Lois Cahall’s last conversation with her mother was lively and quick — a burst of updates and jokes and teasing and a rushed goodbye: Mom, I love you, I’ve got to run, I’m in New York, I’ll call you at 5 …
A couple of hours later, when Lois called back, her stepfather answered.
Her mother, Marie, was gone. She had dropped dead from a sudden heart attack at 65.
Just like that. Bam. Just a short while after hanging up with Lois — her artistic, risk-taking only child, her dance partner for impromptu living-room boogies to Broadway show tunes and her truest partner in life.
It had always been those two against the world — in their case, the world of blue-collar Boston.
Marie admired her daughter’s exuberance and pluck. She’d always tell Lois: “You’re the lion, and I’m the lamb.”
“We did everything together but die,” says Lois, curled up in a chair in her sunny West Palm Beach apartment.
Just like that, Lois became a member “of the orphan’s club” — untethered and unglued.
And unable to let her mother go.
As a writer, she had one way out of paralyzing grief: Spill it out. Type it out. Write a book for devastated people like herself, “a book for those left living — afraid to be on the other side, afraid to be left here alone on this side.”
That book — “Court of the Myrtles,” released this week by Bloomsbury Press — is a novel about the relationship between two women who meet in a cemetery. One of them, Marla, lost her mother tragically and suddenly. The other, Alice, lost her daughter after a lingering illness.
The message is hopeful — that we will see our loved ones again — and universal: “This is a book for mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and sisters,” the author says. “This is a story about survival — for those who have loved and lost. So I suppose this is a book for all of us.”
‘Two kinds of death’
The idea for “Court of the Myrtles” came to Cahall after she buried her mother and weird things began to happen to her — “Touched by an Angel” kinds of weird things.
She would go to the cemetery and get “signs.”
Once, after a teenage friend of her daughter had died in an accident, Cahall went with the child’s mother to the cemetery and prayed. The child’s mother wanted him buried near Cahall’s mom — but where?
“My mother’s bird symbol was a cardinal,” Cahall says. “And right at that moment, a cardinal flew down and landed on the grave.”
Weird things like that happened over and over, making Cahall wonder: Maybe there is life after death.
She spent time talking to other mourners and learned “the dialect of the cemetery” — how people in mourning comfort each other, how they cope with the two types of death, sudden death vs. lingering death.
Sudden death is better for the person who dies, Cahall admits, but it leaves the living with no goodbyes — and this is what wracked her.
“I never felt jealousy toward anyone except when it came to death,” she says. Because some people have a chance to say goodbye, and she did not.
And then she visited a place where she felt connected to heaven — the Alhambra in Spain, the grand palace built in the 13th and 14th centuries with its glorious Court of the Myrtles. She knew instinctively she had to write a book about this place.
“I felt heaven when I was there,” Cahall says. “I felt connected to my mother and everyone I had lost.”
In Cahall’s book, Alice persuades Marla to push past her grief and live on happily, to follow her dreams — and Marla’s dreams lead her to the Court of the Myrtles, to romance and a full life.
‘Sometimes strength is your only option’
Lois, too, pushed on to build the full life her mother had wished for her.
“My mother’s death gave me an untapped strength — because sometimes strength is your only option,” she says.
She had been a newspaper reporter when her mother died, but she pushed her career to greater heights — becoming a magazine writer and a best-selling novelist, for her funny book about blended families and life choices, “Plan C: Just in Case.” She became a successful film critic with a website, screenqueen.com. And she raised her two daughters, now 27 and 23, with the same joie de vivre her mother had given to her.
“She was the most alive person I’ve ever known,” says Cahall, who moved to West Palm Beach a year ago after spending a decade in New York and London. “Everything I am I owe to her.”
One editor called Cahall’s book “ ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ — on estrogen, with a touch of romance.”
In essence, “Court of the Myrtles” is Cahall’s own story, the story of a daughter who picked up her crumpled self and learned to dance once more.
She hopes people will pass it around to grieving friends, to ease their loneliness and “offer them the hope that they will see their loved ones again.”
“I’ve decided to embrace life, believing that my mother will be there waiting on the other side, rather than live my life not thinking she’ll be there only to find out that she is,” Cahall says.
If she didn’t embrace her life, that would be two lives lost.
And Marie Cahall wouldn’t have that, not for her lion of a daughter.
‘Court of the Myrtles’
Lois Cahall’s new novel, released this week, is about two women who meet every Friday morning in a cemetery. One is grieving over the tragic and early death of her mother. The other, mourning the loss of her daughter, shepherds the younger woman through the stages of grief — and the possibility of heaven. Published by Bloomsbury Press, it is available as an ebook at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com ($4.39 to $8.99) and also as a paperback book ($11.99) at amazon.com and in bookstores.