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Once Quintana is transferred from UCLA to the Rusk Institute
at NYU, she will tell Didion that her memories of the preceding months
are “mudgy.” Didion describes a similar “mudginess” as she attempts
to reconstruct the weeks she spent with Quintana at UCLA. She has
clear memories of attempting to delay Quintana’s tracheotomy. Didion
later realizes that she resisted the procedure because it would
mean that Quintana could not come home with her at a moment’s notice.
Though the notion that Quintana’s condition would improve that rapidly
is impossible, Didion holds onto the idea that they may leave the
hospital and recuperate in Los Angeles or fly back to New York.
Soon after Quintana gets the tracheotomy, they move her to a stepdown
observational unit. Didion continues to pepper the doctors with
questions and observations, which they meet with irritation and
resistance, but she persists, since asking questions make her feel
Through careful observation, Didion begins to understand
the names of tests and procedures and begins to voice her concerns more
clearly. But after learning that Quintana is again at risk for sepsis,
just as she had been at Beth Israel, Didion spends time gazing out
the window at the empty hotel swimming pool. She remembers a party
she once held where she clogged the pool filter with gardenias,
after attempting to float candles and flowers on the pool surface.
Since the memory does not involve Quintana or John, the vortex effect
seems to remain at bay. However, another memory from the same period
triggers the vortex effect. The sudden death of a neighbor in Brentwood
Park in 1987 had prompted John to suggest
they spend more time in New York. Didion wonders if moving back
to New York was the fatal decision; if she hadn’t agreed with John
fifteen years ago, perhaps he would still be alive, and she would
be able to drive to the house in Brentwood Park and find him there.
Each memory seems to remind Didion of her choices and mistakes.
Though she knows that the house in Brentwood Park had been torn
down soon after they sold it, this line of thinking does not stop.
In late April, the doctors determine that Quintana can
be transported to the Rusk Institute in New York but that she will
have to be attended by trained personnel on an air ambulance. Watching
the helicopters land at the hospital’s helipad, Didion recalls a
day in 1970 when she and John saw a passenger
in another car slump over and die while stopped at a red light.
As with John’s death, an otherwise ordinary day was suddenly punctuated
by an unexpected tragedy.
The day of the transfer arrives, and after a miscommunication about
where the plane will depart from, they finally settle into the cramped
plane and take off. During the flight, the paramedic takes pictures
of Lake Mead, referring to it as the Grand Canyon. After correcting
him initially, Didion remembers John’s criticism about her constant
need to be right, thinking to herself that she in fact always thought
that she was wrong. After the plane lands in a cornfield in Kansas
to refuel, Didion stretches her legs and thinks about a passage
concerning tornadoes from John’s yet-to-be published book, Nothing
Lost. Recently, Didion had been reviewing the manuscript
of John’s book when she noticed that one of the sentences didn’t
sound right. She hadn’t been sure if the mistake was intentional
and had become overwhelmed by the fact that she will have to make
the final decision without consulting John. Once she lands in New
York, she reviews earlier drafts of Nothing Lost and decides
to leave the mistake in, remembering how John criticized her need
to always be right and have the last word.
Although Didion doesn’t engage in the same kind of magical
thinking as she did after John’s death, she still engages in a process
of irrational thinking as she attempts to exert control over her
daughter’s situation. At this stage in her grief process, the vortex
effect and magical thinking work together. Her stubbornness about
Quintana’s tracheotomy is a form of magical thinking, in which she
clings to the idea that her daughter might suddenly get better at
any moment. When she experiences the vortex effect while staring
at the hotel pool, she at first seems to have some control over
her memory, as she manages to call up a reminiscence that doesn’t
involve John and Quintana. The pull of the vortex effect proves
to be too strong, however, and she remembers the decision-making
process that led to their relocation to New York. The vortex effect
and magical thinking work together, creating the illusion that if
they had never moved John would not have died and Quintana would
not have fallen ill. Though she knows that she’s being completely
illogical, Didion still clings to the notion that she can somehow
go back into the past through her memories and make different choices
as a way of averting the present circumstances.
Didion realizes that her need to be right is a manifestation
of a need for control, and she starts to relax her need to have
the final word. In doing so, she takes the initial steps toward
letting go of magical thinking. Didion indicates that, during this
tragic year, she never felt that she was right about anything, so
any expression of confidence was actually a smokescreen for her
lack of confidence. When Didion must make a decision regarding an
apparent error in John’s manuscript, she must face the fact that
she can never really know what John was thinking or feeling before
he died, no matter how closely connected they may have been. Though
their life together brought them to a point where their thoughts
were often inextricable, Didion begins to understand how separate
they truly were. She also accepts that, just as she cannot fully
know or understand John’s thinking, she cannot fully understand
how or why he died, and that she must accept the circumstances she
has been given and work with the information available to her.
Didion’s willingness to cross social boundaries, particularly
in the context of a hospital, shows the degree to which her need
for control has disrupted her sense of accepted social behavior.
On numerous occasions in the hospital she finds herself in a position where
the doctors and hospital staff see her as intrusive. She makes no
apologies for her behavior because, in many instances, she is correct
about the proper course of action, but she finds herself slipping from
being protective and somewhat overbearing to being completely irrational.
While her staunch resistance to Quintana’s tracheotomy is honestly
felt, she realizes later that she wasn’t concerned about potential
health complications as much as she felt the need to hold onto the
idea that her daughter might be able to leave the hospital at a
moment’s notice. Didion finds that her natural impulse to take charge
of the situation by learning as much as she can and aggressively
asking questions has the expected consequence of bothering authority
figures, but she also finds that the reasons behind her questions
and demands originate in personal emotional needs and not genuinely
Didion continues the pattern of intellectual inquiry that
she began shortly after John’s death, but her approach shifts. While
she once was a reader engaging in a process of self-education, she
is now a detective seeking clues that will produce a solution. When
she previously conducted research, Didion sought out models and
examples of grief experiences as a way of understanding her own emotions
and reactions. Now, informed by an expanded understanding of her
need for control, she assimilates information as a way to help her
take action. Like a detective, she seeks out information about Quintana’s
illness so she can challenge the choices made by the medical professionals
at UCLA, believing that if she is properly informed she can prevent
further mistakes and help bring about the desired solution—Quintana’s
total recovery. She begins to apply this pattern of behavior to
the problem of John’s death as well, as she works to figure out
the origin of the medical problems that led to his death and, by
understanding them, correct them and bring him back.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!