In early October as I was finishing up my entry for Virtual Book Club #4, I re-read the passage where I reviewed The American Way of Death Revisited, and it occurred to me that my mom might not appreciate me telling the whole Internet that she had kept her father’s cremated remains in her laundry room for over a decade. So as I left to pick up carpool on the afternoon of October 6, I called her and told her that I had referenced that fact, and asked if she minded if I published it.
“Of course not,” she said, to my great relief. And then she laughed. “But you were sweet to ask.”
I had no way of knowing that in twenty days she would be dead.
Her remark has taken on a special significance to me. As the weeks have passed since her sudden death, I have played this conversation (is it long enough to qualify as a conversation?) over and over in my mind, because it’s the only memory I have where I can remember exactly what she said and the precise way her voice sounded. My other memories of her are fuzzier, so I have a sense of them, but not the ability to recreate them in my mind.
I bring this up because I recently finished The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The book chronicles the year after her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack, a year in which their only daughter was seriously ill as well.
The book has made a number of Top Ten lists, and deservedly so. Didion describes her irrational feelings– that if she acted in a certain way, her husband might come back, for example. While the book has gotten great reviews, I cannot help wondering whether it speaks more clearly to those of us who have experienced the sudden death of a loved one. My copy is now underlined and tabbed with multiple Post-its, because so much of what Didion relates applies to my own life during the last ten weeks.
As Joan Didion writes, it’s not the moment of death and the funeral that are so hard to bear, it’s the weeks after, when you wake up each morning to a new reality that shocks you to the core. It’s when you can’t get the last days of her life out of your mind; trying to pin down exactly when she seemed tired, and what did we say the night before surgery, and how did it all happen so fast. It’s finding lists in her handwriting, lists that were made while she was alive, and realizing that now she’s not, and everything she’ll ever scribble down in her unorganized manner has already been written.
It’s having a question that only she can answer: “Where is the silver chafing dish; I need it for the Hot Crab Dip for Christmas?” and realizing that she can’t answer you, ever, and so the dish is not found. And it’s the “magical thinking” that defies reason: in my case, going to my parents’ empty house and truly believing that if I called her– “Mom?”– she’d come out of her bedroom smiling, with her hair still wet from the shower. I tried it. She didn’t.
Bill read the book after I did. He says that if he had read it at some other time and place before my mother’s death, he probably would have written off Joan Didion as a nutcase. However, because he’s been watching me act equally wacky, he could see that what she wrote in fact described someone working her way through unbearable grief, grief that you can’t imagine if you haven’t been there and seen the way it plays with your psyche. I’d be interested to know whether any of you have read the book, and whether it struck you as merely an interesting story, or whether it hit you on a deeper level.
In reading the Top Ten lists, I noticed that two other books I read this year got good reviews: Saturday and Never Let Me Go. I read the former at MetroDad’s suggestion, but I did not enjoy it as much as I enjoyed McEwan’s previous book, Atonement. I loved Never Let Me Go, which I reviewed in Virtual Book Club #2 if you want to check it out.
I am happy to announce that I have read another book that fits in the category Dusty Books That I Should Have Read But Have Not. I know everyone else read this years ago, but I finally managed to read Memoirs of a Geisha. I loved it. I don’t know why I could never get into it before, but once again, this experience proves that sometimes good books take a couple of tries (maybe even decades apart) to fully appreciate. I saw the review for the movie twice, and maybe unconsciously I was afraid someone would drag me to the movie before I had read the book. I am adamantly, snobbishly opposed to seeing a movie without reading the book first, so perhaps that was the underlying impetus causing me to finish it in two days. It was a vivid, exotic story full of information about Japan and the life of a geisha.
If you’ve missed the past book reviews, you can read Virtual Book Club #1, VBC #2, VBC #3, and VBC #4 so you’ll know what’s going on. Feel free to comment on old book club posts or this one; I’m always hungry for new books to read.