There is a stage in the life-cycle of every year, usually toward end of April, birth of May, that a deep blue gloaming quietly drapes the city of New York. For Joan Didion, amongst America's most premier ladies of letters, it serves as a metaphor for the dwindling of days. This crepuscular drapery is not the dying of brightness, already gone, but the dying of what is still left.
One night a few years back, a relentless rain pestered the people of Donnybrook, Dublin. I recall, while on a campaign trail, being driven past a carpark that sloped way down to meet the face of an illuminated hotel. The floods, almost Venetian, in their vastness. Young bell boys attacked frantically the floods armed with yard brushes and vacuums. The waters blackness bedizened by the dancing reflection of indifferent stars. A violence about the floods procession informed a notion I had, a notion that there can indeed be representations for events in our lives, stumbled on when observing the natural world. Joan Didion knows this. She writes from the shadows, sees the world from its penumbra.
"Reading Joan Didion on any subject," wrote Boris Kachka, "is like tiptoeing across a just frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold." What Kachka fails to mention, is that Didion has braved the underworld of the ice, survived these beautiful monsters, and has written about it. She gives us two books as offerings. We reflect on her reflections on fear, illness, loss, mortality, aging, memory, and most of all, grief. 'The Year of Magical Thinking' is Didion's chronicle of the weeks and then months following her late husband, John Gregory Dunne's, death from a fatal coronary at their dinner table. 'Blue Nights' is Didion's chronicle of the weeks and months following their only child, Quintana Roo's, death from Acute Pancreatitis, after undergoing brain surgery, required because of a massive hematoma.
As one journey's in life, usually one attempts to build as contented an existence as one can. Rarely is any attention given to its prospective destruction, as well as the great lack of reason when it eventually occurs. We only imagine terrible things happen to others and almost never to ourselves. A confederacy of, if not dunces, deniers. One thinks of the scalpel. Its deepness of access, its vicious usefulness, to slice open and permit a cutter revelation of what lies beneath. Didion performs open self-surgery. Taking a buzz-saw of the mind to that icy barrier and diving in. This is a horror story. Didion is the best person fashioned for its telling.
"Confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred", she writes.
Ponder upon any tragedy ; a terrorist attack, an irrevocable car accident, a fire, a freak mishap, in all these and other such phenomena, most people seem to note how normal that day had been. People fail to recognize that tragedy, although less frequent, is normal in itself. Confronting the normality of tragedy is one of the most daring and testing activities of which any we know.
"Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be . . . What I felt in each instance was sadness, loneliness (the loneliness of the abandoned child of whatever age), regret for time gone by, for things unsaid, for my inability to share or even in any real way to acknowledge, at the end, the pain and helplessness and physical humiliation they each endured."
Relationships end. Didion says the fear is not for what is lost, the fear, actually, is for what is still to be lost. The immeasurable amount of personal investments, the countless connections, all intricately embedded in the psyche's of two people each other to whom known well. A handful of those closest to oneself become not merely 'friends', 'family', but a part of ones life. You may remember life before you met them, but cannot imagine continuing without.
When death comes, some of them will remain with us, and some of us will die with them. Martin Amis wrote that closure is a greasy little word which describes a non-existent condition. The truth, is that nobody gets over anything.
"Time Passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember."
Didions remembrances of those now dead, her sentimental journey through her own memory, is littered with mementos, moments, and associations initiated from those mementos. Didion does somewhat fatigue us with an indulgent yet determined nomenclature of items from her past. Memento's that hold no value for the reader. One can afford, however, to appreciate why any person of loss would marinate oneself within a pool of mementos. A doomed attempt at preservation.
"In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact, they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here."
"As if memories are solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are what you no longer want to remember."
This preservation, this selfish irrationality, this magical thinking, is something Didion acknowledges, and then abandons. If we are to go on ourselves, we must abandon this illogical preservation. We are no longer the same. Some of us is gone with that other person. We mourn ourselves. We must create a new life in order to live with a sense of meaning. We go on until we no longer do. Society is like a wave, Emerson said. Separation is inevitable, so one must attempt to adequately appreciate their moments, their close ones, their suffering. Never can we fully appreciate all that we do have, but we can try to be more conscious of it.
Didion talks about going to St. John the Divine and placing Quintata's ashes in a marble wall in St. Ansgar's Chapel, along with those of her late Mother and her late Husband. Her Mother's name was already on the marble wall. John's name was already on the marble wall. "There had been two spaces remaining, the names not yet engraved. Now there was one." That deep blue gloaming. That crepuscular drapery. The brightness has already gone, there is only darkness.