My mother died on March 7 of this year of ovarian cancer at the age of 73. There is a little bit of madness in the death of a parent, I have found, even when you know that death is coming, and is, in the end, a release. I wept as I sat with her in her final hours, of course, and the next day, when I woke up to a sky she’d never see, and at her funeral, and then I dried my tears and got back to my life. God knows I’d been desperate to return to it. Mum’s death had been angry and time-consuming and hard, and I expected to feel relief alongside the inevitable grief, perhaps even outstripping it. I’d had three years to prepare for this death, but as I resumed my days of teenager-ferrying and private practice and preparing for the imminent release of my new novel, the peace and acceptance I had expected didn’t come. Instead I felt adrift. I cooked dinner and I nagged my son about his VCE and I caught up with the friends I’d barely seen for the preceding months, but inside I stormed and railed like Lear on the heath. It was all so unfair. Worse, it was meaningless. My mother had lived a life of value, of service. After qualifying as a doctor at the age of 49 she had gone on to become a widely loved GP, a deliverer of babies, an examiner of overseas-trained doctors. At 60 she was invited to lecture in community medicine for Monash University, her alma mater; in the same decade she volunteered her services for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. And then she was gone. I work in a medical field myself; I am all too familiar with decay and decline, yet I could make no sense of it.
And so I turned to books. Bibliotherapy, I guess you’d call it, searching for answers in the words of those who had already trodden my path. For the next few months my reading was dominated by what I now think of as the death books: H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s scream of fury at the loss of her father; the late Cory Taylor’s beautiful Dying: A Memoir; Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain staring down her own impending demise in aching, goose-bumpy prose. I was killing time browsing at an airport bookstore with no intention to buy when Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air literally fell off the shelf and landed at my feet. Like my mother, Kalanithi was a doctor dying of cancer. My mother fought and denied her looming passing every step of the way; Kalanithi tried to come to terms with his. I paid for the book and read it, sobbing, for the three hours of my flight, no doubt alarming all around me but immensely comforted by his ability to accept his fate because of the two things he had created in his final months: his daughter, Cady, and the words I was reading. These, he noted wryly, would have the longevity that he himself was denied.
But perhaps the book that brought me the greatest solace was Nikki Gemmell’s After, a frank account of her shock, grief and guilt following the suicide of her mother Elayn. Elayn and Gemmell had had a difficult relationship. Mine and my mother’s had been less tempestuous, but was far from perfect . . . like Gemmell, I sometimes felt that I had fallen short of the standards my mother had set for me, that I could have been a better daughter, sister, person. Once I finished After I understood that at least a measure of my anguish at my mother’s death was because that now could never be redressed; I could never convince her otherwise. But no-one is perfect, Gemmell writes, no mother, no child. And the death of a parent, while intensely painful, can be a gift too, a release, frees you for once and for all to finally be no more and no less than yourself: ‘I feel I am fully a woman now. Stronger, wiser. Little binding scars all over my life, but laughing again and it’s like a hat flying off into the sun. The sheer, glorious whoop of it. This rescue, finally, shines.’
After that came the comfort reading. Once I’d had my fill of death, I needed books that brought back life. Normally I read widely, omnivorously, but over the next months I carefully curated my selections. Nothing dark, nothing that made me cry. Everyone I knew was reading A Little Life, but I was terrified to go near it. Instead I chose smart, snappy fiction, books to provoke a smile: Toni Jordan’s Our Tiny Useless Hearts, Lia Weston’s Those Pleasant Girls, Holly Throsby’s Goodwood. Australian authors too, which was important. I needed to feel at home. Interspersed with those were comfort reads of a different kind, old favourites that I have returned to time and again: The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), which I first read when nursing my newborn son, Beloved (Toni Morrison), We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver). I chose them—I thought—at random, but it was only when compiling a list for this post that I realised all three were linked by one common theme—the limits and longings of motherhood. It felt like both a benediction and a conclusion, somehow. My reading had come full circle.
Kylie Ladd has published five novels with Allen and Unwin: After the Fall (also published by Doubleday in the US), Last Summer, which was highly commended in the FAW Christina Stead Award for fiction, Into My Arms, chosen as one of Get Reading’s ‘50 books you can’t put down’ for 2013, Mothers and Daughters (also published by Sphere in the UK) and her latest, The Way Back, which has just been optioned for film. Kylie holds a PhD in neuropsychology and lives in Melbourne with her husband and two children.