Meghan O’Rourke began her career as a fiction editor at The New Yorker. More recently she was a longtime editor at Slate and then a poetry editor for the Paris Review. Halflife, her debut book of poems, won widespread praise. But the publication of her memoir The Long Goodbye, which just received an enthusiastic plug on Oprah, will soon introduce her to a whole new audience. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to one of the most celebrated young writers in America about love, loss and laughter and how being Irish helped her find her way.
When poet and author Meghan O’Rourke’s mother passed away on Christmas Day 2008 aged 55, the first sign that was something was wrong was that people stopped using her mother’s name almost immediately.
“When you’re in mourning you actually want people to use the name of the person who died,” O’Rourke tells the Irish Voice.
“But out of embarrassment or fear they’d say the wrong thing people just stop talking about her. I was thinking about my mom all the time, and no one else would talk to me about her.”
All this enforced silence didn’t help O’Rourke, 35, cope with the reality of her loss. In fact it started to make her feel angry and isolated.
As she notes at the beginning of her eloquent new book The Long Goodbye (Riverhead), the bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.
“I had a feeling that I had no language to speak to my friends and colleagues who had not gone through a loss like mine. And I realized I had not understood friends who had gone through that kind of loss earlier in life,” she said.
“I had a friend whose father died while I was in college, but it wasn’t until my mother died that I realized – oh man, did I not get it.”
Grieving was almost like being in another world, she discovered. It was totally different from what she thought it would be like.
“I had pictured it as just being really sad -- and you are -- but there all these other things too; feelings of dislocation and estrangement from myself and the world, and I started having questions like what was the world really, and where do we come from?
“I was shaken out of my everyday life in a way that I didn’t anticipate being.”
To gather her thoughts and make some sense of them, O’Rourke decided to write about them. To begin with she wondered if was she totally abnormal.
Was it weird, she wondered, that she felt she was having such a hard time concentrating? Was she having a bizarre reaction to her mother’s death or a normal one?
“After a loss,” she writes, “you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.”
What O’Rourke eventually discovered was that she was having the very typical reaction to her loss that most mourners have. She just had no idea it was going to be so hard.
But eventually she recognized that when you meditate on death you are also reflexively reflecting on life -- and usually love, too. And there is so much love in O’Rourke’s book.
“I’m so glad you said that because in the interviews I’ve given people talk about grief, but it’s a book about love, I think. It’s a book about family,” O’Rourke says.
“One of the things that annoyed me when my mother died was that friends would tell me you’re going to feel better some day -- and I knew that was right -- but that seemed to diminish my love for my mother. It also felt like being pushed forward to feeling better before I was better.
“I loved my mother very much so I missed her very much. That’s the burden we all have. It’s also the blessing.”
Reading The Long Goodbye, it’s easy to fall a bit in love with the tough but fair mother O’Rourke clearly idolized. She was forthright but free spirited, she loved to laugh and she shook her broody clan out of their introspection when she needed to. That’s how O’Rourke remembers her.
“You still have to wager your love for other people, and for the world, even though you have the very acute sense that you could lose it all. So how do you keep on wagering your love? In that sense the book is double sided; it’s about grief and loss but it’s also about happiness and love,” she says.
One of the dangers (and it is a real danger) in writing a memoir of this kind is that The Long Goodbye exposes one of the most intimate, private experiences of O’Rourke’s life to public scrutiny. O’Rourke has reason to be cautious about this -- there are already websites dedicated to mocking her remarkably precocious literary career.
“Because of what was going on I couldn’t write about my usual work, so my editor asked what was happening and I told her all I was doing was reading and thinking about grief and my mom. She told me I should write about that,” O’Rourke said.
“She said everyone could relate to that. When the story went up I started getting emails like, ‘Why are you bothering?’ or ‘Why are you telling us about your personal life?’
“But then I got 400 emails in one day. I had never gotten that kind of a personal response before. What carried me forward was that feeling of reaching out to people who felt alone in their loss. I thought that if this could help even three people then that would be worthwhile.”
It’s not controversial to claim that America is one of the most death denying nations on the planet -- after all, it’s saturated with ads to improve your smile, smooth your brows, restore your youthful glow and turn back the clock.
“I totally agree with you and it might get me in trouble, and I really felt that maybe it’s the Irish in me that stubbornly refuses to back down. I think it was the stubborn, perverse Irish side of me that said, ‘Screw you, you say I can’t talk about death? I am going to talk about death.’”
O’Rourke believed that people were being silent about something there was no need to be silent about.
“I think this is a culture that is terrified of death. We sensationalize it on the evening news, we interview plane crash survivors, but we don’t really spend time looking at what that means in an ongoing way.”
In the end what she wanted to convey is that it’s life in all of its textures, and in a way we’re lucky to be able to feel those things at all.
“This is not just about a book about pain. It's about life in its true range of experiences,” she says.
“It’s out human privilege to love and to mourn and to suffer and to not look away from that because it can be enriching as well. I feel there’s a hunger people have right now for a space for a reflection about loss.
“I want to just honor the loss. It doesn’t mean that you won’t ever recover or we’re not resilient because we are. But we are also changed by death and we need to experience that.”
As they say in Ireland, your heart’s broke and your head’s broke but you move on.
“It is very Irish. Maybe because we’re so melancholic by nature so we have to find the joy in things. My mom used to tell my father and I to lighten up all the time!” she says to peals of laughter.
O’Rourke remembers her mother’s laughter. She carries it with her.