It was in one of those Facebook chain games where you tag seven friends and ask them to put up pictures of seven books that meant a lot to them that I discovered Joan Didion. Believe it or not, but this insanely popular American author was unknown to me till then. A Facebook acquaintance posted the cover of The Year of Magical Thinking, and I was immediately drawn to it. Mainly because this year I am working on my memoir, which will circle around mental health and trauma. Mainly because I needed this year to be my year of magical thinking.
Didion wrote this book cataloguing the events – or non-events – of the year following her husband John Gregory Dunne’s death. She ends the memoir exactly a year and a day later. That extra day is one she does not have any account of. Each day of this year is spent drawing associations with the same day a year earlier, when her husband was alive. “Being with you and not with you is the only way I have to measure time,” Borges had said, and Didion lives it. She constantly goes back to the events of the year her husband was alive, and juxtaposes them against the following year, when he was not.
But in the middle of the grieving, life is taking place at its own painful pace. There’s not only Joan herself, but also her daughter Quintana Roo, who is in the hospital in a coma when John dies. Quintana Roo is terribly sick through the course of the book. On the verge of death, but never dying. And every time I read the portions about her, I got restless. I seriously considered giving up the book, for I would not be able to deal with it if Quintana Roo also died.
Too much grief
There is such a thing as too much grief. And her death would have meant just that for me. But I kept reading. Quintana Roo kept getting better, and kept falling ill again. She kept changing hospitals, her landscapes kept transforming and from one city to another, from one hospital bed to another. I had picked this book up because I also wanted to learn about grieving. Because I don’t think I know anyone who thinks about death more than I do. I don’t know anyone who is more unprepared for death than I am.
I suffer from severe health anxiety. John’s death in the book happens because of a sudden, unexpected heart attack. There is no way he could have survived it. There is no way he would have made it out alive. But there is always the question of what if. There is always the thought of his coming back, needing his shoes, needing his books, opened exactly on the page he left them. And then there are the questions of what he was thinking moments before he died. What was he thinking 24 hours before he died. Or 48 hours, or 72 hours, an endless chain with no answers. So, I told myself, this isn’t very different from what you will go through when you experience the loss you keep preparing yourself for. Excerpt you don’t have the balance that Didion has. You don’t have the control she holds over herself, even when she is letting go.
So what happens when Quintana Roo dies?
I will be a spectacle. I have always been one. This was why Quintana Roo mattered more to me. Because she wasn’t dead yet. She was preparing for it. She was deluding death. Whenever it was thought that she would die, she came back. The end of the book tells us that she got on with life in some ways. But my anxiety would not have it this way. Because through Quintana Roo I was battling my fear of losing a parent. A parent I haven’t lost yet. A parent I may not lose any time soon. But a parent whose mortality I am the most afraid of.
So what happens when Quintana Roo dies, if she dies? So what happens if my parent dies, if one of them dies? Can anyone ever be ready for death? Can anyone predict how life will be with that vacant spot, that void that cannot be fulfilled? No matter what age I am when I lose a parent, I don’t think I will be ready. My parent is the Quintana Roo of the story, because she exhibited signs of being caught by the broken man, but was constantly running away from the broken man – the grim reaper. And I wanted her to run as far as she could. Because I was tying her fate to my future tragedy as I read.
A betrayal I had been preparing for
I finished reading the book in the morning. I was up at 4.30 AM – the hour for those past thirty, the hollow hour, empty, the hour when the earth betrays us, as Wislawa Szymborska said. And it did betray me. I was trying to work on my book, but no words came. Words weren’t going to heal me that day. So I turned to Didion. I had closed the book the previous night with 19 pages to go. I wanted to wait, and not finish the book, but what choice did I even have? If my words weren’t helping me, I needed to borrow some, didn’t I?
And so I finished the book. I tried not to. I created all kinds of obstacles. I brought up all the chores I could do at 4.30 AM without waking anyone else. But it had to happen. And in no time I found myself on the last page of the book. John’s death was still mourning in process, though Didion had survived a whole year. But Quintana Roo, my love, the one my heart was aching for from the beginning, had made it alive. But then why was I not done with the book? Or why was the book not done with me.
So I turned another page, the page that lists all the books by the author. And there was my answer. Quintana Roo hadn’t died yet, but she would soon. She would die by the time I finished reading Didion’s next book. It was a betrayal I had been preparing for from the beginning, but it was a betrayal I wasn’t ready for. So now that John is dead and that Quintana Roo will be, too, what do I do about my parent? How do I de-link their life from hers? How do I go back in time and decide to not read this book? How do I keep Quintana Roo alive?