Before October 1, 2009, I had experienced grief twice in life. Sadness, lonliness, loss - these had been more frequent visitors. But grief...twice. Grief bangs on the door demanding it be opened. And try as we will, there is nothing to be done but to allow it entry.
Life changes fast,
Life changes in the instant,
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,
The question of self-pity.
With those words, Joan Didion begins her memoir The Year Of Magical Thinking, a journey of grief which began with the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the concurrent grave (and subsequently fatal) illness of their only child. In her simple, clear and yet poetic prose, Didion draws the reader into her private world. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle correctly stated that Didion's journey was both personal and universal. I will leave it to those who use words for a living to fully review it. To me it was, simply put, beautiful. In Didion's words I found shared thoughts and feelings and movements. "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," she cautions.
When grief came calling, I longed for the image in the Superman movie. The scene where he flies up into space, and races around the planet at such speed that he reverses the spin of the earth and turns back time. If that could only happen, I told myself, I could change everything. Maybe I could control how things turned out. I would have a chance to fix it.
I could have another chance. I could, for instance, decide not to dive into my friend's swimming pool. Afterward, when the doctor told me I needed bed rest I wondered about that day -- about diving into the pool. Was that the fatal moment? The thought of it tormented me. He also told me not to read books about problem pregnancies. I wondered how he knew. Had my husband told him about my obsession? And so I laid in bed, my contraband reading material my constant companion. And when it happened, it happened so fast there wasn't time for anything. No time for an ambulance, no time for monitors, no time for anything. Medical records I read later noted my emotional state as a "flat effect." "Flat effect." Like a deflated balloon or a tire that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. That pretty much summed it up. I grieved in silence; no drama. It was not that I wanted to die, I just didn't care if I lived. A flat effect...for as long as it took.
Two years before my nephew had died. He was two years old and an outwardly perfect and beautiful child. But the appearance belied the facts. We were told early on. We knew. Medical science was working on it and getting close but had not...quite...gotten...there...yet. Soon after he died it did get there. Joan Didion points out how open we are to the persistent belief that we can somehow avert death. If only I had...if only I hadn't.
And then Rob. In the early morning hours of October 15, two weeks after his death, I dreamed I awakened and walked into the hallway outside my room. Rob was standing there with another young man. Rob made a sweeping motion with his hands down his body, toward the floor, and said, "See, Linda, I'm fine. We're both fine!" I looked at the other young man, taller and thinner than Rob. they were both smiling. I threw my arms around Rob's neck and hugged him tightly. I could feel his back - his muscular upper back. I could feel his grip. "I love you, Rob," I said. "I love you too..." And then he said something I will never forget "...and I love Katharine and I can continue to love Katharine through you and through everyone who will ever love her." I stood back and smiled at him. And just that quickly they were gone.
Several days ago, two weeks after my dream, I was looking through a drawer and found a piece of lined notebook paper. Opening it I realized it was a letter to me from Rob written during his next to his last deployment. For a strong man, his handwriting was tiny and delicate. Some words so small they were hard to decipher. It was the sort of letter a young man writes to a mother telling her about the girl he loved. The girl was my daughter. His words were so heartfelt and sincere, they could never be doubted. But what resonated for me were the last few lines. He wrote, "I can't wait to come home and give you a hug. A massive hug." Is that what he did? Or had I stored that snippet of his letter somewhere in my subconscious? Tucked away safely. Was I simply determined to control the one thing...the one thing I could put right?
Near the end of A Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes, "I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year." As the days passed, as winter became summer and then fall, she feared that memories would become clouded; that the instant of her husband's death would became "less raw." She came to realize that we try to keep the dead alive to keep them with us. But she also realized that if we are to live ourselves, we must let go. We must relinquish the dead. We must survive our own days, or months, or years of magical thinking.