Meghan O’Rourke, who writes for Slate.com, had an extraordinary mother. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion after reading “The Long Goodbye,” a moving memoir of losing a parent and the ensuing tailspin into grief. The reader comes to appreciate Barbara O’Rourke as a person — her gifts as an educator, the endearing way she would shout obscenities at other drivers — but the book also evokes the universalities of love and pain. We feel our own grief, past and potential, as O’Rourke grapples with hers.
That the person she watches die of cancer is her mother imparts an added sense of heartbreak. “I was irrevocably aware that the Person Who Loved Me Most in the World was about to be dead,” she writes.
In the hands of a less talented writer, this kind of sentiment could lead to mawkishness. O’Rourke, however, capitalizes on her background as a poet, sprinkling her prose with imagery and metaphor to capture sensations ranging from the perfection of a summer evening in Vermont to the embrace of her mother under the flowering branches of a weeping cherry tree. There are also unexpected moments of poignant humor, as when O’Rourke casts her mother’s ashes into the wind, only to have them blow back onto her brother.
O’Rourke resists the platitudes of friends and strangers who try to comfort her. To try to understand what she’s going through, and why contemporary society seems so ill-equipped to handle death and dying, she does what any good writer would: She researches. Scientific studies of people in mourning, literature (“Hamlet,” in particular) and the accounts of other authors all help O’Rourke understand the grief that often leaves her feeling abnormal and alone. Now her book can provide similar comfort for others.