Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Year of Magical Thinking: A Book Review

When I flew home from Cleveland at the end of December, I bought “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion at the Cleveland airport. As I already have so many books, I felt slightly guilty about this purchase. I brought the book to the check out counter and the clerk commented, “This is really a good book.” I sheepishly replied that I really should wait and get it at the library. She said, “Sometimes you just have to buy it.”

This book, which recounts the death of the author’s husband from a heart attack, at the same time their only child is hospitalized in critical care with an unknown disease, and the aftermath, is, of course, THE memoir of 2005. And for good reason.

I began reading it on the plane from Cleveland. The date was December 30, 2005. The author’s husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died on December 30, 2003. My beloved grandpa died on December 30, 1984. I was a little freaked out by these coincidences, but kept reading anyway. I’ve decided I don’t believe in bad omens, only good ones as befits the world view of someone who’s had a charmed life. For example, I’m typing these words on a flight to Atlanta. Who should show up at the Bloomington airport this morning but my cousin Jay, who is also making his way to Bradenton/Sarasota. So now I know the plane won’t crash. Talk about magical thinking.

When I got home, after having only read the first 30 pages, I lent the book to my mom, who found it depressing—“She (Didion) doesn’t seem to have any faith,” (she does, but in geology—the inevitability of earthquakes, mudslides and tsunamis—and not in God) and didn’t resume reading it until I was back in Cleveland for the third time when Jackson died. I have to say that it was the perfect book to read while mourning Jackson. The grief and sadness are as tangible as the printed pages. “This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed (her husband’s death), weeks and then months that cut lose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

Jackson died just past midnight on Saturday, January 21. We continued to hang out at The Clinic for several days: John attended the autopsy meetings, we met with the genuinely compassionate family liaisons who helped us make arrangements for the discharge of Jackson’s body, we picked up his belongings, we went to the medical library and bought some used books at a buck a piece, we talked with funeral directors. I would sit in the comfortable, airy waiting lounge near the chapel with the lively classical music, waiting for John and reading the book.

Didion so precisely describes her husband’s death and her emotional state—details, details, I always told my composition students—and backs them both up with research ranging from an article on sudden cardiac death in the Journal of American Medicine to a section on bereavement in a 1922 Emily Post book. As Didion said, “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.” I’ve listened to John talk enough about medical situations that I could appreciate how right Didion got her descriptions, which I would read to him to verify and also to make him diagnose what was being described.

In 2000, my uncle Joe died in Manhattan also of sudden cardiac death. When my dad and I went to NYC to make arrangements, I remember the need I had to go to the restaurant to talk with those who were there when he died, to recreate what had happened. Joan Didion has that compulsion too, even though she was present when her husband had his heart attack. For Didion it was about relieving guilt. Was there something she could have done to save her husband? I think that’s one of the reasons John went to Jackson’s autopsy: he wanted to know that he had diagnosed and treated Jackson properly. This was confirmed. The main cause of Jackson’s death will likely be listed as a stenotic (tight) mitral valve. John and I both feel guilty for other reasons, though. John wishes he had never taken Jackson back to Haiti. I wish I had spent more time with Jackson the last two months. I could have sat by his bed more.

As time went on, I felt like we were haunting the clinic, a spectral presence. I saw the doctor who would be Jackson’s surgeon four times. The Clinic is huge. Why did I keep seeing him? Once he saw me, and acknowledged me with an embarrassed-looking nod. Did he remember who I was? What were his feelings about Jackson’s death? Maybe that’s why I felt like we were haunting the place: our guy died. He was a medical failure. What doctor wants to remember/be associated with that? “We’ve done all we can. We’re sorry he didn’t make it. He’s been gone four days. It’s time for you to leave now.” Actually, we bumped into two of Jackson’s nurses who expressed the most heartfelt sympathy and said they would always remember Jackson.

Didion describes a thought process she called “the vortex.” She would be in a familiar place or pass a landmark that would trigger a memory. This memory would inexorably lead to others, which would either take her to a comforting place, where she could forget that her life as she knew it was in shambles or bring her to a place that accentuated her pain. I feel so bad about Jackson; sometimes I have to think about something else and I force myself into a vortex having nothing to do with Haiti or death.

I have a strong faith in God and heaven, so in that way my thinking is different than Didion’s. But for expressing the sadness, difficulty, and insanity that accompanies death “The Year of Magical Thinking” has been the perfect accompaniment to my mode of thinking these past days.

A note about these book reviews: a couple of Haiti trips ago, I read the first volume of George Orwell’s collected works. Orwell reviewed many books. Most of these reviews were an excuse for him to write about what he wanted to write about, somehow linking his subject matter with the book. My reviews will likely follow a similar pattern.

No comments: