Holiday weekends are for food, family, and afternoon naps. For the first of November, also grief and remembrance. I started this book on October 29. I finished five pages. Over the weekend, 200 more. I brought it with me to the cemetery, silently reading a few pages while sitting beside my grandparents’ graves. The aptness of it struck me only today.
Happiness is rarely the hallmark of literature. Fiction or nonfiction, we don’t often find books plotting within the circumference of bliss. This is perhaps reflective of the human condition, which orients sadness as far more permanent and multifarious: to each his own. We have more words for sadness than for happiness. Yet when I try to describe The Year of Magical Thinking I cannot come up with anything but, simply, sad. Sad, because it is without the affected manner of melancholy, the clinical ring of depressed, or the histrionics of woeful. Sad, because it is grief under control—controlled—never scandalous or loud in its mourning, Didion still exhibiting all signs of the “cool customer” she had been on the night of her husband’s death. In fact she only mentions crying a few times in this book, the first one not even appearing until p. 117. Instead she fills the pages with chronologies, medical facts, memories, histories. She quotes Philippe Ariés: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty… But one no longer has the right to say so out loud.” Here there is no extolling of the departed: no weepy anecdotes, no charming grin—only the remembrance of John’s eyes, “his blue imperfect eyes.”
Didion’s only daughter falls critically ill around Christmas, 2003. Her husband of almost forty years dies a week later. In this book she writes about the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about marriage and children and memory…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” The Year of Magical Thinking does not lead readers anywhere (“I look for resolution but find none”), but it is not a mere overflow of memories and emotions. Carefully structured and extremely refined, it carries an overwhelming sense of loss that permeates almost every page. In my life I am fortunate to have never yet experienced such grief, but among all the narratives I’ve encountered, this is as close as I’ve ever come.
I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.
People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. … These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.
Why…did I remain so unable to accept the fact that he had died? Was it because I was failing to understand it as something that had happened to him? Was it because I was still understanding it as something that had happened to me?
If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die?
I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day. … When he died I stopped having dreams.
John’s mother was dead. John was dead. And I still had, of the “Wickerdale” Spode, four dinner plates, five salad plates, three butter plates, a single coffee cup, and nine saucers.
Stacking magazines seemed at that point the limit of what I could do by way of organizing my life.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.
We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know.