Near the beginning of The Long Goodbye, her bracing and beautiful memoir of grief, Meghan O'Rourke offers the reader a simple disclaimer: She is one of the lucky ones. She had a good relationship with her mother, who died at the age of 55, of metastatic colorectal cancer. She had time to prepare for the inevitable—to acquaint herself with the billowing depression and "profound ennui" that consumes every survivor. She said her goodbyes, and said them again. She and her mother eventually discovered a "new intimacy"—a fresh "openness"—borne of their shared sense "that time was passing." Her mother died at home, surrounded by friends and family.
But as O'Rourke ruefully notes, "knowing that I was one of the lucky ones didn't make it much easier." In the wake of her mother's death, O'Rourke slips herself into a near-catatonic state. She is "restless and heavily sad," capable of performing requisite daily tasks—brushing her teeth, answering the phone, eating—but unable to shake the feeling that she has arrived at "a terrible, insistent truth about the impermanence of the everyday." This surprises O'Rourke. She is a poet, after all, and what breed of artist is better acquainted with the vicissitudes of death? She has read her Shakespeare—"How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!" Hamlet laments—her Keats, her Longfellow, her Tennyson.
As a poet, O'Rourke has written of death herself. (She is the author of two collections of poems, Halflife and Once, and a critic at Slate.) Why is she so completely lost? Why does she wander through the snow-struck streets of her Brooklyn neighborhood, feeling for all the world like a ghost? The obvious answer, of course, is that experiencing grief is far different from writing it. But O'Rourke proposes a second explanation, and that explanation constitutes the central thesis—and the raison d'ętre—of this very good book:
As grief has been framed as a psychological process, it has also become a more private one. The rituals of public mourning that once helped channel a person's experience of loss have, by and large, fallen away. Many Americans don't wear black or beat their chests and wail in front of others. We may—I have done it—weep or despair, but we tend to do it alone, in the middle of the night. Although our culture has become more open about everything from incest to sex addiction, grief seemed to me like the last taboo.
O'Rourke's solution—and it is an exceptionally brave one—is to throw open the windows on her own grief, to indulge on the page in her own ritual of public mourning.
The Last Goodbye effectively opens in 2006, with a phone call: O'Rourke's mother has been diagnosed with a tumor; the tumor proves to be cancerous. At the time, Barbara O'Rourke is an administrator at a small Connecticut school. She is a career educator, judicious but kind, and accustomed to being physically active. "She was a bit of a child herself," O'Rourke writes. "She had a vivid sense of what makes children feel safe, and she believed in the validity of a child's experience of the world." Meghan is struck dumb by the terrible momentum of the cancer—there is an apparent remission, but the disease returns, fierce as ever—and the way that it seems to infantilize her mother. Mothers should take care of their daughters; it is jarring to see the natural order so violently upset.
The first part of The Long Goodbye chronicles a never-ending flood of doctor's visits—some of them productive, and some of them less so, and all of them played out under the antiseptic glare of hospital lights—and the efforts of O'Rourke and her father and brothers to prepare themselves for the worst. O'Rourke is a tremendously lyric writer, and tender, too, and readers are likely to find themselves shaken by the sheer harmony and fervor of the prose. (This reader certainly was.) Here, O'Rourke watches over her mother, who has returned from the hospital to die:
Sleeping beside my mother's body again, as I did many years ago, I have only grown hungry for more of her. For suddenly the mother is everywhere. She is in the room: expansive, calm, the same brow and mouth. I wake up in the night, hear her breathing—long suck in, two short sucks out; long suck in, two short sucks out, the space between them getting longer and longer—think, She'll be dead three days, easy, and suddenly can't breathe.
Among the great virtues of The Long Goodbye is its honesty, its steadfast refusal to turn away from the rougher truths. So when three paramedics show up to take her mother to the emergency room, O'Rourke acknowledges noting—"in some obscure way"—that one of the paramedics is attractive. She is jealous when her mother lavishes attention on others; she is occasionally angry when her mother does not act like a mother. O'Rourke wants to comforted, even though it is her mother than it dying. After her mother passes away, she admits craving sex. "What I wanted was to be demolished," she writes. She pulls an ex-boyfriend into bed, "with the sensation of diving into deep black water."
The second half of The Long Goodbye, which is structured a little like a mourning diary, is in some places less successful than the book's opening chapters. Mostly, this is a product of contrast: The book opens with a startling and frightening intensity, and peaks with the death of O'Rourke's mother. The later pages, though full of first-rate writing, tend to replicate a quieter, more confusing state of grief; they wander, overlap, meander. O'Rourke recounts books and studies she has read on the subject, and although all of the ideas are interesting, few of them are presented or analyzed at much length; a few long stretches of prose skip from study to study, alighting on one for a moment, before moving on to the next.
But in the final chapters, O'Rourke regains her footing. After sinking into grief, she emerges, wiser and stronger than she was in 2006, when her mother's cancer was first diagnosed. Death, paradoxically, has granted her an ability to understand her existence more fully—to see the "worlds beyond our everyday perceptions." She harkens back to a memory of herself as a child, standing at the gate of a house in Vermont, where her family often vacationed. "I lifted out of myself and understood that I was part of a magnificent book," O'Rourke writes. "What I knew as 'life' was a thin version of something larger, the pages of which had all been written. What I would do, how I would live—it was already known."
Matthew Shaer has written for Harper's, New York, and The Washington Post, among other publications. His first book, Among Righteous Men, will be published by Wiley in October.