Everyone knew and has said she was legendary, big, and brilliant, hilarious, with passionate, full-body empathy, smart and loud and unafraid; but only a few knew that when she died, she’d been sober 18 months.
Eighteen months! It was the bronco ride of her life. The bottle knew her well, but not many people did, and for her to stay sober meant confronting more awful things than Cheney or Iraq; it meant telling much scarier truths.
She was the bravest woman. She was my hero, my rodeo girl. The bottle couldn’t hold down that huge a spirit, and neither did having to give it up. She was astonishing when she was drinking, loud and blousy and brilliant, her head held high as she threw the lights on for you, or threw back her head in laughter at someone’s story, hers or yours. She had a mind like a diamond, and she understood the world of ghastly American politics more than anyone I ever knew. She loved it even as she decried it. She took the most disgusting behavior, and she used it till her dying day to galvanize, to heal.
But she was even more astonishing sober.
One day last August, having tea at her hotel, a month after her one-year sobriety birthday, we were reading one of our favorite books aloud to each other when she got that look that a few of you have seen, when she went from being brilliant, and on, from the Molly Show, to being quiet and very, very focused.
She told me she had bad news—they’d found itty-bitty, lentil-sized things in her brain. That is a direct quote. We’d all known the cancer was back and that it was gunning for her, but the tiny tumors in her brain were an end sign.
Only a few people knew. Betsy Moon knew, of course. Molly’s longtime assistant, her “Chief of Stuff,” as she called her, who single-handedly made it possible for Molly to be Molly in the bigger world, who had come with her to San Francisco, as she went with Molly everywhere, with lists, phone numbers, solutions, water.
But Molly had accidentally forgotten to tell the people in her family, such as her brother.
“You need to tell him now,” I said. “Today.”
But she who had lived through so many tragedies, whose personal values and fine, deep messy veins of humanity had grown from loss and loneliness, couldn’t bear to be the reason people’s hearts broke.
“Now,” I said. “You need them, and they need to know. The best way you can help them with this is to let them be there for you. Starting now.”
She went to the phone and dialed Austin. She got an answering machine: “Hey, Babe. This is Mole,” she said, using her nickname from a childhood burrowed in books. She paused, took a deep breath, and looked over at me. I nodded: good girl. You could always see the kid in her, right on the surface of her big tall self.
“I’m in San Francisco, Babe. Just thinking of you.” Again she paused. “No reason to call back,” she blurted, “love you, bye.” Neither of us spoke.
“That went well,” I said after a moment.
She smiled, chagrined. What a smile. What a dish. “Don’t I get credit for trying?”
“No,” I said. I brought her cup of tea to the bed and sat down beside her. “Call back,” I said. “And tell the truth.”
Molly had a calling to the truth, like others might to the priesthood or poetry. For someone who had looked like her as a girl, huge and gawky and ungainly, to have turned herself into such a force for truth and goodness, well—she was astonishing. Her mind and wit and guts became her beauty. And I got to see once again that day that when something tries to hold down a huge, sweet spirit, whether it’s cancer or theocracy doing the holding, the more spirit is apt to jump up, like a jack-in-the-box.
She cleared her throat and called back. She: “Babe? It’s Mole. Call me back. I need to talk to you today.”
He called right away, and she told him about the itty bitty lentil-sized things in her brain, which she was sure were not that big a deal. She cried: She loved this screwed-up, painful, beautiful, hilarious, strange life so much, and she wanted to live, and the whole thing sucked, and that was the truth.
I went into the bathroom to give her privacy and to hide from the pain. But pain was the reason she could write so richly, so heartbreakingly, life-givingly about the poor, the degraded, about Matthew Shepard and the people of New Orleans—because she got it, from inside.
It was the truth, her truth, and ours, and she told it just about as well as anyone can.
Afterward we sat together, dried our eyes, and talked about things for a while. Then we called Betsy Moon and told her to meet us for lunch.
We had ruby cranberry drinks with soda and wedges of lime. Molly had a steak the size of a hardback book and fries, which she sprinkled with vinegar. She ate with great attention and pleasure, sharing with me and Betsy, patting her stomach and beaming when she was done. Delicious!