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The chapter opens with an excerpt from Didion’s early 1980s
novel Democracy, which describes how landscapes
change because of geological shifts. Didion looks up the passage
after a massive tsunami wipes out many of the coasts along the Indian
Ocean. She repetitively imagines the tragic event, though she visualizes
the tectonic plates shifting deep under the ocean, not the carnage
on the surface.
On Christmas Eve, nearly a year after John’s death, Didion
has people over for dinner. Though she worried that afternoon that
she can’t handle it, the evening progresses naturally. A friend
sends leis from Hawaii, and other friends come over to eat, drowning
out the sounds of a piano CD John had played the night he died.
On Christmas morning, Didion goes to St. John the Divine, which
is filled with Japanese tourists, as it had been during both Quintana’s
wedding and John’s funeral. Didion hangs one of the leis in the
vault that holds both John’s ashes and her mother’s ashes. While
walking out, she keeps her eyes focused on the big stained glass
window, which had featured prominently in the script she and John
had been working on in Hawaii in December 1990.
She waits for the moment when the light hits the window and fills
her entire field of vision with blue.
As she writes, Didion realizes she doesn’t want to finish
her account. The craziness recedes, but no clarity or resolution
takes its place. As time passes, Didion knows that her memories
of John will become remote and “mudgy,” and already she has trouble
remembering the days leading up to his death. For the first time,
she realizes that her memories of the night of John’s death don’t
actually involve John. There is a point, she realizes, when we must
let go of the dead.
She thinks about leaving a lei at St. John the Divine.
She recalls how travelers on the Matson Line boats leaving Hawaii
would drop leis in the water as a promise to return. The leis would
be destroyed in the wake of the boat, just as the gardenias clogging
the pool filter in their Brentwood home were destroyed. She tries
to imagine the layout of the Brentwood house, but later in the day
realizes she had forgotten one of the rooms. The leis in the cathedral
would go brown, she imagines, just as tectonic plates shift, islands
vanish, and rooms are forgotten. Didion remembers swimming with
John at Portuguese Bend in California and waiting for the swell
that would pull them into the caves. Though she had always been
afraid of missing the swell, John never was. “You had to go with
the change,” he said.
Didion uses the final chapter to wrap up the imagery she
has used throughout the book, pulling together the narrative threads
and weaving them into a unified piece. The images, all related to
memory and elegy, capture her mental state at the end of her year
of magical thinking, which finds her free from her temporary insanity
and hopeful for the future, if deeply shaken and tentative about
how to move forward. The leis, symbolic of the welcoming spirit
of Hawaii, are destroyed in the wake of departing boats, reminding
the travelers of the fleetingness of their stay and of life itself.
In hanging the leis in the tomb, she marries her happy associations
of time spent in Hawaii with John and Quintana with flowers’ symbolism,
suggesting that she accepts that her life with her family was fleeting,
and that their joy was temporary. The tectonic plates, reminders
of the fundamental shifts that control the earth, return as a symbol
of the powerlessness of humanity. The house in Brentwood, the symbol
of the domestic life that Didion did not necessarily expect but
loved nonetheless, begins to fade, reminding her that even the most
powerful memories of our own happiness inevitably disappear as we age.
The images, which have appeared at various points throughout the
book, coalesce here to underscore the themes of memory, loss, and
Didion avoids the conventional memoir conclusion, which
provides readers with a sense of closure and catharsis. While of
the final pages suggest a new feeling of hope for the future, she
also suggests that The Year of Magical Thinking has
merely documented one phase of the grief process, and that while
her confusion has subsided, no clarity has taken its place. In our
culture, most stories about grief have a familiar shape. Confessional
programs like Oprah Winfrey’s talk show create a particular kind
of narrative, in which lessons are learned and redemption is achieved
after a period of great trial. However, as the title of her book
illustrates, Didion has limited to her discussion to a specific,
bounded period: just a single year of temporary insanity. While
it’s important to recognize just how far Didion has come in this
year, it’s just as important to note that she has yet to experience
full emotional resolution. The grief process that she has begun
documenting is ongoing, and by emphasizing this she shows just how
simplistic traditional hardship stories, with their neat and tidy
endings, really are.
Didion begins this chapter with an image that suggests
how individuals can be controlled by powerful external forces (a
tsunami), but she closes the chapter with an image of working within
those natural forces (swimming with the flow of sea swells). Didion
indicates that while we are inevitably subject to conditions and
forces outside of our control, with patience and effort we can begin
to exert some agency even when it seems as though we have none.
She has come to understand that no matter what she did or what she might
have done before John died, her husband’s death was inevitable.
In acknowledging this lack of control, she is better able to understand
the effect the grief has had on her, and in doing so learn how to
“go with the swell” and move forward.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!