It came to me, even if we live to be a hundred, how really short life is. And therefore it’s important to enjoy it and not rush so fast, and take time to smell the roses.
When she made that observation, Marvella Hern Bayh knew that her long and gallant struggle with cancer had been lost, that she had less than a year to live. Two weeks ago, at 46, she kept her rendezvous with death—and was accorded a tribute like no other woman in public life since Eleanor Roosevelt. A multitude, led by President Carter and Vice-President Mondale, filled Washington’s vast National Cathedral—and a thousand more flocked to a memorial service in her adopted hometown of Terre Haute, Ind. Many of the mourners had never met her, but as her close friend Dr. LaSalle Leffall, president of the American Cancer Society, put it in his eulogy: “She was a powerful figure and a moral force. Even when she lost her own fight she never stopped telling others and counseling them about cancer. Hers was a demonstration of courage beyond description.”
Until 1971 Marvella Bayh was known principally as Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh’s wife, a blond beauty and connoisseur of politics with intense ambitions—for her husband. After the removal of a cancerous breast that year, she turned away from politics and devoted the rest of her life to traveling around the country for the Cancer Society. As medical philanthropist Mary Lasker observed: “Of all the women who are public figures and have had cancer, Marvella was the only one who went out and campaigned against it.” A superb speaker (she first met Birch as a college freshman when she defeated him in an oratorical contest), she made more than 175 speeches and gave countless interviews in the past seven years. Just a month before she entered the hospital for the last time, she addressed a Charlottesville, Va. audience despite obvious exhaustion. “She fought to the end,” says friend Jane Sinnenberg, who accompanied her on her travels. “She was opening her mail as they took her away in the ambulance.” (Marvella was fond of quoting from an old hymn, “Where can I go but to the Lord?”)
Tragedy had been her constant companion. Her mother was an invalid with a spinal ailment from the time of Marvella’s birth, and after her death Marvella’s father, an Enid, Okla. farmer, became an alcoholic. He shot and killed his second wife and then committed suicide. In 1954 Marvella barely survived a head-on automobile accident that left her almost blind for three years. And in 1964 she and her husband were injured in a light plane crash with Sen. Ted Kennedy that took the lives of two people (Bayh dragged Kennedy from the wreckage, saving his life). “The peaks were unbelievable,” she once told an interviewer, “but the valleys were pretty bad.”
Friends of the family say she was the senator’s driving force—the one who talked him into running for the state legislature in 1954, the Senate in 1962—and, in 1971, the Presidency. But her mastectomy was a turning point: Bayh abandoned his candidacy, explaining, “I want to be at her side,” and Marvella went on her crusade. “She didn’t even know what the word ‘mastectomy’ meant,” says Sinnenberg. “She learned all about cancer. She was the first to speak out. Before that, women were ashamed to admit they had lost a breast. She made a difference.”
Her death, unexpected so soon, came as a shock to Senator Bayh, who lived with her in the hospital the last three weeks. “Not until the end did either of us know the final moment was close,” he says. “We approached each day and each week and each month on a positive basis. She suffered almost no pain. We were praying for her to be healed. Though she fought valiantly, she told me before she lost consciousness that she was not afraid to die—that there were things worse than death.”
After the memorial service in Washington, the senator, Marvella’s friend Abigail (“Dear Abby”) Van Buren and the Bayhs’ only son, Evan, 23, emerged from the cathedral holding yellow roses. At the top of the steps they paused, taking a moment to smell the flowers. Mrs. Bayh would have been pleased.