Meghan O'Rourke's mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer on Christmas day in 2008. She was fifty-five years old.
She had been diagnosed in May 2006, just as she and her husband were moving to Westport to take up new positions in a private school: she as headmaster, he running the language program.
Meghan O'Rourke is a poet and writer of criticism and essays. Her memoir of the dying and death of her mother is challenging and painful. She is frank about the effects on herself, and her concerns about no longer being mothered, but she recognizes her own self-centeredness as well.
As might be expected, she has read widely in the literature of grief and mourning, including Raymond Carver, Hamlet, C S Lewis' A Grief Observed and David Rieff's Swimming in a Sea of Death, as well as academic studies, such as those of John Bowlby and Philippe Ariès. She particularly found resonance with Shakespeare's play because Hamlet possesses a deep ennui, anger, and sense of meaninglessness of life, all of which she experienced through the time of her mother's illness and after. The other factor that struck her was that everyone around Hamlet was unnerved by his grief, as those around her were unnerved also.
Lewis' comparison of grief with fear made sense to her, and she found his writing on the subject 'most evocative'. She returns to him frequently, quoting from his work throughout the memoir.
Her depiction of magical thinking is particularly strong in the reference to her marriage to Jim. Her mother is delighted when O'Rourke tells her, and seems to improve, going into a sort of remission. The author is married in July 2007; her mother's cancer returns in October of that year. The marriage breaks up five months later because 'Once it became clear that our marriage would not save her, I found myself fleeing it' (28).
The book is most profoundly a story of how a daughter comes to terms with the early death of her mother. On one level, O'Rourke finds it unthinkable that her mother will no longer be there to look after her. After her death, she writes 'Sometimes, loss seemed to have enlarged me; at other times, it shrank me to this position of wounded, baffled anger' (210). Coping with her absence is a different, more difficult task, than dealing with her actual death. And she realizes that 'my mother's death was not a single event, but a whole series of events. … The lesson lay in the empty chair at the dinner table. It was learned night after night, day after day' (176). O'Rourke gains some respite from sorrow, as she puts it, when a little energy returns after a few months, but she still finds herself believing that her mother will return.
There are many beautiful passages and insights, and anyone who has lost a loved person will find different sections helpful. No one grieves the same way, and O'Rourke's grieving is her own. She doesn't write too much about that of her brothers and father, which is appropriate; only they can describe how the loss affected them. She includes them in the story just enough to show the reader she wasn't the only one suffering.
Possibly one of the most moving passages involves the author visiting Willard Pond, and beginning 'to learn to believe the dead one is dead':
I went to the pond for her. Diving in, I felt for a moment that I was my mother. But I was aware that she was dead; I could feel it in the shadows in the green leaves. This is where the dead live, I thought, in the holes in the leaves where the insects are biting through. (205)
Meghan O'Rourke's memoir is an intensely personal account but ultimately helpful for others experiencing the death of a loved one, and I highly recommend it.
© 2011 Sue Bond
Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Queensland, Australia. She has degrees in medicine, literature, and creative writing.