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A Daughter's Grief Observed

Jul 7 2011
Meghan O'Rourke's luminous 'The Long Goodbye' traces the final months as her mother succumbs to cancer.

Meghan O'Rourke is best known as a literary and cultural critic, a contributor to Slate, and the onetime fiction editor at The New Yorker. But she is a poet first, as is clear from the opening pages of her new memoir, The Long Goodbye. A chronicle of the final months of her mother's life and the months afterward, O'Rourke's book is luminous; her words evoke her tremendous love for and grief over her mother with a grace that few writers can match:

Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother …. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without the sky: unimaginable.

O'Rourke's reflections on what a mother means—and what her mother meant to her—are achingly sad in light of her loss, but no less a beautiful tribute to a mother who loved children, dogs, and life itself ("Your A Good Mom. Your A Good Sewer. How Come You Are So Nice," [sic], O'Rourke wrote in a card to her mother at age 6), an Irish-Catholic schoolgirl turned atheist private-school headmaster, a stunningly beautiful, witty, warm, and intelligent woman until the day she breathed her last. She was at home on Christmas morning, her favorite day of the year, surrounded by her family, including Meghan, her two brothers, and their father.

As a writer and literary critic, O'Rourke was able to be with her mother as she was suffering from metastatic colorectal cancer, driving her to doctors' appointments and searching for drinks that wouldn't irritate the dreaded chemo sores inside her mother's mouth. She observes so keenly the things that many of us only sense regarding the process of dying: the endless buzzing and clicking of hospital machines; the strange power dynamics in hospitals—don't ask too much, don't know too much, defer to medical authority and medical 'facts'; the sense that watching television is both a strange thing to do with one's final hours and yet not so strange ("What the hell. What is she supposed to do, contemplate every moment with saintly beatitude?"); and the longing for "somewhere to put my grief." She writes:

I was imagining a vessel for it: a long, shallow wooden bowl, irregularly shaped. I had the sense that if I could chant, or rend my clothes, or tear my hair, I could effect, create that vessel in the world. Five days after my mother died a man elbowed me on the subway and I felt bruised and angry; if I had been wearing mourning clothes, I furiously thought, he would have taken greater care.

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