I recently read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, who died at age 39 of pneumonia and septic shock.
This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book full of grief; vivid, happy memories – and a long list of questions about what it means to be a mother, a writer, an aging woman, and the surviving member of your own family.
For a few weeks after I read Blue Nights, I found myself thinking nonstop about how old, or rather young, Quintana was when she died, mostly, I’m sure, because I am the same age. I thought of my mother and where she was at 39. It was 1976 – she was married, had three children: ages 16, 9, and 4 (me), and was making beds and dinners and building people. I cannot fathom what my life would have been like had we lost my Mom when was 39, any more than I can imagine what my Mom would do if she lost me right now.
The truth is, none of us can fathom loss, expected or sudden, until we are in the midst of it – and even then it carries a surreal quality that, at times, feels so foreign we catch ourselves watching ourselves from the outside in.
Which makes me think of what Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’s sister, said in his eulogy: “We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.”
Even when we “have time.” Even when we “say what we need to say.” There is always the thought. It wasn’t enough time. I need more.
During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Didion shared a conversation she and Quintana had near the end of her life about what kind of mother Didion was. “Quintana, to my surprise, said, ‘You were okay, but you were a little remote,’” said Didion. “That was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it.”
What are our parents to us and we to them? A collection of tics, idiosyncrasies, stories, secrets, assumptions and hyberbole? Do we ever truly know one another, or are we bound by our own definitions of parent and child?
A friend whose father has terminal cancer told me recently that her father is cleaning out dresser drawers and organizing things. “It’s almost as if he were a pregnant woman nesting,” she said. I was so struck by that – the notion that what we do to prepare for a new life could so mimic what we do to prepare for the end of life.
As our conversation continued, I spoke about my Dad, who died nearly two and a half years ago. I heard myself say, “I’ve adjusted to his death, but I don’t think I’ve accepted it.” I could not have surprised myself more.
My Dad lived a full life, 80 years, and by his last days, he was not living the way he nor anyone who loved him would have wished for him. And yet. But still. Grief is muted and morphed by time. And I still long for the sound of his laugh, his eyebrow raised in jest, his warm hand on the top of my head when I was young. As Didion writes, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
So she writes. And remembers.
As I do. As I will.