In November 1970, when cancer treatments were rudimentary and grief counseling nonexistent, my cousin Peg Conway’s mother died at the age of 37. My aunt Mary Lee was my father’s twin, and she had had breast cancer that metasticized into brain cancer and took her life, leaving behind a husband and four children. In the decades since that tragic event, Peg has struggled to deal with her unacknowledged grief, and this memoir chronicles her journey from hurting child to adult looking for healing. It is painful and sad to read about such devastating loss, but it affirms the need to recognize and address grief and psychological trauma, no matter what your age, no matter how long after the event that induced it.
The book is divided into four parts. Part one deals with Peg experiencing the loss of her mother when she was just 7 years old and the changes this brought to her life. What we see is the formation of what Peg calls the “Responsible Girl,” ie, the girl who finds herself behaving more like an adult than a child. She and her siblings had to take on responsibilities that their mother had done for them, such as cooking, packing lunches, and watching out for one another. A few years after her mother’s death, her father remarried, and he told his younger children that his new wife would officially adopt them. Peg and her younger brother did not really have a choice in the matter, but the permanent change to their birth certificates had a lasting impact on them. In her teen years, Peg continued to work hard and try to be a good daughter, now referring to her stepmother as Mom instead of by her first name (a new little brother was in the picture). An accident involving a good friend, however, would stir up hidden grief in Peg, forcing her to think back to her mother’s death and her own pain. In Part two, Peg describes discovering her “Inner Lost Girl,” the one whose suffering was not acknowledged or addressed in childhood. Marriage and the birth of her children stirred up trauma about her loss and about her own mortality. Part three focuses on her aging parents’ health issues and the overwhelming feelings of responsibility and stress that they caused in her. Finally, in part four, Peg describes the aftermath of her parents’ passing, when she begins truly diving into the past. In addition to going through all of the items in her parents’ condo, which included things that had belonged to her mother, Peg began to revisit childhood places from before her mother’s death and to track down and speak with friends and family who had known Mary Lee. These chapters were especially moving for me because Peg spoke with my aunts, my mom and others who could remember Mary Lee as a young woman and as a mother struggling with a terrifying diagnosis.
In addition to being a tremendously talented writer, my cousin is brave and fierce. She is very honest about her struggles over the years with anger and sadness. She describes work she has done with a therapist to get to the root of her trauma, and she has gotten involved in a support group for women who have lost their mothers and as well as a local group for children who are grieving. I admire my cousin for raising questions and digging for answers about her childhood and about her mother’s life, illness and death. So often, we seem to want to bury the past, thinking that it’s better and healthier to just “move on.” But pain and grief are formidable stumbling blocks to progress and they don’t just disappear. This has been a totally biased book review but I do think anyone who has lost a parent or struggled with grief would find this book very helpful.