On the evening of December 30th, 2003, Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, returned from visiting their only daughter in the hospital. Only a few days before they had been told she had a bad case of the flu, now she lay in a coma. There is very little in this life that prepares one for how to deal with situations such as a life threatening illness, comas or imminent death. Nevertheless, this is the position these two parents of one child found themselves in. They arrived home tired, hungry and weighted down. Joan did what she knew to do, she prepared a simple meal. Then, as she says,
Life changes fast
Life changes in an instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Right there at the supper table, John suffered a massive heart attack which killed him instantly. In a moment, her partner of nearly 40 years was gone. The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles Didion’s introduction to grief and the ensuing challenges associated with continuing to live and be here in this world when it feels as if part of you is gone forever.
“I had to be alone so John could come back. That was the beginning of the year of magical thinking.”
In The Year of Magical Thinking Didion describes the ease with which a person in grief begins to harbor irrational beliefs. How you can suddenly find yourself making decisions based on impossibilities. This type of thinking goes beyond entertaining a brief thought or wish. It is an inability not only to let them go or accept that they are gone, but this mystical knowing that if you can just break down the wall between possibility and the way things are, everything will come together again. Joan refers to this as “magical thinking” and says it accounts for such behaviors as being unable to get rid of John’s shoes because he was going to need them when he came back.
As she writes, you don’t fully realize it, but at some point you begin to wait with her. Reading and absorbing, desperately, voraciously even — you are waiting to find out if she can break down that wall and bring him back. “Thank goodness you didn’t throw out his shoes,” you want to be able to say, “he does need them after all!”
I think the desperation that comes into play here has a great deal to do with my own fears about losing my partner. While I don’t believe that another person completes us, I do know what it means to have your life so interconnected with another human being that it hardly would seem like your life if they weren’t there any longer. I think we have to live in a certain amount of denial when it comes to that loss or continuing is difficult at best. Thus death always takes us by surprise, even if it is inevitable.
Joan points out that we have very little hands-on experience with death these days; it is not a part of our lives the way it once was. And, therefore, we don’t always know what to do. Do we bring food? What do we say? How does one interact with the grieving? They are few rules and no “right thing” to do. Death tosses everything we know right out the window.
For Didion, the necessity of caring for her daughter helped provided her with the incentive and structure she needed to keep going. Yet even in that the lines are blurry and grief creeps in and takes over at the least expected moments. The carefully placed steps “all designed to keep you from thinking about that empty place — one moment on the periphery of your vision now right in front of your eyes” is a carefully executed dance. And ultimately an unsuccessful one.
I’m thinking of the woman I met in a hospital emergency room years ago. She was 74 years old and just an amazingly luminescent and charming creature. I had no change in my wallet and she offered to buy me coffee from the vending machine. We were the only two people in the waiting room, such a rare event. We chatted for a couple of hours and she told me about the chocolate shop she had just opened. Eventually we got around to talking about our husbands, who we were both waiting for. Mine with stitches (I can’t do blood without fainting, so he thought it best that I wait outside). Her’s with heart troubles brought on by the recent stress of their grandson committing suicide. She was so calm, such a “cool customer” (as one of the hospital workers described Didion). But there was clearly grief, that fragility and fuzziness that allows us some minutes to appear as if everything is okay and yet be falling down a black hole inside.
When you come to the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, there is this let down. He didn’t return. Death is final after all. If we expected to be affirmed in life even in death, we are disappointed–our partner in this pursuit is gone, so whatever is the point? There is no swelling music. It is more bitter than sweet, this letting go, but it is all the further we go with Joan: the recognition that there are some things that magic cannot help us do and there is a point where the only thing left to do is let the dead be dead.
Normally when I finish a book, I have to talk about it, write about it. I call or e-mail a friend. I discuss it with my husband or I tell my mother what I’ve learned. With The Year of Magical Thinking, I simply closed the book and set it down. I told no one I had finished, though I told many people I had started. I realize now it was my own reluctance to admit that he was not coming back.
What a lovely, harrowing, compelling reading experience this was! I’ve read probably a few thousand books, and I don’t know when I’ve ever had an author be so honest with me. Didion spares us, and herself, nothing. She seems entirely uninterested in how she comes across–in turns frail, demented (her word), self-absorbed, demanding, dishonest, over-privileged–one could find quite a litany of faults with her, if one were so inclined. But the primary image Didion gets across is of herself as a human being suddenly, and permanently, deprived of the most important person in her life. She denies herself all pretenses, even the small vanities we might easily forgive in a grief-stricken widow, because what she’s trying to tell us is too important to be cheapened by trifles like keeping up a public image. She stands before us, stripped by grief, unflinching in our gaze. She wants us to look at her, naked and bereft; she wants us to gaze and gawk and stare until we understand what we’re seeing: not the specific grief of one elderly widow, but the universal grief in store for every one of us who lives and loves.
When John Gregory Dunne died, Joan Didion lost her husband, her lover, her best friend, her best critic, one of her favorite authors and, possibly, her biggest fan. She lost her sounding board, her compass, her touchstone. And even as she mourns his loss, she recognizes how blessed she was to have had such a companion for nearly forty years. After his death, she reads a work that says pathological grieving usually occurs in cases where there was unusual dependency between the bereaved and the deceased. “Unusual dependency,” she muses. “Is that a way of saying ‘marriage’?”
Before reading this book, I would have said that grief is one of those life experiences no-one can prepare you for; you can’t understand it until you experience it. Certainly, I would have said, no book can tell you what it’s like; but no longer. Over and over again, I would read a passage and think, “Oh, you too? You felt that, you thought that?” In my case, the death was my father’s, but the grieving process was remarkably similar. The passage in which Didion describes her angry reaction to a theologian’s discussion of ritual as an expression of faith struck a particular chord with me:
Later I realized my immediate thought had been: But I did the ritual. I did it all. I did St. John the Divine, I did the chant in Latin, I did the Catholic priest and the Episcopal priest, I did “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” and I did “In paradisum deducant angeli”.
And it still didn’t bring him back.
For weeks and even months after my father’s death, I would find myself bargaining with Fate. Although I didn’t consciously blame myself for his death, I still repeatedly caught myself thinking, “There. Is that good enough? Have I done enough? Can I have my father back, now?” I was constantly, subconsciously, looking for the right thing to do or say that would win the approval of Whatever had taken my dad, so that It would stop punishing me and send him back. Thus does the former straight-A, high-achieving, teacher’s-pet, daddy’s princess, pretty, popular girl learn that some taskmasters will not be pleased, flattered, impressed or cajoled, and chief among these is Death.
Didion is very good at showing how the bereaved often operate on two planes at once: consciously, outwardly, they hold together and keep their own lives running while making the decisions and performing the tasks that need to be done, but underneath runs a thrumming current of irrationality–the anger, the bargaining, the impulse to dissolve into shrieking sobs, the fury at a world that carries blithely on as though completely unaware that someone is dead, you insensitive clods!
Part of the book’s refrain goes, “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Didion points out that survivors of tragedy often focus on what a perfectly normal day it was up until the moment catastrophe strikes: we were just having dinner, and he died! I had just talked to her an hour before, and she was happy and normal, and then she was gone! It was a perfect, bright blue morning, and then a plane crashed into a tower! Whatever the specifics of the beginning, each of these tales ends the same way: “and life was never the same again.” It’s the most appalling part of the situation, in some way–death shouldn’t be able to sneak up on us like that! If it had any decency at all, it would announce itself well in advance–the music changing to a minor key, the camera lingering on a wan face, a portentous cough, sneeze, or tremor from the doomed party–like they do in the movies! Give us some notice, a chance to prepare ourselves, please! It isn’t fair to send us out day after day into the same old world and then just upend it all without warning!
“Survivors look back and see omens, messages that they missed.” This is partly due to the superstitious sense that if we can identify the portents we missed this time, we might not be caught so unawares next time; if we recognize the pattern, perhaps we can control it. But also, it’s a function of our detachment from death–now that we don’t often die in our own beds or hold wakes in the front parlor, the most we see of death is on TV or in the movies, and the show generally gives us several clues, so we can prepare ourselves for what’s coming. I thought it was very telling that Didion found greater comfort–and useful advice–in the 1922 etiquette manual than she did in all the books of modern psychology. It’s the difference between theory and practice–the psychology manuals were written by people observing others going through the grieving process; the etiquette manual was written by, and for, people who lived quite intimately with death.
We don’t deal well with death–we don’t deal with it at all, if we can avoid it. So when it happens, it comes as a bolt from the blue, and leaves us just as dazed as a lightning strike would. We don’t know what to do, beyond the things that simply must be done; we don’t know how to comfort ourselves or the other mourners around us. Most of all, we don’t know what we can do for the one we have lost. We don’t know how to make our final demonstrations of love. I am reminded of my own mother, quietly but firmly insisting that she would style her mother’s hair for her viewing and burial. This was looked at askance in some quarters, but her reason was simple and heartfelt: “It’s the last thing I’ll ever be able to do for her,” she told me. I have another friend right now who is mourning the loss of a dear friend and mentor; the family couldn’t locate him in time, so the news reached him late. He’s at a loss now, not sure how to commemorate his friend when he’s been left out of the funeral and all that goes with it–he’s mourning out of phase, and hasn’t yet found that “last thing I’ll ever do for her.” He didn’t get to go through the rituals designated to honor her, and so must find his own concrete way to honor her memory and then release her to the beyond, so he can move on through the grief. And what guide is there to help him? What guide for any of us unfairly robbed of our parents, our partners, our beloveds of all description?
None, really. No book can show us the way through the brambles and back out into the sunlight. But this slim, honest, wrenching volume is a very good companion for the journey. It can’t free you from your grief, but it will keep you from feeling alone as you work your own way out.