From inside this bad dream I have been living since 2:30pm this past Monday (February 10, 2014), I’ve been trying to make sense of things. After we had walked our dogs for the second time that day – at the cemetery where we will bury her on Saturday — Maggie was sitting here, drinking coffee and getting ready to go out to a meeting with someone at the real estate office where she worked.
A half hour later, in the ER here in Hudson, N.Y., she was, essentially, dead. Her body was revived through the miracles of modern medicine and science, and those life-support systems kept some indications of life going for 36 hours or so, and the official death notices will state the place and time of her passing as Albany Medical Center, Albany, N.Y., sometime around 4:15am on February 12. But Maggie never regained consciousness after suffering a massive heart attack as I stood by her bedside in the ER at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, where I took her after she complained of a severe burning sensation across her chest, and where I saw something you should never see – life exploding right before your eyes. From lying on her back, she started sitting upright, slowly yet suddenly, with a glazed look in her eyes, and before she got all the way up, her right arm shot out from her side and she slumped over on it, limp and lifeless – about as unlike the real Maggie Estep as a body could be.
That was just the beginning of a very bad dream, a nightmare, for me and the hundreds if not thousands of others whose lives she so deeply and irrevocably touched.
There’s this thing in our culture, our pop culture, where we are resigned to the fact that our avatars will die, often tragically, often before their time, sometimes at their own hand, sometimes as a direct result of reckless living, sometimes just because that’s what happens to our rock stars, or our literary stars, or our movie stars. And undoubtedly those who know Maggie Estep only from her public persona, or only from the facts in the mostly accurate obituaries, might just shrug and think, there goes another one.
But my Maggie, and the Maggie that belonged to anyone and everyone who knew her, was not one of those.
This was not in the script. This was not the arc of her life. Maggie was not a tragic figure by any means. Maggie was not reckless (well, mostly not). Maggie was not even a public figure. Maggie did everything she could to hide from being a public figure – mostly just by being herself. It wasn’t an active avoidance, or anything Garbo-esque. There was very little drama to this very dramatic person.
One incredibly important thing to understand about Maggie. If you met Maggie and talked to her, or even became her friend, you likely would never know or learn about ANY of the accomplishments that are tallied in the mostly accurate obituaries. I know plenty of people who have known Maggie for weeks or event months who had no idea who she was, what she had done, what she was still doing. She didn’t wear any of this stuff they’re writing about, she didn’t wear it as who she was. It wasn’t part of her day-to-day persona. She didn’t wake up and think, “I’m Maggie Estep ‘Spoken Word Star.’” She was Mickey’s mom, and he needed to go out for a walk, and she was beholden to him, and to her friends, and to the tasks of the day. She craved a few hours of peace so she could write, which she loved and hated both. But it was her friendships and relationships that really defined her more than anything else.
“Maggie is love,” a friend wrote about her on Facebook today. That sounds so cheesy, so new age, so cliché (so Beatles!). But actually, it pretty much sums her up. It wasn’t those accomplishments that made her so beloved among hundreds of friends — it really was her personal warmth, dedication, humor, intelligence, beauty, and charisma. People just gravitated to this person not as a “spoken word star”, but as a ray of light who combined striking opposites and contrasts of personality that made her utterly unique and delightful to be with. I daresay many were in some form or fashion in love with her — you just couldn’t help not falling for her (and it didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman, gay or straight — EVERYONE had a crush on her). She had that power and that soul. It makes no sense that it is no longer present in its physical manifestation — here drinking coffee and playing with the dogs – Mickey and Stevie — and figuring out how she was going to get through a whirlwind of a day. But I guess that’s one of life’s great mysteries, and I take no comfort from that right now.
I first heard of Maggie Estep sometime around 1995 or so when her first album came out, and working as a rock critic at the time, I was sent a review copy. I’m not going to describe it or review it again here, only just to say that I loved it and I gave it a rave review and it even made my year-end top 10 list. And I won’t lie – that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge and familiarity with THAT Maggie Estep, until I met up with her again just a little over two years ago.
Through a mutual friend from her days on the spoken word scene, Maggie and I met casually online. We were both at transitional points in our lives; we shared passions for yoga and vegetarianism; and we didn’t live too far from each other. She got a kick out of the fact that I liked that first album, and I got a kick out of the fact that I was finally chatting with her, all these years later. She was outraged that, at the time, I professed not to like dogs. “How could you not like dogs?” That was Maggie – a woman of opposites, complexities and contradictions, and probably more attracted to or provoked by an opposite than by a shared passion.
We met for tea in Hudson, N.Y. I came from Great Barrington, Mass.; she came from Olivebridge, N.Y. (near Woodstock). We arrived at the exact same moment across the street from Verdigris Tea Shop. We got out of our cars, walked up to each other – strangers who only knew each other from a week of chatting online – although what a week of chat that was, the best chat I ever had – looked into each others eyes (she has the most incredible big brown eyes with large whites that you just drown in) and we embraced and kissed passionately – probably our most passionate kiss ever. We couldn’t break apart from each other. Finally, I got ahold of myself and said, “Shouldn’t we go have that cup of tea?”
This was in January 2012. I think it was Friday the 13th. Two weeks later, we were officially engaged. It was crazy, it was premature, maybe it was a lark, maybe we were being ironic. But Maggie had never been married, and while I had been married once, I had never gotten down on one knee and asked a woman to be my wife. We had, of course, planned out this whole scenario – Maggie would have laughed in the face of anyone who did this without prior authorization. Anyway, she accepted, and I placed the ring (that we had shopped for together) on her finger, and we figured that at some point we’d actually get married.
We decided that we should begin our new lives together in a new town, and chose Hudson. That we found a place to rent just two blocks away from the tea shop, well, that just made it seem all the more appropriate – as well as the fact that our birthdays were adjacent – hers March 20, mine March 19.
Maggie warned me from the outset that she was a lone wolf, and it would be a big adjustment living together, especially since we were both writers who worked at home. It wasn’t always smooth and easy. But we shared a lot of good times. That December, we went to Mexico together. It was my first time there. A puppy limped up to us on a beach and spoke. It was hungry and oozing from a festering wound on his right front leg. He said, “Take me home to America, please,” and nestled in, right between Maggie’s legs, of course, and dug a hole in the sand right there and curled up with her. Our fates were sealed, and two days later, Esteban “Stevie” Rogovoy was part of our family, moving in with us in Hudson as younger brother to Maggie’s most beloved being in the entire world, Mickey Micklaus.
Our relationship evolved in ways neither of us could have anticipated. While we loved each other dearly, and remained inextricably intertwined until the very end, spending most of our time together, always in contact via text or email or phone when we weren’t actually sitting across the kitchen table from each other or walking our dogs together, it became apparent that the living together part of the relationship was too stressful. So last fall, Maggie took an apartment around the corner where she could hide out, be alone with Mickey, and get some of the peace and quiet and alone time she needed as a lone wolf, and in order to find the mental state she needed in order to write.
There was never any animosity or hard feelings between us. Maggie specialized in cultivating long-term friendships and love relationships of different kinds among friends, boyfriends, former boyfriends, etc. She was as fiercely loyal as she could be fiercely demanding. She was, in some ways, impossible to live with, impossible to please, yet she managed that in such a way that you had to admire her, because it came from a place of deep self-knowledge. I envied her confidence, and I learned so much from observation – and from being taught and even lectured. Maggie loved to tell people how to live. It would be annoying if she weren’t pretty much totally right about 90 percent of the time. (And she wasn’t too proud to apologize, when proven wrong, about the other 10 percent.) She had simply figured so many things out. She was really good at life.
Then again, every moment of every day was something of a crisis for her. “I can’t live like this.” “What should I do?” “What should I teach my yoga students?” “Can you teach my class for me?” “What’s for dinner?” “Are you going to make coffee?” “Can you take Mickey for three hours tomorrow?”
Again, it was these contradictions – that fact that she was fanatical and believed only in doing the best at everything, whether it was playing piano or riding bicycle competitively (even when it was just her on the road) or taking iPhone photos or selling houses, she had to be the best, or the best she could possibly be (anything less and you were a slacker), yet felt utterly and totally stymied by life (or played that role) – and perhaps was deeply and truly stressed out by all this, which maybe in part led to her premature demise – that made her the incredibly complex and, I daresay, attractive person who everyone wanted to be with.
She had a dazzing smile, although it rarely shows up in photos (she had a photo face she put on, and it typically has her lips closed, hiding that radiance that she wielded deftly, parceled out as if it was a scarce resource, making it all the more powerful when you were lucky enough to be blinded by it). It can’t get lost in all the chatter that Maggie was incredibly funny. Life with her could at times be like living with a stand-up comic, whether she was sitting, standing, or lying down. I never laughed so much as I did with Maggie these last two years. She cracked me up. And now she’s cracked me up.
Although we had separate households the past few months, Maggie still ate most of her meals here; she brought Mickey over every day to play with Stevie or just to hang out while she taught a yoga class or went to the gym or showed a house to a prospective client or to get away from the constant and annoying construction noise that plagued Mickey and her where she rented the apartment. And we walked our dogs together every afternoon. Enough time passed for us to gain perspective on the arc of our relationship so that, just these past few weeks, we were really able to line up our mutual understanding of how things had evolved between us, where we had been and where we were headed, together and separately, and why.
We still loved each other dearly. We still were partners. We were “co-parents” to our dogs. We were best friends; confidants; life-coaches. It was bittersweet – we had an idea of what life was going to be like when we moved in together; it wound up being something different; we lost something along the way, but we gained as much or more of equal or great value. We were both beginning the very early stages of meeting other people, while at the same time clinging to each other for dear life, keeping each other propped up, moving forward, coping, loving, knowing this would likely be the default for the rest of our lives. I’m so glad this was all out in the open, and I’m not left wondering how she felt about all this. Maggie was great at getting to the heart of the matter, no matter the matter, being open and honest. And she was so fucking smart.
There is so much more to say about all of this. There is more to say about all the things about Maggie very few people know about. There is more to say about her as a writer, what she cared about, how her new work as a blogger created new opportunities for her while at the same time throwing up roadblocks or planting landmines for a writer who could be at once brutally honest while totally taking liberties and exaggerating things for comic and literary effect (that’s called creative writing, people – PLEASE understand that).
There are volumes more to say about Maggie and what made her a rock star, not in the conventional sense – although she was indeed an actual rock star – but rather, a rock star of regular life. There is more to say about the tragedy of how she was cruelly and violently ripped away from us. There is more to say about how broken this has left many of us. We can’t fathom life without her. I can’t fathom life without her. I have no idea what my life is going to be now. My whole world has been turned upside down. We never did get married; we weren’t even boyfriend and girlfriend, at least not officially by the end. Yet somehow, I am now a widower — and a single parent with two “children” to boot. I need help walking the dogs. I cannot possibly do all this by myself. To coin a phrase, I can’t live like this.
I need to wake up from this horrible dream. I need my Maggie back.
This wasn’t in the script.
Get me rewrite.
(P.S. And now I also realize I have lost my editor. Maggie was my reader on everything I wrote the past two years. She was brutally honest. And of course, she was always right. Fortunately, I’m a pretty good writer, so she didn’t have all that much to say too critically — just typically some very helpful comments. Then again, I know she would have probably hated what i just wrote and told me not to let it see the light of day. Well, Maggie, I’ll make a deal — you come back, and I will delete this.)
– Seth Rogovoy, Hudson, N.Y., February 13, 2014