Didion tries to reconstruct the night of John’s death and the weeks that preceded it. On December 22, after several days of severe flu symptoms, their daughter Quintana went to the emergency room with a fever and was diagnosed with the flu. The fever persisted, so she returned to the hospital on Christmas morning where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and checked into the ICU. Her condition then worsened, causing her to go into septic shock. She was given experimental drugs, and Didion soon faced the fact that her daughter, recently a new bride, was now fighting to survive. The doctor was vague about her chances, but Didion had to believe that things would improve. Only three months later, at John’s funeral at St. John the Divine, Quintana quotes a line from a movie, Robin and Marian—“I love you more than one more day”—that her father had whispered to her while she lay in the ICU. Thoughts of the cathedral set off memories of Quintana’s wedding there, as well as memories of Didion’s own wedding at San Juan Bautista in 1964.
In the weeks after John’s death, Didion avoids looking at the photographs of the early years of her marriage that hang in the hallway leading to her room. The pictures set off a series of memories about a period in the early 1970s when Didion had a close group of friends that frequently shared dinners together. By the time of John’s death, several of those friends are dead. Didion notes that people who have recently lost someone have a certain look of vulnerability on their face. For a while she feels invisible and incorporeal, wanting John back. Several years before John died, Didion was walking down West Fifty-seventh Street in New York when she saw a strange burst of sunlight; at the time, she thought it must have been an apprehension of death. In a dream some years before, she had seen an ice island, and in the dream she knew the island symbolized death. Both images gave her a sense of transcendence, rather than dread. Didion wonders why she continues to see John’s death as something that has happened to her, rather than to him. She realizes that she is experiencing self-pity.
John had told Didion that he believed he was dying. He had been experiencing a crisis of confidence about his book, which was stuck in a limbo between delivery and publication. He had been dealing with health issues related to his heart and had had a pacemaker implanted over the summer. The success of the pacemaker and Quintana’s wedding had buoyed his spirits, but in the fall his mood dropped again. She recalls a fight over a proposed trip to Paris, during which he claimed that, if they did not go to Paris that November, he would never see Paris again. They went, even though this declaration felt like blackmail at the time. Shortly before John died, he claimed that everything he had done was worthless, a sentiment Didion quickly dismissed. The night of his death, John told her, “You were right about Hawaii.” She wasn’t sure if he was referring to her suggestion from earlier that morning, about renting a house in Hawaii where Quintana could recuperate, or if he was making reference to a discussion they had had about buying a home in Honolulu nearly thirty years before. She preferred to believe the former, but his tone implied the latter.
In these chapters, Didion analyzes the shock she experienced as she watched the normalcy of her life suddenly erupt into crisis. She recreates that experience for us by contrasting the familiarity of recent memories and the unfamiliarity of her present circumstances. Didion highlights the rapid and sudden changes that occur over a relatively short period of time by juxtaposing memories of John and Quintana in good health with the more recent memories of John’s death and Quintana’s illness. She cuts quickly between these moments to recreate the sudden shock of dramatic and overwhelming change, after which it is difficult to maintain a steady focus. Especially when examined in hindsight, Didion’s tragedies seem all the more inexplicable when she compares them to the familiar ordinariness that preceded them.
Didion examines apparent clues from John, which seemed to indicate that he knew he was going to die, but she has trouble recognizing where her thoughts end and his begin. Didion begins chapter 6 by describing two memories in which she herself anticipated dying. Though she has no problem understanding those experiences, she has trouble making sense of the process of self-evaluation John went through in anticipation of his own death. Didion recognizes that John was going through something highly personal, but she doesn’t understand why she can’t relate to his apprehensions of death. Her inability or refusal to separate and understand her own thoughts and feelings shows not only how intertwined their lives were but also how hard she finds it to express her own feelings and reactions in any logical way while she grieves.
As the person who tells the story of John’s death and Quintana’s illness, Didion participates in a literary tradition in which women serve as suffering witnesses to the hardships of husband and children. From biblical narratives to Shakespeare to contemporary literature, these women are depicted as wise observers and passive subjects to their own grief. They empower themselves by giving testimony and publicly naming their griefs and, by doing so, gain control of their situations. Taken as a whole, The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s way of giving testimony, a method that empowers her to move beyond the role of solitary observer to her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness. The book is not only a way to memorialize her experience and her memories, but also to correct what Didion views as the flawed association between grief and self-pity. Didion sees this paradigm as an unfair cultural standard that has resulted in a lack of thoughtful, complex literature about grief. By refusing to accept what she considers the unhelpful obviousness of self-help or inspirational literature, Didion instead creates a testament to her own experiences that not only aids her recovery, but also creates a model for grief literature that honors the complexity of grief.