This weekend I finished Joan Didion’s book, “The Year of Magical Thinking." The book details the author's grief following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the critical illness of their only daughter, Quintana.
It all feels very unfinished, in part because as I knew from news reports, her daughter had died earlier this fall from acute pancreatitis. I want to call her up and find out how she’s doing. But this is Joan Didion, an icon of contemporary writers. One doesn’t just call up Joan Didion to see how’s she doing. And yet, there’s an overwhelming urge to do so.
Her book leaves you feeling vulnerable and raw, emotions she seems to ooze these days and maybe that explains the urge to reach out to her. Her book is hardly laced with self-pity, even as I’m sure she worried it would be perceived as such. No, this book is very real and filled with all the confusion, insanity and small gestures of grief that make the process of mourning seem very …well, real.
Danny and I sometimes chide each other: “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.” It’s all very playful in tone and meant to show the deep affection we have for each other’s idiosyncrasies, but there’s also a touch of vulnerability present. I couldn’t help thinking of that remark while reading the book.
Didion writes about the friend of a friend who remarried after being widowed. When it didn’t work out, the man simply said, “She didn’t know all the songs.” She could just as easily have written: “She/He didn’t know all the stories,” because that’s how I read that comment.
When Danny says I’ll miss him when he’s gone, he’s so dead on that I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Of course I’ll miss his inability to sing the correct lyrics to any song, the way he can fall asleep sitting in a chair carrying on a conversation or reading the paper, the sights and sounds of his morning routine (the clearing of this throat, the ritual three sneezes in the shower, the precise spot he sits on the bed to pull his socks on or how he forgets to shut his dresser drawers).
I’ll miss his courageous cooking without the scripted recipes that I follow. I’ll miss the three empty Miller Lite bottles that rest on the counter after he’s created a feast. (He doesn’t like to drink with his meals, makes him too full.) And I’ll always laugh at the face he makes when I try to get him to sip some wine to complement a meal: “It’s too acidic, it’s gonna give me ‘burn.’(short for heartburn)”
It drives me crazy, but Danny loves to talk on the phone. He and his brother, Jack, talk about five times a day. I rarely answer the home phone because it's always for him. Makes me crazy that he leaves his cell phone at home on the weekends. It rings constantly with friends and family who mistakenly believe he carries it with him at all times. Danny has a most uproarious, contagious laugh and I can tell who he is on the phone with based on the laughter.
Then there are the many stories. We were kids when we married and we’ve basically grown up together. The first night we brought Ryan home from the hospital was a fiasco. My parents were living in Columbus and Danny’s mom was in Phoenix with his sister who was about to have her second baby. At 3 a.m., Ryan was up and screaming. We were misfits trying to console him. As I changed his diaper, Ryan peed on himself and screamed even louder.
Danny looked at me and said, “Call your mom.”
“She’s two hours away! What is she going to do?” I yelled back. “We just have to figure this out on our own.”
And we did. We’ve always figured things out on our own, partly out of stupid pride and partly out of necessity. It’s not been perfect by a long shot, but it’s us and it’s our story. And I know that as soon as I get into the car to go somewhere, the first thing I do is dial Danny’s cell.
When something good or bad happens with work or with the kids, he’s the first person I want to tell. And that’s why this paragraph in Didion’s book was like a left-hook to the jaw:
“John and I were married for forty years. During all but the first five months of our marriage, when John was still working at Time, we both worked at home…. I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death.”