"The Year of Magical Thinking"

With spring break drawing to a close, the boys and I went out after dinner to Barnes & Noble to look around and give Charlie a chance to use up his remaining gift card from Christmas.  Husband was looking for a last-minute gift (the next day being my birthday).  While looking around, I came across Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" and told him that that's what I wanted.  It had been on my wish list ever since I read the book review a few years ago.  It was released in 2004.  I'm very patient.

Husband wanted to find "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" (look for the reviews), but that one's been on back order since its release.  Very proud of himself, he surreptitiously bought "The Year of Magical Thinking" and the next day it "magically" appeared, with card, on the living room bench.  (I'm beginning to see the wisdom of an explicit request for a gift:  you get precisely what you want and not that 1930s copy of "How to be a Good Wife" that he handed to both Laura and me at Vroman’s Bookstore the other day... "It is a wife's duty to look her best. If you don't tidy yourself up, don't be surprised if your husband begins to compare you unfavorably with the typist at the office."

Not Exactly Light Reading

While "The Year of Magical Thinking" may seem like an odd choice for a birthday book from my husband, I wanted to know how a person could cope with losing her husband while her daughter lay comatose in a hospital bed.  Not exactly light reading. Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered his fatal heart attack just days after their recently-married daughter Quintana had slipped into a coma from septic shock.  Talk about compounding tragedy with tragedy.  What I found wasn't so much an overcoming as much as it was her laying out her mental processes and putting into words her thoughts --  raw, open, intelligent, beautiful.

The magical thinking that Didion refers to -- what I took from it -- is the thought processes by which a person feels that if they do the right thing, hold onto the right personal item, leave books in the same stack as they were on the floor, somehow time will reverse itself and their loved one will come back.  Didion describes poring over medical records in detail, reading medical texts, looking for clues, studying, trying to figure out what could have been done differently, as if it would make a difference in the outcome.


I remember after my dad died thinking back to the days before when he'd complained of pain in his left arm.  We later knew that this was a sign.  If only we'd done something.  The kind of thinking seemed to perpetuate this feeling of re-emergence, as if we could turn back time if only we had done the right thing.  If only.  A passage that she wrote particularly resonated with me.  After months pass and she reads the conclusive medical report, she realizes that he was gone immediately.  There was nothing that could have been done.  In our case, there was nothing my mom could have done, nothing the EMTs could have done, to help my dad.  He was gone in seconds as was John Gregory Dunne.  I think for Joan Didion, her ephiphany may have come in the mere realization of her magical thinking and its futility.

In the months following my dad's passing, he'd appear in my dreams at a time when I needed him the most.  In my dreams he'd arrive at the front door clutching suitcases in each hand as if to remind me that he was just visiting.  Our dream visits were so vivid.  They seemed real.  Was this my magical thinking?

Joan Didion's book reminds me, a person who's always waiting for the other shoe to drop, the phone call, to live in the moment as much as is possible. Love the ones you've got here and now and be glad of them.  Live your life so that the memories you have will make you look back and smile.

[By the way, Charlie picked up a book on cryptozoology.  Don't know what a cryptid is?  Perhaps a topic for another time. Oh, and Husband also gave to me the exact, impossible-to-find purse that I thought would be, well, impossible to find.]

Listen to Joan Didion reading from the final chapter of “The Year of Magical Thinking...”


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