For the last three weeks, I’ve kept my distance from Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye , reading it in batches, then putting it out of my reach until I could bring myself to pick it up again. I ran scared from this book, not because I didn’t think it would be worth reading, but because when I read it, I unraveled. When my father died in a swimming accident during my sophomore year at college, I gave myself a solid mourning period to sit shiva, be alone in my thoughts, and compose a list of wants and needs that would clue friends into what I was going through. And then time was up: I had to go back to my regularly scheduled, pleasantly affable life. Now over seven years later, I felt sorrow freshly nipping at my ankles each time I gingerly cracked open O’Rourke’s book. But as much as I wanted to avoid it, her book haunted me, nagged at me. It was a constant reminder of what I wasn’t doing: stopping and acknowledging a sadness that has never really gone away, and is something that will never be managed or contained.
O’Rourke’s book doesn’t tell me what to do with my grief, or provide overly generalized statements on what it means to mourn—and in that sense it might be one of the least judgmental memoirs I have ever read. Instead of judging, O’Rourke presents the intimate details of the loss of her mother, and by diving all the way down to the bottom of her sorrow, O’Rourke steeps the reader in her experience. Because every line she writes is so truthful, so unblinkingly direct, every sentence knocks the reader right back into her own aching memories. It was impossible to keep my own experiences on the sideline, or to annotate O’Rourke’s prose with scribblings of recognition. Every time I tried to become a detached reader, my thoughts kept coming out like the flat, well-intentioned but useless condolences that the mourner often receives.
But O’Rourke isn’t out to solicit my sympathy or even praise, and she has no interest in being an authority on grief. “I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult; my mother had a good life,” she says, “Knowing I was one of the lucky ones didn’t make it much easier.” Instead of providing you with a guide to grief, O’Rourke volunteers the story of her mother’s death from colorectal cancer almost in real time. Taking in her thoughts, you get the sense that you are sitting opposite from her on a whispering bench: she quietly murmurs the most intimate thoughts to herself, and you hear them crisply at a very long distance. It is a secret meant to be shared among members of a club that no one ever wants to join.
As she chronicles the three years from her mother’s diagnosis to death, and the mourning period that followed, O’Rourke alternately laces her sorrow with wit, sarcasm, and rage—and never hides it away from the reader. The narrative is almost keening with every emotion one could feel as someone they love slips away: anger, frustration, wishful thinking, deep regret, and even deeper denial. Even though her mother is sick, she throws herself into an affair with a man across the country, laying out a deliberate distance between herself and reality.
As I was doing all this, the watcher in me—the part that now and then stepped back and observed my life—thought my actions betrayed how fundamentally irrational human experience is. No one I loved had ever died. Perhaps I believed that if I changed everything, the inevitable would not come, whereas staying put meant acknowledging the awful trajectory we were on.
O’Rourke beautifully elaborates on the strange unreality she experienced throughout her mother’s illness, constantly wondering if everyday moments were meant to become more poignant, more dramatically evocative. A longtime critic and poet, O’Rourke has a flair for employing lyric, but she finds that imposing such beauty and emotional highs strips her experiences of their true value. She wants to leave herself open to the pain, as though the universality of death might make it less personally devastating: “I told myself that my pain was the pain of a lucky person whose life was about to be touched by the ineluctably real for the first time. I was thirty-two; I shouldn’t be so destroyed by what was happening. And yet this kind of mental calculus had no impact on my limbic system.”
Knowing that the only certainty of life is death doesn’t make it any easier to her to bear the loss, and there’s no narrative structure that can contain all of O’Rourke’s thoughts. So it spins outward, becoming achronological and unruly. She can’t invent an alternative ending “as if had I pushed harder at one of these moments, had I been more aware, all would have changed…it is what I am still doing, rummaging through the bric-a-brac of my mind for possible alternatives, the family silver that was put aside in the attic but still gleams unseen in the autumn sun.” Maybe she gets led astray by her poetic impulses, but the grieving heart can’t help but become a little florid. And I get where she’s coming from: when you grieve, you’re constantly imagining ways in which you could’ve dodged the current state of things. If there was something that could’ve been said, you would’ve said it. If you could’ve known the tide was too strong, you would have stayed on shore. The magical thinking sustains us not just because it’s more pleasant, but because it’s less possible, less real than what you’re experiencing now.
But even in the moments of highest fantasy and fanciest prose, the real details of who we’ve lost remain. And though the memoir of her passing gets rhapsodic from time to time, the real presence of the late Barbara O’Rourke anchors us. Rather than incorporating her mother as a ghost, Meghan O’Rourke revives her, bringing in beautifully specific qualities and memories to cherish. Her mother notices tiny details in Monet’s painting The Magpie; she pulls her young daughter out of an overly long bath with a tall tale and a fluffy towel; she guides her children with a measured pragmatism, telling them to “hasten slowly” toward their destinies; she possess a beautiful, frightening frailty as she tries on new clothes in the last months of her illness. Barbara is everywhere, but never solely for the purpose of illustrating grief: she was vibrant and funny and smart and undeniably alive, and her corporeal absence only serves to remind us that there will be no new memories created with her.
But mourning her is not so circumscribed, O’Rourke realizes, and though her mother’s body may be gone, her influence is much harder to keep track of. Months after her death, as she and her siblings get ready to throw her mother’s ashes to the wind, they start to worry about the Big Lebowski effect—the ashes blowing back in their faces, getting woven into their hair and mouths, hard to brush off. But her father gets it—mourning is messy. “You do this, and it just feels real—it’s part of real life, too. There’s wind, it’s messy. And you realize you can’t avoid the Big Lebowski effect.” The grief blows back over her, gets tangled up in her daily life, becomes inseparable from her daily life. You never really get over this kind of loss, because it never really goes away. And nothing’s messier than that.
But it’s her willingness to get messy—to get real, with the experience of grief—that makes O’Rourke shine. She does take time to consult other authorities on grief—C.S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, even Emily Dickinson, “a women who knew what it meant to carry a burden”—and though their writings give her new directions for her grief to follow, they cannot carry the same immediacy or relevance when placed alongside her own. She may respect these authors, but it’s her voice I came for, because she’s speaking to me as a fellow member of the club. And as she moves out of the immediacy of her mother’s death and into the present day, the narrative structure gently crumbles about her. This seems right: show me a structure to the end of grief, and I’ll show you a road with no destination in sight. Mourning becomes part of your everyday life—wishing someone was there; someone could laugh with you, notice the things you’re noticing. Their presence becomes an aspiration, a thread of hope and desire and longing that makes it impossible to move forward at the same speed.
A few weeks after my father died, my mother started finding the pennies. She found them in odd places—in shoes in her closet, on the sidewalk by her car, in pockets of pants that hadn’t been worn in a very long time. She said they always appeared when she was thinking about my dad, especially in moments of real doubt and anxiety. “I would wish he was there,” she’d say, “and then there were pennies everywhere.” It took a long time for me to see a stray penny without thinking “Oh, there he is.” Maybe I’m meant to keep seeing it this way, to stop and notice the pennies, and to let his absence stick around. But there’s no possible way to sum up his death, his loss, his memory and my still being here to feel it. These things are just too messy to fit into a tidy synopsis.