The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion (2005, Alfred A. Knopf)
Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly on December 30th, 2003; their only daughter, Quintana, had gone into the emergency room on Christmas morning with a case of the flu, the beginning of a cascade of medical catastrophes resulting in months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Ten months later, Didion sat down to write "The Year of Magical Thinking", in at attempt to "make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief...."
To make sense of these things as well as Didion does here is a tour de force, especially since part of what she is describing is a disordered process in her own mind. "Of course I knew John was dead. Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible." Even after telling her daughter about John's death--three separate times, due to Quintana's own illness--even after the funeral, she can't give away his shoes, because he might come back and need them.
Quintana's illness takes Didion to Southern California, where she plans her daily routes to avoid the places she and John had frequented during the years they lived there, in an effort to exercise control over her memories. Naturally, it doesn't take more than a televised glimpse of the Malibu coastline to bring back the house where they lived when Quintana came home from the hospital. All trains of thought lead into hazardous territory; this uncontrollable quality is the insidious thing about grief.
"People in grief think a great deal about self-pity," Didion says. "We worry about it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as 'dwelling on it.' " Yet this condition that sound so shameful is the simple reality of the situation, of a loss that cannot be replaced or imagined out of existence. "There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back." The very impossibility of knowing for sure what her husband would have said about such and such a thing is proof that she didn't make him up, that he really was there across from her for forty years, and is no longer.
In due course, as the calendar no longer can say what Dunne was doing 'this time last year', Didion's life as a widow takes a new form. She has done a vivid, poetic job of capturing the transition from grief, something that happened to her, into mourning, something she did. May we all have the courage to follow that course, when the time comes.