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Madonna wrote what would become the last song on her 1998 album, Ray of Light, after going on a run. Her feet carried her, almost unwittingly, to her mother’s grave. It was a hot summer day not long after she’d given birth to her daughter Lourdes; she was visiting her father in her home state of Michigan. “I didn’t know where I was going,” she later recalled. “I just ran, and ran, and ran. The sky opened up, I was soaking wet, and I found myself in the cemetery where my mother was buried.” The grave “was grown over,” she said. “It looked like it hadn’t been visited in a while.” She stayed in the cemetery for some time, then ran and ran and ran home and wrote the lyrics to “Mer Girl.” It is a spooked, glitchy tone poem, a little reminiscent of the beloved Anne Sexton lines that haunted Madonna as a teenager. How unsettling that these are the last words that echo out across an internationally successful album:

And I smelled her burning flesh
Her rotting bones
Her decay
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away

Madonna Sr. died of breast cancer in 1963, when she was just 30 years old, and when her restless, destined-for-stardom daughter was 5. (“My mother is the only other person I have ever heard of named Madonna,” the singer told Time magazine, proudly, in 1985.) The elder Madonna was a devout Catholic who worked as an X-ray technician, and many people believe that the cancer was a result of her work environment: “The protective lead-lined apron that is now obligatory was then rarely used,” Madonna’s biographer Lucy O’Brien notes. Madonna Sr. was pregnant with her daughter Melanie when she was diagnosed with cancer, and she postponed treatment until after the child was born — by which time it was too late. For the Ciccones’ oldest daughter, who’d grow up to become one of the most famous women in the world, motherhood was subconsciously linked with self-sacrifice, death, and rigor mortis. Maybe that’s why she’s never stopped running.

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