Dead Mom Walking brings humour to the hell of losing a parent

Rachel Matlow’s gut-busting memoir made me want to call my mom — ASAP

Dead Mom Walking forced me to face not just one, but several of my worst fears: losing my mom, being diagnosed with cancer, and leaving behind a grieving child when I die. But somehow, author Rachel Matlow had me laughing through almost every scene along the way to their effervescent mother’s death from cancer. (Matlow is genderqueer and uses the pronouns she/her and they/them.)

Honestly, it took me a couple of weeks to finish this book, despite the fact that it’s immediately unputdownable because of Matlow’s lively and conversational voice. I got three-quarters of the way in, laughing out loud at Matlow’s narration as well as their mother’s witty quips. But then I stalled.

Dead Mom Walking is structured in four parts, each one titled according to the four stages of cancer through which Elaine Ruth Mitchell passed on her way to death. I raced through the early sections, finding Elaine to be a person I would loved to have known. She listened. She encouraged. She enjoyed. Near the end of her life, she did whatever the hell she wanted.

A vibrant setting

The backdrop of Dead Mom Walking is downtown Toronto, with several scenes paying homage to my neighbourhood, Queen West. I took delight in recognizing familiar scenes of my city. For example:

A couple of weeks later we gathered at Magpie, Mom’s favourite Queen West boutique. She’d become friendly with its two owner-designers, whose experimental clothes were more like performance pieces: hand-dyed leather jackets with fringes, raw edged jeans with antique zippers, dresses that looked as though they were made of crumpled newspaper. Their creations were radical, wild, and one-of-a-kind. Just like Mom.

The city plays a supporting role in the drama, and I adore stories like that, whether they’re set in Toronto or elsewhere.

Healing or harming?

As the story unfolds, Matlow takes a clear-eyed view of another favourite topic of mine, and that is how alternative and Eastern forms of medicine have been co-opted by capitalism.

Mom Elaine is a die-hard believer, while the author, with their journalist’s lens, sees their mother’s healers as scam artists. It’s a subject I rarely see covered well by mainstream journalism, and I found it relevant in the age of coronavirus and vaccine-hesitancy. For example:

By the time Mom invited me to do ayahuasca, I was still hoping that if I tried my best to be supportive, she’d come around to getting surgery. (Perhaps ayahuasca would give her a vision of … reality?) But in the end it only reaffirmed her faith in the path she was taking. “I feel completely cleansed,” Mom declared as we hit the road the next morning. After puking her guts up all night, I’m sure she was cleansed of something.


So I was thoroughly invested in the story when I reached the ivory page that signalled the final act, the coming of Stage 4 cancer in Elaine’s life. But I put the book down. And it stayed down for a week or two.

I should mention, too, that during the time of their mother’s decline, Matlow, a long-time producer at Q on CBC Radio, was also dealing with a traumatic situation at work. Q host Jian Ghomeshi, whom Matlow had written for and whose belittling, angry and self-absorbed leadership style definitely rubbed them the wrong way, was accused of sexual assault by several women.

I honestly think I couldn’t face all of that. So I looked away. Bought a new novel. Skimmed a few magazines. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Elaine. I needed to know what would happen to her. And how Rachel would handle it.

I picked Dead Mom Walking up again last night and read it late into the night. I couldn’t put it down until I had faced the reality of my own mother’s mortality, with Matlow as my guide.

Despite the recommendations of doctors, Elaine refused medical treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy in favour of alternative methods such as herbs and reflexology. In the end, Rachel had no choice but to accept Elaine’s insistence on living and dying by her own values.

The author describes putting aside daily concerns and personal opinions aside in order to help their mother die. They kept their girlfriend at a distance. They stopped working. Their regular chess games fell aside. They stopped pitching science as a solution to cancer. They spent most of their time caring for and … just … hanging out with their mom.

Could I? Would I?

The pain, loss, labour and focus of caring for a dying person, especially a parent, requires a kind of strength I wonder if I possess. Could I silence my ego in order to be fully present with the person who gave me life? Would I be able to slow down enough to truly treasure the presence of a person who could barely get out of bed?

Not that I admire Matlow’s choice to push everyone but her mom away. In the later chapters of the book, they reflect on how their choice to isolate themselves in a time of extreme stress grew out of their own fear of abandonment. They could have used some support, despite how difficult it is to be seen in a vulnerable moment. I vow to remember that.

Emotional resonance

The final scenes of this book will stick with me for a long time. I was filled with love for my mom, and gratitude that she’s still alive.

The memoirs I have loved are usually stories about people who have endured and overcome extreme circumstances that I will probably never experience in my lifetime. Climbing Everest, for example. Or becoming the first Black First Lady of the United States.

But this memoir is different. It tells the story of an experience I definitely will face in my lifetime. It’s all the more meaningful – and difficult to read – because of that.

My mom is going to die.

And I will have to handle it.

More than sadness

All this death sounds heavy, doesn’t it!? But it’s not. Well it is, but it turns out that death adds up to so many more emotions than just simple sadness.

That’s a lesson I really want to take away from Dead Mom Walking. Loss and humour can go together like mother and daughter. We can laugh while we face our worst fears. Because love.

At the same time, Matlow doesn’t gloss over the pain of grief just to make a joke. In the final chapters, they reflect on deep work they did in therapy to peel back all the layers of feeling in their complicated relationship with their mother.

I truly admire the emotional honesty and resonance of this story. But hey, if you want to read it for the laughs, that’s okay, too.

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