Starred review from February 21, 2011
In this eloquent, somber memoir about the death of her mother and grieving aftermath, poet and journalist O'Rourke (Halflife) ponders the eternal human question: how do we live with the knowledge that we will one day die? O'Rourke's mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer on Christmas day 2008; the headmaster of a Westport, Conn., private school, she was only 55 years old, and left a stricken husband, two sons, and daughter O'Rourke, the eldest sibling. O'Rourke had shuttled back and forth from her life in Brooklyn and then job at Slate over the preceding year to care for her increasingly debilitated mother. The two were extremely close, and the shock of her mother's illness devastated the whole family (the author married her longtime boyfriend shortly after the Stage 4 diagnosis, then separated just as quickly). Over the last months, O'Rourke was bracing herself, "preparing" for her mother's death, by reading everything she could during the dizzying rounds of doctors' and hospital visits, until the family could take their mother home to die in a heavily medicated peace. Anxious by nature, secretive, often emotionally brittle, O'Rourke grew acutely sensitive to her mother's changing states over the last months, desperate for a sign of her mother's love to carry her through the months of bereavement. O'Rourke heals herself in this pensive, cerebral work, moving from intense anguish and nostalgia to finding solace in dreams, sex, and the comforting words of other authors.