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Author and Poet Meghan O’Rourke on Living Life in Honor of Her Mother

Award-winning author, editor, literary critic, and poet Meghan O’Rourke‘s work has appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publicationsWhile pursuing her extraordinary career, O’Rourke was faced with traveling back and forth from home to care for her mother, who died at age 55 of metastatic colorectal cancer. My mother also died young (57), and also from cancer (ovarian). And similar to Meghan, I was a journalist (working as a television news producer) while helping to care for my mom in her final days.

After Meghan’s mother passed away, she found solace writing her poetry collections, Once and Sun in Days (to be published in paperback this fall), and her gripping memoir, The Long Goodbye. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about chronic illness.

In our interview, Meghan discusses the many ways she keeps her mother’s memory alive, including safeguarding a lock of her hair. I’m thrilled Meghan joined me for this revealing Q & A.

Allison: What one memento reminds you most of your mother?
Meghan: It’s not a surprising one: I have a few photographs of her that are really meaningful to me – one of the two of us at my wedding, one of her laughing with her best friend. I keep them on the bookshelf in my bedroom and my two year old sees them all the time. He started calling my mother “Lolo” on his own a few months ago, right around the time I was wondering how to explain who she was, and what name to refer to her by. (She wasn’t a “Grandma” sort of person, and his other grandmother is called “Mimi.”) She also had gorgeous hair, and I did keep a lock of it, but oddly this reminds me more of her death than of her life.

Allison: Where do you keep such an intimate possession?
Meghan: The lock of hair is in an ornamental box I’d given my mother and now own.

Allison: Is there anything you do outside of holidays and anniversaries to keep your mom present?
Meghan: Mostly I just think about her a lot: she’s someone who really enjoyed living and I try to remember her laugh, her sarcasm, her warmth. She was a great cook, so I do think about her (and my father, who also was a wonderful cook) when I cook. I do reread letters she wrote me in college.

Allison: What is the most satisfying way you’ve developed for keeping your mother’s memory alive?
Meghan: Living in honor of her: I try to keep her death close to mind as a way of thinking about what really matters. She died at 55, way too young, and I’m now 42, ten years after she died. When the small stuff starts to get me down, or I lose my sense of humor because I’m overtired and overcommitted, I think about her, and it really helps me both remember what she meant to me and feel that I’m keeping her alive – because I know that if she were here she would tease me or suggest we go shopping or to a museum: small things that bonded us.

Allison: Being proactive about remembering loved ones drives resilience and sparks happiness. Have you found this to be the case?
Meghan: To some degree, yes: it keeps me focused on what’s important.

Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss?
Meghan: Loss is double-edged. I have found more humor in the day to day since she died. But her death also took many things from me. Right now, what I wish most is that she could meet my sons, her grandsons. That said, I hear her in me when I speak to them.