I think I put this book on my Amazon wish list after reading about it in The End of Your Life Book Club. I did not get to ordering it right away, a fact that was providential as when I put it on my list, I had suffered losses, but not the kind of loss I suffered since. That kind of loss made Didion’s magical thinking make all kinds of sense. Losing my father and watching my mother process her loss lent layers of meanings to my reading.
Didion starts the book, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.” So simple, but true. Near the end of the book she writes, “what gives those December days a year ago their sharper focus is their ending.” Everything is ordinary, everything blurs until something dramatic, some drama, forces us to pay attention to every detail, to return to those details in obsessive reflection. That obsessive reflection underpins the entire project of the book.
Didion’s husband dies from a massive coronary while she is preparing dinner. He had earlier undergone angioplasty to open up arteries clogged over 90%. True to her writer identity, Didion thinks of literature and the way in which characters foresee or foreshadow their own deaths. Did John, her husband, know what was coming? With each memory, each connection she sees another clue that suggests perhaps he did and long before she might have expected. She wants to rationalize the irrational. She researches death, heart failure, grief.
She notes the difference between grief and mourning. “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” Later she notes that “grief is passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.”
What Didion says is likely not new. That is the beauty, For anyone who has suffered this type of loss the recognition of their own experienced is what makes each step of her journey so beautiful, what keeps the pages turning. That we all think the funeral is the hardest part, but it’s the easiest because we have focus and support and permission. That every day of the first year is filled with what we were doing last year when we were whole. That grief does come in waves, sometimes tidal, that chase us from parties or into bathrooms to cry without disturbing the calm of everyone else’s lives. That without someone so close, we must reinvent ourselves and that very reinvention feels like a betrayal so painful that we hold ourselves in place rather than be so guilty. That we second guess every second, every day, every year preceding the moment of loss. That we try to put ourselves in the place of the lost to understand what it feels to be the one leaving rather than the one left. That loss shakes what faith we have and reveals the weakness in the faith we will carry forward.
In the closing pages, after a year has passed since her husband’s death, Didion has an epiphany while crossing the street. “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table.” And here I cried because I am not at that emotional point yet. I know it must be true, but I am not ready. What The Year of Magical Thinking does, however, is reassure me that I will be because Didion’s account of her process, her grief, her mourning, is so honest and so authentic that her assurance that we reach this point must also be true.