I saw Joan Didion’s face on the cover of Poets and Writers and just knew we’d end up here somehow. When I read The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the year following the sudden death of her husband, I marveled at how she was able to distill the complexity and pain of those thoughts in such an honest and direct way. I wondered if the act of writing the book had therapeutic value for her. At the time, I had almost zero frame of reference for what it might be like to experience such a thing. A little over a year later, I went through a stretch of about nine months that filled in more details than any sensible person might like to examine.
Since that time, I’ve wondered if I should write about it all — not just a quick mention, but the whole story. I’ve gotten as far as organizing the thoughts in my head and buying a special pad of paper. That’s about it.
John Gregory Dunne passed away in December of 2003. Didion’s memoir came out early in 2007. That it was written at all amazes me, especially considering that her daughter, Quintana Roo, died in 2005. In Blue Nights, published just a few days ago, Didion discusses her fear that maybe she didn’t do right by her daughter. It’s an unfounded notion but these kind of circumstances can do a lot to a person’s psyche. We might all have differing ideas about things like impermanence, human fallibility, afterlife, and the cycle of rebirth, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept what’s come to pass.
Our society has a fascination with death. We wonder what it’s like to approach it, and what’s on the other side. There was even some speculation just yesterday about what Steve Jobs meant with his last words, “Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow.” Is it a bit ghoulish to find interest in this detail? I don’t know. I mean, the reason I want to write about my own experience is to think through the fact that I, very often, just didn’t know what to do…and constantly questioned if I’d made the right decisions.
A good friend of mine pinged me on the Didion article, asking me if I’d read it yet. I hadn’t but after getting to it that evening, I knew why she’d been inspired by it. We’ve both been through a lot of heavy stuff in our personal lives, and I suspect that the time is soon coming when we’ll both get to writing about it. Therapeutic or not, there are things that need to be said.
On her final day, my mother repeated the words “I wanna fly” several times in a row. They weren’t her last words but they were important, and I do know why she said them. In time, I’ll let everybody else know too.