When I was growing up, my parents' bookshelf was a source of great fascination. Why would they want to read about that? I would wonder at titles like The Wealthy Barber, or any of their gardening books. There seemed something very other about grown-up books, and although I read Tolkein at a fairly early age, it wasn't until I was in probably Grade 8 that I felt like I was reading books for grown-ups. Really, the idea that my parents and I might share books blew my mind. It seems strange to think that now, when we pass books around as a matter of course, but there was a time when, every once in a while, I felt like I was reading something just a little beyond my depth, and it was a feeling I loved. I haven't felt that way in a really long time, but reading Joan Didion's first memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking did make me wonder if it was a book I was too young to fully appreciate.
The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of the year after Didion's husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead of a heart attack at the dining room table. Their daughter Quintana – whom Didion writes about in Blue Nights – is in a coma in the ICU of the nearby Beth Israel North. John drops dead; Didion calls the ambulance; the paramedics arrive, work on him, take him to the hospital; she also goes to the hospital, she fills in paperwork; her husband is pronounced dead; she goes home. Didion's parents are dead, she has had friends die – death is not a mysterious action for her, yet she insists on spending the night alone because John might come home. Later, when she feels compelled to start getting rid of his clothes, she is able to clear out most things, saving only a few of her favourite sweaters, but cannot bring herself to get rid of his shoes. How can he come back, she thinks, if he doesn't have any shoes?
Grief, Didion says, is not rational. Neither did she find herself rending her hair or dissolving into fits of tears. Grief, Didion says, is not like what we see in the movies. In the first weeks and months after John's death, Didion goes looking for the literature that will explain to her what she's feeling. The literature on grief is slim, she finds: a few poems, the book C.S. Lewis wrote after his wife died, and not much else. So she turns to other sources. She begins reading journal articles on the psychology of grief and death, etiquette manuals with sections on grieving, anything she can get her hands on. She balances that reading with medical information about both John's heart condition and Quintana's ongoing health problems. She reads, or at least tries to read, medical text books. She gets a copy of John's medical chart. She tries desperately to put together the sequence of the evening he died, the sequence of events in the week leading up to his death. And then she realizes that, every day since John died, she has tried to remember what they were doing one year ago on that day. What had he said, what had they been reading, had they fought, did they go anywhere: a catalogue of a life that no longer exists.
Forty years is long time to be married, and Didion and her husband spent almost every day of it together. They were both writers, they both worked from home, often they worked together on scripts, they always edited each other's work. In short, their's was not a marriage accustomed to absence. Despite all their time together, though, Didion is haunted by the notion she didn't pay enough attention. A proof comes back for John's final proof and she sees what may be an error in the last line of a chapter. Was it intentional, she wonders, torn between the idea that if unintentional it should be fixed and if intentional she should leave it. She should know him well enough to know which this is, she thinks, but she isn't sure, so she leaves the line as is.
Perhaps all these things are the natural progression of grieving: being constantly sideswiped by memories, or coming home ready to tell John something interesting she's seen or heard, only to remember he isn't there. But as Didion both writes and implies, grief is a deeply personal thing, and knowing how others faired is unlikely to insulate you. Her "year of magical thinking" – a year spent believing John would come back – is broken when she gets to the day after he died; it's the first day that, when she looks back to the previous year for the appropriate memories, he doesn't feature in. He is not coming back.
I don't keep a journal anymore, but when I did, I remember distinctly thinking I was writing it for someone to find after I died. That's a morbid thought for a kid to have, I guess, but I had read Anne Frank's Diary a few times, so I guess that's how I thought they worked. It never occurred to me that I might want it myself as a record to look back on. Neither Didion nor her husband kept a journal, so instead she quotes from the books they wrote, remembering where and when manuscripts were written, intuiting knowledge from phrases, and quoting passages at length to illustrate her point. This is what John wrote then, she says; was he trying to tell me something, she wonders. At the time, she felt no need to ask him, in The Year of Magical Thinking, she wishes forever that she still could.
The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion
First published in 2005 (cover image from Vintage edition)