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When Quintana wakes from her coma in January of 2004,
Didion tells her that her father has died. Quintana seems to understand,
but later that night she asks after her father again. Quintana does
not manage to absorb the news until months later, when she is again
in an ICU, this time in Los Angeles.
Soon after Quintana wakes up, she is discharged from Beth
Israel and taken to Didion’s apartment to recuperate. The next morning, she
awakes with chest pain and a fever and is taken to Columbia Presbyterian,
where she is diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, a condition that
should have been foreseen by her doctors at Beth Israel. Placed
on anticoagulants, she is discharged again several days later. Quintana
helps her mother plan John’s funeral service. On the night of the
funeral, the family gathers in Didion’s apartment, and though Quintana
is still fragile, she stands up at the service and enjoys visiting
with her cousins at dinner. Several days later, Quintana tells Didion
that she and her husband Gerry are flying to Malibu to restart their
life, a plan that Didion encourages.
Didion must figure out how to restart her own life, now
that her daughter is better and the funeral is over. The day of
Quintana’s trip, Didion imagines Quintana and Gerry arriving in
Los Angeles and wandering along the beach in Malibu. Quintana would
be able to take Gerry to her favorite restaurants and childhood
haunts. While preparing to go to dinner that evening, Didion receives
a call from Tony, telling her that he is coming over to the apartment.
Didion assumes that something has happened to Tony’s wife Rosemary, who
has been in ill health, but Tony says that Quintana is undergoing
emergency neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center. While crossing the
street to the rental car shuttle at LAX, Didion learns, Gerry had
looked back and had seen Quintana lying on the asphalt. An ambulance
had been called and Quintana was taken to UCLA. Upon arriving at
the emergency room, she had lost coherence and had begun convulsing.
A CT scan was performed, and by the time they brought her in for
surgery her pupils were fixed and dilated. The CT scan indicated
a subdural hematoma, a traumatic brain injury in which hemorrhaged
blood puts pressure on sensitive brain tissue. Quintana had seemingly
recovered from a life-threatening situation but now was at greater
risk than ever before.
Tony arrives at the apartment and they call Gerry into
the ER, where Quintana’s prognosis has upgraded to the point that
the surgeons believe she will leave the operating table. Didion
attempts to plan a flight to Los Angeles until Tony tells her that
being in flight during Quintana’s surgery would be a bad idea. Instead,
Didion contacts two friends in Los Angeles, who go to the hospital
to wait with Gerry. She then calls a friend to ask if she can use
his house in L.A., and he offers a seat on a private plane he’s
taking there the next day. At midnight, Gerry calls to report that
the surgery is over and Quintana is undergoing another CT scan.
a.m., he calls
again to say the CT scan is clean and a screen has been placed in
her heart to prevent clots. The next morning, before leaving to
catch the plane, Didion looks up “fixed and dilated pupils” (or
FDPs) and learns the chilling fact that few patients survive after
having FDPs, and the majority of those that do become vegetative
Didion’s hopes for personal recovery are disrupted by
Quintana’s collapse and rehospitalization, which shatters the opportunity
for healing. The grief process is typically structured along a process
of improvement, and the various stages of recovery have become ingrained
into our cultural consciousness. Didion is no different in her expectations
that, after facing the greatest personal trial of her life, things
will eventually start to improve. Didion vividly imagines this for
Quintana as well, taking comfort in an idyllic fantasy of her daughter
recuperating on a warm beach in Malibu. Though the news that Quintana
is at greater risk than ever before feels shocking and emotionally
devastating in its own right, the disruption of her own narrative
of progress and improvement heightens its intensity. It also opens
up another opportunity for magical thinking. Didion has to believe
that Quintana is getting better, because after John’s death something
good has to happen. Quintana’s subdural hematoma seems to betray
the pattern of recovery Didion expects her life to follow and adds
a level of disruption and shock that changes the direction of the
rest of the memoir.
Once again, Didion depicts her shock at the news formally,
pulling herself and her personal feelings out of her description
of events to emphasize that she felt anesthetized and emotionally
withdrawn. Once again, Didion becomes a “pretty cool customer,”
listening and absorbing the new information without describing her
emotional response. While the previous chapters began to open up
to analysis and self-examination, Didion’s narrative voice shuts
down emotionally and is stripped down to a stark, detached style
of reporting that lays out the events simply and evenhandedly. The
tonal shift mirrors the evolution of Didion’s grieving process.
While John’s death had been a crippling and painful blow, during
Quintana’s recovery she had begun to see possible opportunities
for healing. Quintana’s health became her focus, and her daughter’s
steady improvement seemed to suggest that Didion too could recover.
Didion suddenly has to face the fact that, after losing her husband,
she now faces the possibility of losing her daughter. Plunged into
a state in which healing and recovery seem impossibly far away,
Didion ceases to include the thoughtful self-analysis or emotionally informed
exposition that had begun to emerge in preceding chapters. In the
chapters where Didion feels the most, she is the least present as
Didion draws parallels between John’s death and Quintana’s
collapse, which underscores the suddenness of both events and the degree
to which they leave confusion in their wake, taking the illusion
of agency completely out of Didion’s hands. Both collapses occur
in the middle of a moment of action and set off a chain reaction
of institutionalized responses. Both Didion and Gerry are powerless
observers who must listen to, process, and disseminate information
to the necessary people. After John’s death, Didion had been able
to take steps toward gaining more agency over her situation, following
the expected procedures of planning a funeral, conducting research,
and going through a process of self-examination. Though the resulting
agency was limited, Didion was still able to take some measure of
control in a situation in which she was powerless. Once again, the
rug has been pulled out from underneath her, putting her back into
a position where she is a helpless observer. Didion uses the parallels
to emphasize how suddenly her husband and daughter had collapsed,
but also to emphasize how, even after she attempts to regain some
stability in her life, she finds herself subject to a catastrophic
situation entirely outside of her control.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!