Wednesday, December 21, 2011
On a recent Saturday, I attended the funeral of a sixteen year old girl. In the space of a single week, she had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, had surgery, and died. One week to go from being full of life to ashes. As I sat in the cold church watching the service, I realized that her parents had been transposed into an entirely different reality, one that most people could not access, and one that haunts every parent every day: the death of a child. Parents should never have to bury their children.
It was a coincidence that at the time of this funeral, I was reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (Knopf, 2011), a book that takes as its theme the death of a child, although Didion’s daughter, Quintana, was not a child when she died. For Didion, her death launched an inquisition of self, a clear-eyed, unsparing review of life and parenting, and of course, loss. The book follows Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005), a meditation on the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The two deaths are deeply entwined; Quintana suffered a series of illnesses and was in the hospital when Dunne dropped dead of a heart attack at his dining room table one evening after visiting his daughter. In a very short period of time, Didion lost two-thirds of her immediate family.
Didion is the rare writer who works in a number of genres. Together with Dunne, she wrote movie scripts including Panic In Needle Park (1971) and Up Close and Personal (1996). Her novels include Run River (1963), Play It As It Lays (1970), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). However, it is her nonfiction that stands out, a genre often called New Journalism, but is simply composed of sharp observation and razor-edged nonfiction prose that utilizes the first person. Didion is not a polemicist like Christopher Hitchens, but a writer who conveys the emotional and physical truth of a scene and allows the reader to draw conclusions. She gives us the world through her eyes, and she does not shy away from the dark matters of the human heart, the slippery slope of the center disintegrating beneath us. Her nonfiction books, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), and After Henry (1992) contain some of the best essays of the late twentieth century.
In Blue Nights, Didion uses a circular and fragmentary style of prose poetry to examine both Quintana’s life and death as well as her own parenting. Her daughter was adopted, and loved to hear the story of how she came to them: the birth at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica; the way the hospital would give them no information about the baby’s family; the way John told the story of “Not that baby…that baby. The baby with the ribbon,” as if choosing a beautiful jewel in a store window. For Didion, it was then that the questions started: “What if I fail to take care of this baby? What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?” The worst question was almost too much to contemplate: “What if I fail to love this baby?”
Early on, Didion had a foreshadowing of the things to come: “It is horrible to see ones self die without children. Napoleon Bonaparte said that,” she writes. “What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripedes said that. When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children. I said that.” She goes on to write that now that her husband and daughter are dead, she fears not death itself, but not dying.
Foreshadowing the end of things, the decay of culture and society, are the threads running through Didion’s work. This from Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing.” Not far off from today, with our gunman firing indiscriminately into cars in Hollywood, workplace shootings, and mothers who fail to report their children missing, whose children later turn up dead, and for whose murder, they are acquitted. Seventh graders execute each other in classrooms. Joan Didion’s work was never more prescient.
In this book, Didion turns her pen on herself only to discover, there are no easy answers. The blue night of which she speaks is the way the light dies at twilight during early summer in New York, where she now lives. She connects the blue night to “illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.” She returns to this motif at the end of the book, writing to Quintana? John? Herself? “Go back into the blue…what is lost is already behind locked doors. The fear is for what is still to be lost. You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”
This is what I wanted to tell the grieving family. There will never be a day when the pain of loss subsides. There will never be a day when you won’t think of your child. But that is the way we live now, with loss and absence and sorrow, even in spring.
The Buddhists tell us that pain, suffering and loss are part of life, and must be accepted as such. Still humans go on and on, raging against the dying of the light, reaching out to hold on for just one more second, the blue light of memory.
*Writer Annie Wyndham was nice enough to mention this post today (12/22/11) on her blog. Access her piece here.