she left a voice message for me on my office answering machine: “Hi El. I’ll see you tomorrow for my doctor’s appointment.” I never got to hear her voice again. While I was getting ready for the dinner that night in Boston I got a call from Madeleine’s son Andrew. Madeleine was missing and he wondered if I had heard from her. I hadn’t and of course I became alarmed at the news. A short while later he called to say she had died. She had taken her own life in a way that was so characteristic of her. She left her apartment earlier in the day, got into a cab and went to a hotel a few blocks from her home. Clearly she didn’t want to take her life in her own bed, preferring not to have her husband Bob find her that way and then have to live with that memory.
Often people talk about taking their life if they ever find themselves in terrible pain with an incurable illness, but few are actually able to go through with it. Madeleine was a strong woman. She had the courage to end what was no longer tolerable and she had the compassion to spare her loved ones another period of drawn out suffering as they watched her struggle and ultimately die. She is the bravest woman I have ever known.
The memory that haunts me is of her dying alone. I keep thinking about what I would have done if she had asked me to be there. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to help her with her suicide, but I do wish I could have been there to keep her company, enfolding her in my arms as life passed from her. I’ll never know if I could have done that, but still the knowledge that she died alone haunts me. Perhaps that’s the only way it can be. Death is a singular act. We die alone, even if our loved ones are present.
How did you cope with her loss?
I wish I had written down everything that Madeleine ever said to me so I could reread it whenever I need to hear her sage advice. I regret that the last message she left on my phone was erased without my getting a chance to record it. I planned to, but it was on my office phone and it got erased automatically before I got to it. It wouldn’t have been much to remember her by, but it was her voice and I wanted to be able to listen to it whenever I needed to.
The hours after I learned of her death are a blur. I remember canceling my Boston dinner and getting into a cab to take me to Logan airport. I don’t remember getting on the plane, but I do know I cried all the way home. I think Jonathan met me at the airport, but it might have been at our apartment in Manhattan. I just know I was inconsolable. The next few days were spent with Madeleine’s family and close friends. We were either at Bob and Madeleine’s apartment or at the funeral parlor. Her service drew a large number of people from her professional and personal life. I remember speaking at the service, but the words I spoke escape me now. Somehow I managed to get through it without breaking down. I wanted to do justice to her memory and to define what an extraordinary friend she had been.
In the years since she died I have struggled to accept her loss. There is no substitute for a life-long friend and confidant who knows everything about you. I loved her like the sister I never had. I loved her like the trusted friend she was. Every time anything significant has happened to me in the almost thirteen years since she died I want to reach for the phone and talk to her. Any time I have been down and needed someone to cheer me I want to reach for the phone and talk to her. I’ve tried to develop new friends, and have found some wonderful women that I enjoy being with, but there is no substitute for Madeleine and there never will be.
I’ve gotten closer to my daughter as a result: As I age and Jonathan experiences health problems, I now turn to her for comfort. In the past I wouldn’t have wanted to burden her with my problems, but I’ve learned that part of her growing up to be a wise woman is dependent on me allowing her to take care of me. Madeleine would be proud of the woman that Leslie has become and would be smitten with her namesake, Maya, Leslie’s eleven-year old daughter.
I have worked hard to cultivate a new life — looking for new friends and passions to pursue. I’m still working on that. Many times I feel happy again, but there will always be an ache in my heart for the loss of my best friend. This is a forever loss — she cannot be replaced. I don’t take anything for granted and I am especially grateful for all that I have: my health, my long-term marriage to a man I have loved for 50 years, my darling children and three grandchildren, friends that care about me, and a home near one of the most beautiful beaches in the world that Madeleine and I so loved.
Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?
It’s not possible to have Madeleine back in my life, but recently I have started writing letters to her. It’s a way of telling her things I would have told her had sickness not taken her away. Sometimes I imagine what she would have said to me. Mostly I can see her smile when I tell her something that pleases me. It’s surprisingly comforting to write to her. It makes me feel that our connection survives death. I hope that is true. And in the deep recesses of my soul, I hope that she knows it too. This is what I wrote to her on January 8, 2012:
Today is the 9th anniversary of your death. It’s not an event to celebrate, but it’s a date to remember since it was your last day on earth. I’d much rather celebrate happier memories — the birth of your son Andrew, the vacation the four of us took to St. Maarten, the impromptu party we had at your house in Quogue for Jonathan’s 50th birthday, the day we went to our first food photo shoot for Miavita, the day we went shopping for Leslie’s wedding dress — but mostly I like to think about the days we spent together with no special event attached to them.
When our children were little we spent a lot of time together, amusing them, amusing ourselves. Being together helped to pass the long winter days when it was less inviting to be outside with the kids. If they got restless we’d say to them, “Want to take a bath?” They always enthusiastically sang out, “Yes.” The water play calmed them, even though they turned into little prunes after spending so much time in the water. They always smelled so sweet afterwards. Sometimes we’d put the kids to bed at one of our homes and then you and Scott and Jonathan and I would settle down for an evening of adult fun.
Those days seem golden to me now. They seemed to stretch on forever filled with sunny moments. But, of course, it wasn’t always carefree. I remember when you and Scott broke up. It shook me to my core. I always thought our foursome would last a lifetime. Little did I know that you would meet Bob and Scott would meet Pat and remarry within a few weeks of each other. Eventually the four of you became friends and even went on vacations together. I always admired the way that the four of you navigated the separation-divorce-remarriage landscape. Andrew was lucky too; instead of two fighting parents he had two united parents who put his interests first.
What would you be doing if you were still alive today? I like to imagine that you would have had a miraculous recovery from all your health problems. You’d be spending time with your two grandchildren, Matthew and Lily, certainly instilling your talent for shopping in Lily. You’d surely be traveling and collecting fabulous objects from around the world. Perhaps you’d be more serious about photography with the inspiration of having grandchildren to photograph.
What would we be doing? Same old, same old. We’d be talking, walking, shopping and having lunch together. We’d still bellyache to each other when necessary. Nothing fancy, nothing exotic. Just ordinary life, richly enjoyed. 3,285 days have gone by since you died. Some of those days were good, some bad, some joyful, others painfully sad. But not many of them go by without my remembering you.
Love you always,