When her mother died from cancer at the age of 53, American poet Meghan O'Rourke found that nothing prepared her for the intensity of her grief. Waking up in a world without her mother she says was "like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable." O'Rourke's unsparing chronicle of her mother's death explains how it felt to travel from a place of safety to a more desolate shore.
On learning of her mother's diagnosis – she was in the final stage of colorectal cancer – O'Rourke threw herself into a frenzy of displacement activity. She quit her job, married her long-term boyfriend, left him a few months later and had an affair. She accompanied her mother to oncologist appointments, researched websites for miracle cures and rowed with her father over a car. Knowing time was limited didn't make her behave any better as a person or a daughter: "You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing."
Interwoven into the narrative are flashbacks to the author's girlhood and memories of her mother as a young woman. Her most cherished scenes come from family summers in Vermont – catching fireflies with her brothers and belly-flopping into a lake to a round of maternal applause. We learn how the youthful Barbara came to marry her classics teacher, Meghan's bookish father, and then went on to teach alongside him at the same Brooklyn high school. She was a vivacious woman who loved driving fast cars and drinking in the hot tub with her sisters.
Not just a homily on what it is to lose a parent, O'Rourke's memoir looks at the flimsy comforts handed out to modern mourners. She recalls how after her mother's death acquaintances tried to chivvy her out of her despair, but says she came to envy her Jewish friends the practice of saying Kaddish. Nothing had prepared her for the finality of her mother's absence, and the lack of ritual surrounding her departure. She took to reading Freud and Shakespeare to get to grips with the grim finality of non-existence.
O'Rourke's greatest solace rested with her mother herself – the "shell in which you divide and become a life." During Barbara's last days, Meghan describes how she started to weep inconsolably and tell her mother how much she would miss her. Instead of telling her not to worry, her mother simply replied: "I know." A hard-hitting and tender account of a drama that is as challenging as it is commonplace.