Back when I worked in the Ivory Tower my colleagues would often cite authors of prominence. One summer, as part of the committee to overhaul the freshman summer reading ciriculum (less Odysseus, more snippets of multiple authors to foster interest and encourage further study), Joan Didion's name kept resurfacing. She appeared as the unseen member of our committee; hoovering at the edges, hopeful of being included in the final compilation. I nodded, feigning familiarity, but in truth I had not read any of her works. I was unaware of her story and her impact. Yet her name continued to echo in my head. Until, finally, last week I picked up one of her books. The Year of Magical Thinking is an examination of grief at its most intimate and raw moments.
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Which is where the story begins. Just days after Christmas of 2003 Didion's husband, John, suffers a massive and fatal coronary. At the same time, her only daughter is at a nearby hospital in a coma. The book unfolds with a sort of rewind button, where tiny details, like a CVS or escalator ride, spin the author back several decades to a time of youth, near the beginning or middle of her 40 year marriage. There is a moment, after the postponed funeral, where Didion's daughter has a relapse and is taken to UCLA hospital in critical condition. She writes of all the inquiries showered upon her at that time. An unspoken reference to the questions that certainly arise upon an unexpected death. People questioned her, feeling that the event could be managed. In order to manage it they needed only information. They needed only to know how this had happened. They needed answers. They needed the prognosis. Which is a beautiful way of explaining how we try to comprehend the unthinkable.
Although Didion's lifestyle is removed from most of ours (friends with private jets, a house in Malibu and close contacts at The New York Times), she touches on the truth that Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. Even as she consumes and tries to intellectually process data and studies of grief (dolphins that refuse food in mourning and birds that become disoriented), she uncovers the universal truth that we are ultimately only imperfect mortal beings, aware of the 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.