The Next Chapter

Why Rachel Matlow had to laugh away the pain after discovering their mother had cancer

The radio producer and writer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about their memoir Dead Mom Walking.
Dead Mom Walking is a book by Rachel Matlow. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

This interview originally aired on April 11, 2020.

Rachel Matlow's mom Elaine was a creative free-spirit, personality traits her daughter Rachel celebrated.

This was until Elaine was diagnosed with cancer and decided to treat her illness with natural remedies — leaving Rachel to face the fact that what made their mom so special was going to kill her. 

Dead Mom Walking is the story of Rachel, Elaine and Elaine's cancer — based on Rachel's memories, Elaine's journals and the hours of tape they recorded together as they prepared to say goodbye.

The memoir is inspired by their radio documentary Dead Mom Talkingwhich aired on CBC's The Sunday Edition.

Matlow spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the book.

A ray of light

"She was a lot of fun. She had this radiant energy with his huge smile that lit up the room. She was a feminist, who, from the time she was a kid, wanted to be the author of her own life. She lived on her own terms. She had this rebellious streak. She was an alternative high school teacher here in Toronto. And her students adored her. 

It's hard to describe our dynamic. It certainly wasn't a traditional mother-daughter relationship

"She loved literature. She had read lots of books and also wrote her own short stories — murder mysteries — and she led this weekly women's writing group, where she empowered other ageless women to honour their true selves because she was dedicated to personal and spiritual growth.

"It's hard to describe our dynamic. It certainly wasn't a traditional mother-daughter relationship. If anything, due to my gender queerness, I was more of a son — or maybe I was the father and she was the teenage daughter. 

"I considered myself the down-to-earth logical one, where she was the fun-loving dreamer."

The diagnosis 

"They couldn't say for certain, but they were pretty sure she had first-stage rectal cancer. The prognosis was a 70 to 90 per cent cure rate, if she did surgery and radiation. There was a mysterious lymph node. They wanted her to get a biopsy  that could indicate a later stage. But there was no proof of that at that point.

She was terrified. She told me that she was terrified. Cancer was her biggest fear.

"The diagnosis came as a huge shock to her. She was terrified. She told me that she was terrified. Cancer was her biggest fear. She was really afraid of her life being limited, of being left with a permanent colostomy bag even though the doctor said that was a very low chance. 

"As someone who was already inclined to self-help, she started reading book after book by so-called experts critiquing the medical system: books about non-invasive natural treatments that supposedly cure cancer and memoirs by people who claim to cured themselves of cancer by drinking vegetable juice and the like. She really believed that she could heal herself.

"She put together this 'dream team' of alternative healers and she was off her rocker."

Don't let the title scare you. 'Dead Mom Talking' is a tender and loving tale of a mother and daughter who re-connect through the magic of radio. 14:28

Humour got us through

"We were always a funny family. That wasn't going to change just because Mom was dying. If anything, it gave us some good material to work with. There was a lot to laugh about. Of course there's a lot of sadness in death and dying — but the truth is that there's also humour in it. There's humour in everything.

We were always a funny family. That wasn't going to change just because Mom was dying.

"Humour can be a defence, but it can also be a way to access and talk about hard truths. It gave us a way in to actually talk about the reality of mom dying. 

"Dark humour is part of the Jewish tradition. So it came naturally."

Rachel Matlow's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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