Will’s letter to the book club:
When people talk about books on death and grieving, they almost always now mention Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING.
I’ve been trying to put down some thoughts about it – but, instead, wanted to share with you the passage from my book in which I write about this one.
Just to set the scene: This passage comes at a point in my book where I’m visiting Mom in Florida. She’s gone there for a month to escape the New York winter. It’s about seven months before her death:
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion.
We had both read this when it came out a few year’s before. Didion writes about her life after the sudden death of her husband, which she describes in the first few pages – and about their daughter who becomes deathly ill and then, seemingly, recovers. And even though, tragically, Quintana Roo Dunne would later die, of pancreatitis, it would be after the book was written and published. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING is a book about death and about grief and about illness.
Didion contrasts her grief after the death of her husband with how she felt after the death of her parents:
‘Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. It was not what I felt when my parents died: my father died a few days short of his eighty-fifth birthday and my mother a month short of her ninety-first, both after some years of increasing debility. What I felt in each instance was sadness, loneliness (the loneliness of the abandoned child of whatever age), regret for time gone by, for things unsaid, for my inability to share or even in any real way to acknowledge, at the end, the pain and helplessness and physical humiliation they each endured.’
I had brought the book with me to Florida and had found myself turning back again and again to that passage. Mom was not dead; she was very alive. I was sad, but not yet lonely. And I had an opportunity to do and say things so that I wouldn’t feel regret; I had the chance to acknowledge and assuage Mom’s pain and helplessness and physical humiliation.
That’s easier said than done. Mom was both dying and living. She wanted to talk about her friends and about the Afghan library and about the grandchildren and about real estate and about the books we were reading and about music and movies and the traffic and funny stories and old times and about my business and – the list was huge.
I came to see great wisdom in Didion’s choice of words: ‘share’ and ‘acknowledge.’ And I realised I could share by talking about anything she wanted to discuss, or by sitting quietly with her, reading. And I could acknowledge without probing or dwelling or fixating.
On a totally separate note (US talk show hosts always say, ‘Now, on a lighter note…’ when they need to segue from something serious, like a flood, to something lighter), I hope you all have excellent summer plans – and wonderful books to read on vacation.