Maryanne O'Hara is the author of the new book Little Matches: A Memoir of Grief and Light. It focuses on the loss of her daughter Caitlin, who had cystic fibrosis. O'Hara also has written the novel Cascade. She lives in Massachusetts.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how would you describe your relationship with your daughter?
A: I needed to write from inside real-time grief, to make a record of that grief, and at the same time, ask the big life questions that had always preoccupied my fiction. I also wanted to immortalize my sage of a daughter, share her words, and document who she was before time and memory beatified her.
Caitlin and I were very close –– in a healthy way. I was never happier than when she was doing well and living on her own, but whenever she became sick, I was there for her. Always.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I wanted the title to reflect the main arc of the book, which was the “great revelation” I was seeking, the answers to the questions I was asking, the light I was trying to find. The title comes from a passage near the end of To the Lighthouse.
“What is the meaning of life? That was all - a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
The final third of the book is where grief and light come together. It’s about coming to see that grief can coexist with joy. I’m always going to grieve Caitlin, and I’m going to honor her life—all life—by keeping her spirit alive in a positive and joyful way.
As Caitlin herself wrote, in her last post, “I want to reassure you I don’t take myself too seriously. I do take life seriously though, I’ll be honest... because it’s a seriously wild business.”
Q: How did writing the book affect you, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I suppose it has made me braver. I have published fiction––short stories and a novel, with zero interest in writing about my real life, in baring all, so to speak. It’s a noisy world out there, and it can be cruel.
But this baring of all is for my daughter, and for the people who will read it. I hope that readers will come away from the book with a fresh appreciation for the good in life.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In Little Matches, I recount the remarkable coincidences of how I came to be connected to Mallory Smith and to Dr. David Weill, former head of Stanford’s lung transplant program.
Mallory, a writer, did not survive her lung transplant either, and after her passing, her mother ensured that her memoir was published posthumously (Salt in My Soul, Penguin, 2018).
David has his own medical memoir publishing in May (Exhale). The three of us are currently creating a talk we will offer to medical audiences: Patient/Parent/Provider: 3 Perspectives, One Purpose. A Model for Collaboration in Medicine.
I will also return to the novel I was close to finishing when my daughter died. She was my best reader and was eager for me to finish it. Ironically, it is about the ambiguities of memory and record-keeping. I want to dedicate it to her.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I would love it if people also came away from reading Little Matches with a positive sense of the fact that we are all temporary, that the arc of a human life is a blink in time. I do think that by acknowledging the inevitability of our mortality, we can actually better enjoy the time we are alive, and live with meaning and purpose.
Q: Many thanks, and all my sympathy on the loss of your daughter.
A: Thank you so much, and thank you for hosting me and for helping me keep her memory alive.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb