Monday, April 18, 2011

THE LONG GOODBYE by Meghan O'Rourke (2011) Riverhead Books, 297 pages

As soon as read the excerpt from THE LONG GOODBYE in The New Yorker, I knew I would have to read this memoir. I had been carrying the excerpt around with me as a talisman, a charm to force me back to the pages of the manuscript I am revising about my only brother's accidental death many years ago.

In O'Rourke's epigraph she refers to an Iris Murdoch quotation, "The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved," and nothing could be truer, except perhaps the one attributed to A.S. Byatt, who wrote, "grief turns you to stone."

This harrowing account opens gently with reminiscences about bucolic childhood summers spent as a family in Vermont where "the days seemed created for our worship" and "there were words even for the weeds: goldenrod and ragweed and Queen Anne's lace." Days that were "holy and lazy and boring." Remember those? Then there is O'Rourke's intimation of mortality: "When we are relearning the world in the aftermath of a loss, we feel things we had almost forgotten, old things, beneath the seat of reason." Like the time when her mom sent Meghan and her brother out to catch fireflies in jars with poked holes in the lids and she remembers,"the air was the temperature of our skin." Beneath the seat of reason.

O'Rourke's account of her mother's diagnosis, treatment and death as a result of metastatic colorectal cancer is not only frankly personal, but also a profound meditation on loss itself and how the rituals of public mourning have mostly fallen away. I found absolute belonging in her admission that, "In the months that followed my mother's death, I managed to look like a normal person. I walked down the street; I answered my phone; I brushed my teeth, most of the time. But I was not OK. I was in grief. Nothing seemed important. Daily tasks were exhausting....I felt that I had abruptly arrived at a terrible insistent truth about the impermanence of the every day." There is the public mask of coping and there is the private reality of feeling completely rudderless.

And, people become impatient with your grieving. Platitudes are dealt, and advice doled out, by well-meaning friends, relatives and neighbours who are invested in feeling better themselves about your sorry state rather than trying to understand why your loss is so profound and enigmatic to them. To try to make sense of her grief, O'Rourke, admittedly at her nadir, cuts herself, suggesting, "I did not want to hurt myself or die. I just wanted to create some embodiment of the heartbreak eating me up."

What moved me most about THE LONG GOODBYE were the moments remembered in flashes of brilliance like the time her mom gave her a Dick Francis novel when it wasn't Christmas saying, "Why do we wait for holidays to give gifts?" And O'Rourke writes, "her voice was shaky, and it was the first time as an adult that I really felt that one day she would be gone." Such flashes hurt. "They light up your stomach. Then you breathe, look out again. At a party you say my dead mother...It hurts...You are learning the narrative. You are establishing the catechism, responses to the questions."

The death itself was familiar to me, having witnessed as I have the final extended raspy, rattling breaths and pauses between them of both my grandmother and my friend Richard. It is both ordinary and extraordinary: a moment that is essentially awesome. Full of awe.

On Christmas Day 2008, Barbara Kelly O'Rourke died at home: "In the beginning was the wind, the wind made by breath, the word of the wind, and in our hearts we kept telling the story over and over of how we loved her and were there, there, there, once we were all there, and she took a breath like a gasp and her eyes opened and took us in, all of us there, and then she breathed once more, the last breath, and we were there and she was not..."

Her only daughter Meghan bore witness then and bears witness now in this heartbreakingly beautiful book that demystifies what it is to mourn fearlessly and well.

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