The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke
2011 Penguin Audio
Reader: Meghan O’Rourke
Finished on June 10, 2014
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
“Meghan O’Rourke has written a beautiful memoir about her loss of a truly irreplaceable mother—yes, it is sad, it is in fact heartrending, but it is many things more: courageous, inspiring, wonderfully intelligent and informed, and an intimate portrait of an American family as well.” ~ Joyce Carol Oates
From one of America’s foremost young literary voices, a transcendent portrait of the anguish of grief and the enduring power of familial love.
What does it mean to mourn today, in a culture that has largely set aside rituals that acknowledge grief? After her mother’s death, Meghan O’Rourke found that nothing had prepared her for the intensity of her sorrow. In the first anguished days, she began to create a record of her interior life as a mourner, trying to capture the paradox of grief—its monumental agony and microscopic intimacies—and endeavor that ultimately produced this book. With poignant lyricism and unswerving candor, O’Rourke captures the fleeting moments of joy that make up a life, and the way memory can lead us out of the jagged darkness of loss. Effortlessly blending research and reflection, the personal and the universal, The Long Goodbye is not only an exceptional memoir, but a necessary one.
As I read Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir, The Long Goodbye, I was instantly transported back to December of last year, when I sat with my mother, brothers, and sisters as my stepfather, diagnosed only months earlier with cancer, slipped ever so slowly from this world. O’Rourke’s mother died of colon cancer in 2008, also in December (sadly, on Christmas Day). In her memoir, O’Rourke touches on so many (far too many) familiar topics about the death of a parent. As I listened, I found myself going to the ARC, which I’ve had on my shelves since 2011, noting and re-reading passages, nodding my head in agreement. Meghan’s voice and prose reminded me of Kelly Corrigan (another favorite author), tugging at my heartstrings, a lump growing in my throat as I willed myself not to cry in public as I listened to the audio book.
I was not entirely surprised to find that being a mourner was lonely. But I was surprised to discover that I felt lost. In the days following my mother’s death, I did not know what I was supposed to do, no, it seemed, did my friends and colleagues, especially those who had never suffered a similar loss. Some sent flowers but did not call for weeks. One friend launched into fifteen minutes of small talk when she saw me, before asking how I was, as if we had to warm up before diving into the churning, dangerous waters of grief. Others sent worried e-mails a few weeks later, signing off: “I hope you’re doing well.” It was a kind sentiment, but it made me angry. I was not “doing well.” And I found no relief in that worn-out refrain that at least my mother was “no longer suffering.”
Mainly, I thought one thing: My mother is dead, and I want her back. I wanted her back so intensely that I didn’t want to let go.
At least, not yet.
On the last taboo:
Grief is common, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude brusquely reminds him. We know it exists in our midst. 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.) 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 we have become more open about everything from incest to sex addiction, grief remains strangely taboo. In our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent.
On seeking the answers:
Sitting here among my precarious stacks of books about death and grief, trying to get “a handle” on what this loss means, trying to collect the information and set it all down, I am struck suddenly by the ridiculousness of my endeavor. I have felt that, as Flaubert wrote, “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” But life is out there in the world, in the hum of enterprise, flirtation, engagement, watching a sunrise, the sand under your feet, and the green in your eyes; life is in the moths fluttering up at dusk into the candle flames on a porch in summer.
I sit here in my tiny study, bills dropped on the floor, books piling by the desk—Death and Western Thought, Death’s Door, The Denial of Death, This Republic of Suffering—believing in some primitive part of my brain that if I read them all, if I learn everything there is to know, I’ll solve the problem. I will find the answer to the equation. And when I look up from my dutiful work, my head bowed to the page, there will be my mother again, saying, Good night, Meg from the door, the dog at her heels, her hair loose around her face, her eyes that were so particular, so hers—there she will be.
Where is she?
She is gone, and I will be, too, one day. I wake to my warm room, the wind roaring outside and the sun just coming up on another ordinary Tuesday when I will teach my class and go out to get coffee and eat some salad for lunch. But all the while my brain will be preoccupied by the question of death. And that makes it hard, at times, to pay my bills or pay attention to concerns of this world.
I can’t find the information I want in all these books. Not even in the Bible, which sits there, too, a fat red tome full of old wisdom. And that is my answer: I need to walk in the streets, through the bracing, chill air, to know it, to feel it, because it cannot be merely thought about.
Anyone who has lost a parent, anyone who has sat beside one in hospice, anyone who has a heart, will not read this book with a dry eye. None of us will ever escape the death of a loved one and yet no one teaches us how to grieve. After losing my stepdaughter Rachel, I immersed myself in books about the loss of a child and now that I’ve lost a parent, I find myself drifting toward books about the loss of a spouse, as well as those dealing with the loss of a mother. Like O’Rourke, I’ve looked to books such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed for answers and consolation. I feel the need to have a road map to help guide me into the future, to not only be mentally prepared for that time in my life, but to also be comforted in the words of those who have survived what I know will eventually come. And yet, as I learned when we lost our daughter, nothing can prepare you for the death of a loved one, whether that death is expected or a knock-you-to-your-knees shock. Each and every loss is unique (and unbelievably painful) just as each and every loved one is unique in life. Having said that, I felt comforted hearing O’Rourke’s words, which are so familiar after nine years of grief.