Musings: “The Year of Magical Thinking”

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is the first memoir I have read for this project. I finished it several weeks ago. It chronicles the year after the unexpected passing of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the roller coaster of Quintana’s, her daughter’s, health and near death that year.

My father’s passing was expected. The seizure he had when I was in the sixth grade was my first awareness of his failing vitality. The descent to his death took the next ten years. I had time to prepare. Of course, there’s only so much preparation you can do, especially when you’re just 21.

My cat’s passing this past week wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I thought we’d have more time. Bullseye lived with my dad before he came to live with me, so it has brought up quite a bit, and has been very hard.

Didion writes, “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be” (p. 27). Perhaps not the first time it’s experienced, but I disagree. Grief can be learned. Since my dad, my last living grandparent, my Mamaw, has passed. A friend who was like an aunt to me passed very unexpectedly. And just this week, Bullseye. Grief is familiar to me now. She also writes, “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life” (p. 27). This, I find, is true. One never knows what will trigger the opening of the sternum. The wrenching and gasping as you are split and left raw and at the mercy of the wave. Whether it’s been days or years, this can happen. But if you experience it enough you can learn to ride it. You can experience a strange gratitude if you invest yourself in death positiveness (thanks Twitter), go through years of therapy, learn and accept that the death of body does not mean the end of the relationship. Gratitude for the pain because it means you loved someone so much.

Didion writes, “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all” (p. 198). I was nine when I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I remember waking up the next day and thinking, “It was a dream.” But as I thought it, I knew it wasn’t. Life as I knew it, as I expected it to go, was over. I had a similar moment when I found out my dad had died, and when I didn’t hear Bullseye’s next breath in my arms – life is different now. There is no pretending it won’t change. They are gone and I am still here.

Didion refers to “the vortex effect” (p. 107). In short, a seemingly safe line of thinking can take you down a road to an intense moment of grief. She uses the example of watching the ice floes in the river from a hospital room, then looking at the wall paper, then then remembering a story about the hospital from when she was younger…and eventually she comes to the thought that she was writing a book when Quintana was three. She thinks about Quintana at three and John when Quintana was three. “The way you got sideswiped was by going back” (p. 113). She carefully maps her drives around LA so as to avoid places that might send her into this vortex. I can’t drive through Larue County without a story or memory coming up. Margaret Holler, where you can still here Margaret looking for her head. The hills west of Sonora that you drive over so your tummy jumps. The time the roads to St. Ignatius were all flooded. With the distance of seven years comes gratitude for these moments. With the time passed comes the abruptness of changes – trees cut down, roads re-routed, foggy memories.

The grief Didion chronicles has been very different than my own, but then no two griefs are ever the same. The prose is gorgeous. I’m studying how she jumps between time and stories. Without realizing you are in the past. It’s like going underwater in a pool and coming up to a different day. Natural and seamless.

Next, I think, is Amy Tan’s “Where the Past Begins,” but I’m also working on a YA Fantasy and “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered.” Dad story-wise it’s the Tingle Murders.

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