Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
So begins Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she explores grief, marriage, loss, writing and even the complexities of hospital critical care. She wrote the book after losing her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, who suffered a fatal heart attack in their kitchen as they were about to have dinner. To add to Didion's suffering, she and John had just come from visiting their only daughter, Quintana, who was unconscious in the Intensive Care Unit after succumbing to an especially acute and debilitating form of the flu.
While Didion's story is unique, her opening passage immediately struck me as familiar. My father died in a similar fashion: he went down to the basement to get a drink from the refrigerator, and never made it back up. As Didion writes, he “was talking, and then he wasn't.” And though he wasn't pronounced dead until two days later, in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I still see this as the moment when he passed from our world into the next. He never again took a breath on his own, never regained consciousness. He was there, and then he was gone. Life as you know it ends.
In an early chapter, Didion recalls struggling to remember what they had talked about at dinner. What John had been saying just before he died. Suddenly, remembering seemed to be of utmost importance, and yet she could not recall. I remember this same panic, even before Bryan and I reached the hospital. We were driving through southern Vermont, where we had been vacationing. I remembered that the last time I saw Dad was July 1 (it was now July 12). He and Mom had watched the kids on the evening of June 30 while Bryan and I went to the Pearl Jam concert at the Tweeter Center with my sister, Kaytie, and her friend Jessica. They had taken the kids to my brother's softball game. Dad had spent the entire game at the fence with Dylan, explaining the rules, cheering for Joe. I imagined how Dylan's interest in the game must have pleased Dad, who had always been an avid sports fan.
But what had happened the following day, the day after the concert? I recalled Dad asking me about the concert, but was that in the morning, or at lunchtime? Had he come home for lunch, as he sometimes did when we were visiting? I nearly broke into a sweat trying to remember the details. I tried to replay the events of the day, but the projector seemed to be broken. We went to the park, played baseball and basketball. Joey met us there. And then. And then? What were the last words that Dad and I had spoken to each other?
I never did recall. I like to think that he came home for lunch, but I'm not sure.
I like to think that I answered all of his emails, especially the one in which he responded to a blog entry about my brother Michael. He thanked me for thinking of Mike, said he was sometimes afraid we would forget him. “I did not want to put this in your blog because my feelings are personal and that is the way I will always be. Please know how much your feelings mean to me and how much I love all of you. Thanks, Dad.”
There is no “reply arrow” on this email. Did I respond? All the evidence seems to point to “no.” I have a vague memory of talking to him about this in person, in my parents' living room, possibly after Joe and Kim's baby shower. But I don't know if I have created this memory to make myself feel better. I have a bad habit of leaving emails in my inbox, with the intention of writing a response when I have some solitude, but I confess that these emails often get buried under more emails. I should have answered right away. I don't think I did. I'll never know.
In the hours following her husband's death, Didion looked at the time and realized that it was three hours earlier in California. In Los Angeles, she thought, this hasn't happened yet. She knew this was irrational. Later, as she is going through his things, she realizes she can not put his clothes into boxes, can not pack up his shoes, because, well, if he comes back, he might need them. Again, she knew this was irrational. She refers to this thought process as “magical thinking.”
Last week or the week before, I was clearing old text messages from my cell phone. I came across one from my sister: “So excited about tomorrow night.” The date was June 29, the day before the Pearl Jam concert. The message seemed suspended in time, a time in which Dad was still breathing, probably eagerly awaiting his grandchildren. I experienced a “magical” thought: If I replied to this message, would it, too, go back in time? Were there messages from June 28, or 27, or from May? Could I answer that email from Dad now? Surely technology has created something that allows us to send messages anachronistically?
In reality, a response to Dad's email would go straight to Mom, who shares the email address. But for a few brief seconds, it seemed that maybe communication was possible.
Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. . . . Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves.”
I am riding one of these waves right now as Dad's 63rd birthday approaches, and as the first anniversary of his death looms overhead. Didion writes that when she got home from the hospital, “My first thought was that I had to talk to John about this.” I have often experienced this: when I have a question about gardening, I need to call Dad. When the Red Sox beat the Yankees, I need to call Dad. When Dylan or Lexi does something noteworthy, I need to call Dad. When Alexa had a bad stomach virus a few weeks ago, I was about to tell my mother, “Don't mention it to Dad,” because he was such a worrier. I forget, and then I re-remember, and another wave hits.
The words with which Didion opens her memoir are the words she wrote in her notebook shortly after John died. I found it interesting that she included “The question of self-pity,” especially so soon after losing her partner of forty or fifty years.
People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as “dwelling on it.” We understand the aversion most of us have to “dwelling on it.” Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty, “ Phillipe Aries wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes Toward Death. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.” We remind ourselves repeatedly that our own loss is nothing compared to the loss experienced (or, the even worse thought, not experienced) by he or she who died; this attempt at corrective thinking serves only to plunge us deeper int the self-regarding deep. (Why didn't I see that, why am I so selfish.)
Society, Didion says, rewards the stoics, and so we fail to give grief its due. Most employers allow two or three days of “mourning” for a distant family member or friend, five for an immediate family member. I remember taking a week off from school when my brother died; when I returned to work, I found I had to go through it all over again as my colleagues approached me with condolences and hugs. It's too soon, I thought.
I remember, a mere five days after Dad's funeral, expressing to my friend Kristen my fear that I would never “come out of it.” I knew it was going to be a long process, and I think on some level I worried that my grief was imposing on others' happiness. I was afraid of the inconvenience it would cause. I found myself apologizing for talking about Dad, while at the same time needing desperately to have the conversation.
“Tricia,” Kristen said slowly, deliberately, “it hasn't even been two weeks. Go easy on yourself.”
I find myself feeling apologetic even now, as I write these words. I imagine readers rolling their eyes and thinking, “Ugh—aren't we past this already? Didn't we get all of this out last summer?”
And yet, I keep writing.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. . . .We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. . . .We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
I don't imagine that my grief is unique, nor do I find my situation to be tragic. It's common. It's ordinary. I know, as someone pointed out during this time, that we can never experience the kind of suffering experienced by, say, a woman in Afghanistan. Neither can my grief be compared to that of the parents of the three-year-old boy who drowned in his swimming pool here in Cheshire a few weeks ago.
Didion herself had much more cause for suffering than I. Shortly after finishing her book, she lost her daughter, who had suffered a series of setbacks after what looked like a promising recovery.
Dad was in my life for thirty-seven years. He met and knew and loved both of my children, if only for the first few years of their lives. I don't write out of self pity, but for catharsis. So I won't apologize. And I will resist the urge to assure you, anonymous reader, that I'm not “dwelling on it.”