'Joy Enough' recalls a daughter's all-encompassing love for her mother

"I loved my mother and she died. Is that a story?"

Yes, it is the story that Sarah McColl tells in her memoir, Joy Enough. Embedded in the question, which is the first line of the book, is McColl herself — how she grew up in the family that her mother Allison created, how she entered adulthood and married, how her marriage fell apart as Allison was dying.

McColl knows Allison didn't cry when her own mother died:

"She had lost her mother a long time ago, she said, when she understood her mother was not the kind she had needed. This is one kind of mother and daughter.

She and I are another."

McColl's kind of mother is one who renders her childhood memories so vividly that they become McColl's own. McColl's kind of mother is always at the end of a telephone, guaranteed to provide advice and comfort:

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"You are so beautiful, so intelligent, and so talented."

And: "Someone will always be more beautiful, more intelligent, more talented." And: "Someone will always be less so, too."

For some readers, McColl's relationship with her mother will seem unimaginably close, even fully enmeshed. Allison and Sarah's confidences cover everything, including their deepest intimacies. McColl knows her father used to make her mother come "like a pet monkey." Here's Sarah discovering her attraction to men:

"Call this boy-crazy, as I usually do, and it's bone deep embarrassment. Call it the life force, as my mother did, and it's elemental-proof that I am alive, that the heart beating inside this chest is a woman's."

And Allison, commenting on a stonemason/lover that McColl met on her 21st birthday: "'He's very sexy' she said, nodding at me."

McColl's mother married the man of her dreams straight out of girlhood, had four children, and devoted herself to them to the exclusion of all else: "The thought of life after my children are grown depresses me. I will probably read some and drink a whole lot."

She discovered McColl's father cheating on her and, following a violent breakup, moved the family from Dallas to rural Massachusetts.

"'Oh Sarah,' my mother explained once I was married. 'I wasn't a fool. That's a little girl's understanding of a grown woman's problem,' she said.... 'I would do it all over again.'"

The title to McColl's memoir comes from Emily Dickinson: "The mere sense of living is joy enough." Allison is that sensual woman who embraces life. "You haven't made any promises," she would say, to excuse behavior that didn't fall within a marriage. Her truisms pepper the book:

"A person will reveal everything you need to know about them within the first twenty minutes. The trick is whether or not you're paying attention."

"...make a list of what you learned from your marriage.... That way when you meet the next guy and your mind goes blank, you'll know what to look out for."

"Good judgment is based on experience...experience is based on bad judgment."

McColl delivers thoughtful and finely crafted prose to vivify this emotionally intense relationship. From time to time, her writing becomes obscure as she tries to make sense of herself and Allison. Her mother "is self-contained, not only a woman but the sole measure of her own life..." or --

"What I cared about was meaning, and the pleasure of sex was another place it lived.... It seemed such a simple expression of self and an all-consuming act of presence, like a prayer, but one said in tandem."

McColl may have her linguistic surfeits, but she should be applauded for unstinting efforts to put her heart on the page.

All her life McColl has been told she is like her mother. She wrestles with this observation: Where does Allison end and Sarah begin? Here's McColl, describing her husband:

"The man I married was so like my father, everyone said. But at night, as I pulled my face away from the cowboy, I was so struck by surprise that I couldn't begin to entertain an insight. What does it mean, if in the dark, the shape of a man's face reminds you of your mother?"

In a series of uncomfortable and painful scenes, McColl and her husband grow estranged, just as Allison's body begins rapidly surrendering to cancer. "It's very simple," her mother says, "I love you, and I don't want to die." Sarah tries to feed and preserve Allison. "How can I 'mourn' the 'loss' of someone I can still summon," she wonders, as she and her ailing mother share a burger. "I want to leave you," Sarah's husband says. "I don't love you.... I don't even like you." Under her mother's instruction, McColl plants Allison's garden, an effort to prolong life.

In the end, McColl experiences Allison's death as a surprise — perhaps all deaths are to those most bereaved. "I liked feeling that total and complete emptiness," McColl says of her mourning. "It felt factual to me, like irrefutable evidence. This was how much we loved, now turned inside out.... I love you, I'd say. I love you more, she'd answer, like it was game I'd never win."

For McColl, mother-love exceeds faith:

"When the sun shone, I tilted my face up to it and closed my eyes. God was not everywhere, but she was."

Martha Anne Toll is the executive director of the Butler Family Fund; her writing is at www.marthaannetoll.com, and she tweets at @marthaannetoll. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.