A Family Comes Together In Joy And Grieving

The Long Goodbye is Meghan O'Rourke's memoir about her mother's death from colorectal cancer and her own grieving process. In this excerpt, O'Rourke, her brothers Liam and Eamon, and family friend Diana have an emotional encounter with O'Rourke's mom, who is beginning to suffer confusion as a result of her illness.

After a long trip, I opened the door to the smell of turkey and pie and thought: I still have a home. "Hello!" I cried out. Inside, Diana and my mother were chopping vegetables. For a moment everything seemed comfortingly familiar.

But my mother's hair was messy and tangled and she waved hello absently. She was shuffling oddly, perhaps because of the pain from the tumors in her spine, and her pants drooped around her hips. When I gave her a kiss she only half responded, as if some part of her maternal brain were simply no longer present. My father, meanwhile, was stretched out on the couch, looking bleary-eyed and feverish. He didn't even say hello. (The next day, we would discover that he had pneumonia and shingles, as if the universe wished to add insult to injury.)

I busied myself unpacking groceries when I heard my mother shuffle toward me. "Meg," she said, bitterly. "There's bird shit on the car." Diana shot me a glance — a sympathetic, oh-no glance.

"Oh," I said. "I'm sorry."

"That is very bad for the car," she said.

"OK," I said. "I'll get it washed."

"It eats away at the veneer, it's very bad."

"Mom!" I snapped, wheeling around. "I know. There is nothing I can do about it now — I'll take it to be cleaned tomorrow."

She rolled her eyes and walked away. I joined Diana and, pretending nothing happened, began washing the apples for the pie; as we talked, my mother shuffled over to the kitchen sink. She picked up a sponge, dumped dish soap on it. Shuffle shuffle, toward the garage door. Diana raised an eyebrow.

Exit cancer-riddled mother to wash car with sponge.

It might have seemed amusing if it hadn't been so damn awful.

"Mom!" I shouted. "What are you doing?"

"I am cleaning the bird shit off the car," she said acerbically. She meant clearly: You are favored no more, my daughter.

I felt I was losing my mind. "Don't do that," I said. Shuffle shuffle.

I followed her into the garage; she was bent over the car, fruitlessly swiping at the encrusted bird shit with the fucking sponge.

"Mom, don't do that," I snapped. "I'll have it cleaned tomorrow."

Bending down, she muttered about the wax and the bird shit eating away at the wax; in confusion, I retreated to the kitchen. She came back in the house. "Are you upset with me?" she said. "Are you upset about something?"

When I got angry as a kid I would hide in my bedroom and get under my quilt and cry till I was too hot and sweaty to stay under it anymore. The quilt was yellow, patterned with dark yellow butterflies. The light around me would be golden and gorgeous and redolent of my grief and wronged status. Finally, when I had wept myself out, I would emerge. Now I wanted to do the same. Instead I said, "Yes, I'm upset. I haven't seen you, I had a horrible, hard week, it's Thanksgiving, and the first thing you do is scold me about the bird shit. It doesn't seem that important."

We were standing in the kitchen regarding each other with dismay, everyone around us trying not to watch.

"I know, Meg." She had never been able to take it when I criticized her. "But the bird shit is really not good for the car." Inside me, some last plank of steadiness broke. There was nothing motherly about her. The mother in her would have noticed my desperation; she would have put her hands on my shoulders and said I'm sorry you feel this way, honey, I'm sorry. This was not my mother. This was a shuffling alien with scary hair.

"Mom, I'm having a hard time."

"I understand that," she said. "But —"

It was too much for me. I erupted.

"Mom, you have never supported my divorce, you don't know what this is like —"

"You need to calm down, Meg," she said.

"I do not need to calm down," I said. "You are always telling me to calm down. You are always telling me how things are. This is how I feel." I dug my fingernails into my arm so deeply they tore the skin open. I pushed up my sleeve and saw blood on my arm. "Do you see what I've done to myself?" I said, in shock. (I was not exactly doing a good job of demonstrating that I didn't need to calm down.) My father on the couch opened his eyes and then closed them, as if he were just too sick to deal with whatever was happening now.

"I'm sorry you feel this way, but it's not true," she continued. "You need to relax."

"Look what I've done!" I cried.

Fumbling through tears, I ran upstairs, no longer able to keep up the pretense of being the helpful daughter. I was furious at her confusion, furious at her helplessness. Why was she letting this disease attack her brain? Why was she betraying us? Why was she so mad at me?

I went to the bathroom to wash my face and the face that looked back was not my own. I slid down the side of the sink, the cabinet knobs digging into my back, and wept convul- sively, clutching my right arm with my left, digging my nails further into the skin of the inner arm, nearer the veins. I felt unsafe, unloved, in pain that could not be borne. I eyed the window. It was too small to escape through.

Desperate, I called my ex-husband, who was at his parents' home, forty minutes away, and, listening to me sob — I couldn't get a word out — he said, "I'm coming to get you." I said, finally, "No, just call me a taxi. I want to leave now."

Liam and Eamon knocked on the door. They told me to stay. "We'll take you to Brooklyn later," Liam said. "You're really upset, and it's not a good idea for you to be alone." They were clearly worried I might hurt myself. But I was not going to hurt myself. I just wanted to flee the pain that lay like a fog in the house; getting away would be like turning a blank page, to a new story, a different one.

Eamon, who has always had a precocious calm in the face of confrontation, hugged me and said, "Of course Mom loves you, she only says wonderful things about you."

"OK," I wailed.

Then our mother was hanging shyly at the door. She seemed uncertain of her role. "Meg," she said, urgency in her voice. "Come in," Eamon said, reaching his arm out to her. Her face crumpled. Suddenly I could see it — the trace hieroglyphics that say Mother.

"I don't want anyone to be sad," she said, running her hands through her hair.

"But we are sad, Mom," I said.

"But I don't want you to be."

"It's OK, it's OK for us to be sad, it's natural."

"You're amazing. You are my children. I love you," she said haltingly. "I know you've had a hard time and maybe I have been judgmental. And you're right, it's your feelings, you are the ones who have them. . . . I just don't like to fail you."

Liam said, slowly, "It's OK, Mom. We are going to be sad. It would be weird if we weren't. You have to let us be sad."

"I know," she said at last, crying, nodding. His words always calmed her. "It's just so hard. I just want everyone to be OK. Tell me you'll be OK."

We were in a circle now, hugging. Eamon was slouched over, wiping tears away and looking away, and I was, at once, in ruinous joy and pain, and somehow it was all mixed together like paint, like old stains and water cracks and new color.

Reprinted from The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Meghan O'Rourke.

The Long Goodbye

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