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Biography & Autobiography Personal Memoirs

Dead Mom Walking

A Memoir of Miracle Cures and Other Disasters

by (author) Rachel Matlow

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2020
Personal Memoirs, Death, Grief, Bereavement, LGBT
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2020
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2022
    List Price

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SHORTLISTED for the 2021 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
SHORTLISTED for the 2021 Vine Award in Non-Fiction
"A comedy for catastrophic times." --CBC
"A hilarious memoir of effervescent misadventures." --Toronto Star
"How am I laughing at someone's mother's cancer? How? We think we can't laugh about death, about cancer, about our mothers and their suffering . . . and we can't, but we can. And there's so much relief in that." --Carolyn Taylor, BARONESS VON SKETCH SHOW
A whip-smart and darkly funny memoir about an unconventional family, the limits of wellness fads, and the mother of all catastrophes.
Rachel Matlow’s eccentric mom, Elaine, never quite followed the script handed down to her. Her bold out-there-ness made it okay for Rachel to be their genderqueer self and live life on their own terms. But when Elaine decides to try to heal her cancer naturally, Rachel has to draw the line.
What ensues is a tug of war between logical and magical thinking, an odyssey through New Age remedies ranging from herbal tinctures and juice cleanses to a countryside ayahuasca trip, and a portrait of a mother and child who’ve never been physically closer or ideologically further apart.
In facing their inimitable mother’s death, Rachel has written a book bursting with life—the epic adventures and epic fails, the broken limbs and belly laughs. As hilarious as it is poignant, Dead Mom Walking is about writing the story of your life only to find out that life has other plans.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature
  • Short-listed, Kobo Emerging Writer Prize

Contributor Notes

RACHEL MATLOW (she/her/they/them) was a long-time producer on the arts and culture program Q on CBC Radio, where she also worked on Spark and The Sunday Edition. Her audio documentary "Dead Mom Talking" won a 2016 Third Coast award and a 2017 Gabriel award. She has written for The Globe and Mail, National Post, and The Believer. She plays chess every weekend and is forever planning her next long-distance hike.

Excerpt: Dead Mom Walking: A Memoir of Miracle Cures and Other Disasters (by (author) Rachel Matlow)

I was lying on a buffalo skin rug, high on ayahuasca. My thoughts were going deep: Why can’t she just get the damn surgery? How long will she keep this up for? What exactly did she mean by the “quantum plane”? I waited expectantly for access to a higher realm — and maybe some insight into my mom’s magical thinking. Suddenly my face felt wet. I opened my eyes. The shaman was standing over me, flicking Peruvian flower water on my head, chanting “Sha-na-na-na-na-na-na.”

Doing drugs was not my idea. I prefer to keep my visions 20/20. But what do you say when your sixty-seven-year-old mother asks you to go to the woods with her to take hallucinogens? To be clear, Mom was never the acid-droppin’ hippie type. She was more of a New Age junkie, always on the lookout for a new fix. And now the stakes had never been higher: she’d been diagnosed with cancer and was trying every potion under the sun — except for chemo.

As part of her alternative healing journey, Mom had decided to attend an overnight ayahuasca ceremony in the countryside an hour north of Toronto. The psychoactive plant remedy, used by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon for centuries, had become all the rage among Western spiritual seekers. Made from the vine and leaves of two separate plants and consumed as a molasses-like tea, ayahuasca’s effects are said to be cleansing and transformative. It’s been used to help overcome depression, anxiety, addiction, and many other conditions. “People say it’s like thirty years of psychotherapy in one night,” Mom boasted. That’s supposed to sound appealing?

Unsure of what to expect, Mom had asked me to come along. “It would be nice to have you there for support,” she’d said. “And maybe you’ll have your own spiritual awakening.” Spiritual awakening? My spirit likes to hit the snooze button and hates leaving downtown. But I loved my mom, and if she was going to experiment with drugs I’d rather be there to keep an eye on her. At the very least it would be a mother-daughter trip to remember (if only in flashbacks).

We arrived at a log house, where the shaman greeted us with the kind of deep, meaningful hugs that last way too long. He was a very friendly white guy in his mid-fifties who introduced himself by his Peruvian medicine-man name (I imagine his real name was something like Jerry Goldstein). Mom and I said hello to the few other participants, who were already huddled around in the living room. We found some floor space on the rug and rolled out our sleeping bags so that our feet faced the fireplace-turned-altar, adorned with feathers, crystals, and antlers.

Then, to my horror, the shaman proceeded to hand out large empty yogurt containers because, as he explained, it’s common to “purge” when you take the “medicine.” Apparently I was the only one not aware of this fun fact. But it was too late — the psychedelic slumber party had begun. The shaman blessed the ayahuasca and, one by one, we were invited to sit at the altar and do a shot. When it was my turn I gulped back the bitter brew and headed back to my cocoon, where I chased it down with some orange Vitaminwater. With notes of rancid coffee, rusted metal, and jungle rot, it wasn’t a mystery why they called ayahuasca “the vine of death.”

Now, going into this, I’d thought the shaman would just be on hand, like if I had any questions or wasn’t feeling well. But no, this ceremony was intimate and interactive. As we started our trips he began making his rounds, each time with a different act. First, he waved a fan made of feathers in my face. Next, he shook dried leaves around my body. Then he blew tobacco smoke into my sleeping bag. Um, thanks?

By the time I was being baptized with flower water, I figured things couldn’t get any worse. Then my stomach began to rumble. I absolutely hate throwing up, so I was determined to keep the poison down, even as my tummy churned like a washing machine. However, I discovered that if there’s one thing I hate more than throwing up, it’s hearing a room full of people — including my own mother — violently puking their guts out into yogurt containers. It was a sober vision of pure hell.

By about 4:00 a.m., the hope of sleep putting me out of my misery was all but lost. “It’s music time!” someone announced. I braced myself as a long-haired hippie dude picked up a guitar and began to serenade us. “Free, free, like a dolphin in the sea,” he sang repeatedly. He obviously hadn’t seen The Cove.

If ayahuasca was bringing any clarity to my life, it was that saving Mom would have to wait for another day (and that I should never leave home without earplugs). I glanced over at her. She was adorable, all strung out, swaddled in her sleeping bag. Is this how she used to look at me when I was a baby?

I was feeling restless. I wondered if it would be rude if I excused myself to go watch TV in the bedroom. Maybe I could play Scrabble on my phone? There was really no way out. So I went back to the altar and downed another shot.

Editorial Reviews

SHORTLISTED for the 2021 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
SHORTLISTED for the 2021 Vine Award in Non-Fiction
Praise for Dead Mom Walking:

“[I]ntimate and often hilarious.”

“This book is perfect. Dead Mom Walking is a deeply funny, incredibly smart, and moving page-turner . . . I just can’t get over what a stunning achievement it is.”
—Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People

“One of the most powerful stories I’ve read in a long time—intimate, astonishing, harrowing, and redemptive. Dead Mom Walking is such an important book, with lessons for everybody . . . I can’t get it out of my head.”
—Plum Johnson, author of They Left Us Everything
“The characters are so charming you’ll simultaneously want to read the whole thing in one sitting and slow down so you can spend more time with them. Dead Mom Walking will break your heart and then mend it. Read this book; call your mom.”
—Scaachi Koul, author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter
“An exquisite paean to the mother-child bond. Rachel’s love for her mother is beautifully expressed from the first page of the book to the last.”
—Catherine Gildiner, author of Good Morning, Monster
“This brilliant memoir had me sobbing and in stitches in equal parts . . . Dead Mom Walking cuts right to the heart.”
—Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara
“How am I laughing at someone’s mother’s cancer? How? We think we can’t laugh about death, about cancer, about our mothers and their suffering . . . and we can’t, but we can. And there’s so much relief in that. I laughed, I cried, I laughed and laughed and laughed.”
—Carolyn Taylor, Baroness von Sketch Show
Dead Mom Walking’s jaw-dropping trick is the magically unbiased way it tells the whole story of its subject’s life. Matlow’s kind, determined humour shows it’s possible to endure the irreversible: the loss of the first love of so many lives—our mother. Intricately loving.”
—Thea Lim, author of An Ocean of Minutes

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