The Loss of a loved one is a difficult thing to cope with, more so when you have lived together for 20 odd years. Joan Didion’s book, The year of Magical Thinking, is an engaging attempt by her to meditate by writing and coping with the loss of her husband.
I am not sure if such an exercise has been done earlier, but the author herself gives pointers to a book by Dylan thomas’ widow. The author herself confesses she found that book difficult to read when she was 22. So it is clear this is not a genre that’s going to find too many takers.
Yet this book could not have been written with an audience in mind. Such a book , I believe can be written only as an attempt to dig into your inner reaches in a bid to look for that solace that comes from pouring out all that you have to say. The author, I am sure has been blessed with some peace at the end of this meditative exercise and has also gifted us with some sparkling read and moments of reflection on life.
Joan is dealt a big blow when her husband John collapses at home. Ideally, given John’s medical history, it should not have been such a big blow as Joan suffers. Yet Joan suffers, because it’s her nature to always remain positive. She brushes aside warnings and concerns when John is diagnosed and operated upon for a major heart condition. She strongly believes that John’s condition has been fixed and that he could start fresh.
On the one hand it is this rugged sense of positive outlook that makes John’s demise hard on her, on the other if she had not been positive she would have ended up almost pitying John living every moment anxiously expecting death. In that case life would have been horrible for both John and Joan.
The book takes us through different phases of Joan’s suffering. In the first phase she has just encountered death and captures her immediate reactions to the sudden and sad event. In this phase of sufferring, Joan comes across as confused and often shrinking in to a corner.
This is the time she feels, ‘ Waiting in the line seemed the constructive thing to do. Waiting in line said that there was still time to deal with this ( the death)…’
Then there is the phase when Joan keeps secretly hoping John would come back into her life.
Joan insists on spending more time alone, because she feels,’ I needed to be alone so that he could come back’
She feels a sense of shock, when a friend proposes putting up an obituary in the papers. ‘I wanted to say not yet… I could deal with’ autopsy’, but the notion of ‘obituary’ had not occurred to me. ‘Obituary’ ,…., meant it had happened.
Auguring to the meditative resonance of the book, Joan invokes poems strings them together to form a rosary for her prayer. This one by Gerard Manley Hopkins,
“o the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed,…
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come”
There are also lines that keep repeating or keep going around in a loop in the book, probably suggesting again a rosary for meditation. One such is a line from the movie, Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian, “ I love you more than even one more day”
For some time, briefly in the middle, Joan is preoccupied with holding out to her daughter who suffers a series of hospitalisations. During this period she finds solace reading self help manuals on coping with loss and a whole of medical literature that help her understand her daughter's illness and the treatment provided.
And then, when she is back to her loneliness, John’s absence starts sinking in, Joan tries to keep her memories of him burning by constantly talking things out to him, by constantly thinking how John would have reacted to this or that situation. One situation that stands out is when Joan feels a strong urge to correct a sentence in John’s Manuscript of ‘Nothing lost’. She then decides to let the line be, remembering how John would have reacted with,
‘ Why do you always have to be right.
Why do you always have to have the last word.
For once in your life just let it go.’
Joan takes strong exception to the suggestion that a prolonged illness , ‘ seemed to apply , trailing its misleading suggestion of release, relief, resolution. In each of those long illness the possibility of death had been in the picture,… yet having seen the picture in no way deflected… the swift empty loss. … It was still black and white. Each of them had been in the last instant alive, and then dead.’
Joan then moves on to relish John’s lingering presence in her life through the gifts he gave her. ‘What I had instead of letters was a souvenir … a small black wafer-thin alarm clock he gave me one Christmas…. This alarm clock had stopped working the year before he died, could not be repaired, and after he died, could not be thrown out. It could not even be removed from the table by my bed.’
While Joan ends the book a year after John’s demise, a year through which she had something to think of him from a time exactly a year ago. And then she suddenly reaches a point when exactly a year ago John was not with her and she had been living all alone.
Joan leaves the reader moved by a deep sense of grief that could be surmised by her reflections on what marriage does to you,
‘ … we were equally incapable of imagining the life without the other…. ‘ you can love more than one person’. Ofcourse you can, but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, Marriage is time. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw muself through John’s eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty nine I realised that my image of myself was of someone significantly younger.