“Life changes in the instant.”

Posted on 08 April 2011

“You sit down to dinner and life as you knows it ends.”

I have just finished reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion who is one of my favorite authors. She can make even the most boring subject interesting but her year of thinking magically is not a boring topic. It tells of her husband, John Gregory Dunne dying at the dinner table of a heart attack on December 30, 2003.

“You sit down to dinner and life as you knows it ends.”

Her thoughts are often muddy. At the hospital where her husband was taken, she asked that the autopsy report be sent to her. She didn’t receive it for nearly a year as she had given the wrong address – not the one where she and Dunne had lived for the last 16 years, but the one they had lived at for five months when they were first married.

This book had me tossing and turning at night. I could lose Rob or another person I love in an instant, without warning. No. Didion says that there is always warning. When John first experienced heart problems and later had a pacemaker installed, he had said so this is the way I will die. And she had chided him believing the problem had been fixed. “When something happens to me, he would frequently say. Nothing will happen to you, I would say.”

I asked my friend Susan who is 83 if she thinks of dying. Of course, she said and I am afraid. She knows that it could happen at anytime but notes that she is not ready to die. I promised to write “Three Hundred Days of Indulgence” before she dies and I have a thought that perhaps I am not applying myself so I can keep her alive. This is the irrational way Didion was thinking.

As I get older, I think more and more about death, perhaps because a number of friends younger than myself have died. I always thought that I would die young. Every decade birthday I am surprised to still be here. Why would I think this way? Why haven’t I sorted myself out better, doing what is important to me, and not wasting hours on scrubbing floors?

When someone has an earth-shattering experience – like the death of a beloved – I’ve heard more than one say that now she will not waste time on foolish desires or inconsequential work anymore. She knows what is important but inevitably after a time, she forgets.

Why can’t we human beings focus on what is important or stay focused on what is important? How many hours, days, have I wasted obsessing about something I cannot change? Or do I delude myself? Can everything be changed? Except dying.

Didion and Dunne had one of the closest marriages I’ve heard of. They’d been together for over forty years. They wrote film scripts together. They wrote articles and novels apart, but until his death, Didion had never submitted work without having John proof it. (The first article published after his death was full of mistakes.) They were seldom apart. After his death, when something or another happened, Didion would unthinkingly think that she must discuss it with John. There was nothing I did not discuss with John…. What ended was the possibility of response.

One of the sweetest passages about their marriage comes towards the end of the book. It’s Didion’s birthday, December 5, 2003 – the last one she will share with Dunne. He is sitting by the fire reading a passage from one of her books. John had wanted to see how she had constructed a complicated sequence.

Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

Summer has hit the village. Yesterday, it was over 33 degrees. I went to LeClerc for a few groceries, into Gaillac to the bank, and then onto a winery to buy a box of wine. I felt my spirits rise.

When I returned, Bob, Rosemary, and Fanny dropped in and Rob and I threw together a casual impromtu dinner of artichokes, salad, and turkey fillets simply fried in olive oil with garlic, onion and soya sauce.

A few hours later, Fanny and I walked her parents round the corner where Phil, the taxi driver was waiting to drive them home.

The two of us walked back to my place to watch a film. There were two gendarme, a young man, and a young couple, Virginie and Christophe who own the garden at the back of our house, standing in the middle of the road. Virginie told us quietly that the older man who lived next door to them, had hung himself. The young man was his son or grandson. They were all waiting outside for a doctor? an ambulance? to untie the rope and take the body away. I did not know the man. I wonder why he did it and how the young man will bear it.

I don’t know how to end this blog about death. Would I recommend Didion’s book? Yes. I’m not sure why. She says that everyone grieves differently so it cannot be used as a guide. I have a sudden thought of an email I received in the last few days from a woman whose partner died recently. She says she keeps reading over their emails – the emails that made them fall in love. She laughs. She cries…

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