As one of the last journalists to spend time with renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross before she died, I can attest to the messiness of death: The mother of the five stages of grief was herself admittedly stuck in a netherworld between suffering and the end. She wanted to die, and she was desperately angry with God for keeping her earthbound. When I wrote about her own dispirited relinquishing of the precise gradations of grief, I drew a backlash from those who wanted her theory to go unexplored.
Yet that is precisely what New York writer and poet Meghan O'Rourke does in her new memoir, A Long Goodbye, and I wonder whether she, too, will hear from those who would rather not hear from her. For the rest of us, this book is a candid, swirling fingerpaint of a memoir that shows pain follows no rhythm nor rhyme.
"Grief is common," O'Rourke writes after her mother, just 55, dies of metastatic colorectal cancer. "But experiencing it made me suddenly aware of how difficult it is to confront head-on. When we do, it's usually in the form of self-help: We want to heal our grief. We've subscribed to the belief (or pretense) that it happens in five tidy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. (The jaggedness of my experience hardly corresponded to these stages.)"
And so when O'Rourke's mother - a much-admired school headmaster - dies in 2008 on Christmas Day, the Brooklyn-raised poet strikes out on her own odyssey to understand why death haunts, why grief hurts, how joy can be restored, if it can. As a student of literature and the daughter of scholars (her Egyptologist father taught Greek and Latin), O'Rourke dives instinctively into the library, poring over the classics, the poets, the erudite and the everyday, desperate to assuage her longing.
While lamenting the lack of public dialogue on death and the dearth of secular mourning rituals, she nevertheless provides us with evidence of plenty - from the psychiatrist who believes that "the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses" to the observations of Proust, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and C.S. Lewis, who balked: "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear."
She is a good pupil, sometimes excessively so, even helpfully providing a list of references to document her research. You can hear her mom, whispering again: "Lighten up, Meg." When she does leave the authorities behind, her own voice reminds us why she won youthful editorial postings at The New Yorker and The Paris Review. "I don't just miss my mother's soul, after all. I miss her laugh, her sarcasm, and the sound of her voice saying my name. I miss her hands, which I shall never see again, for we have burned her body into fine, charcoal ash and small white bones, and that is what is now left of her voice and her eyes and her fingernails."
What do they say? Life is what happens to you while you are busy planning it? The same can be said of literature, for this is not a book about death as much as it about the complexity of life. O'Rourke more than loved her mother, she was in love with her. "It is heartsickness, like the sadness you feel after a breakup, but many times stronger and more desperate."
It would be difficult not to fall for Barbara Kelly O'Rourke, the woman who at 16 married her high-school teacher, had two children by the time she was 25, artfully juggled a career as senior educator with her roles of mother, wife, sister, confidante, best friend to many. She laughed a lot, drove fast, danced, read, played, adjudicated fairly, inspired, taught her children to catch fireflies and swim in frigid lakes. "With other people, with strangers, I count the hours until I can go be alone and get back to my secret preoccupation, my romance with my lost mother."
In fact, this is a love story O'Rourke has been recording all her life. At 6, she wrote: "TO MOM. I LOVE YOU. I LOVE THE STORIES YOU MAKE WITH ME. I LIKE THE BED YOU MADE FOR MY DOLL HOUSE. I HAVE A GOOD TIME WITH YOU. YOUR A GOOD MOM. YOUR A GOOD SEWER. HOW COME YOU ARE SO NICE. AND HAPPY BIRTHDAY."
Bereft, the adult daughter strains to understand: "How come you are so nice. I think I really wanted know. In that moment, my mother's death is a flat thing, impossible to accept."
Much has been written by those who stand witness to the withering of a loved one and the weaning off of those left behind; each writer brings his or her unique personal perspective to the most inevitable of fates. O'Rourke is different not in her mourning (which occasionally teeters on repetitive self-pity) but because what she is losing is so substantial: This mother-daughter love affair is more intense than many will experience. Her parent's extraordinary charisma, not to mention intellect, is both what gave O'Rourke the courage to risk this writing and what leaves such thundering loss.
Some day, O'Rourke may find the peace and the perspective to also deliver a closer look not at what she no longer has but at what she had the great good luck to experience: a wonderful and empowering childhood.
Paula Todd is a reporter with CTV's W5 and the author of A Quiet Courage.