I’m reading Joan Didion’s new book Blue Nights right now. In it she examines her thoughts, fears and doubts about having children, illness and growing old. Didion lost her only child, her daughter Quintana, in 2005. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion addressed the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. That book was published only months before her daughter passed away at 39 years old. In The Year of Magical Thinking she talks about her daughter who was in the hospital, very ill, on the night Joan’s husband died from heart failure. I remember the lump in my throat when I read that Joan had to break the terrible news to Quintana more than once that her father had died. She was slipping in and out of a coma and when she awoke she wanted to know where her father was. She was devastated by the news of course, but then would slip back out of consciousness and not remember any of it when she awoke the next time, so poor Joan had to explain it all to her again…and again.
When I finished reading The Year of Magical Thinking I so hoped that her daughter would recover and mother and daughter could be there for each other to lean on and for support. So, when I was finished reading the book, I Googled “Quintana Roo Dunne” and there it was. Real life doesn’t always offer a happy ending and sometimes it kicks you hard when you’re down.
I’m still reading Blue Nights and so far it has really got me thinking about my own son, James, and also my step children and their relationship with their father.
I want to share some lines from Blue Nights that really struck a chord with me:
When I began writing these pages I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them.
The ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear.
The ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.
As the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children; their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death.
Only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same.
When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.
Once she was born I was never not afraid.
I was afraid of swimming pools, high tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet. I was afraid of rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors. The source of fear was obvious: it was harm that could come to her. A question: if we and our children could in fact see the other clear would the fear go away? Would the fear go away for both of us, or would the fear go away only for me?
Every time I read those lines I cry. I’m not sure why, but I do. I think it may be the truth in them. The truth that we cannot see the other clear and that we remain so unknown to each other. I am also a daughter and know from that perspective that this is true. And the fear. The fear never goes away. I guess I cry too because when my own son was small I knew him so well…but that time was fleeting and has long since passed by. My husband feels the same way about all of his children.
You are joy, looking for a way to express. It’s not just that your purpose is joy; it is that you are joy. You are love and joy and freedom and clarity expressing. Energy—frolicking and eager—that’s who you are. – Abraham
That’s how we remember our children – when they were small; that’s who they really were and indeed still are deep down, in fact that is who we all are …deep inside. Fear pushes it back and then we forget entirely who we truly are anymore. I feel the loss of those early days and I suppose that is also what makes me cry when I read those perfect lines written by Joan Didion.