I read about 'A Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion over on Brainpickings (in fact their sidebar features a picture of her that feels to me like the epitome of cool understated elegance); it is a memoir of the year following the sudden death of her husband John and her reflections on grief. Back at the beginning of the year I read and reviewed 'A Widow's Story' by Joyce Carol Oates and this one has many strong similarities to it. Both dwell extensively on the feeling that there must be something they could do to rewind time and undo whatever it was that caused this terrible event, or that if they believe hard enough the person will come back. Both have a strong sense of being to blame, that it was some omission or bad decision on their part that led to the death. Joan's grief in the immediate aftermath is somewhat subsumed beneath her daughter's illness, subsequent brain surgery and lengthy recovery, and it is not until nearly the end of the year and she finally receives the autopsy and hospital notes that she becomes preoccupied with the minutiae of the events surrounding the moments of his death.
"I fretted over a study from Vanderbilt demonstrating that erythromycin quintupled the risk of cardiac arrest if taken in conjunction with common heart medications. I fretted over a study on statins, and the 30 to 40 percent jump in the risk of heart attack for patients who stopped taking them.
As I recall this I realise how open we are to the persistent message that we can avert death.
And to its punitive correlation, the message that if death catches us we have only ourselves to blame." (p.206)
While such memoirs feel as if they could potentially be slightly mawkish this one also avoids it by the utter lack of self-pity. Her daughter's illness forces her to keep going, to rely on others for support and to focus on the outside world. But the book meanders back and forth from her current reality to her history with John and gives an intimate portrait of their relationship. The things she has lost:
"On the flight to LaGuardia I remember thinking that the most beautiful things I had ever seen had all been from airplanes. The way the American west opens up. The way in which, on a polar flight across the Arctic, the islands in the sea give way imperceptibly to lakes on the land. The sea between Greece and Cyprus in the morning. The Alps on the way to Milan. I saw all those things with John.
How could I go back to Paris without him, how could i go back to Milan, Honolulu, Bogota?
I couldn't even go to Boston." (p.181)
"I could not count the number of times during the average day when something would come up and I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response. I read something in the paper that I would normally have read to him. I notice some change in the neighbourhood that would interest him: Ralph Lauren has expanded into more space between Seventy-first and Seventy-second Street, say, or the empty space where the Madison Avenue Bookshop used to be has finally been leased. I recall coming in from Central Park one morning in mid-August with urgent news to report: the deep summer green had faded overnight from the trees, the season is already changing." (p.194)
"We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and the meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself." (p.189)
What makes the book readable and engaging is that it is both a personal story of loss and grief and a reflection on the way these are the things that give life meaning. This account is less visceral than 'A Widow's Story', she hardly mentions her own suffering, but it is there between the lines, more subtly, in the repetition of things that her husband said, how she traces though her adult life charting the path they took together, references back to events that were significant and the quiet incidental conversations that make up a relationship.