Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke

This memoir by Ms. O'Rourke is touchingly written about her experience during her mother's colon cancer diagnosis, the mother's subsequent treatment and recurrence, her mother's eventual death, and the transformation that occurs in both her and her family members as a result of the mother's death at an early age.  Initially, I think we all have the concept, whether acknowledged or not, that our parents have been constants in our lives and will forever be constants.  Alas, no they are humans with frailities and are susceptible to the changes time inevitably brings to all our doors.  When Ms. O-Rourke's mom is diagnosed in her early fifties with colon cancer, there is a reassurance of okay, this is what we are unfortunately dealing with, but there is treatment available which will in time stabilize or cure the disease.  And in many instances with a cancer diagnosis, the patient does experience remission only to have the ugly beast known as cancer to rear its ugly head once again after months or years.  The worst feeling is when the cancer patient is informed there is nothing more we can do for your illness; we have exhausted all treatment options; the disease must run its course.  Maybe you can take part in experimental treatments or clinical trials, but our current medical capabilities are no longer beneficial to your care or case.  That's when the reality slaps you up side the face.

When your parent experiences cancer and its treatments, you as their son or daughter start noticing changes. If in this instance it is a parent you begin to watch them become more childlike.  They can't get around like they used to; they start to maybe appear dishelveled; they have little energy; and they can begin to have memory lapses or vision changes.  You find yourself in a role reversal with your own mother or father.  In Ms. O'Rourke's mother's case, the mental and vision changes are so pronounced that both daughter and mother find themselves back in a hospital emergency room with Ms. O'Rourke being the one to suggest that maybe the cancer has spread to her mother's brain.  The subsequent scans prove she is correct.  Now you are not only acting as a parent, but a doctor and detective.

During Christmas Ms. O'Rourke's mother passes away surrounded by her family and the seasonal decor dotting the family living room.  That's the way the mother wanted it to be.  The funeral home arrives to pick up the body for cremation.  And at this point, Ms. O'Rourke longs for the rituals some families and religions have to honor the dead as well as comfort the grieving.  Rituals like sitting shiva, wearing black, viewings, receptions, and people bringing food to the family home.  Eventually, Ms. O'Rourke and her family scatter the mother's ashes at the beach, and some are later scattered by the grandmother and siblings by a tree at a lake the family frequented. 

It's hard when you lose a parent even if you know it's coming.  Sights, sounds, and smells will remind you of the one you have lost.  Sometimes you think you hear their voice parenting you once again, but in reality, it's you learning to parent yourself.  Family members vary in how they handle death.  Some may withdraw from the world; some may turn to various forms of escapism; some try to work themselves to a frenzy to bring back a sense of normalcy; and others remain lost trying to find a way to move forward and make sense of a new reality without the relative who has departed. 

The whole experience of losing a parent is explained well by Ms. O'Rourke.  It just goes to show that a memoir about disease, death, and transformation can be a learning experience.  I did not find this book depressing; I found it to be highly reealistic and thought-provoking.  The use of poetry throughout the book complements the writer's anguish and needs during a tumultuous time in her life.  I applaud Ms. O'Rourke's endeavors and sincerely hope I get the opportunity to share my memoir with the world one day.