I’ve had the book Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow on my shelf for what feels like ages (its only been two years, but that’s a long time for me). I had read really positive reviews of it when it was released, and I knew it was going to be funny, so I kept it handy in hopes I’d finally reach for it. I did, and I raced through it in a few days. It’s a work of non-fiction, essentially the story of one woman’s mother dying of cancer. The subject is clearly not funny, but the circumstances around it and the author’s reactions to it are what make this book entertaining. It may take me the length of this review to convince you of how funny and relatable this story is, but I know I’ll be successful in making you want to read it too.
Rachel Matlow had a fairly enviable life; she was living in Toronto, working as a producer for the CBC on their popular arts show ‘Q’, and had a close relationship with her brother Josh, a city councilor, her Dad Teddy, a retired judge, and her feisty mother Elaine. But a few difficult years were ahead, signaled by her mother’s initial cancer diagnosis, which was fairly positive at the time; Elaine’s cancerous polyps were caught early, and she had an 80-90 percent survival rate if she had them removed via surgery. Unfortunately Elaine was afraid of surgery, deciding she wanted to treat her cancer with naturopathic remedies instead, including lots of herbal tinctures, mediation retreats, and infrared sauna sessions. Rachel and her family were understandably frustrated by this, and as the months passed, Elaine’s cancer spread. Alongside this family drama, Rachel’s workplace was slowly becoming toxic as host and boss Jian Ghomeshi became increasingly difficult to work for, his ego growing along with the ratings. If you’re a CBC listener you are likely familiar with how that story turned out (spoiler; badly! Ghomeshi sexually assaulted women, and although was kicked off the CBC, he’s trying to resuscitate his career), but living under this stress and then the media storm afterwards all took a toll on Rachel’s mental health as she navigated these difficult years of her life.
Again, you’re probably wondering why I’m praising this book as funny! I’ve got quotes, I promise. It’s not entirely funny, in fact the end made me a bit teary, but Matlow’s voice shines through on the page, likely the most important factor in the success of this book. Because she was so close with her mother (they were more like friends), one can understand her intense anger and frustration at Elaine’s delusional choice to not get surgery, or do anything a Western medical doctor advises.
The humour in this book works so well because Matlow is all of us; wondering why her mother is so crazy, us collectively shaking our head at her insistence that ‘being positive’ will cure her of cancer. The book opens with Matlow attending a spiritual retreat with her Mom that uses psychoactive plant remedies to ‘cleanse’ the body:
“‘People say it’s like thirty years of psychotherapy in one night,’ Mom boasted. That’s supposed to sound appealing?“-p. 2 of Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow
Another great example of her humour AND her mother’s craziness:
“I begged and pleaded with her to see a surgeon…I soon regretted not having been more specific. Mom bought a ticket to Brazil to see a ‘psychic surgeon,’ known as John of God, who performed invisible procedures with the help of spirit assistants. Fuck my life.“-p. 153 of Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow
To be clear, although I chose a quote with a curse word, there isn’t much swearing in this book, but when there is it’s usually used for comedic effect, and it works.
There’s obviously quite a bit of sadness in this book too, and as a woman who lost her mother as a teen, I couldn’t relate to all of Matlow’s fears, but I could certainly understand them better than others. She talks of jealousy, envying her friends who still have their mothers alive and well, and I’ve been there too, although I remind myself of how lucky I am to still have my father – many people in their late thirties have lost both parents, or never had one or both at all. Matlow also recognizes her luck, and is financially stable enough to engage in therapy on a regular basis, which offers some surprising moments towards the end of the book.
Have I convinced you how funny this book is yet? Even if it’s not full of LOL moments on every page (you have to read David Sedaris for that), it’s certainly a worthwhile read, especially for anyone who finds themselves shaking their head at a loved one’s medical choices.
Well, you did a good job, but I fear I can’t find anything funny about a parent dying of cancer and I’m not sure I even want to! The other side of the story, about her job and the scandalous boss, sounds like much more fun, though… 😀
It is such a weird book in that way, like, I expected it to be so sad, but I think because she had awhile to say goodbye to her mom, it softened the blow. And all the other stuff going on in her life? So crazy.
You did a good job but it’s not for me, I fear. It’s not your fault, I rarely read books like this anyway, ha ha! I wonder why the heck couldn’t her mom do the surgery AND the natural stuff too??
Yes, very good point! And I think lots of people do. Like, sure put me under the knife, and make sure my crystals are around too…
I can believe that this would be funny and I can only imagine how frustrating working at the Q must have been at that time. Having a family member who makes medical choices like this, I feel like this might be too frustrating for me to read but maybe I’ll keep it in mind for later on.
Oh yes, I’m sure you could relate to her then!
Your review has me thinking about the ethics class I’m taking. We talk about how every person has a right to decide what’s best for them, so even though the mother chooses what her family would not, I say it’s still her right to go down that path. I do want to add that the medical industry in some ways encourages people in thinking away their illness. I read a Barbara Ehrenreich book about how it’s quite common to hear nurses claim that the patients who end up surviving were the most positive thinking people. I’ve read several books with daughters caring for their dying mothers, so I think I’ll pass on this one for now.
Hmm yes totally, that’s cool that you guys are talking about this stuff! People should always have a choice, living with those choices with a smile on your face is a different story LOL