The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Trade, $16.00, 320 pages)
Someone once wrote: “We fear death the way children fear going into the dark.” Meghan O’Rourke
There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading/ When things that seemed so very plain/ Became an awful pain/ Searching for the truth among the lying/ And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying… But you’re still with me. George Harrison (“The Art of Dying”)
Meghan O’Rourke has presented us with a serious, somber and thoughtful memoir about the grief she suffered when her mother died at the age of fifty-five. Although her mother’s age is noted, one has the impression that she would have felt the same burden if her mother had lived to be 100, as O’Rourke was simply unprepared to live in a world without its (to her) most important resident. As she states so well, “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you used to be when the lost one was alive… One night (my brother) Liam said to me, as we were driving home from my dad’s to Brooklyn, ‘I am not as sad as I was, but the thing is, it’s just less fun and good without her.'”
In order to deal with her pain, O’Rourke conducted a personal study of death, the standard fear of it, religious beliefs and the traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that’s been done on the human grieving process. She even addresses the matter of grief in animal colonies. One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has often been misunderstood. These were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through, not the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through.
O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with the reader. She has been afraid since childhood of the notion of death and yet it remained an abstract – if still frightening – notion up until her mother’s passing. Then her grief became all-consuming, and it became something that she could not put aside in order to live a “normal” life. Grief, in a sense, made her crazy for a period of time but it also brought with it some very valuable lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life. As O’Rourke’s father told her several months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to appreciate what he did possess in the world and the universe.
After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.
There’s a sense of accepting humbleness that permeates O’Rourke’s account. Although she was raised as a Catholic, she refers numerous times to Buddhism. If there’s a weakness in the telling, it’s a factor that naturally affects most memoirs, a tendency to make one’s own life sound more important than that of the others that share the planet with the writer. And, like Julie Metz in Perfection, O’Rourke tends to tell her readers more than they would actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.
At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive when it comes to social relationships. At the time that her mother died (at Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without the benefit of an explanation – comes back into her life, and she wonders why, “…he always seemed to be holding back – why, I did not know.” The reader wants to scream back at her, “Because you dumped him when you went away to college!” (The ex was simply acting like a normal, scarred, self-protective human being.)
But these are minor points, because O’Rourke succeeds quite well in making us examine death as something both micro and macro; internal and external. It is something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is key in our lives. In her almost philosophical approach to examining death and dying, she has written not only a monumental love story for the person who went missing in her life, she has also placed death in its natural and proper context.
(I think I wanted to grow up to be my mother, and it was confusing to me that she already was her.)
This is, in the end, a work about acceptance – the good with the bad – life continuing on through death, the sudden eclipse of a life and eternal love. O’Rourke masterfully teaches us about the art of dying, a matter for both hearts and heads (minds).
Very, very well done. Highly recommended.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Long Goodbye: A Memoir was released as a trade paperback book on April 5, 2012. “We feel our own grief, past and potential, as O’Rourke grapples with hers… Now her book can provide similar comfort for others.” The Washington Post
“And life flows on within you and without you…” George Harrison (“Love You To”)