Elegy for Margaret

"Pilar," Margaret Kilgallen, 1999.

When I got the email about Margaret, at first I thought it was a nasty joke. It was forwarded anonymously from the General Collections department at San Francisco Public Library; "Margaret Kilgallen of Preservation passed away early this morning, of complications from breast cancer, in the arms of her husband Barry and their newly born daughter, Asha." I was in France at the time, jet-lagged and checking my email on a very rickety computer; I managed to write another friend of Margaret's before the computer crashed, and I dissolved into hysterical sobs. "Did you send me this? I am in shock."

Oddly enough, I had been thinking of Margaret as the plane touched down in Montpellier, although I had not remembered her in years. We had back-to-back shows at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco, spring of 1996; we both worked at SFPL; we both loved books and the preserving of them; we did not exactly have the same set of friends, but our circles intersected. Margaret's Luggage Store show, a mysterious and stunning mural, compelling in its eerie familiarity, marked the beginning of her public art career. It was followed soon after by exhibitions at the SF Arts Commission Gallery, the Center for the Arts, magazine features, commissions in New York, Philadelphia, Europe, and so on. The volume and quality of her work speaks for itself. She had just completed her MFA at Stanford when she passed on, although I have no idea why she thought she needed it.

"Sloe," Margaret Kilgallen, 1999.

My Luggage Store show was a collaborative performance/installation with a philosophical rock band called "Here Are the Facts You Requested," in which I undertook to provide a "visual manifestation" of their music as they played. I spent three months working eighteen hour days on drawings, sculptures, props, costumes, scripts, projections, and rehearsals; I spent uncounted amounts of money on supplies; I did not sleep in the two days preceding the show; afterward, in a state of exhaustion and near-nervous collapse, I gave away as much of the art as people would take, drove most of my audience home, and came back the next morning to clean up the mess in the gallery. Then I bought four gallons of paint to recover the wall. I came of the experience feeling like a self-involved little snot who paid my friends to clap for me. During the next three years I avoided the "art scene" as much as possible, exhibited only in my studio, and went to massage therapy school, in order to help people heal, as well as to acquire a skill that they value enough to pay for.

At one point in those years, I wrote an ironic little essay about the fact that the artist in the next cubicle from me gotten really famous, and posted it on my web page. The point of essay was that it was patently ridiculous for me to be preoccupied with Margaret's fame and my own obscurity; we all have our own, unique path in life, and comparing oneself with others is a complete waste of energy. Obviously. I really liked Margaret. I invited her for coffee, attended all her shows, wrote her a congratulatory note when she was featured in the Bay Guardian's "Best of the Bay." When we went for coffee I was ebullient and talkative, and she seemed a little stunned, so I didn't push it. She was a rare creature.

After receiving the news, I went and sobbed, all over Pierre, "No wonder we weren't better friends, we were moving at completely different frequencies." Margaret's life was one hundred percent successful; she created phenomenal art, she found great love with another phenomenal artist, she had the family she longed for. Then she moved along to other things. Which is not to say that I think this is all okay, that it was "meant to be." I cannot believe that even Margaret's higher self, for whatever inscrutable reason, would have definitively chosen not to see her daughter grow up. She was a rare creature, and I believe that it was the poison all over our planet which took her away too soon.

On September 11, 2001, I was in Mexico, having coffee in the caf before hitting the studio, when Jane came in with the news that the world was coming to an end. I went to read it on the Web, and discovered an email in my box from a complete stranger. "You should know," it read, "that your 1998 essay about Margaret Kilgallen is still on the Web. Such things do not speak well of your character at any time, but after her tragic death, it comes up on every search engine under her name. You might want to take it down."

To say that I was shattered would be a gross understatement. Of course I had cancelled that Web account years earlier, but it somehow hadn't been deleted. And of course the entire point of that essay had never been the slightest bit anti-Margaret, or even anti-me; obviously my kind informer had not understood what I meant to say. We all have shadows in our characters; for me, the most effective way of dealing with the shadow is to point it out and laugh at it. Then it goes away. Only then some self-righteous Berkeleyite happens upon the detritus and crucifies me with it, on the same day as the world ends.

But of course I got the page deleted, and got over it. It occurs to me that anybody who has a public career gets a lot of this sort of thing. The only way to deal with it is to take responsibility and not get your ego involved. I struggled always not to get my ego involved when it came to Margaret; because what my ego kept hinting, all those years, was, "What if Margaret just doesn't like me?"

I got my Reiki attunement last June. Margaret died in July; it is exceedingly silly and egotistical of me to think that if I had known she was sick, if I had gone and offered some Reiki, that it would have made any difference at all. First-level Reiki, although neat stuff, is rarely effective against advanced stages of cancer. But a few weeks ago I had a dream, that something about the Reiki attunement had allowed me to travel in time, and I went to see Margaret. I told her, "I know it won't prevent you from dying, but I thought maybe some Reiki would help in some way."

She replied, "I like you just fine. But no, thanks, I don't need any Reiki."

"Linda Mar," Margaret Kilgallen, n.d.

Living in Mexico, of course D a de los Muertos is a really big thing. There are altars all over everywhere, with skulls and flowers and little figures made out of sugar. This year Jane asked me, "Are you doing an altar?"

"I hadn't thought of it," I said, then realized, well, duh. I sought out the best things among the mounds of tacky crap for sale; a little sugar doll with a patchwork skirt and blonde pigtails, armloads of flowers, big beeswax candles, fairy lights and white chiffon. There was an ochre-colored plaster skull, but it slipped and crashed on the pavement, so I concluded that Margaret wanted no death images on her altar. It was set up in my studio, an altar of life. It included art supplies, live plants, and a real live kitten, or at least his basket, since he wouldn't stay put for long. The girls came over, we brought Margaret a Cuba Libre and some strawberries, lit the candles, and Patricia sang "Don't Fence Me In," as I sent Reiki to Barry and Asha, and the sun set over the mountains. A profound peace descended over the room.

We love you, Margaret. See you soon.

2002 by Stephanie Lee Jackson