The Year of Magical Thinking
In the months following Quintana’s transfer to Rusk, Didion’s involvement in her daughter’s recovery process becomes less hands-on as Quintana’s health improves. Didion realizes that Quintana is almost at a point where she can recover on her own and realizes that she herself will need to do the same. She begins this process by attending to her unopened mail. It doesn’t occur to her at the time that she’s only just beginning the active process of mourning, which is different from the passive experience of grief. In the mail is Lives of ‘ 54 , a book compiling updates from John’s Princeton classmates in anticipation of their fiftieth reunion. She realizes that John had never told her much about Princeton, other than expressing his distaste for the Nassoons, and all-men’s singing group. Didion always laughed at John’s impression of a Nassoon, but now she anxiously seeks the lyrics for the song he used to parody. The only thing she can find online is an obituary for the song’s writer, John MacFayden, and Didion realizes she would give anything to be able to discuss the obituary with John.
A few nights before John passed away, he asked Didion if she was aware how many characters died in his new novel, Nothing Lost, and proceeded to make a list in faint handwriting on a legal pad. Didion wonders how long John had thought of himself as dead, remembering that in 1982 a doctor had told them that the divide between life and death was not black and white. They had been in the ICU with John’s niece, Dominique, who was on life support after being strangled to the point of death. For Didion at that moment, the divide between life and death was black and white, because even though Dominique could not survive off life support, she was still alive. In the months after Didion returned from Los Angeles, the abruptness of the shift between life and death was confirmed by the deaths of several close friends. Though each of these friends had suffered long illnesses, the deaths themselves were always final and abrupt.
Remembering that it once provided her with insight on “the divide” between life and death, Didion rereads the Greek drama Alcestis, which describes how Queen Alcestis dies, descends to the underworld, and then returns to Earth. After returning from the dead, Alcestis doesn’t speak. As she contemplates the reasons why, Didion wonders what would happen if John did, in fact, return from the dead, and how the experience of death would have changed him.
Later that summer, one of John’s Princeton classmates sends Didion a first edition copy of John’s novel True Confessions, which John had lent for an exhibition of books written by members of his class. The novel is dedicated to her and Quintana. She realizes that she had not sufficiently appreciated the dedication when she first learned of it—a theme that seems repetitive to her at this point. She rereads John’s books and comes across a scene from his memoir, Harp, in which John’s doctor tells him that he is a candidate for a “catastrophic cardiac event.” This warning is yet another example of something Didion didn’t appreciate at the time. After this diagnosis, several more tests were performed, leading to an extremely successful angioplasty. After the surgery, however, John remained convinced that he was going to die, while Didion believed that they had “fixed” the problem for good. She now realizes that John held the more realistic view.
Didion has reached a point in the mourning process where she can become a student of her own memory, piecing together bits of her past as a way of understanding the nature of her relationship with John and the ways that he anticipated his own death. Now that Quintana has begun the recovery process, Didion needs to begin her own recovery process, and she does so by opening the mail that had been neglected while she was in Los Angeles. Several pieces of mail open up old memories that Didion had dismissed or forgotten, but instead of finding herself giving in to the passive, overwhelming experience of the vortex effect, she actively engages with her memory. However, she still fixates, searching to remember, for example, the details of a private joke she had with John. The moment signals a change in the way that Didion engages with her memories of John. Up to this point, memory always overwhelmed her, bringing about the vortex effect that would leave her feeling anguished and disoriented. Enough time has passed now that she’s able to analyze her own memories, engaging in a rigorous examination that recalls her analysis of literature and psychological studies about grief.
Didion had always seen the line between life and death as clear and distinguishable, but as she analyzes her memories of John in the time leading up to his death, she comes to realize that he had prepared himself to die and, in many ways, already thought of himself as dead. For Didion, the division between life and death now grows hazy, and she starts to conceive of John’s death as a transition or passage rather than an abrupt change. Throughout the memoir, Didion has emphasized the notion of surprise and suddenness, noting time and time again that when John died he seemed to be there one moment and gone the next. In her previous encounters with death, she had also seen the change between living and dead as an abrupt one. The clear demarcation between the two states of existence is important for Didion, who usually sees the world in clear-cut terms. However, as she thinks back to John’s list of dead characters and his cardiologist’s warning, she realizes that John must have already been living with the expectation of his own death and begun to think of it in concrete terms. Though Didion had believed that the lines between life and death were clear and distinct, she begins to see that for John, the lines were blurred, and that his death may have not been so abrupt after all.
Didion comes to realize that the seeds of magical thinking had been planted years before John’s death, since she had dismissed John’s signs by wishing them away, optimistically believing that his doctors had taken care of his health problems. In retrospect, she sees that her lack of recognition of earlier signals was a failure on her part to appropriately appreciate the clues John provided and what they foretold. Just as she had failed to appreciate the dedication in his book, she had similarly failed to appreciate that the cause of his death had been named years before it happened. Before he died, Didion had already engaged in a kind of magical thinking wherein the inevitable consequence of John’s heart problem could be corrected by a medical procedure and the active attention of his doctors. John himself had known that, no matter what happened, there was an inevitable outcome that could not be prevented, only delayed.
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