This book has simple sentences like this scattered through it. They’re things you know, but forget. Your loved ones will die, so make the most of the time you have. I suppose I don’t like to look at members of my family and think about them dying, so I push the thought away. Reading this book, I was unable to push anything away. I will die one day, and so will everyone I know. A simple thought, and not necessarily a depressing one if instead of getting immobilised by preemptive grief I decide to take action, to show people that I love and appreciate them, to call them more, to spend more time with them, to forget the little grudges and niggles that really don’t matter.
Joan Didion’s loss is twofold – first her daughter goes into intensive care on Christmas morning, and then just before New Year’s Eve her husband dies instantly of a massive heart attack. The book explores the process of grieving, which starts with numbness, and moves through denial and magical thinking (imagining John is still alive, and that she can’t throw out his shoes because he’ll need them when he comes back). Only later does she really start to understand that he’s dead and to grieve for him.
The book is full of beautiful sentences and painful observations. She avoids places she went with John, but finds even the loosest connections taking her back down into the vortex, thinking of him and their times together and being unable to function in the real world. The narrative flits back and forth between past and present just as her thoughts must have done throughout that year.
And then, at the end, she realises that a year has passed. Until now she has kept time by looking back to what she was doing with John the year before, but now for the first time she realises that her memory of that day a year ago is a memory that doesn’t involve John. She is scared of going on into the next year, of summer coming, of her memory of John becoming less immediate, less raw. She feels it is a betrayal, to let him go like that, to become just a memory. She doesn’t want to “move on” as she is supposed to – she wants to keep John with her.
There were so many other parts of this book that I liked. The writing is quite restrained – she doesn’t try to play it up or describe herself bawling and tearing her hair out. It’s a quiet kind of grief, but a powerful one. I got a real sense of her love and intimacy with her husband, and how painful it was to let him go. I can see myself reading this again in a little while, just to remind myself of the truths I prefer to forget.
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