Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke

Disclaimer: this might be my longest book review. I found out about this book from one of my fave sources, Bookpage (look for it F-R-E-E in your local library!) I knew from just a few sentences into the review that I had to read it and it was some kind of divine intervention that I read it over the holiday weekend. I don’t just want to email this author and gush about how much this book meant to me. I want to meet her, give her a hug, weep with her and wax nostalgic about our mothers over ice cream and good coffee.

From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. In this eloquent, somber memoir about the death of her mother and grieving aftermath, poet and journalist O'Rourke (Halflife) ponders the eternal human question: how do we live with the knowledge that we will one day die? O'Rourke's mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer on Christmas day 2008; the headmaster of a Westport, Conn., private school, she was only 55 years old, and left a stricken husband, two sons, and daughter O'Rourke, the eldest sibling. O'Rourke had shuttled back and forth from her life in Brooklyn and then job at Slate over the preceding year to care for her increasingly debilitated mother. The two were extremely close, and the shock of her mother's illness devastated the whole family (the author married her longtime boyfriend shortly after the Stage 4 diagnosis, then separated just as quickly). Over the last months, O'Rourke was bracing herself, "preparing" for her mother's death, by reading everything she could during the dizzying rounds of doctors' and hospital visits, until the family could take their mother home to die in a heavily medicated peace. Anxious by nature, secretive, often emotionally brittle, O'Rourke grew acutely sensitive to her mother's changing states over the last months, desperate for a sign of her mother's love to carry her through the months of bereavement. O'Rourke heals herself in this pensive, cerebral work, moving from intense anguish and nostalgia to finding solace in dreams, sex, and the comforting words of other authors. (Apr.)

My mother died on Wednesday July 4, 2001 of stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She was 47. I’m an only child and I was 24 when she passed away. If that wasn’t sad enough, my father passed away suddenly seven years prior on Monday October 4, 1994 when I was 17. To say that I related to this book is an understatement. I can’t begin to even think of a metaphor to describe the understatement. I started placing post-it flags on the pages of profound statements, truths or those that just made me think, “OMG ME TOO!” Before long, I ran out. The only book that’s been significant prior to this was “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman - its my grief bible. It’s going to be hard to narrow down the most important moments of this memoir but I will try to restrain myself. I’ll TRY.

“Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world…Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Losing my mother when I was 24 years old and she was 47 years old will never make any sense to me.

“A friend who worked with the terminally ill had told me about what clinicians call “anticipatory grief” - the fact that family members often grieve intensely while waiting for a loved one to die.  I thought of my anticipation a lot, picturing it as an invader come to rob me of my joy, a stealthy, quilled creature of the night, a fear that wouldn’t let me sit still”
I remember for weeks prior to my mom’s death, praying for so many things and feeling simultaneously and intensely lost and alone. I felt terrible for wanting her to pass and be relieved of all the pain and illness and yet intensely selfish and livid that I was losing my mother at such a young age. After all, it was only yesterday that I was pulled into the principal’s office to be told my father died suddenly of a heart attack.  “NOT FAIR” were two words I wanted to scream and wail as loud as I could. NOT FAIR that I had to make the types of decisions I made for my mother at 24. At the same time, I would NEVER LET ANYONE make those decisions for me or her. I protected her intensely, one night almost making a scene straight out of Terms of Endearment. What hit home after reading “anticipatory grief’ was remembering the night when I left my mother’s room to drive home and thinking she was no longer “A” mom to me. She would always be my mother, but after that night, she was too sick to mother me anymore. Meghan came that realization as well prior to her mother's passing. That was the beginning of the end for me and it also provoked me to tell my family that the reality was here and very near. We would most definitely have to say our goodbyes to her soon.

“I heard a lot about the idea of dying “with dignity” while my mother was sick. It was only near her very end that I gave much thought to what this idea meant.”
Towards the end, my mother was on a great deal of morphine, and she would alternate from lying calm and seemingly comatose, and then another moment writhing around, moaning: I was beyond confused. I had no idea if it was pain, or her body shutting down and she was fighting back. Sometimes  it would be in response to a family member entering the room and talking to her, and sometimes it was out of the blue. I was told over and over that her body would start shutting down, and it was always “just a matter of time” and that I would “see the signs.” I wasn’t a doctor; I still have no idea what they were talking about to this day. I’m still intensely grateful for the nurses towards the end. They were there for my mom and I and all of us. We were walking around dumbfounded, gob smacked and unable to fathom the pain at the time or what was to come; that this was happening to her. At the end, I had to let her go on her own terms, She was surrounded by 3 other women who prayed for her and over her and told her it was ok to go. They told her I would be ok, and I wanted her to go on her own terms.  She was not alone and I’ll never forget that.

What I also felt with the author is the need to understand the grief. We all hear about the steps to grief, but there are no orderly steps and afterwards you brush off your hands and move on. Grief comes in waves; its never done and over with.
“Grief is paradoxical: you know you must let go, and yet letting go cannot happen all at once. The literature of mourning enacts that dilemma; its solace lies in the ritual of remembering the dead and then saying, There is no solace, and also, This has been going on a long time.” Ten years later, I still have moments of weeping, of just plain wondering what she’d be like today or what she would tell me to do, and still moments where I’m blown away by how much I miss her and it can literally take my breath away.

“I also felt that if I told the story of her death, I could understand it better, make sense of it -- perhaps even change it. What had actually happened still seemed implausible. A person was present in your entire life, and then one day she disappeared and never came back. It resisted belief. Even when a death is foreseen, I was surprised to find, it still feels sudden -- an instant that could have gone differently.”
I still have no idea why my mother’s cancer was found at such a late stage. Even in 2001, they were emphasizing self-exams, mammograms, and on and on.  My attempt to research her medical records hit a brick wall financially, and I had to let it go. WHY and WHEN she was diagnosed will change nothing about her pain, suffering and passing.

“A death from a long illness is different from a sudden death. It gives you time to say goodbye and time to adjust to the idea that the beloved will not be with you anymore. Some researchers have found it is ‘easier’ to experience a death you know for at least six months that your loved one is terminally ill. But this fact is like orders of infinity: there in theory, hard to detect in practice.”
Comparing my parent’s death side-by-side is pointless. I was in a totally different world when my father passed. Senior year of high school, sheltered by two loving parents, and I had never been to a visitation or funeral prior. My dad was 6’7” and a big guy and a long-time smoker,  but I never imagined a world without either of my parents.
When my mother passed away, I was almost 2 years out of college, worked through years of counseling for my father’s grief and I’d been to a handful of funerals since. But it was my MOTHER. I was VERY close to both of my parents, but the fact that it was my mother that made it painful. There’s no way I could say which was worse, and no one knew me like my mother.

“Grieving is that process of reclamation. When you lose someone you were close to, you have to reassess your picture of the world and your place in it. The more your identity is wrapped up with the deceased, the more difficult the mental work”

A-MEN sister.  After 10 years, I’m finding more and more breakthroughs processing my grief. Just recently I let go of the whole “PINK RIBBON” thing with my mom. After she passed away, I sought out and devoured anything with a  Pink Ribbon and wore it proudly.  She DIED of breast cancer, but it wasn’t who she was. She loved Las Vegas, spicy food, provocative and thoughtful movies,  the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Eric Clapton and the British Rock Invasion, Renaissance Faires, cats and most of God’s creatures, and of course she loved my dad and I and our family.

The author writes about receiving a letter from a long-lost classmate of her mothers offering to talk to her about his memories.
“Just the week before, I’d read that the newly bereaved often crave more information about the dead -- stories that show sides of the person you didn’t know. Anytime I heard a new story about my mother, it was like she was alive again.”
AGAIN a moment of “MEE TOO!!” But even after 10 years, I find its still painful for my mother’s family to talk about her. I can ramble for days about my favorite memories, but I appreciate my mother’s siblings and parents grief - everyone handles it differently. One day I will tell them I CRAVE stories of my mother AN D my father.

You get the picture, this book spoke to me. I checked it out from my local library and I plan to purchase it for my personal library. It’ll go next to Motherless Daughters, The Last Speech by Randy Pausch, “ and Letter To My Daughter by Maya Angelou.


  1. I just lost my father on December 29 of last year, so I could relate to a lot of what you said. I cried as I read your review, so I'm not sure I could handle the book right now.

  2. ((HUGS)) and my condolences to you Kathy. Its so difficult to lose our parents no matter how old we are or they were. When I talked to others about this book, they had the same feeling as you and didn't know why I would want to read it. This book was a comfort to me, that someone else went through something so similar. I did email the author and told her how much her book meant to me. She's on my list of people to meet someday. On another hand, there are many other books and movies I can't watch: Wit with Emma Thompson, Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias - they all hit too close to home on how my mom died, especially Wit. It opens up too many bad memories and wounds I've worked to heal.