The Long Goodbye
By Meghan O'Rourke
Hardcover, 320 pages
List Price: $25.95
My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer shortly before three p.m. on Christmas Day of 2008. I don't know the exact time of her death, because none of us thought to look at a clock for a while after she stopped breathing. She was at home in Connecticut in a hospital bed in the living room with my father, my two younger brothers, and me. She had been unconscious for five days. She opened her eyes only when we moved her, which caused her extreme pain, and so we had begun to move her less and less, despite cautions from the nurses about bedsores. A bedsore wasn't going to kill her.
For several weeks before her death, my mother had experienced confusion from the ammonia that built up in her brain as her liver began to fail. Yet I am irrationally confident that she knew what day it was when she died. I believe that she knew we were around her. I believe she chose to die when she did. Christmas was her favorite day of the year. She adored the morning ritual of walking the dogs and making coffee while we waited impatiently for her to be ready; she taught us to open presents slowly, drawing the gift-giving out for hours. On that last day, her bed was in the room where our tree was, and as we opened presents, she made a madrigal of quiet sounds, as if to indicate that she was with us. Her hair was swept up behind her, and she looked like the mother of my earliest memories.
Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. And because my mother was relatively young — fifty-five — I feel robbed of twenty years with her I'd always imagined having.
I know this may sound melodramatic. I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult; my mother had a good life. We had insurance that allowed us to treat her cancer and to keep her as comfortable as possible before she died. And in the last year of her illness, I got to know my mother as never before. I went with her to the hospital and bought her lunch while she had chemotherapy, searching for juices that wouldn't sting the sores in her mouth. We went to a spiritual doctor who made her sing and passed crystals over her body. We shopped for new clothes together, standing frankly in our underwear in the changing room after years of being shyly polite with our bodies. I crawled into bed with her and stroked her hair when she cried in frustration that she couldn't go to work and apologized for not being a "mother" anymore. I grew to love her in ways I never had. Some of the new intimacy came from finding myself in a caretaking role where, before, I had been the one taken care of. But much of it came from being forced into openness by our sense that time was passing. Every time we had a cup of coffee together (when she was well enough to drink coffee), I thought, against my will: This could be the last time I have coffee with my mother.
Knowing that I was one of the lucky ones didn't make it much easier.
In the months that followed my mother's death, I managed to look like a normal person. I walked down the street; I answered my phone; I brushed my teeth, most of the time. But I was not OK. I was in grief. Nothing seemed important. Daily tasks were exhausting. Dishes piled in the sink, knives crusted with strawberry jam. At one point I did not wash my hair for ten days. I felt that I had abruptly arrived at a terrible, insistent truth about the impermanence of the everyday.
Restless and heavily sad, I would walk through my quiet Brooklyn neighborhood at night, looking in the windows of houses decorated with Christmas lights and menorahs, and think that I could more easily imagine myself floating up into the darkness of the night sky than living in one of those rooms like one of those people. I am a transient in the universe, I thought. Why had I not known that this was what life really amounted to? 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, nor, 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.
Excerpted from The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke. Copyright 2011 by Meghan O'Rourke. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead. All rights reserved.