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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
, 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!