Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir about the death, from colorectal cancer, of her mother Barbara is a beautiful piece of writing—simultaneously heart-wrenching and life-affirming, if I may be permitted to veer dangerously close to maudlin territory here. I broke into full-on tears no less than three times, and found O’Rourke’s narrative almost scarily relatable, despite the fact that my own mother is (thank God) alive and well. Of course, there are reasons for this other than the universality of her experience—like me, O’Rourke grew up in Brooklyn and her younger brother and mine were childhood best friends. And despite the fact that she’s about twenty thousand times as smart and successful as I am, so many anecdotes from her life mirrored my own. Of course, her family’s summers in Vermont recalled my own’s annual vacations to rustic lodges in New Hampshire, but even her struggle to reconcile her visceral spiritual longing with her mental commitment to atheism seemed to perfectly parallel both my own inner contestations and my role as the “religious conservative” (that is, agnostic) in my ultra-liberal family.
Like O’Rourke before the death of her mother, I’ve never experienced great loss—yet. I know it’s coming; as O’Rourke herself points out, it is the nature of things, and indeed the preferred course of events, for parents to die before their children. I claim frequently that I don’t know what I’d do without my mom, that when the day invariably arrives that she leaves me, I’m pretty sure I’ll completely fall apart. On that note, O’Rourke’s book is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. She watched her mother die before her eyes—something I truly don’t believe I could handle—and came away undeniably scarred, yes, but she came away all the same. She survived, she moved on. As she recounts telling a friend, “the pain doesn’t go away, but the anguish does.” Admittedly, sometimes the anguish is prolonged, marking the difference between “normal grieving” (life begin to normalize after about six months) and “complicated grieving,” but generally speaking, death is such an egalitarian phenomenon that it’s debilitating effects simply must dissipate with time.The human race wouldn’t survive any other way.
O’Rourke, like Joan Didion in the wonderful, affecting The Year of Magical Thinking—the title refers to the year after Didion’s beloved husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead at the dinner table from a heart attack—“goes to the literature.” That is, she relies heavily on the books and poems that have already eloquently elucidated what she so struggles to put into words. Didion quotes Walter Savage Landor and E.E. Cummings, O’Rourke Tennyson, Keats and Shakespeare, but the point is—and this is the same reason why I have always derived such comfort from literature and poetry—someone else has felt the way they do. History’s greatest literary minds were not immune to the same conditions that afflict us all, even to this day; no matter how much the world changes, and no matter who’s speaking of them, love and death are immutable. And there’s something inherently beautiful in this recognition, in the knowledge that no matter what divides us, all of humanity is united by those two simple and inexorable phenomena—and in the fact that a twenty-first-century writer trying to cope with the death of her mother can reread Hamlet’s expressions of inner turmoil over losing his father and having the world (particularly his mother) seem utterly indifferent, and “get it” so viscerally.
While, again, I am on the outside looking in at the Meghan O’Rourkes and Joan Didions of the world, unable to truly understand their suffering thanks simply to my extraordinary luck thus far, as I’ve grown older (and, I hope, wiser), I’ve begun to appreciate the myriad effects of death—and, for the matter, love—on the human psyche. I can’t tell you how many times people have brushed off a reaction to despair—say, Anna Karenina hurling herself in front of a train or Madame Bovary forcing her brutal end with poison—with claims that it’s preposterous. I remember first reading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in middle school and feeling utterly bewildered by the ending—why on Earth would John Proctor invite his own death by refusing to issue a false confession, simply to preserve his good name? What the hell did that matter when his life was at stake? I remember so vividly re-reading the play a few years ago and finally “getting it.” That’s not to say I would have made the same choice in his shoes; in fact, I’m fairly certain I would not have. But I got why he did. If this seems like an irrelevant anecdote, what I am attempting to emphasize is the relative nature of death. What might seem an extreme reaction to one is a perfectly logical response to another; each reckoning with the Beast is unique, and cannot be judged or understood by anybody else. And ultimately, what O’Rourke comes to terms with is Death, not just grief.
Intellectually, grievers know that what they are mourning is wholly natural, that—according to some—it does not even merit prolonged recognition. (I’m thinking here of one of my favorite poems, Dylan Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” whereupon he insists that: “I shall not murder/The mankind of her going with a grave truth/Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath/With any further/Elegy of innocence and youth.”) And yet we continue searching for that “grave truth” that grief is meant to reveal to us, and this happens after almost any kind of loss, whether it’s a death, a breakup or even a missed opportunity—we are compelled to look for lessons, for a pattern in what feels like utter madness and absurdity. No wonder religion is so popular, and no wonder we agnostics and atheists struggle—I’ll venture more than most—to reconcile the spiritual longings that are inherent to humanity with the ability to reason that is no less important.
Note: The book won’t officially be published until April; I read a galley copy. The advantages of having an editor for a mother :-).
Recommended: This correspondence between O’Rourke and Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Times; O’Rourke’s excerpt of The Long Goodbye in this past week’s The New Yorker; her meditation on grief from a 2010 issue of The New Yorker; and a TNY live chat with O’Rourke from last week.